By Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy.
Earlier this week Labour launched Labour Friends of the Forces, an organisation dedicated to campaigning on the issues that matter to the Armed Forces, their families and the wider service community. Labour Friends of the Forces demonstrates the value Labour places on defence and the military covenant.
Labour’s commitment to the services has been shown in our actions so far. The successful campaign, in support of the Royal British Legion, to enshrine the Military Covenant in law and our being the first ever party to offer a reduced membership rate for service personnel and veterans, who can now join the Labour Party for just £1, are just two examples. There is an ill-informed and old orthodoxy in politics that says the Tories are the party of the forces. That has to change: it is not true and never has been. No party has a monopoly on defence.
Labour Friends of the Forces is free to join. This is open to who shares our political values and respect for the forces. You don’t even have to be a Labour Party member to join. We are developing a national network of advocates who will consult with military communities up and down the country. We will provide updates on the defence debate in Westminster and throughout the country, and members will have a chance to shape the work of the shadow defence team.
A key aim of the organisation is to be a resource for our services and veterans. Many issues face forces and their families during and post service. Whether it is the disruption caused by moving or the difficulties of resettlement, continuity of access to public services, post service stress and mental health, availability of affordable housing, re-skilling and re-training or access to sound financial advice, we know that awareness of provision on offer can be raised and standards of service can be improved.
To help increase awareness of what is available to services, their families and veterans Labour Friends of the Forces has compiled ‘Services for our Forces’ a detailed list of contacts of organisations who provide services such as legal advice, career advice, information on access to housing as well as welfare during and post service. This is important information Labour MPs and Councillors will distribute to their local communities. I hope it is useful for you and that you will pass it on to others.
In order to improve standards in services for veterans and families we are keen to build on our proud record in government from opposition however possible. That is why we backed the Royal British Legion’s call for the position of Chief Coroner to be implemented in full. It is welcome that the government belatedly did the right thing and accepted the arguments that military communities, charities and Labour have been making for months.
The Chief Coroner was legislated for by Labour in 2009 with cross-party support. The post will ensure that a single, accountable and powerful authority oversees the coronial system in the UK to drive up standards for all bereaved families. In particular they will improve training and the treatment of families and friends during the inquest process, which is important for military families whose loved ones often pass away in complex and sensitive circumstances.
It is positive that ministers, after months of telling Parliament and the public that the Chief Coroner was unnecessary, have performed a U-turn. They beat a tactical retreat to avoid a defeat in Parliament rather than having “listened”, as they claimed, but the outcome will help families up and down the country.
It is unfortunate, however, that the powers transferred to the Chief Coroner do not include a new appeals process overseen by the Chief Coroner. At present if a family is unhappy with the outcome of an inquest their only course of appeal is via judicial review, which is costly to them and to the taxpayer. Indeed, for many the cost is a disincentive to appeal at all. The ability to appeal direct to the Chief Coroner would provide families with clarity and certainty.
We agree with Inquest and the Royal British Legion that there should be a full review of costs and pilot schemes to make sure any new system is efficient and effective. This is something Labour Friends of the Forces will take up with government in the coming months.
Already we have begun to show how we will help raise awareness and standards of services on offer to our forces. We want to do this jointly with the forces and those who care about defence to ensure Labour Friends of the Forces is reflective of and responsive to the defence community. That is why we have been pleased to work in support of the Royal British Legion and other charities on this issue. They ran a fantastic campaign and deserve huge credit. This initiative is a new approach to politics and the more people who get involved the stronger it will be.
This article was originally posted on Defencemanagement.com.