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The Armed Forces Covenant: Is it still fit for purpose?

As the 2022 recipients of the Defence Employer Recognition Scheme Gold Awards are announced, Irwin Mitchell reflect on a year with the award, talking to like-minded organisations and advocating the benefits of the Armed Forces Covenant (AFC) to others. 

It was also a year in which the AFC reached the decade milestone having been enshrined in the Armed Forces Act 2011 following a campaign by the Royal British Legion (RBL) supported by Poppyscotland, both of whom received the Gold award this year. 

To mark the anniversary, both charities produced an independent report reflecting on a decade of the nation’s promise and it is important to look back, but also forward when considering the place of the AFC within the Armed Forces Community and society itself.

Purpose of the AFC

The AFC is an enduring covenant between the people of the United Kingdom, Her Majesty’s Government and all those who serve or who have served in the Armed Forces, or their families. It stipulates that those who serve, now or in the past, should face no disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services. 

However, it also states that in some cases special consideration is appropriate, especially for those who have given most, such as the injured or bereaved.

The report found that 89 per cent of members of the public agreed with the principles of AFC although only 17 per cent of the public had actually heard of the AFC (this rises to 83 per cent of those who are actually serving). 

Those who were interviewed felt that the second principle, of special consideration, had been given less attention by central government. This led to a recommendation that further research should be carried out on the impact of attitudes towards the Armed Forces of the implementation of special consideration as set out in the principles of the covenant.

Due to our Gold status, membership of the Royal British Legion Solicitors’ Group and work with vulnerable injured service personnel and veterans together with bereaved families at inquests, we were interviewed for the report and were present at its launch in November 2021. 

Take up of the AFC amongst law firms has been slow and that is something we have highlighted in the past. Our Reservist Policy was substantially altered during the process of ERS awards and we understand the value that veterans can bring to the civilian workplace. 

It was interesting that many respondents felt that more needed to be done around reservists and those service personnel, veterans and their families who were born or reside overseas. The latter point led to a recommendation that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office should include an update within the AFC annual report on initiatives they provide to support the armed forces community overseas.

We agree with a conclusion of the report that the principles do not need radial change but communication about AFC needs to be increased and we do need to ensure that it continues to meet the needs of the armed forces community.

10 Year AFC Report  findings

The launch of the report saw participants from across the UK debate its findings and different practices emerged. Many felt that as the covenant matures it steers away from a rigid framework but whilst flexibility is important, sharing of best practice is vital. 

Different constituents are proceeding at different speeds but it is making a difference. The value of partnerships was seen again and again. Northern Ireland is in a different position as there are no formal structures within the Government of Northern Ireland for the covenant and it is therefore left to voluntary bodies to undertake this role. 

The report recommends that, following research, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the UK Government should produce a road map for the implementation of the Covenant in Northern Ireland, with clearly defined roles and responsibilities for the delivery bodies.

One very positive outcome was recognition by participants that the AFC has enabled improved delivery of health service since 2011, although work remains to be done. This might include a reference to Op Courage which was launched in 2021 being a specialist service for veterans with mental health issues. Op Courage was part of a nine point NHS plan to support the Armed Forces. Certainly many NHS Trusts have signed AFC and a number have ERS Gold awards , although GP practices have not followed suit.

AFC and civilian employers

Numbers are also low in law. Taking into account the 2022 cohort, 10 firms in addition to Irwin Mitchell have ERS Gold. When we raised this at the launch, advocating the benefits and instilling friendly rivalry were said to be tactics to consider.

During the research RBL and Poppyscotland interviewed stakeholders from the corporate world to provide qualitative evidence on their awareness of the armed forces community and AFC. It found that in some cases there was a disconnect between staff on the ground seeking to promote AFC internally and senior management who were perceived not to understand its role. We agree it is important that the senior person who signs the AFC on behalf of the organisation understands the implications and changes to policies such as a reservist policy will need support at high or board level.

Whilst employment practices are part of what civilian firms can offer veterans, almost two thirds of veterans are over 65 and therefore outside the scope of employment practices; we must not forget the armed forces community as customers for commercial services rather than employees. Some specific policies have developed such as freezing mobile phone contracts whilst veterans are overseas.

On the question of funding, the Armed Forces Covenant Fund was launched in 2015 and in early days was linked with the proceeds of the LIBOR banking scandal fines. We come across grants to military charities on an increasing basis but detailed issues around funding are explored in the report which highlights the worrying perception that public bodies can only deliver on their covenant commitments if they are provided with additional funding for that purpose. 

Funding has also been criticised as too short-term to sustain best practice. With one exception businesses did not receive any funding and do not expect any; the commitment that they made under AFC was on the understanding that they would strive to make it a success rather than in any expectation that they would receive funding for their efforts. In large part business signatories do not need to devote substantial resources to make their AFC commitment work.

Next steps for the AFC

When looking forward , AFC remains fit for purpose but the emphasis is now on delivery. The shift for responsibility from central government to local government and businesses is recognised and it has created geographical differences in delivery. 

The Armed Forces Act further enshrines AFC into law to help prevent service personnel and veterans being disadvantaged when accessing public services. The recommendations of the report are worth reading if you have an interest in this area and these include formal mechanisms to ensure that the principles of the ACF remain relevant today.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting members of the Armed Forces at our dedicated military injuries section.

The Royal British Legion and Poppyscotland have launched an independent report reflecting on the impact on the Armed Forces Covenant on the wellbeing of serving personnel, veterans, and their families.”