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Report of the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill (Government Response)

Volume 528: debated on Thursday 19 May 2011

The Ministry of Defence welcomes the Select Committee’s report on the Armed Forces Bill (HC 779). In this formal response, I will deal with each of the Committee’s conclusions and recommendations in turn.

I shall begin with the Committee’s recommendation that Select Committee scrutiny should continue to be the convention for Armed Forces Bills. I believe that the appointment of a Select Committee which was able to take evidence and conduct visits allowed Committee members an opportunity to visit armed forces units, to hear from members of the armed forces and their families, and to develop a better understanding of service life. These experiences helped Committee members in their role of scrutinising the legislation. I therefore welcome the Committee’s recommendation.

The Select Committee spent a significant amount of its time examining the provisions in the Bill that relate to the armed forces covenant report. There were differences of view on some issues, but Committee members were united in their support for service personnel, veterans and their families. I therefore strongly welcome the Committee’s conclusion that military service is unique and that individuals who serve in the armed forces should be recognised for the contribution they make.

The Government have already made significant progress in rebuilding the armed forces covenant. The commitment to produce a report on the covenant will make the Secretary of State accountable to Parliament for this work. The Government’s announcement that they will table amendments to the Bill, so that the key principles of the covenant are written into law, will further strengthen that element of the legislation. I agree with the Committee’s recommendation that, in creating a tri-service document, we should use the term “armed forces covenant” to signify its inclusivity.

Committee members will be aware that we have used that title in the new version of the covenant which we published on 16 May 2011.

I welcome the Committee’s comments about the external reference group. The Government value the important contribution that the group has made and continues to make in driving forward our work on supporting the armed forces community. The group has proved its worth and at no time has its continued existence, or its vital role, been in doubt. Our aim is to strengthen the group rather than to sideline it. The Government agree that its terms of reference should be updated. Ultimately it is for the group to decide how its work will be taken forward, and we have asked its external members for their views on its future role, terms of reference and membership. This includes how they wish to engage with the process of preparing the Defence Secretary’s annual report to Parliament on the armed forces covenant.

I welcome the Committee’s support for the provisions in the Bill in relation to the independence and powers of service police; to drug and alcohol testing; and those which aim to provide greater independence of service complaints panels, where circumstances demand.

Following the Committee’s recommendation that the Ministry of Defence should review service complaints procedures and the powers of the Service Complaints Commissioner, the commissioner published her annual report on 31 March. In the response, I welcomed the commissioner’s acknowledgement of the real progress that the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces have made in relation to the handling of complaints. While I am pleased with this progress, I recognise the importance of the commissioner’s recommendations as to ways to improve the system further. A review of the service complaints system will be undertaken and will consider in full the recommendations made by the commissioner in her annual report, including those specifically related to the powers of her role.

The Committee concluded that the matter of a veterans’ ID card could usefully be explored further. In response, I should begin by saying that a veterans’ ID card which guarantees or provides a very high level of assurance of the identity of the bearer would be an expensive project and would require significant administration. There is no defence need for such a card and it would not provide good value for money. Nevertheless, we agree that there is value in developing a card which confirms the status of individuals as former servicemen or women and can be used in order to facilitate easier access to discounts and other privileges, including those arising from the armed forces community covenant initiative. This option would require a lower level of verification than an actual identification card. The Government announced their intention to introduce such a card on 16 May.

I welcome the Committee’s support for the existing policy in relation to the recruitment of under-18s. However, following a review of discharge policy I am pleased to announce that, for those under the age of 18, the ability to be discharged will in future be a right up to the age of 18, subject to an appropriate period of consideration or cooling off. My officials are currently finalising the policy details and these will be brought forward shortly in secondary legislation.

The Committee’s final recommendation was in relation to trials of service personnel. The Committee recommended that the Ministry of Defence should consider whether there might be a benefit in transferring the handling of some cases to the service courts and whether there might also be scope for the creation of a power in civilian courts to remit cases to the service courts for sentence. Proposals for changes in both of these areas were discussed at a meeting of the service justice board in January 2011, when it was agreed that staff in the central legal services directorate should lead further work to assess whether greater flexibility could be achieved in the transfer of cases between jurisdictions and the possibility of transferring cases to the court martial for sentencing. That work is in hand at present.