I am writing this on the journey back from Afghanistan. I am a little tired but massively inspired after meeting so many of our Forces who are taking on the Taliban and training Afghan troops.
You don’t have to support this or any other conflict to know that protecting our Forces abroad and supporting them and their families at home is crucial. More can be done. And because no political party has a monopoly on wisdom when it comes to supporting our Forces Labour is calling for a cross-party approach to ending unfair treatment against our service community.
It is totally unacceptable that elements of the Armed Forces community today face discrimination. A recent poll by Lord Ashcroft showed that more than one in five service personnel said they had experienced strangers shouting abuse at them while wearing their uniform in public. Nearly one in twenty said they had experienced violence or attempted violence and 18% have been refused service in hotels, pubs or elsewhere.
Personnel also complained that their regular changes of address counted against them in credit checks, even though they had a secure job with a good income. More than a quarter said they had been refused a mortgage, loan or credit card in the last five years, and nearly one in five had had trouble getting a mobile phone contract. These are things that many people just take for granted.
While in Afghanistan with Labour Leader Ed Miliband and Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander I heard first hand some of our Forces’ worries. All of this should be unacceptable to every British person, family and community. Those who risk all in the dangers of Helmand Province and beyond should do so with the peace of mind about support back home.
The nature of military service is unique. Those in the Services forego workplace rights and representation others enjoy. As well as the danger they face they and their families have their lives routinely disrupted. They can face enormous challenges in post-service transition to civilian life. As a country we always have to examine how to match our support to the level of their sacrifice.
Despite enormous advances, the principle of the Military Covenant – that no-one should suffer disadvantage as a result of Service – is not yet a reality for all. Enshrining the Military Covenant in law was an important step and we are proud to have supported the service charities’ campaign. This, combined with initiatives such as the Community Covenant, should lead to cultural change and increase the respect and care we show the service community.
As the law stands, however, the Covenant principles apply in statute only to limited areas of government policy. If we want the principles to define the whole of our society, we must go further. Therefore at the talks we are proposing nothing must be off the table, including new legal rights for the service community. There are many examples of government legislating to protect specific groups from discrimination, harassment or abuse, but no specific legislation to protect the Service community from such attack.
The Equalities Act 2010 prevents against the provision of goods and services, for example service in a bar or access to a hotel, being withheld on the grounds of race, religion or gender, amongst other ‘protected characteristics’. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 sets out in law that courts must treat an offence motivated by a particular characteristic of the victim as an aggravating factor. This has been applied so far in relation to race, religion, disability or sexual orientation. The Magistrates’ Court Sentencing Guidelines state that an offence which is “committed against those working in the public sector or providing a service to the public” should be treated as an aggravating factor when sentencing the offender.
The time has come to explore similar protections for those who protect our country.
Any talks must listen to the Military, because we must in no way impact on the chain of command and rules covering active duty. We should also involve the service charities, who are often among the closest to the service community we aim to protect.
Priority areas to explore where protection can be strengthened include employment, housing, the provision of goods and services, consumer rights and harassment.
Ed Miliband has made clear he wants this work to be devoid of party politics. In the House of Commons any discussion over Afghanistan is determinedly bipartisan, as it often is over Forces’ welfare. The pride we feel in our Forces and their families demands that we now come together to end any discrimination they receive. Whether in access to hotels and pubs, housing or healthcare, those who serve deserve the utmost respect and admiration. I hope the Government does the right thing and acts to bring together all those who want to make the Covenant principles a modern characteristic of our country.