It’s somehow fitting that the MOD Main Building is our venue today, since this was once the site of the Palace of Whitehall and the former residence of Queen Elizabeth I.
The Virgin Queen once said: “God has given such brave soldiers to this Crown that, if they do not frighten our neighbours, at least they prevent us from being frightened by them.”
And it was she who first introduced a groundbreaking statute ensuring disabled army veterans “should at their return be relieved and rewarded to the end that they may reap the fruit of their good deservings and others may be encouraged to perform the like endeavours.”
More than 4 centuries on and the sense of the duty we owe to those who lay their lives on the line remains undiminished. If anything it has grown stronger with the passing of every campaign from Iraq and Libya to Afghanistan.
We all know that reintegrating into society after life on the frontline isn’t easy. It’s testament to how good our people are that our employment statistics are so good.
But we owe it to our service personnel to do everything we can to help, whether that means continuing their medical care after they leave the service, helping their children find a place in school or enabling to get a foot on the housing ladder.
That is why the government has enshrined its covenant with the armed services in law.
It means that no current or former member of the armed forces, or their families should be disadvantaged compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services.
We honour the covenant in a variety of ways.
Not just by putting our money where our mouth is and providing, from next spring, a permanent £10 million financial commitment in perpetuity.
But through a comprehensive welfare package.
Aside from all the statutory support available from other departments, devolved administrations and local authorities…we are introducing the New Employment Model…giving service personnel an expectation of being stationed in the same part of the country for significantly longer periods
…we’ll soon be bringing in the Forces Help to Buy scheme, to address the low rate of home ownership in the armed forces
…we’ve put £1.8 billion into the new Army Basing Plan so we can make best use of our estate across the UK from Catterick to Colchester
…and we will be spending £1 billion on brand new accommodation, meaning almost 2,000 new family homes are built as well as nearly 8,000 new homes for single soldiers.
Society must back armed forces
But my first point today is that the covenant isn’t just about MOD or even the rest of government. It is about society’s commitment as a whole to our armed forces.
We’re looking to business and local authorities to offer employment support and improved access to local amenities. That’s why we introduced the corporate and community covenant to garner their support.
But, above all we’re looking to our charities, many in this room. You know how important it is that people should stop thinking of all veterans as victims and celebrate their success in wider society.
And from talking, as I do, to many of our veterans, especially the younger ones, I have discovered that some don’t know that help is out there.
There is clearly, for some, a disconnect.
You know how important it is that they get the help to help themselves.
You know how to intervene to make that possible. And you know how to deliver.
As Lord Ashcroft pointed out in his transition report there ‘is no shortage of provision for service leavers and most do well’.
What is significant about the charity approach in these cash strapped times is that you’ve discovered collaboration is the mother of invention.
Look at the way the third sector has become increasingly adept at harmonising their activities.
From the pitch perfect Military Wives Choir Foundation.
To the work of Sorted! and COBSEO’s forces in mind, assisting veterans’ transition to civvie street.
Look too at how charities and government are working hand in glove whether on Personnel Recovery Centres or putting Libor funds to work.
And so far those funds have supported hundreds of projects across the country with more than £45 million of grants.
I recently saw this for myself when I went down to Brighton to visit Blind Veterans UK.
They are using a £1 million Libor grant to refurbish accommodation for current and future residents.
And I was delighted to announce a further £40 million for this financial year to fund accommodation for veterans with a housing need across the UK.
Need for increased collaboration
But this brings me to my second key point. All this collaboration that we see at a local level or on individual projects must become the rule not the exception.
It must be more integrated on a national scale.
Some will say this means more work we don’t need.
But…as we drawdown from Afghanistan and Germany…with larger numbers of veterans returning from extended periods abroad
…as the spotlight once trained on our armed forces, turns away again, casting a shadow on your future funding …we will struggle to provide our ex-service personnel with the same high quality service unless we collaborate.
And by co-ordinating efforts nationally, sharing understanding and best practice
…preventing duplication of resource
…seeing the woods for the trees
…we can make best use of what we’ve got
We’re already moving in the right direction.
At a charity summit in October last year the penny dropped.
We collectively agreed to create a National Veterans Strategy with a shared vision for veterans.
This work continues apace.
Admiral Williams met key charities to agree the plan and set out ambitious schedule to deliver a revised Nat Vets Strategy by the Autumn.
It’s a pretty tight timescale but COBSEO is planning workshops for end of April make, look out for them and make sure your voice is heard.
So we’ve achieved an immense amount already.
But veterans is only one aspect of our welfare agenda.
Our challenge today is to map out what else we can do to support the armed forces community.
We’ve got all the right elements in place.
The right people, the right motivation and, in this former palace of Whitehall, a touch of royal inspiration.
So let’s be ambitious.
Let’s think big.
And make sure our wonderful service men and women get everything they deserve.