Special Report | How our governments use military charities to evade the real cost of their wars
New in Ceasefire, Special Reports - Posted on Monday, November 10, 2014 17:25 - 6 Comments
By Sam Walton
Say one thing about the British public, we will fill collecting tins for armed forces personnel. The Charities Directory lists 276 army, 188 Royal Marines and Navy, 70 RAF and 90 ex-services (military) charities in the UK, and those numbers are growing every year. The Royal British Legion is by far the biggest in terms of income, with over £100m in turnover, and shares the biggest profile with ‘Help for Heroes’. Almost all of these charities have come into existence since 1999, the majority in the past decade.
However, is the government avoiding the full cost of going to war by getting these charities to take care of soldiers after their return? If a fire-fighter, nurse or other government employee was killed or seriously injured in an industrial accident at work, the government would assume responsibility, rehabilitation and care would be provided and compensation would be paid. Surely, if a national decision is made to go to war then care for the people thrust into that war must be something that the government takes responsibility for.
Looking into some of the service personnel relief charities, their relationship to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) certainly raise some questions.
In August 2012 Newsnight reported on how Help for Heroes recovery centres were not always available to veterans that have left the forces. It turned out the MoD, rather than Help for Heroes, decides who is treated there, and three out of the five recovery centres have been built on military bases. Another charity, Skill Force, started life as MoD project to get ex-forces personnel into work and now is an independent charity.
These are two examples where the MoD is clearly aware of a need – to get ex-forces personnel into work or for new treatment centres. They are unwilling to meet this cost directly, and so outsource the cost to charities that the public fund. Of course, the support work gets done this way, but these charities are in effect subsidising other areas of the MoD budget if they get to make savings on caring for ex-forces personnel.
Help for Heroes are aware of this, and insist that “The government must and does provide the necessities.” and they only enhance these by giving the ‘nice to haves’. Yet none of the service personnel relief charities I can see speak about their relief work as ‘nice to have’, and even the most cursory google search turns up Help for Heroes co-founder Bryn Parry speaking of a grant they give as ‘vital’.
The government calls the obligations that society and government have to armed forces personnel “The Armed Forces Covenant.” The Conservatives repeatedly talk about the need to “rebuild” this covenant, and to this end launched a covenant in 2011.
Like much of the Coalition’s vision of government, what the covenant offers is principally to be sourced from local government and wider society. Most of the schemes are small bureaucratic niceties, which in practice don’t appear to work. Little money comes from central government and certainly not from the MoD. It is clear that most of the responsibility for looking after armed forces personnel lies with the NHS and local government, not the MoD. And, of course, the military covenant does not say that the MoD will pay for full and proper compensation and treatment for the lifetime of those who are injured in war.
The covenant has a lot of fine words for British armed Forces Personnel, but it is clear there is no money available. In its introduction, Liam Fox, the then Secretary of State for Defence, states that where “There is little alternative to sustained investment… the Government will not be able to go as far or as fast as we would like.”
It is even clearer that the government is keen to shift as much of the cost of supporting armed forces personnel in the terms of reference for the Task Force on the Military Covenant, the group that came up with the recommendations that eventually formed the military covenant. Their report’s very first sentence speaks of how they were “asked by the Prime Minister to develop a series of innovative, low-cost policy ideas.” It continues talking of “looking beyond Government for sources of funding” and every time money is needed for a scheme talks about looking for charitable funding.
Proof that there is no money for looking after veterans comes when one looks at the money dedicated to the military covenant. The government’s flagship scheme gets £10 million a year, as well as trinkets like the high profile LIBOR fine and baubles like the community covenant funding. Contrast that with the £37 billion annual defence spending and it is obvious that this government, rhetoric aside, cares little for the welfare of its armed forces personnel.
At the end of the day, that is what this is about – money – and the government’s unwillingness to spend it looking after those who they send to war. Talk of ”rebuilding” a covenant is nonsense – there never has been one. Britain (and everyone else) has always treated veterans terribly – war would be prohibitively expensive if governments had to look after the lives they ruined – even just those on their side. The only difference with this government is that they are keen to use public sympathy with veterans to get charities to fill the hole they refuse to pay for, whilst bandying empty words to be seen to do something.
The British public undeniably want veterans to be better supported, and ultimately it is troubling that they keep blindly giving to charity without thought for what service personnel need. Only a government will ever be able to provide the comprehensive lifelong support and care that people need after being exposed to war. Yet there is precious little pressure on the government to commit paying for it.
It is understandable why service personnel relief charities tend to avoid this area. It is much harder to get money for lobbying government than for the “sad donkey” of injured soldiers; and trying to communicate the government’s failures tends to interrupt the patriotic stirrings that “supporting our boys” arouses.
To properly look after those damaged by war would cost billions. Billions charities can never hope to raise. Billions that the government would rather the Ministry of Defence spend on preparing for war. Billions that the public can ignore, by doing a sponsored run or filling a collecting tin, numbed into silence by the warm glow of do-gooding.
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