Thank you Sir Merrick for that introduction.
My congratulations on organising a fascinating day with some excellent speakers, they’re still to come..! and workshops.
I used to be a Councillor myself, and my wife is currently, within Westminster, so I have some understanding of the issues you face.
It’s fantastic to see so many representatives from across local government, and the voluntary and charitable sector.
You are in the vanguard of our plans to cement the bond between our communities and the armed forces through the armed forces covenant and community covenant.
Not everyone down the years would have embraced such localism.
General de Gaulle once observed of France, “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?”
He would have really struggled in Britain which, according to the gloriously named British Cheese Board, boasts over 700 distinct local cheeses!
And he would have despaired at your job, Merrick, representing as you do hundreds of councils and thousands of councillors.
Because, in part, De Gaulle’s complaint seems to have been that localism interferes with the smooth pursuit of the national interest.
Perhaps so in France, but in Britain I’ve always believed that’s the wrong way round.
This government believes in ‘small government’.
Of course Westminster and Whitehall should lead on those issues which are truly national in scope.
But, at most, they should complement, not substitute, local efforts on everything else.
It’s why decentralising power is at the heart of this government’s agenda.
Yet Britain’s armed forces straddle the national and local divide.
At one level, they are rooted in lock communities.
For instance, the British infantry system of county regiments helped to forge deep ties between those who serve, often alongside neighbours and friends and the communities they left behind.
At another level, our armed forces are woven into the fabric of our nation’s history and psyche.
Nelson on the quarterdeck; the Pals on the Somme; the SAS on TV as they stormed the Iranian Embassy.
Courage, sacrifice, excellence.
It’s why the British public have a deep respect for, and pride in, our armed forces.
But respect and pride are not the same as understanding.
Our armed forces community may be an integral part of our society, but in recent decades the link has declined.
When World War 2 ended in 1945, there were around 5 million men and women in uniform.
Almost everyone in the country knew someone close who had served.
My parents and her generation gave up their youth in the service of this country.
The national service generation only added to the ledger.
But for many years, our armed forces have been a professional, volunteer force, declining in number, while the older generations have dwindled.
Public understanding of our armed forces has declined as a result.
This matters hugely.
The effectiveness of our armed forces depends on them knowing that they have their country’s support.
Parliament has taken to welcoming home units of the armed forces, and yesterday we welcomed 3 Commando.
We asked them to go to war, and it is right that we welcome them home.
Such support requires the public to understand the role of our armed forces, and the sacrifice our men and women in uniform make with their families.
We should never take public support for granted, even in times of plenty.
Nor should we under estimate their principled conviction that our armed forces community should get the support they need and the dignity they deserve.
That they should suffer no disadvantage as a result of serving; indeed should receive special consideration in some instances.
And that they have a right to expect a whole of society approach, not just a top-down, or bottom-up one.
So I’m pleased to say that in the 18 months since the general election we’ve taken action over a very broad canvas.
For the first time ever, the principles I have mentioned (no disadvantage) will be recognised in the law of the land through the Armed Forces Bill.
On the front line, we’ve doubled the operational allowance and extended it to Libya.
We’ve improved the rest and recuperation leave.
And we’ve doubled council tax relief from 25% to 50% for all personnel on operations, including Libya.
In May, we set out, in the ‘Today and Tomorrow’ paper, what we’re doing to give the Covenant practical effect.
For instance, we have endorsed all of Andrew Murrison’s recommendations for improving mental health care.
We have allocated resources for 36,000 Service children as part of the pupil premium, and introduced a separate fund for schools with high proportions of service children.
And we are giving our personnel a high priority in Affordable Housing Schemes.
Yet, as I’ve said, the Armed Forces Covenant is not just about action from the centre.
There are fewer than 200,000 serving members of our armed forces, whereas there are still more than 4 and a half million people who have served.
With their families, our armed forces community is roughly one in six of the total population.
Providing support to this vast number of people involves all areas of local government working with communities up and down the land.
The 10 NHS armed forces networks have proved particularly useful in ironing out local healthcare and adult social care issues through their extensive local networks.
For example, an RAF couple were devastated to hear that their application to adopt a child had been scuppered by orders posting them overseas.
The local authority had withdrawn from the process as ‘suitable’ counselling services would not be available.
By contacting their regional armed forces network lead, they were able to get SSAFA Forces Help to liaise with the local authority until the issue was resolved and the adoption went ahead.
This is the ‘no disadvantage from service’ principle in action.
It also shows the importance of local authorities forging links with service charities and the wider voluntary and charitable sector.
And in June, four counties became the first in Britain to demonstrate community-led support for the armed forces through the Community Covenant scheme.
You’ll hear more about best practice later this morning from three of the counties involved so far, Oxfordshire, Hampshire, and North Yorkshire.
A further seven councils have signed, with over 30 in the pipeline.
The community covenant has been well received, and my hope is that every community will sign one.
It’s important as a symbol of our beliefs, and it’s important as a commitment to action.
This afternoon you will hear more about the Community Covenant Grant Scheme.
We have allocated up to £30 million until 2015 to fund projects which support the aims of the community covenant.
A panel considered the first bids last month.
I am delighted to announce that we have approved 11 superb bids in full, and another two in part, totalling over £400,000.
I am particularly pleased to see that those bids will draw in matched funding of over a quarter of a million pounds.
As to the successful bids themselves, they include help towards a new Scout and Guides Headquarters in Bedale; supporting the Dover Diamond Jubilee Tattoo; and helping elderly residents in their village during adverse weather.
Decisions on another 14 applications will be made once we have received some additional information.
If they are all approved, it would take total project funding past £1 million in just this first round.
Panels are due to sit again in December and March, and quarterly thereafter, so it’s not too late!
Ladies and gentlemen, defence is a very human endeavour and the consequences of service life are very human too.
I hope that today inspires you to deepen the relationship between our armed forces and the communities they’re drawn from.
Because that relationship is as important now as it’s ever been.
How we, as a nation, treat our armed forces community is a litmus test of who we are as a nation.
I’m confident that the nation will respond to the challenge.
And that it will be driven in part by localism in the national interest.