It is often said that the first duty of a government is the defence of the realm, and so it is.
Yet it is not the serried ranks of ministers and officials who take up arms to defend Britain and her people, but HM Armed Forces.
The government came to office determined to reaffirm the commitment of the state to the welfare of the forces in recognition of their service and the sacrifices they make.
To this end the new Armed Forces Covenant was established. This document sets out how servicemen should expect to be treated by the people they protect.
The covenant ranges widely over such matters as education of service children, housing and healthcare. But it is the matter of the forces’ ‘Responsibility of Care’ with which I have been particularly concerned.
The covenant explains that ‘the government, working with the chain of command, has a particular responsibility of care towards HM Armed Forces. This includes a responsibility to maintain an organisation which treats every individual fairly, with dignity and respect, and an environment which is free from bullying, intimidation and harassment’.
The experience of my constituents’ concerns has demonstrated to me that the remit of the Service Complaints Commissioner, currently the outstanding Dr Susan Atkins, is insufficient to meet the terms of the covenant – principally in respect of the commissioner’s inability to require action, which has led to reluctance to raise genuine instances of maltreatment.
I instigated a Defence Select Committee investigation on the work of the SCC, which found the role of the Commissioner was undervalued at the MoD and handicapped by its limited scope.
We recommended that the SCC should evolve into an Armed Forces Ombudsman with the ability to make ranging thematic assessments across the forces and, most important of all, the ability to require rather than request that actions of redress be taken.
If we are to uphold the integrity of the commitment on our ‘Responsibility of Care’, servicemen and women must be able to report misconduct and expect action to be taken against wrong-doers.
I will be campaigning hard to ensure this necessary change is made.