I have been the Minister for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans for little over 2 months now and it is an honour to be able to fulfil this role.
My portfolio covers issues like:
Making sure that we do what we can to strengthen the backbone of our armed forces, the forces families who support them;
Making sure our wounded get the best care we can provide;
Making sure that the hidden wounds of war are treated too with the new emphasis on mental health;
Helping service personnel succeed in civilian life when they leave;
And making sure that we continue to honour the service of our community of veterans, who make up around 1 in 10 of our adult population.
Are you seeing a pattern here?
My concerns are basically your concerns.
Nobody knows better than you, the life-changing work that your organisations do on a daily basis.
I do not need any convincing of the value of Cobseo members.
Delivering services; sharing the burden; helping to meet our collective obligations under the armed forces covenant.
So I want to take this opportunity to thank you for everything you do.
You complement the work of the MOD in a huge number of areas.
I certainly view the relationship as symbiotic.
We are partners, very definitely not rivals.
Importance of Cobseo
Cobseo is central to making this partnership work.
We are lucky in Britain to have such a wide range of dedicated Service charities helping those who have given so much to their country.
There are some who question the very existence of service charities.
Shouldn’t this all be done by government?
What else do we pay our taxes for?
Of course the MOD does directly fund a lot of the work that Cobseo organisations help with, but for me, it just isn’t an either or.
Charity is a good thing!
We should never allow the cynics, or those who seem to believe that making a contribution to society should be exclusively for the public sector, we should never allow them to devalue what is achieved by organisations like Cobseo.
Mr Chairman, the state claims no monopoly on good will.
Take the Big Lottery Fund, which is providing £35 million for veterans projects like the Forces in Mind Trust, run in partnership with Cobseo.
Society is stronger and healthier for the contribution that charities make.
Each of you has your own niche, representing special groups and possessing your own expertise.
That diversity is a massive strength.
But it also makes it difficult for the MOD to be in constant touch with all the work that is going on out there.
So when it comes to establishing a proper dialogue, Cobseo provides an effective and powerful, unified voice.
The MOD is approached by hundreds of charities a year.
We need to know that all of those charities are legitimate, well run and sustainable before we engage with them.
Cobseo membership is useful because it gives us an additional degree of confidence in a charity.
But Cobseo is not the only way charities can represent themselves to the MOD.
From the embedded charity staff in personnel recovery centres, to the close working relationships between military welfare officers and a wide range of charities, there are thousands of interactions between the MOD and Cobseo members at grass roots level.
But, at the strategic level, Cobseo is an important channel of communication and advice.
Charities are often well placed to pick up on the concerns of the groups that they serve.
I understand that in his earlier address the chairman raised concerns about the future status of the independent medical expert group (IMEG), which has been subject to review.
I am pleased to announce today, that following discussions with the Cabinet Office, ministers there have agreed that the IMEG will now be established permanently as an advisory non-departmental public body in order that it can continue to provide independent expert medical advice on matters relating to the armed forces compensation scheme.
We are keen to hear what you have to say.
And that is why Cobseo is an influential member of the armed forces covenant reference group, the CRG.
This body helps to steer the direction of the armed forces covenant, which recognises society’s moral obligation to our service men and women.
You have always understood this moral obligation and been at the forefront of meeting it.
It makes sense, then, that you help us to identify where disadvantage exists and where special provision is needed.
So, when the Chancellor announced that money from fines levied on banks involved in Libor rate-fixing would be spent on the armed forces covenant, it was only right that this £35 million would be allocated in partnership with the CRG.
This money will go towards supporting the armed forces community, including through service charities, funding work that will address some of the disadvantages that the armed forces community face.
The armed forces covenant
The armed forces covenant is being implemented by many sections of society: by national and local government, by local communities and, of course, by charities.
But some of these efforts can be wasted, if we apply our resources to the wrong areas.
And this is another area where your advice is so effective.
Thanks to your help the covenant is starting to make a real difference.
Just over a year ago we launched the community covenant scheme, encouraging local authorities to meet the unique requirements of the service personnel and their families living in their jurisdictions.
We are now in a position where community covenant partnerships have been signed by over 200 local authorities, up and down the UK, with more on the way.
For instance, in my own patch in Essex, the county council will sign the community covenant next week in the run up to Remembrance.
These partnerships have enabled local authorities to understand the needs of service families and introduce practical measures to improve their access to GPs, dentists, local schools and housing.
The community covenant scheme is backed by a separate £30 million grant scheme.
Around £5 million has already been released to support local projects that benefit veterans, serving personnel and the communities they live in.
We have also re-launched the Defence Discount Service, helping to recognise the contribution of our armed forces by providing them and their families with financial savings.
And there are many other initiatives at national and local level which help make the covenant a reality.
At the heart of the covenant is getting society to understand how much it owes the armed forces, past and present, and the families that have supported them, and to encourage society to find ways of repaying that debt.
We need you to continue helping deliver the covenant, but we also need you to help judge the progress of that delivery.
The charities’ commentary on the Secretary of State’s annual report on the covenant is one of its most important sections.
It holds us to account and it gives us guidance on how we might improve in the future.
The publication of this first annual report, which is not far away now, will show progress.
But this is only a beginning.
In this job I am absolutely determined to put flesh on the bones of the covenant to give it real form,
And to use it to improve the lives of service personnel and their families.
There is still much to do.
But I hope that when you see the report you will feel that we have made a good start.
I know that you too have been discussing your future today.
I have been told that this AGM represents something of a crossroads for Cobseo and its members as you decide your long-term direction.
It is right that these are decisions for you to make.
Let me just say though that I have been impressed with how much impact Cobseo has made with limited resources.
We value the coherence it gives to service charities and the validating role it has with regards to its members.
Both of these are functions that you might like to consider taking forward and developing in partnership with the MOD.
We certainly don’t want you to lose your individual identities as charities. They define you and they focus you.
But the confederation of charities that Cobseo represents works very well from our perspective.
Whatever decisions you make, I look forward to continuing the extremely productive relationship that we have forged.
Thank you and good luck.