Oliver Cromwell’s troops once declared that, “on becoming soldiers, we have not ceased to be citizens.”
I would go further and say that the men and women of today’s armed forces, through their dedicated, demanding and often dangerous service to their country, are, to quote Winston Churchill:
Twice the citizen.
So it is not fair that, because of the nature of their service, they should have unequal access to the services on which we all depend.
This concept of creating a fair deal for our armed forces, past and present, is at the core of the armed forces covenant.
You have already heard from General Rollo and others about what this means from the military perspective.
But from this government’s perspective it is about encouraging the whole of society to recognise its moral obligation to our service men and women, and to the families that support them.
This cannot be achieved by central government alone.
We can address some of the issues by getting all departments to understand the unique requirements of the military, better coordinating the allocation of resources.
We also work closely with charities such as the Royal British Legion, which has recently published its ‘Best practice guide to community covenants’;
And I’m delighted to see Chris Simpkins here today.
But the armed forces covenant needs to be implemented by all sections of society: including by local communities, local charities and local government;
And it is at the local level that many issues are best resolved.
This is why community covenant partnerships are central to the delivery of the covenant.
Tremendous progress has been made.
Much actual delivery is down to local authorities;
And you have well and truly picked up the ball and started running with it.
The community covenant is close to my heart on a number of levels.
As some of you will know I began my political career in local government.
I served as a councillor on Basildon Borough Council. It was a robust council;
It still is.
It was once described as the only council in the UK where councillors actively heckled the public gallery during meetings.
So I know what it’s like to be a councillor dealing with competing priorities, with limited resources and financial pressure.
And I know that not everyone you assist remembers to say thank you after you’ve helped them.
So let me, while I’m here, say “thank you”, all of you, for what you’ve done to support our armed forces through the armed forces community covenant.
As councillors, supported by your officers, you have been a credit to the people who elected you to public office.
But I also want to say that nobody can say that local government has not stepped up to the plate on this.
And anyone who does will have to get by me.
I understand that as representatives of your communities you are often best placed to pick up on the needs of the service personnel who reside in your jurisdictions.
That is vital, because the requirements of a soldier posted to Wellington barracks, just the other side of St James’s park, might be very different from the requirements of a sailor based in rural Scotland.
So we can’t dictate what you should do from the centre.
It’s up to you to decide how you should do this.
But perhaps I can suggest 3 things:
Firstly, that you all appoint an armed forces champion, a councillor who is nominated to make sure that the principles of the covenant are carried through.
Secondly, that in your housing allocation policies you ensure serving personnel and veterans get the best possible treatment. And ideally, where possible, you appoint a senior housing officer to be responsible for this issue.
And please bear in mind that around 1 in 10 adults is a veteran.
So thousands live in your areas.
Finally, on education, that you do everything you can to help service children get the education they deserve, particularly working to mitigate any disruption to schooling.
For example, by following Oxfordshire Council in accepting school applications from service families before they are posted and have basing addresses in the area to which they are going to move.
This has long been an issue for service families.
There is a sense of urgency to get all of this right.
Our troops are going to be coming home from Afghanistan.
When they have given so much for us, it is only fair that we try to give something back to them.
We have a window of opportunity to get things right for our armed forces.
And my aspiration is that, in this time before they have all come home, we achieve national coverage for the community covenant, so that wherever our armed forces and veterans live they know their local authority will be looking out for them and critically their families as well.
Thanks to your hard work I know we are making real progress.
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.
The publication of the first annual report on the armed forces covenant, which is not far away now, will lay out this progress.
First, the principle of no disadvantage.
Second that special consideration is appropriate in some cases, especially for those who have given most such as the injured and the bereaved.
It is now the law of the land that the Secretary of State must provide a report to Parliament.
But it would be arrogant in the extreme to believe that we could solve all the problems in a single year.
However, we have now initiated a process that will allow us to address problems systematically.
To paraphrase Churchill again: With regard to the matter of the armed forces covenant report, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. It is not even the end of the beginning. This is in fact the beginning of the beginning. But nevertheless this process has now well and truly begun.
And I saw that this morning when I was in my own patch in Essex, co-signing a community covenant, which was signed by Essex County Council and all 14 other local authorities in Essex.
Some of you may know, I once applied to be a candidate in a by-election in Kensington and Chelsea. I lost out to some chap called Michael Portillo.
During that time I was asked by a lady from Chelsea with a cut-glass accent,
Mr Francois, would you say that you are proud to call yourself an Essex Man?
To which I replied.
No Madame, but I am very proud to be a man from Essex.
And I have never been prouder than when I saw all of the local authorities of Essex sign their community covenant, one after another this morning.
But I am also very proud of all the other local authorities across the country that have signed their covenant agreements as well.
These partnerships have helped local authorities to understand the needs of service families, introducing practical measures to improve their access to GPs, dentists, local schools and housing.
Everywhere I go, I get feedback that part of the value of the community covenant comes from establishing a framework for dialogue.
A dialogue between local authorities: unitary, county, district.
A dialogue between sectors: private, public, voluntary.
And a dialogue between communities: military and civilian.
But fundamentally this is a dialogue between individuals: person-to-person contact that works out problems and gets things done.
Through this network of conversation people are discovering low cost or no cost measures that add up to have a genuine impact.
Simple things, like the staff who provide some of Gateshead Council’s front line services asking, the question, whenever people approach the council: are you part of the armed forces community?
But it is not all just about communication and coordination.
The community covenant is backed by a separate £30 million grant scheme to support local projects that benefit veterans, serving personnel and the communities they live in.
You will hear from the leaders of 3 successful projects later today.
Since the start of the scheme, in June 2011, we have received 240 bids, 120 of which have been successful, amounting to £5 million of already allocated funding.
As you will have instantly realised, this is a far higher success rate than most bids to the national lottery.
So, when it comes to the community covenant grant, it really could be you.
The next panel considering grant applications will sit on 13 December this year with a deadline for submissions to the MOD for bids of 28 November.
The following panel will sit on 14 March 2013 with a deadline of 28 February 2013, that is 2 bidding rounds you can apply to so get your pens out.
In 2 days time I will be back in Essex to see the Royal Anglian Regiment, my old regiment, march through the Borough of Basildon, with trumpets sounding, drums beating, fifes playing and colours flying, as they exercise the freedom of the borough which they were given 2 years ago.
I can’t tell you how much these parades mean to those returning from operations.
They are really important to them and to their families who miss them while they are away.
And particularly also to those who have lost loved ones in the service of their country.
Can I thank all of you who have granted freedom to your local armed forces and encourage others who can to consider doing so.
I believe wholeheartedly in the value of the covenant.
That is why all local authorities in England and Wales have recently been sent a letter that I have co-written with Sir Merrick Cockell laying out the merits of the community covenant.
I will also be writing in the same terms to local authorities in Scotland very shortly.
For those of you who have yet to sign a community covenant, I hope that you leave here today with a whole host of reasons to do so, and a clearer idea of how to go about it.
And for those of you who have already signed a community covenant, I would encourage you to share your ideas and experiences, which are helping to turn the covenant into a reality.
I am proud of the progress we have already made.
But I think together, working in partnership, we can do more, particularly in the context of our returning troops, which gives immediacy to the whole project.
We must all play our part.
Ladies and gentlemen, particularly at this time of remembrance we must never forget the fact that we live in a free country.
And that we can only do this thanks to some very special people, our service men and women, who are prepared to lay down their lives to protect that freedom.
Something which we should not take for granted.
We have recognised this in the armed forces covenant.
And the community covenant gives this real form at local level.
All of us, all of us, owe these people a debt.
We must honour the covenant.
Now let’s roll up our sleeves and get on with it.