Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Richard BenyonMain Page: Richard Benyon (Conservative) - Newbury)
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(1 year, 2 months ago)Commons Chamber
I want to speak to the amendments tabled in my name and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends, and by Government Members, in relation to the military or armed forces covenant and its application across the United Kingdom, and on the definition of victims, again on a UK-wide basis. In amendment 19, we refer to the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, but we believe that we need a definition of victims on a UK-wide basis.
On the armed forces covenant, our amendment 18 calls for the Secretary of State to publish a report
“on progress made towards preparing legislation confirming the application of the Armed Forces Covenant in the provision of public services in Northern Ireland.”
This is important because, at the moment, despite the great service of so many in Northern Ireland in the armed forces of the United Kingdom over many decades, which has been recognised far and wide, and the dedication of Northern Ireland men and women in the services—and there are, therefore, many veterans—there is not the same application of the military covenant in Northern Ireland as there is elsewhere in the United Kingdom. We have of course talked about this issue in relation to the confidence and supply arrangements, and I look forward to the Minister saying something when he winds up about how we might progress this.
To give an illustration of just how difficult things are, just the other day—on 28 June—the Chairman of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), received a letter from the head of the Northern Ireland civil service, David Sterling, in which he replied to a previous letter asking about representation from the Northern Ireland Administration on the ministerial covenant and Veterans Board. The head of the civil service said that, unless and until there is an agreed position on participation by the Northern Ireland Executive, he was not in a position to attend or even to send another representative. This is how appalling the situation is: we cannot even have Northern Ireland represented.
Even if the Executive were back, there is no doubt that Sinn Féin would block the covenant’s application in Northern Ireland across a host of services and a host of Departments, as it has done. Of course, as we know, the armed forces covenant is not about giving preferential treatment to veterans; it is about making sure that they do not lose out as a result of their service. By any stretch of morality and law, that should apply in Northern Ireland, as it does elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
We are looking for the Government to report on progress on that matter, and to ensure there is a legislative underpinning of the military covenant. Indeed, I notice today the campaign—I think it was in The Sun newspaper —for legislative underpinning of the military covenant. Indeed, I think I am right in saying that both the leadership contenders—certainly one—have signed up to it. I warmly welcome that, and we will certainly be sitting down to discuss, as part of the renewal of the confidence and supply arrangements, how we can actually move these things forward in detail.
The other amendment that I want to speak to very quickly is amendment 19 on the definition of a victim. I referred to this when debating the previous batch of amendments. The current problem in Northern Ireland is that the definition of victim applies equally to those who have been injured as a result of their own actions and in perpetrating terrorist atrocities. For instance, the Shankill bomber, who was injured—his co-terrorist was killed in a bomb explosion that killed many innocent people—is entitled, under the law as it currently stands, to be classified as a victim, and therefore eligible, under the proposals brought forward, for a victim’s pension. Innocent victims—those who were injured as a result of terrorist activities and the families of those who have been left bereaved—of course find that extremely agonising, and they want this appalling situation rectified. Our amendment asks the Government to bring forward a report on seeking to address this very pressing issue.
The right hon. Gentleman has put the matter extremely eloquently and concisely, and he is absolutely right. We are bringing forward a simple request to plead for justice, decency and fairness. It cannot be right that innocent victims are left without a pension because victims of their own terrorist actions may benefit as well.
We have to address, therefore, the issues of the military covenant and the treatment of our veterans, of our victims, and of our armed forces personnel, which the right hon. Member for New Forest East raised so well previously. These issues must be addressed; and if they are not addressed by this Government in their last two years, certainly they must be tackled, going forward. Justice demands it.