Considered in Committee
[Mr Roger Gale in the Chair]
New Clause 12
Call out of reserve forces
‘In section 56 of the Reserve Forces Act 1996 (call out for certain operations), after subsection (1) insert—
(a) work is approved in accordance with instructions issued by the Defence Council under the Defence (Armed Forces) Regulations 1939 as being urgent work of national importance, and
(b) the Defence Council have by order under those Regulations authorised members of any forces to be temporarily employed in such work,
the Secretary of State may make an order authorising the calling out of members of a reserve force for the purposes of carrying out such work.”’.—(Mr Robathan.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments 14 and 15.
The new clause reflects the importance that the Government place on their reserve forces, and amendments 14 and 15 are concomitant with it. The new clause is designed to align more closely the circumstances in which reservists may be called out in the United Kingdom with those in which regular personnel may be used. It would enable reservists to be deployed in the UK more widely than at present so that their skills can be used in a wider range of circumstances.
Legislation has been in place for some time allowing our reserves to be called out to serve on warlike or humanitarian operations worldwide. Indeed, it is worth stressing that there have been more than 24,000 reservist mobilisations in support of operations both at home and overseas, including Iraq and Afghanistan, since 2003. I am sure that the Committee would wish to pay tribute to those reservists who have deployed on operations—with some losses, I fear. During those operations, 27 reservists have made the ultimate sacrifice.
In the UK, local reserve troops were mobilised under existing legislation to provide assistance during the Cumbrian flooding in November 2009, and helped to build Barker bridge—so-called after the tragic death of Police Constable Barker during some of the worst UK flooding in living memory. This assistance could not have been provided so quickly and efficiently without the excellent support of reserves from the local Territorial Army unit. However, we do not have legislation in place to allow us to use the numbers of reserves available or their specialist skills in all appropriate circumstances. The Secretary of State’s power to call out reservists in the UK is currently limited by the Reserve Forces Act 1996 to the defence of the realm or
“the alleviation of distress or the preservation of life and property in time of disaster or apprehended disaster.”
There are many circumstances falling short of “disaster or apprehended disaster” in which reserves could make a valuable contribution, but under the existing legislation, they cannot be mobilised. I have in mind a number of examples. The first is the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001, when we could not call out reservists because the work that needed to be done was not to alleviate distress or preserve life or property. The second is a major disruption to the road and rail network, such as we saw at the beginning of this year, when reservists could not be mobilised to deliver vital food and blood supplies to a large number of people over a wide area, and when we had to resort at the last minute to volunteers. The final example is a requirement for unarmed, low-level support to the security operation for the London 2012 Olympic games. Currently in such circumstances, it would be possible to use regular forces because there is a power to use regulars for urgent work of national importance. This power has been used for a wide range of activities, such as dealing with the consequences of flooding, heath fires, severe snow, hurricanes and the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001.
I propose to amend the 1996 Act so that reserve forces, like regular forces, can be called out for urgent work of national importance. The amendment represents an improvement to the existing position, where there is one test governing whether regulars can be used, and another slightly different test governing whether reserves can be mobilised. Being able to mobilise reserve forces would offer a number of important practical advantages. First, there are more than 30,000 committed individuals in the volunteer reserves. Secondly, reservists are based in every part of the UK and can bring to bear important local knowledge in relation to local problems. Thirdly, this would enable us to draw on a range of specialist skills held in the reserves that do not exist in the regular forces—for example, medical skills, meteorological expertise, and rail and maritime expertise. Over the last decade, we have seen the ever greater integration of the reserves into our force capability. The new clause is proposed in that developing context. The Future Reserves 2020 study, which will report to the Prime Minister this month, is taking a wider look at the role of the reserves and making better use of their specialist skills. I expect the study to recommend that we should make more of the strengths and skills that reservists offer. The new clause represents a first step towards that.
Mobilisation is an essential tool for two reasons. First, it gives the Department the guarantee of the reservists’ service; secondly, it activates statutory employment and financial assistance safeguards for reservists and their employers. These help to minimise any disruption that mobilisation may cause. Under the new clause, as now, no reservist will be out of pocket as a result of mobilisation, and every employer will have the right to apply for financial assistance that will allow him temporarily to replace any member of staff who is mobilised. In addition, existing restrictions on both the length of mobilised service that an individual can be required to undertake and the frequency of mobilisation will apply. Furthermore, reservists and their employers will be able to appeal against mobilisation under the proposed new power, just as they can under existing powers. There is also a further appeal to a tribunal that will be independent from the Ministry of Defence. In reality, the MOD works with employers to identify potential concerns at the earliest stage and support the employer throughout.
I hope that I have covered the major implications and benefits of the new clause. Let me stress that this change to the legislation strengthens the role of reservists in our armed forces and society more widely.
Government amendment 14 provides that the provisions in the Bill relating to the call-out of reserve forces will come into effect two months after it receives Royal Assent. That is the standard period of time for bringing provisions into force, and we see no need to deviate from the norm in this case. Government amendment 15 changes the long title of the Bill. The amendment is necessary because the new provision about the call-out of reserve forces is a subject that would not be covered by the long title as it stands.
Let me begin by paying tribute to the men and women who serve our country as reservists. They show immense dedication to serving our country. As the Minister said, we have only to look at the vital role played by reservists in Iraq and Afghanistan to understand the importance of reserve forces.
The Government are undertaking a review into the future of reserve forces. If we are to believe what we read in the newspapers, reservists are likely to be given greater responsibility in the coming years. Indeed, the logical conclusion to draw from the strategic defence and security review is that we must seek to make the most of the assets that we have, and that includes the reserve forces. In bringing forward these amendments, the Government are perhaps pre-empting the conclusion of that review. The amendments give the Secretary of State greater powers to call in reservists. That is something that, in principle, we are more than happy to support; indeed, the Minister gave some good examples of the circumstances in which such powers would be useful. However, the Government need to be honest with the men and women of the reserve forces. If they are to ask them to do more, they also need to provide the necessary protection and support in the workplace. We are talking about people who join up to serve their country, and we have a duty to protect their jobs when they are mobilised. It is in this area that there are some questions for the Government to answer.
We know that the Secretary of State is not necessarily on the best of terms with the Prime Minister and his other Cabinet colleagues. I wonder whether there is much joined-up thinking taking place in Government about the role of reservists and the duty of care that we owe them. The Cabinet Office has a Red Tape Challenge website, which consults the public on legislation that could or should be scrapped. When launching the site, the Prime Minister wrote to all Ministers to say:
“We know we have inherited far too much costly, pointless, and illiberal government red tape.”
In the employment law section of the website, item No. 1 in the list of legislation up for being scrapped is the Reserve Forces (Safeguard of Employment) Act 1985. The Act states that reservists have a liability to be mobilised and provides two kinds of protection. The first is protection of employment, providing protection from unfair dismissal and making it a criminal offence for an employer to terminate a reservist’s job without their consent solely or mainly because he or she has a liability to be mobilised. Secondly, there is a right to reinstatement. The Act provides a legal right to the reservist to be reinstated in their former job, subject to certain conditions. When pressed on this matter by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) at the most recent Defence questions, the Secretary of State refused to deny that those provisions were under consideration. The Government are therefore considering scrapping legislation that protects reserved forces employment on a day-to-day basis and when on a tour of duty.
The hon. Lady is making a good point, but I have to say that I am unsighted of the 1985 Act. I thought that it had been superseded by the Reserve Forces Act 1996. She obviously knows a great deal about this, but I thought that that was where the current regulations sat. Will she illuminate the matter for the Committee?
Unfortunately, the Secretary of State did not make that clear when asked about this matter. If he or the Minister could give the Committee a concrete commitment on the protection of employment for reservists today, that would be very welcome. It cannot be right for the Government to consider asking more of the men and women of our reserve forces while cutting the protection that they need in their place of work. Will the Minister make an unequivocal commitment not to scrap the vital protection provided by the Reserve Forces (Safeguard of Employment) Act 1985 or, if he believes that it has been superseded, will he clarify the position? We support the new clause, but the Government must be clear about retaining the support and protection that the reserve forces expect and deserve.
I should like to speak briefly in support of new clause 12, but I must start by declaring my interest as a member of the reserve forces.
My understanding of the Reserve Forces Act 1996 is that it contains three separate sections under which a reservist may be mobilised: section 52, under which no one has been mobilised to date; section 54, which involves war fighting, and under which I was mobilised to Afghanistan; and section 56, to which the new clause relates directly, and under which I have previously been mobilised to Kosovo and Bosnia. I want to underline the points that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan) made in his opening remarks. It might seem odd that I am supporting a new clause that could result in my being mobilised even more often, but this amendment to the Act is long overdue.
Speaking from my experience as an explosive ordnance disposal operator, I want to add to the examples that the Committee has already been given. During 2003-04, under Operation Telic in Iraq, we found that as the threat from improvised explosive devices continued to grow, the call on our EOD operators also increased. The Committee might be aware that, here in the UK, we continue regularly to dig up world war two munitions. That constant threat is covered by a 24-hour operation known as Operation Midway, which is based in Wimbish, in Cambridgeshire.
The problem that we faced in 2004 was that, as the threat of IEDs grew in Iraq, our qualified bomb disposal officers were slowly being drawn out into theatre and we were struggling to cover the UK threat. Under section 56, members of the Territorial Army were mobilised to go and sit in Wimbish to cover the Operation Midway threat. It might surprise the Committee that most munitions are normally dug up on a Friday afternoon. They are invariably found on building sites, although probably not on a Friday afternoon. No one wants to interrupt the works, however, so the munitions magically seem to turn up on a Friday afternoon, which is an ideal time for the members of the Territorial Army who come in to play at weekends to deal with the munitions.
The terms of section 56 are clear. Subsection (1)(a) states that a reservist may be mobilised only
“on operations outside the United Kingdom for the protection of life or property”.
Clearly, the UK disposal of munitions under Operation Midway does not count in that regard. Subsection (1)(b) states that a reservist may be mobilised
“on operations anywhere in the world for the alleviation of distress or the preservation of life or property in time of disaster or apprehended disaster.”
Now the problem was that although that might cover UK operations at the time, was it fair to say that the potential digging up of a world war two munition in London was a potential disaster? It was very much a grey area. What tended to happen was that people were mobilised under section 56; they sat in Wimbish for a number of months and then, right at the end of their mobilisation, they would be deployed out to theatre in Iraq simply so they could be “covered” under the mobilisation. That was obviously nonsense, which is why I believe it is so important for the Government to introduce the new clause so that in such specialised situations—along with examples that the Minister provided—we can allow reservists’ actions to continue.
I would like to pick up on a couple of points that the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle) made about protection of the reserve forces. We must be careful when we use these powers. Few people in the reserve forces are not prepared to be mobilised, but when we start mobilising people for the second, third or fourth time, reservists are forced to answer an important question: are they prepared to give up their first career for a second career? Protections are in place so reservists can go back to resume their employment, but many employers, who might be incredibly supportive of the reserve forces, sometimes feel quite strongly about who they should promote.
Does the hon. Gentleman feel from his personal experience that if people are constantly going to be asked to serve, it could act as a disincentive to joining the reserve forces?
I am making the point that we must be careful how we use these powers. The point I was coming on to was that an employer might have to give the job back to an employee who has been away on mobilised service, but he does not necessarily have to promote him. Who is going to be promoted—the person permanently at work or the person who comes and goes every two or three years? I support the extension of these powers, but I add the caveat that we must be very careful how we use them. We should not use them in a manner that could act as a disincentive along the lines that the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) suggested.
My hon. Friend is quite right to say that we should be careful how we use these powers. Does he agree that we should also be careful how we communicate them to potential employers, so that they know exactly how the powers might be used and will not disadvantage people in the reserve forces?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I would like to commend both this Government and previous ones for the amount of support they have offered to SaBRE—the organisation that does so much to communicate with reservists’ employers.
My final point, on which I seek some reassurance from the Minister, is that the new clause will make no amendments to section 57 of the Reserve Forces Act 1996, which deals with the duration for which a member of the reserve forces can be mobilised. Although it is a fairly complicated clause, the basic point is that a member of the armed forces can be mobilised for a maximum of nine months beyond their enlistment. If I read it correctly, that means mobilisation could run for a period of three years and nine months. It is unlikely that that has ever happened—I know of no example of it happening—but given what the new clause is intended to do for localised UK operations that are likely to be short in their enduring operation, I would ask whether the Minister is happy about the absence of any amendment to section 57 of the Reserve Forces Act 1996.
I, too, pay tribute to the work of the reserve forces. Some time ago I was in Iraq and I was pleasantly surprised to see that the commanding officer at Baghdad airport was a reservist. Much good work is done by the men and women of the reserve forces. No doubt there will be greater calls on their time in the future, bearing in mind the likelihood of an announcement in the coming week or two.
Subject to what the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle) said, I think the amending provisions are perfectly reasonable. Indeed, if we think of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, they are perhaps overdue. Unfortunately, we in the United Kingdom are subject to increasing natural disasters, with which I am sure the men and women of the reserve forces are more than adequately equipped to deal. They may well prove a useful addition to the powers that we already have to deal with what are, unfortunately, frequently occurring natural events.
Subject to the points raised by the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire, I think that the new clause and amendments are perfectly reasonable, and that the Government were right to table them.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) and to other Members who have spoken for their generous support.
I do not know where the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle) gets her ideas. As far as I am aware—and I have seen them together—the Secretary of State is on very good terms with the Prime Minister and, I am sure, with his other Cabinet colleagues. They are probably on better terms than the shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), and the leader of the Labour party, although I am not sure about that. It is just what I read in the newspapers. Perhaps I am wrong, because one should not believe everything that one reads in the newspapers. When I last said that at the Dispatch Box I got into terrible trouble, not least because a newspaper correspondent was sitting in the Press Gallery. He wrote about me in a way that was not entirely polite. Anyway, I am sure that my right hon. Friends are on very good terms.
I can confirm that the new clause has been discussed with other Departments, and I understand that it has been cleared by the Cabinet, but it was discussed in particular by the Home Office, which deals with civil contingencies. I do not think that the hon. Lady need worry about that. As for the Reserve Forces (Safeguard of Employment) Act 1985, I will write to her about it, but I can tell her now that we have absolutely no intention of removing employment protection from reservists. Unlike the hon. Lady, I am not an authority on the Act, but I will write to her—I am looking at my officials now—to confirm that there is no intention of repealing the Act. The protection must, of course, continue.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), on the basis of personal experience. He gave the excellent example of Operation Midway, of which I had not known because, needless to say, it took place under the last Administration. As for the duration of deployment, I think that were we to deploy any reservist for three years and nine months, the House would have quite a lot to say about it. I am not minded to change the legislation, but I do not believe that circumstances would ever arise—apart from general war, which I hope we are not expecting—that required the mobilisation of people for that length of time. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is smiling. I hope that we are not expecting it, and I do not think we are, at least not in the review.
We are not.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his confirmation.
Question put and agreed to.
New clause 12 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
Amendment made: 14, page 29, line 3, at end insert—
‘(1A) Section [Call out of reserve forces] comes into force at the end of the period of two months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed.’.—(Mr Robathan.)
Amendment made: 15, line 4, after ‘Naval Medical Compassionate Fund Act 1915;’ insert ‘to make provision about the call out of reserve forces;’.—(Mr Robathan.)
Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Armed forces covenant report
I beg to move amendment 2, page 2, line 5, leave out ‘Secretary of State’ and insert
‘Minister for Former Armed Services Personnel’.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 16, page 2, leave out lines 8 to 12 and insert—
(d) mental healthcare;
(e) pensions and benefits;
(f) employment and training;
(g) support for reservists and their employers;
(h) the running of the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme;
(i) progress on Armed Forces rehabilitation services; and
(j) such other fields as the External Reference Group may determine.’.
Amendment 3, page 2, leave out line 11 and insert ‘including—
(a) the operation of section 359C (Former Armed Services Personnel Rights Charter),
(aa) the operation of section 359D (Former Armed Services Personnel Support Officers),
(ab) the operation of section 359E (Financial Support for Former Armed Services Personnel Welfare Groups),
(ac) the operation of section 359F (Former Armed Services Personnel Policy Forum),
(ad) the effect of the following issues upon service people—
(i) welfare benefits;
(iv) education, including educational courses and training;
(v) employment advice;
(vi) budgetary and life skills;
(vii) debt management;
(viii) alcohol and drug treatment;
(ix) relationship skills/domestic violence courses for perpetrators and victims; and’.
Amendment 17, page 2, line 11, after ‘housing’, insert—
‘(aa) in the operation of inquests’.
Government amendments 11, 12 and 13
Amendment 4, page 2, line 12, at end insert—
‘(2A) The report shall include expert recommendations on improving the welfare of former armed services personnel.
(2B) Expert recommendations shall include a timeframe in which these recommendations should be implemented.
(2C) If the Secretary of State will not implement any of the expert recommendations as directed then he shall lay a report before Parliament explaining why they have not been implemented, within 40 days of the laying of the armed forces covenant report.’.
New clause 2—Minister for Former Armed Services Personnel
‘After section 359A of Armed Forces Act 2006, insert—
“359B Minister for Former Armed Services Personnel
(1) A Minister shall be appointed within the Cabinet Office who shall be known as the Minister for Former Armed Services Personnel.
(2) The roles and responsibility of the Minister shall be set out by the Secretary of State for the Cabinet Office by order and shall include—
(a) Laying the Annual Armed Forces Covenant Report, in conjunction with the Secretary of State for Defence.
(b) Conducting such activities as shall be seen to be positive for the well-being of former armed services personnel.
(c) Conducting detailed and independently verifiable research to establish a baseline on which future progress can be measured.
(3) The Minister for Former Armed Services Personnel shall be appointed within three months of Royal Assent to the Armed Forces Act 2011.”.’.
New clause 3—Former Armed Services Personnel Rights Charter
‘After section 359B of Armed Forces Act 2006, insert—
“359C Former Armed Services Personnel Rights Charter
(1) A Former Armed Services Personnel Rights Charter shall be published, indicating the rights to assistance that former armed services personnel shall expect.
(2) The Former Armed Services Personnel Rights Charter shall be made by a Minister of the Crown by order made by statutory instrument and include—
(a) the requirement to undergo a psychological assessment immediately prior to leaving the armed forces,
(b) the requirement of a resettlement assessment, conducted approximately six months prior to the expected date of discharge,
(c) the requirement of access to advice from relevant voluntary organisations, approximately three to four months prior to the expected date of discharge, regarding the following possible needs—
(iii) educational course and training;
(iv) employment advice;
(v) budgetary and life skills;
(vi) debt management;
(vii) alcohol and drug treatment; and
(viii) relationship skills/domestic violence courses.
(d) the requirement of back up support and advice, provided in person, by telephone and other reasonable means, to all former armed services personnel at any point within the first six months following discharge,
(e) the requirement of tailored support for former armed services personnel in the criminal justice system,
(f) any other relevant assistance considered necessary by the Minister in pursuit of the improvements in former armed services personnel welfare.
(3) The Former Armed Services Personnel Rights Charter shall be published following consultation with relevant stakeholders.
(4) “Relevant stakeholders” includes members of veterans’ support agencies.
(5) The Former Armed Services Personnel Rights Charter shall be introduced within one year of Royal Assent to the Armed Forces Act 2011.
(6) The operation of the Former Armed Services Personnel Rights Charter shall be reported upon in the Armed Forces Covenant Report.”.’.
New clause 4—Former armed services personnel support officers
‘After section 359C of Armed Forces Act 2006, insert—
“359D Former Armed Services Personnel Support Officers
(1) A former armed services personnel support officer post shall be appointed in each prison and probation service in England and Wales.
(2) The role of the former armed services personnel support officer shall be to ensure continuation of support in the criminal justice system.
(3) Former armed services personnel support officers shall be appointed within one year of Royal Assent to the Armed Forces Act 2011.
(4) The operation of the former armed services personnel support officers shall be reported upon in the Armed Forces Covenant Report.”.’.
New clause 5—Financial support for former armed services personnel welfare groups
‘After section 359D of Armed Forces Act 2006, insert—
“359E Financial Support for Former Armed Services Personnel Welfare Groups
(1) Financial support shall be provided for former armed services personnel welfare groups in each financial year to provided assistance to former armed services personnel.
(2) Former armed services personnel welfare groups eligible for such financial support shall be those approved by the Minister.
(3) The criterion for such eligibility shall be published by the Minister following an independent scoping study into the needs of former armed services personnel and the services currently available which will provide a baseline for future progress.
(4) The independent scoping study shall be published not later than one year after the Royal Assent to the Armed Forces Act 2011.
(5) The operation of the Financial Support for Armed Services Personnel Welfare Groups shall be reported upon in the Armed Forces Covenant Report.”.’.
New clause 6—Former Armed Services Personnel Policy Forum
‘After section 359E of Armed Forces Act 2006, insert—
“359F Former Armed Services Personnel Policy Forum
(1) A Former Armed Services Personnel Policy Forum shall be created to ensure best practice in the treatment and discussion of veterans’ welfare issues.
(2) The Former Armed Services Personnel Policy Forum shall have membership comprising representatives of the statutory, private and voluntary sector.
(3) The chair and members of the Former Armed Services Personnel Policy forum shall be appointed by the Secretary of State following consultation with relevant stakeholders and shall include a government representative.
(4) The criterion for membership and responsibilities of the veterans’ policy forum shall be determined by the Secretary of State following consultation with relevant stakeholders.
(5) “Relevant stakeholders” shall include Ministers in devolved legislatures and veterans’ support agencies.
(6) The Former Armed Services Personnel Policy Forum shall report from time to time to the relevant authority.
(7) “Relevant authority” means Ministers responsible for the implementation of policies relating to veterans’ welfare, including Ministers in devolved administrations.
(8) The Former Armed Services Personnel Rights’ Policy Forum shall be introduced within one year of Royal Assent to the Armed Forces Act 2011.
(9) The operation of the Former Armed Services Personnel Policy Forum shall be reported upon in the Armed Forces Covenant Report.”.’.
New clause 13—Armed Forces Advocates
‘After section 359 of AFA 2006 insert—
“359B Armed Forces Advocates
(1) The existing network of Armed Forces Advocates will be extended through the nomination of supporting advocates at regional and local level to ensure that local authorities work together to identify and resolve issues in local policy or the delivery of services that may affect service people.
(2) In this section “Armed Forces Advocate” means public servant nominated to monitor and resolve policy or legislative issues that arise for service people.”.’.
New clause 14—Duties of ombudsmen and Covenant commitments
‘After section 359 of AFA 2006 insert—
“359C Duties of Ombudsmen and Covenant commitments
‘The Parliamentary and Local Government Ombudsmen shall have the duty to investigate complaints from service personnel that a public body or local authority has failed to meet the commitments outlined in the ‘The Armed Forces Covenant’ and ‘The Armed Forces Covenant: Today and Tomorrow’.”.’.
New clause 17—Duties of public bodies and Ministers
‘(1) In preparing policy, public bodies and Ministers must have regard to those matters to which the Secretary of State is to have regard in preparing an armed forces covenant report, under subsection (2A) of section 359A of AFA 2006.
(2) In preparing policy, public bodies and Ministers must consider whether the making of special provision for service people or particular descriptions of service people would be justified.’.
I am pleased to be able to speak to the amendments, but also rather baffled by the fact that I was unable to raise my points earlier. Although I spoke on Second Reading and expressed a strong interest in being involved in the earlier Committee stage, I was unfortunately denied that opportunity. For the first time in the current Parliament, the number of Members dealing with a Bill in a Select Committee was reduced so that a representative of a minority party would not be present. I am sure that my disappointment is shared by my colleagues the hon. Members for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) and for Upper Bann (David Simpson). Be that as it may, however, I am very glad to have been given the opportunity to speak.
My amendments and new clauses focus on the need to strengthen the provision of welfare for veterans of the armed forces, an issue on which I have been campaigning in the House and outside for a number of years. They would establish a more robust structure of support for personnel leaving the forces, and would ensure that veterans were not disadvantaged in any way when trying to gain access to public services as a result of the service that they had given. They were heavily influenced by the recommendations made by the justice unions parliamentary group on veterans in the criminal justice system, of which I am chair. They also deal with the need to enshrine the military covenant in law, a move that I am glad to hear that the Government will be making in the coming months via the Bill. I hoped to see a little more detail about the covenant in the Government amendments, given that the devil is always in the detail, but the Government have at least acknowledged the need to uphold, maintain and develop further that all-important relationship between our armed forces and the public.
My amendments set out what we in the justice unions parliamentary group believe is a firm course of action to tackle the problems faced by vulnerable veterans, and it is my earnest hope that the Committee will give them due consideration. New clause 2 and amendment 2 seek to introduce a Minister for Former Armed Services Personnel, who would sit in the Cabinet Office and among whose responsibilities would be the laying of the armed forces report before Parliament each year. Most important, the Minister’s remit would extend across Departments, and he or she would therefore be ideally placed to tackle veterans’ issues, needs and priorities in an holistic way.
The Bill provides for the armed forces report to be laid by the Secretary of State for Defence. I mean to cause no offence whatsoever to the present Secretary of State in arguing that a Minister with such a wide remit cannot possibly hope to dedicate as much attention to that document as I believe it deserves, and that the report should therefore be written by someone whose sole ministerial responsibility lies with veterans’ welfare and who will not be unduly compromised—in the strict sense—by other vested interests.
Amendment 3 seeks to broaden the remit of the armed forces report, and is relevant to a number of new clauses to which I will return briefly later. Amendment 16, tabled by the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle), makes many of the same points. My recommendations were made before the earlier Committee stage, from which I was excluded, but I am glad that they can be raised in the Chamber now.
As Members will know, the Bill specifies that an armed forces covenant report shall be laid before Parliament each year, and shall cover the effects had by membership, or former membership, of the armed forces seen in the fields of health care, education, and housing. Let me make the genuine observation that that is a welcome step, given that the regulation of the services available to veterans is a prerequisite for improvement of those services. I believe that the proposed report’s remits do not go far enough, however. My amendments demand that they inquire in greater depth into how having a military service background affects personnel in obtaining public services. The report should not simply discuss education, housing and health care; I have specified that it should also cover other subjects, including welfare benefits, employment advice, budgetary and life skills, debt management, alcohol and drug treatment and relationship skills.
The most important amendment is that stipulating a series of issues to be covered in the armed forces report as, crucially, it demands that it covers far more areas. In the Select Committee, the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire said that
“Tony Stables of the Confederation of British Service and Ex Service Organisations—from the armed forces families federations and from the Forces Pension Society”—
wanted the list of subjects covered by the report to be extended and that there was disappointment about their appearing to be limited to only three. I appreciate that the Secretary of State will have the power to increase the number of subjects if he desires, but, to put it simply, there is no point legislating for an armed forces report to be laid before Parliament if it provides only a limited vision of the problems it needs to address. The bare fact is that veterans do not often encounter these problems in isolation, as the factors that contribute to social estrangement are far more likely to be encountered as a package. Often, although not always, these problems arise contemporaneously; for example, employment advice cannot be fully given without due consideration also being given to debt management, further training, re-skilling and housing.
When personnel leave the armed forces, they will almost certainly need to find a job, as the services tend to recruit their personnel at a young age, and they often retire from the services long before standard retirement age. Little advice or provision in respect of resettlement is given to service leavers, however, particularly if they have served for fewer than four years, although that largely depends on details such as their regiment and where they are stationed. This problem is particularly stark for early service leavers, and studies have shown that they are at far greater risk of suicide, substance misuse, debt, crime and homelessness. That is why it is so important that the covenant and its associated reports pertain to all veterans regardless of the period of time for which they have served.
For the record, I think it is a shame that the full range of views in the House were not represented on the Committee in question because a Member such as the right hon. Gentleman was unable to serve on it.
New clause 3 states that there should be a requirement to undergo a psychological assessment immediately prior to leaving the armed forces. Does the right hon. Gentleman that think there would also be value in making sure there is a psychological assessment on entering the armed forces, as many of the young men and women who enter the armed forces have psychological needs, and they ought to be met while they are serving members, and not considered only when they leave?
That is a sensible suggestion, and I am pleased that it is on the record. The hon. Gentleman is right that such tests should be undertaken.
Having served on Committees with the right hon. Gentleman, I know that he always makes an important contribution. On the question of whether his proposal is the best way of ensuring all disadvantages are covered by the report, does he share my concern that by listing all the various areas, he may, in some sense, be prescribing them, and that it would be better instead to leave some discretion with the Secretary of State to be able to look at any disadvantage and report on that, because it is hard to predict exactly where such disadvantages may lie?
I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman makes that point with complete sincerity, but the Secretary of State can look at further areas in any case; he is not limited to dealing with only certain areas. One matter is of concern to me, however, especially from having spoken to representatives of the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association. Not so long ago, I spoke with a gentleman who told me that about 70% of the work he does is debt management, and, unfortunately, drug and alcohol abuse are also big issues. I felt that by specifying these areas, they could at least be identified. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, so the Secretary of State would not be prevented from looking at other issues. I understand the point the hon. Gentleman makes and appreciate the way in which he expressed it, but I do not think listing would necessarily cause any harm.
SSAFA suggests that debt management is one of the greatest problems facing former armed services personnel, since being in the military provides stable employment for them. Armed forces personnel are thus able to access relatively high levels of credit, although little or no training is given to them on how to control their finances. On leaving the forces without proper financial management training, problems with debt can easily arise, and lead to homelessness and crime.
When leaving the forces, an individual is officially made homeless. Former servicemen and women—although it should be pointed out that this problem is primarily associated with men—often end up relying on relatives or friends for temporary accommodation, putting strains on relationships in the process. If they are unable to gain employment, the patience of their relatives may wear thin, while, perversely, an inability to provide a permanent address decreases the likelihood of their finding a job. Ex-servicemen are thus catapulted into a vicious circle of social exclusion, which can be tackled only by strengthening the advice available to them prior to discharge. I shall briefly return to this point.
Equally importantly, the armed services report must give an account of how service life can increase the likelihood of people turning to drug and alcohol abuse. Post-traumatic stress disorder receives much attention in the press, but it is alcohol and other substance addictions that present the most significant threat to veterans’ mental health. Regrettably, anecdotal evidence suggests that at certain stages of Army life, alcohol is treated as a catalyst to unwinding—or, to use the fashionable phrase, self-medication.
Unlike in Parliament!
Yes, as the hon. Gentleman humorously says, unlike in Parliament, but let me return to my serious point.
It cannot be a coincidence that so many veterans leave active service displaying an over-dependence on alcohol. I hardly need say how quickly such a dependence can, if left totally untreated, feed into other habits, violent behaviour and crime. That is why I would like the report to address the point of counselling on substance misuse playing a vital part in, as it were, the decompression of personnel.
As those who have worked with or encountered veterans grappling with social estrangement will testify, these problems often do not arise singly, but are part of a package of social hindrances faced daily. It is thus only right that the report should take account of the multi-faceted nature of this rupture. Amendment 4 specifies that the report should take into account the recommendations of a panel of outside experts in the field, as well as specify a time frame in which they should be implemented. Proposed new subsection (2C) to clause 2 ensures that the Secretary of State is obliged to implement recommendations, rather than simply write things he or she has no intention of doing, by the fact that he or she must lay a further report before Parliament within 40 days of the laying of the initial report, explaining why certain recommendations have not been implemented.
Amendment 3 also specifies that the report should outline the operation of the former armed services personnel rights charter, the former armed services personnel support officers, financial support for former armed services personnel welfare groups and the former armed services personnel policy forum, all of which are explained in the Bill.
New clause 3 pertains to the former armed forces personnel rights charter, which would put in legislation an obligation on the Government to ensure that veterans undergo psychological assessment before leaving the armed forces—and possibly on entry, as has been said; that they have a resettlement assessment approximately six months before the expected date of discharge; that they have access to advice from voluntary organisations on how to combat potential problems after leaving the forces; and that they are given access to that advice in good time before they are discharged.
At the moment, many veterans feel when that when leaving the forces people are on their own. Regardless of whether that is the case, I think we need to intensify personnel’s awareness of the support that is available to those who need it.
Mrs Louise Mensch (Corby) (Con)
It is a great pleasure to be able to intervene on the right hon. Gentleman and take this opportunity to thank him for his incredible work for veterans not just in this Parliament but over many years, for which the entire House will commend him. May I put it to him, however, that his amendments are, as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Oliver Heald) pointed out, a little too prescriptive? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that a simpler way to address the needs of our veterans would be for this country to have a veterans’ administration or Department, as every other nation in the English-speaking world does?
I thank the hon. Lady for her very generous comments, but I visited the United States in September and I visited the veterans’ agency. It is the second largest Department of State in the United States and it costs an absolute fortune to run. It was put in place, I believe, because the United States had to deal with the fallout of Vietnam. There is a much smaller scale operation in Canada. In an ideal world, the hon. Lady would be right, but in these straitened circumstances, it would be rather unrealistic of me to make that call. I hope that in the not-too-distant future we, too, will have such a Department. I do not make that call now, because I do not think it is realistic so to do.
I take the hon. Lady’s point about my amendments being prescriptive and so on. It is a moot point: I may well be wrong and she may be right; I do not know. One thing we should consider urgently, however, as I have mentioned, is having a Minister in the Cabinet Office to cross-cut all available services and to consider everything in each Department that might or might not impact on veterans. I think that would be a useful step forward, albeit that it is not so dramatic a step as a veterans’ Department, which, at the end of the day, she and I would undoubtedly favour although it is perhaps unrealistic to call for it at this stage.
I am a little uneasy about the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal about a Minister in the Cabinet Office and about the proposal made by my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mrs Mensch) for a Department for veterans’ affairs. It seems to me that the Secretary of State for Defence, the three services under him and under them the regiments and units to which people are attached are responsible for looking after veterans when they leave the services. To remove that responsibility from them and to give it to somebody else in the Cabinet Office or a separate Department would seem to me to be quite wrong.
The hon. Gentleman misses my point. That Minister would look at every single Department in turn, including the MOD, and when there was some form of engagement with veterans in that Department he or she would report accordingly on whatever he or she found to be the case. The responsibility would ultimately still lie with the military. I say, with the greatest of respect to the hon. Gentleman and those from the military who might be listening, that hitherto the military has not been very good at looking after veterans and that is why I am on my feet at the moment.
I, for one, would love to see a dedicated Department for veterans in this country, notwithstanding the expense. If we feel that they deserve recognition, we should be prepared to put our money where our mouth is, perhaps not right now but in the future. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the huge step forward we are witnessing today is that the military covenant will be in law, which the Government previously resisted? That is a huge step forward.
The hon. Lady is right and I do welcome that. It is a step forward, for sure.
The right hon. Gentleman has rightly referred to drug and alcohol abuse, which is unfortunately prevalent among large numbers of those who have served in our armed forces and among some in the armed forces. Sometimes the solutions are not all state run, however. The most successful organisation in helping people with alcohol dependency is Alcoholics Anonymous and, sometimes, the state and the Ministry of Defence have been rather reluctant to involve voluntary organisations such as Alcoholics Anonymous in helping people out of their addiction.
I am sure that is right—I have no argument with that—but what is to prevent signposting and sending personnel to be assessed? For example, just down the road from here is an organisation called Veterans’ Aid, which is run by Wing Commander Hugh Milroy. Under his good offices, very few ex-service people are sleeping rough in London. There were quite a number of them 10 years ago; now there are hardly any. He has done that work. There are numerous organisations doing excellent work for ex-forces personnel, but I am arguing for a more consistent approach across the piece—a more holistic approach. I could use the words “postcode lottery”: there are good services and good practice, but we need to ensure that they are accessible across the piece and across all the constituent parts of the UK, wherever veterans are, wherever they served and whichever regiment they were with.
At the risk of incurring your wrath, Mr Gale, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman and all in the House would like to join me in congratulating Wing Commander Milroy on his richly deserved OBE in the birthday honours only last Saturday.
I am delighted to congratulate Wing Commander Milroy on that—it is a well-deserved honour for a lot of hard work in difficult circumstances.
I do not want to take up too much time this evening, so I shall seek to truncate my remarks. Let me explain one or two more amendments. I will not press the Committee to a Division, because I want to make my points and to return to them at another time.
New clause 3 specifies that back-up advice, in person and by telephone, should be made available for the first six months following discharge. Finally, tailored support should be made available for former armed services personnel in the criminal justice system. The issues surrounding veterans who come into contact with the criminal justice system have been the subject of debates in this House and I shall not go into great detail about them now, but holistic support is required, I believe, for such veterans to ensure that they get the support they need.
New clause 4 would appoint a support officer for former armed services personnel in each prison and probation service in England and Wales. That might sound a bit airy-fairy and pie in the sky, but those people are out there. They are often people who are interested in the subject and who are ex-service personnel, but that turns on the question of whether we have the ex-services personnel in a prison, which is often the key to whether services are properly delivered for these people.
I just want to make one comment, which is that a heck of a lot of people leave the armed forces and go on to lead perfectly normal, decent lives. They do not need help and I am a little worried that we are giving the impression that everyone needs some sort of help. They do not; only a small percentage of people require that help.
I agree entirely and I do not want to give the false impression that the majority of service leavers are in dire need of help. That has never been true and never will be. I fully take the hon. Gentleman’s point on board and I agree with what he says. He, of course, comes from a service background and knows this patch rather well—probably far better than I do.
But he needs quite a lot of help!
Thank you very much!
I will move to finish my remarks fairly quickly because we are subject to some rather strange remarks at the moment.
The role that support officers would play would be to ensure that relevant individuals who came into contact with the criminal justice system received support while they were held within the system. Only a small percentage end up in the criminal justice system, but it is entirely possible that a goodly number of those people would not be in the prison system if they had been assisted in other ways when they came out of the services. That is my point. As far as the numbers are concerned, I am not saying that the majority are affected, as that would be absolute nonsense.
Concurrent with the need for support officers is the need to improve the recording of the number of veterans held in prisons, on probation or on parole. At no time hitherto has an individual been asked, upon entry to the justice system, whether they have a service record, but that is now changing I am pleased to say. I shall not go into this topic at length, but I note that a survey conducted by the Home Office in 2001-02 recorded that roughly 6% of inmates were veterans, whereas a survey carried out by the MOD in 2007 estimated the percentage in one prison, Dartmoor, at 17.5%. I shall not get into bandying figures around, as we have had this debate before. These are MOD figures, not mine or NAPO’s. I remember that the last time we had such a debate everyone clubbed together to denigrate Harry Fletcher, but these are not his figures.
Stop making them up then.
I am not making them up.
I know that discussion of this issue can be a bit like “Groundhog Day”, but when I was a Minister, I—under pressure from the right hon. Gentleman, who takes a great interest in this matter—had the Ministry of Justice’s figures, going back to 1967 for the Royal Air Force, cross-referenced with service records and the figure came out at just over 3%. That is not to dispute the fact that there might be more of those individuals in certain prisons, but the facts were established independently and I do not know why certain people keep disputing them.
I will tell the hon. Gentleman why, if we have time to talk turkey. They are disputed because of the scoping exercise that was recently carried out, which came out with a figure of about 5% or 6%. The figure does not really matter, but figures he mentioned excluded women who had served, the reserve forces, those who had served in Northern Ireland and people under 18.
They certainly did, but the hon. Gentleman and I can argue about that elsewhere. I am sure that they did; I would not say so otherwise.
May I make a subtler point, rather than disputing the numbers? Although some of the people we are discussing may theoretically be veterans, in that they may have served in the armed services at some time, the only ones we should be concerned about and who need special care of the kind being described would be those who have recently left the armed services, possibly having had combat experience, and those whose crimes can be directly attributable to their service. The mere fact that someone perhaps did national service 30 years ago should not necessarily distinguish them from other prisoners.
I agree. The only slight note of caution I would add is that, whatever the figure, there are a number of cases of post-traumatic stress disorder and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, PTSD can show itself within a month or can take 15 years to develop.
New clause 5 sets out that financial support shall be made available for ex-services personnel. Let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to the invaluable work of service charities. New clause 5 also sets out the importance of conducting a study of the services already available to veterans, which would provide a baseline for future progress. There is perhaps a little too much room for overlap in some services, whereas some needs are hardly catered for at all. Joining services together and learning from best practice would establish a holistic means to tackle the problem.
Finally, new clause 6 would establish a veterans’ policy forum that would draw its membership from the statutory, private and voluntary sectors. The aim of this forum would be to consult the Government on best practice in the treatment of veterans and their welfare. This once again rests on the vital importance of those with vested interests in this field working together so that no veteran will be made to feel abandoned by a system that is unable to tackle the peculiar problems they might face. I note that a number of amendments surrounding the military covenant have now been withdrawn. I know not what the reason for that is, but I conclude by saying that having the covenant in statutory form is a historic step. I hope that our debates on these clauses will lead to further action being taken in the not-too-distant future as well.
I wish to move amendments 16 and 17—is that in order, Mr Gale?
Order. The hon. Lady may speak to any of the amendments that have been grouped. They will be moved, if they are moved, when they are reached at the appropriate point in the Bill, so it is simply a question of speaking to them now.
Thank you for that clarification, Mr Gale. I will speak to amendments 16 and 17 and to new clauses 13, 14 and 17. As the Committee knows, the vast majority of debate and discussion on the Bill has been about clause 2 and specifically about the military covenant and how best to ensure that it is honoured. Our concern all along has been to ensure that the Government achieve what they have said they want to achieve by enshrining the covenant in law. At the heart of this debate is the overriding principle that no one should be disadvantaged because of their military service. Indeed, many service families have told me that they do not want special treatment—just fair treatment. I welcome the Government’s amendments as a step in the right direction on the military covenant, but the path to get them to this point has been far from graceful. It has been both tortuous and frustrating to watch Ministers deny what was in black and white on paper in front of them, but however they got here I am certainly glad that they have progressed.
We spent many hours debating the covenant in the Select Committee, with the Government arguing both that the unamended Bill enshrined the covenant in law and that it was not necessary to do so. I am not sure whether they have changed their minds on either or both of those points, but I welcome the change of heart none the less and I am pleased to confirm that we support the amendments in the name of the Minister for the Armed Forces although they are not as strong as we had hoped. They enshrine in law the principles of reporting to Parliament, but they are still a step away from fully enshrining the covenant in law. I suspect that Ministers have once again been thwarted by lawyers and civil servants.
Does the hon. Lady accept that what we have before us is a vast improvement on the situation a year ago?
The amendments tabled today are a vast improvement on the Bill as it stood. If the hon. Gentleman agrees with that, I wonder why he did not support my amendments in the Select Committee that would have achieved that. Instead, he voted down any proposals to strengthen the covenant or the Bill.
New clause 17 would fully enshrine—
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I should like to make a little progress before the Minister—
We have plenty of time.
I should at least like to finish my sentence if that is all right.
New clause 17 would fully enshrine the principles of the covenant in law, not half-heartedly but unambiguously.
The point the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) was trying to make was that between 1997 and 2010 there was a Labour Government—new Labour, old Labour or whatever we like to call them—and nothing was done. I do not hold the hon. Lady responsible because she was not in the House then. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, when we took office a year ago there was no mention of the covenant, yet now we are putting it on a statutory basis for the first time. I think I first used those words in the House on 10 January.
On frequent occasions, the right hon. Gentleman has acknowledged that plenty was done for veterans under the previous Government, including the creation of his job. If he wants to keep it, perhaps he should have got this right in the first place.
New clause 17 would place a duty on all Departments and public bodies to give consideration to service families and veterans in policy making and implementation. Although it is very welcome that the Secretary of State will report to the House, I would rather such matters were integral to the policy-making framework from the beginning and the new clause would ensure that.
In her amendment 16, my hon. Friend draws a distinction—unlike the Bill—between health care and mental health care. Many people hope that there will one day be a time when nobody has to draw that distinction because we treat the two exactly the same, but unfortunately it is still an important area that we have to highlight, particularly for armed forces veterans, because all too often there is a Cinderella service that gets no attention. Does my hon. Friend think that it is essential to maintain that distinction? Otherwise, Ministers might just put a single sentence about mental health care into the Bill and that would be wholly insufficient.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Without amendment 16, there will be no requirement whatever for the Secretary of State to look at mental health care or to come to Parliament to report on it. As I have said on a number of occasions, I welcome both the duty on the Secretary of State to report to Parliament and the consequential annual debate, but I still have great concerns that as the Bill stands, only health, education and housing are cited as issues that the report should cover. That is not sufficient. The list in amendment 16 is more comprehensive and more appropriately reflects the Secretary of State’s responsibilities.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. It was a pleasure to serve with her on the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill. She says that she is keen to see things in black and white, and she refers to the prescription that she would like to see on the face of the Bill. May I point her to the evidence given by Chris Simpkins of the Royal British Legion in answer to my question? I asked:
“You seem to accept, therefore, that having a prescriptive set of pillars—areas that need to be focused on—in the Report would make it too exclusive and that it is better to have three or four areas that are clearly set out, as required by law, and a catch-all clause to incorporate anything else that is necessary at a point in time.”
To which Mr Simpkins responded, “I would indeed.” Why does the hon. Lady think she knows better than the director general of the Royal British Legion?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He and I have debated that point before and, as he knows, I think he is confusing a list of prescribed entitlements with a list of issues on which the Secretary of State has to report. My point all along has been that the Secretary of State should not be reporting on the work of other Departments without reporting on the work of his own Department. It would be bizarre if a report criticised local authorities, or indeed the Department for Education, for disadvantaging the children of service people, but had no reference at all to the MOD’s responsibilities, such as pension provision for the armed forces. I cannot envisage a time in the near future when pension provision will not be an area of concern for our armed forces, so it should be included in the list.
The list does not limit the fields on which the Secretary of State should report; it expands them and makes provision for further relevant issues to be included as circumstances dictate.
When the Secretary of State comes to the House to make his annual report and, if the hon. Lady is still in her place—
Or you are.
Very unlikely, if I may say so—as the hon. Lady has already suggested.
Is the hon. Lady telling the Committee that, if she is still in her place and there is no mention in the report of pension provision or mental health care—on which we are doing a great deal of work, as she knows; my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) has done a lot of work for us and we are taking it forward—and she thinks that is an issue, she will not mention it?
I give the Minister a categorical assurance that I will mention it. My concern is whether the Secretary of State will even consider those issues. As the Bill stands, he does not have to; he need only look at education, health and housing, and that is not good enough.
I should have liked to explore further with the Minister why education, health care and housing had been chosen at the expense of the many other issues that have been of great concern over the past 12 months. However, he declined to give evidence on his Bill.
I am also concerned that there is nothing in clause 2 that applies to Scottish or Welsh veterans. At the very least, the Bill should be amended to send a clear signal about the UK-wide responsibilities of the Secretary of State. If the family of a Scottish service person live off-base in local authority housing, their housing requirements are devolved. We have been advised that the Secretary of State will update the House even when those matters are devolved. It seems odd that such a thing could happen, because the Secretary of State is not responsible for the delivery of devolved services; nor is he or she accountable, and thus could not answer questions on the matter.
I am quite surprised to hear my hon. Friend say that. I understood in the Select Committee that the Government had undertaken to discuss that with the devolved Parliaments. I would have expected it to be resolved, including legislation, by now.
I entirely agree, but the correspondence I have seen does not indicate that that is the case.
May I help the hon. Lady?
I think the Opposition are fishing in desperation for things to get excited about, but they do not need to. I have in my hand a letter from the right hon. Alex Salmond, who describes himself as the First Minister of Scotland, for that is indeed his post. The letter is dated June, although I cannot actually read the day. It thanks the Secretary of State for Defence for his letter about the armed forces covenant and states that the Scottish Government have and will continue to provide unequivocal support for the armed forces, families and veterans. I shall not read the whole thing out, but it welcomes the new armed forces covenant as an important step forward from the 2008 service personnel Command Paper.
There is no disagreement between us. We are in discussion with the devolved Administrations. We are interested in results, rather than the box-ticking that the hon. Lady describes.
The letter that the right hon. Gentleman has read out does not address the point I just made. Constitutional issues are involved. I believe that it would be unconstitutional for the Secretary of State to stand at the Dispatch Box here and report on devolved matters. My understanding is that if I were to secure an Adjournment debate on a devolved matter, it would not be taken on the Floor of the House. It would be ruled out of order, as indeed it should be. I am afraid that the letter to which the right hon. Gentleman refers does not address that point.
However the process with the devolved Administrations is handled, the inclusion of pensions and benefits as a defined area in the report would ensure that the report reflected issues for service people throughout the whole United Kingdom. As the Bill stands, Scottish and Welsh veterans in particular are being ignored. Fundamentally, I want the Secretary of State to come to Parliament and report on the matters for which he or she is responsible.
It is one thing to talk about the military covenant; the real test is how that acknowledgement is reflected in the decisions of Ministers. Their actions mean that thousands of servicemen and women will be made redundant, many more will see cuts to their allowances and all will be hit disproportionately hard compared with other workers by plans to downgrade public sector pension rises. These are just some of the many decisions taken by the Government in the past 12 months that have undermined the military covenant and given no cognisance to the unique nature of the work that our armed forces do. I am glad the Bill will recognise that through amendment 11, and I hope that Ministers will reflect that in their decision making, in which such recognition has been absent so far.
The hon. Lady talks about honouring the armed services. Does she not think that a £38 billion black hole in the armed services budget dishonours the armed services—a black hole that her Government left behind?
I should like to see the hon. Gentleman justify and explain that figure. It is not true, as he knows.
I am interested in outcomes as well. One of my concerns has been that armed forces personnel who live in different parts of the United Kingdom end up being treated rather differently because of the devolution settlement. That is not an argument to undo the devolution settlement; it is simply to say that, for instance, council tax relief for second homes for those who live in Army bases in Wales has been allowed at a different rate from that in England and in Scotland. It would be a good thing to be able to highlight those differences so that all the different elements of the United Kingdom heighten their support for veterans and those in the armed forces, rather than ignore them.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. My concern is about how that will happen. I do not believe that the mechanisms have been fully worked through. That is why I want to strengthen the report and the fields that will be included in it.
On new clause 13, the nation demands a great deal from its servicemen and women, as is often stated in the House. They are required to follow orders without question. They and their families are often separated for long periods. Frequent moves, often at short notice, can disrupt family life. Forces accommodation is sometimes remote, making it difficult for partners and children to mix with civilian communities. Service personnel are entitled to expect as normal a family life as their military obligations permit.
Through the implementation of the service personnel Command Paper, the Labour Government worked to ensure that servicemen and women were seen not as ordinary citizens, but as people deserving the very best in public services. However, public services have not and do not always take account of their particular needs, and the Government should work across Departments to ensure that their needs are always taken into account. Major General John Moore-Bick from the Armed Forces Pension Society said:
“There is a unique nature to what armed forces families go through. This is not special pleading. In the armed forces you are asked to do things nobody else in the public sector would be asked to do. It is only right that they should have a special status.”
Governments of all parties must be committed to giving due consideration to the needs of servicemen and women, their families and veterans when it comes to public service delivery, working hard to create a level playing field so that forces families suffer no disadvantage.
Armed forces advocates were established by the Labour Government to identify and resolve policy or legislative issues that might affect the service community. They advise on how public services can best meet the service community’s needs. At present there are a number of armed forces advocates from various Government Departments, including the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Health and the Treasury. This complements the work of organisations, associations and charities that offer advice and support to service personnel and their families.
The advocates network has worked well. New clause 13 would extend the existing network to ensure that all levels of government in the UK are represented and can therefore help to resolve the issues that may disadvantage our service community.
What is the hon. Lady’s estimate of the cost of extending that body of advocates?
I envisage that the advocates would be drawn from the staff already working in Departments, who are linked into the knowledge that exists and would be a useful point of contact for armed forces and their families interacting with those Departments and public bodies.
During the evidence sessions in Committee we heard time and again from charities that they wanted those with responsibility for the delivery of services to be involved in resolving issues, rather than the Secretary of State or a Minister directing from the centre. New clause 13 would ensure that those involved in service delivery at every level, including local government and NHS trusts, are aware of the special nature of service and of the need to tailor their services accordingly. We have talked a great deal about the need for accountability, and the new clause would ensure that accountability is enhanced by bringing into policy formulation and delivery those who are truly responsible for providing the service that people need.
On amendment 17, it is crucial that the annual covenant report covers all the issues that are central to the covenant. At present, the limited list of three issues is subject to the mood of the Secretary of State of the day so, as already mentioned, we would like the list of fields that the Government are compelled to report on to be lengthened. It is extremely important that that includes inquests. Military inquests are often complex and controversial. Understandably, they involve high emotion and require the utmost sensitivity and real expertise.
The office of the chief coroner was established with cross-party support by the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. It aimed to provide for some of the issues that arise out of military fatalities. The chief coroner’s office was intended to ensure that families and friends were sufficiently involved in the coroner’s investigation, to introduce quality controls and independent safeguards in relation to inquests, and to add consistency, leadership, independence and expertise to the coroners dealing with military inquests.
I am a bit worried about including inquests in the annual report. This is such a sensitive area and I feel that it should be taken separately. I am not fixed on that, but let us be cautious about bringing inquests into an annual report. That might appear trite or to be dealing with them too lightly, when they are such an important and sensitive matter for families. That is just a comment. Although I am not sure where exactly I stand on the issue, that is my initial feeling.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his observations. I certainly appreciate his concerns. There is great concern among the families who are involved in the issue. Based on their reflections, I believe that further attention needs to be given to the matter.
The hon. Lady is being extremely generous with her time. I am slightly concerned by her observation that the amendment has come about as a result of representations from families. My experience, bearing in mind that all the inquests in recent years occur in Wiltshire, is that families are extremely well satisfied with Mr Masters, who has been the main coroner involved. I am not certain that there is a huge problem to be solved.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the office of the chief coroner was set up, following a great deal of consultation, to address issues that were raised. Indeed, it was established with cross-party support. Those issues have not gone away as far as I am aware, although I respect his experience in this matter. There have been varying reports from around the country, and that may be where the difference lies.
The office of the chief coroner is to be abolished by the Public Bodies Bill as a cost-saving measure. The Royal British Legion calls this “a betrayal” of bereaved armed forces families which threatens the military covenant. That intention was confirmed today in a written ministerial statement. I understand that the Government say they are transferring responsibilities, but the improvements that the new chief coroner’s office would have brought about will now be lost.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who is being very generous. Trowbridge is in my constituency and it is where the military inquests have been taking place under the supervision of Mr Masters, to whom I have spoken on the issue. Does the hon. Lady accept that the main concern that families have expressed over the past several years is not to do with the lack of a chief coroner, who could easily be biddable in the way that local coroners have not been, but because there has been a disparity in the legal support given to either side? The MOD has been sponsoring—paying for—barristers in what is meant to be a non-adversarial situation, something which, happily, is no longer the case.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The office of the chief coroner would seek to address some of the issues that he raises about the variations and the inconsistencies in families’ experiences. Each time that the office of the chief coroner has been considered by Parliament it has been supported—twice in 2009, and just last December the other place voted to save it. The Secretary of State for Justice does not seem to be listening, and not for the first time. He cites cost as an issue, but the Royal British Legion and INQUEST have been clear that they are prepared to open discussions on how the cost can be reduced. I hope that the Minister will listen to these pleas. This is exactly the sort of decision that must be subject to greater accountability and scrutiny. At present an issue so central to the armed forces community would not be covered by the armed forces report on the covenant, and that is why we tabled the amendment. I ask the Minister today to commit to making representations on behalf of the armed forces community to keep the office of the chief coroner. I hope that at the very least the Government will support this amendment to ensure that this vital issue is reported on annually.
As I have previously said, we were all entertained in Committee by the Minister with responsibility for veterans as he performed verbal gymnastics on the issue of whether the Government were meeting the Prime Minister’s famous commitment given on the deck of the Ark Royal. However, just as important as writing the covenant into law, the Bill should provide a form of accountability so that the principles contained in the covenant mean something in reality, and that is what new clause 14 seeks to achieve.
During the debates in preparation for Green Paper in 2009, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) tells me that he argued strongly, against the wishes of his officials, that parliamentary and local government ombudsmen should provide a system of accountability. The ombudsmen were happy to take on that work and it was included in the 2009 Green Paper—the nation’s commitment to the armed forces community: consistent and enduring support. The Opposition continue to believe that that is the right approach. In Committee, the Minister was at pains to point out that officials advise and Minister’s decide, but given the weak nature of what has been proposed in the Bill, it appears that his officials are more in control than he would care to admit.
For a number of years I dealt with the case of a constituent of mine who had served in Iraq, been wounded and shipped home, and then, frankly, hung out to dry by both his former public sector employer and, to a lesser extent, the local authority. This concept of an ombudsman to take up such cases is important.
Does my hon. Friend agree that scores of hon. Members on both sides of the House are keen to see a national defence medal inaugurated so that every former soldier, sailor or airman who has served Her Majesty the Queen in the last 50 years can have a medal that they can wear with pride on Remembrance day? I hope very much that we will be given good news on that tonight.
My right hon. Friend highlights the reason to have such ombudsmen. It is essential that there should be a system of accountability as a last resort, should all reasonable means fail. This is not about creating justiciable rights, but a system of accountability is needed if the covenant is to mean anything. Principles must be enforceable if they are to be anything more than words on a piece of paper.
We will support the amendments in the name of the Secretary of State, but we are still somewhat disappointed as we believe that the Bill could go further, specifically on the military covenant. Our amendments would strengthen those provisions and the Bill. I would very much have liked to press all our amendments, but in particular we will press amendment 16 and new clause 17.
I congratulate the coalition Government on bringing forward the armed forces covenant. I served throughout the Committee—
I am grateful. Thank you.
I would like to confine my remarks on this string of amendments to the narrow subject of housing and matters relating to the welfare of Army families. However, I hope that before we finish this evening the Minister will be able to assure the Committee that not a single penny will be cut from the wages of a single member of the Parachute Regiment or 16 Air Assault Brigade more widely.
The last Government can take a lot of credit for things that they did. I hope that what happened previously, under the Veterans Minister and so on, will be built upon by the coalition Government. However, when it comes to the accommodation of the families of our military personnel, successive Governments have failed. The last Conservative and Labour Governments failed. When it comes to single people’s accommodation, Merville barracks in Colchester is the best to be found anywhere in the country, but that only sharpens the contrast with the unacceptable housing for married families. Either Colchester garrison is unique or the accommodation there is typical of that which our military families are required to live in. What makes it worse, is that former Army housing in my constituency has rightly been modernised to a high standard through the Department for Communities and Local Government, while on the other side of the road Army families, looking out on these modern buildings, occupy what an Army wife described in a letter to the Essex County Standard on Friday as the worst in the country.
That unnamed soldier’s wife says:
“I have been married to a soldier for 20 years and lived throughout in services accommodation.
The married quarters in Colchester are the worst I have ever had to live in, and the system in place to rectify faults is laughable.
The direct line puts you through to a call centre in Liverpool, to talk to someone who has no idea of the conditions you live in or the stresses you endure while your husband’s away. They will then expect you to take a day off work so a tradesman can turn up, and it’s then a lottery as to the standard of the repair.”
The letter goes on at great length to describe the woeful inadequacies of the Defence Housing Executive. The soldier’s wife says:
“We’ve given up complaining to the Defence Housing Executive, as all we get are curt replies, from staff who seemingly have never served or been married to a serving member. It is apparent they have never seen inside the properties.”
There is a critical suggestion that perhaps things have got worse since the Defence Housing Executive took over.
We are talking here of the families of soldiers who only last week marched through the centre of Colchester in a welcome home parade and the next day had a thanksgiving and memorial service at Bury St. Edmunds cathedral. Yet we expect their families to live in accommodation that this soldier’s wife described as the worst in the country. If the Government can rightly find money to modernise former Army housing to accommodate civilians, the same Government should be able to find the money to modernise housing fit for the heroes who have just returned from Helmand province.
Allied to that, the armed forces covenant refers to education. I look at education in the broader sense—not just the education of serving military personnel but the education of the children of military personnel. Once the former Army houses are occupied by civilian families, the adjoining schools, the Montgomery infant and junior schools—that gives a clue to the military ethos—will be full up. There will not be room at the Army schools for the children of Army personnel. If anything, the armed forces covenant should look at the families of military personnel as well as the serving personnel.
Will the hon. Gentleman give the Government credit for including service children in the pupil premium, which will benefit his constituents as it has done mine?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and am delighted to endorse that point. The pupil premium has been a great asset to all children of military personnel and has certainly been a great bonus for those in the five schools in my constituency that have a large proportion of service children—as much as 80% in one case. Military families also require peace of mind, and I greatly regret the fact that the previous Government dramatically reduced the number of Ministry of Defence police officers, from 30 to three in my constituency. I heard over the weekend that, regrettably, up to 1,000 MOD police officers are to lose their jobs.
I sympathise entirely with the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. Does he think that it would have been appropriate for the Minister to attend the Defence Police Federation’s annual conference on Monday? I was there, but instead of looking at him I had to look at an empty chair that the Defence Police Federation had set out for him.
I have no knowledge of that, but the hon. Lady has made the point and there will no doubt be a response.
Indeed there will be if I may intervene. Has the hon. Lady visited the headquarters of the MOD police in Suffolk?
Order. The Minister cannot question the hon. Lady because she does not have the Floor.
This is a serious issue. To the best of my knowledge, the MOD police are an integral part of the wider military family. However, over the past 10 years the previous Government were determined, as I regret the coalition Government now appear to be, to reduce MOD police numbers to the point where I suspect at some future stage we will be told that they no longer have a purpose and can be done away with. All I can say is that where there were once 30 MOD police officers serving an exclusive Army estate in excess of 2,000 dwellings, there are now just three such officers. The expectation that Essex constabulary can suddenly conjure 27 police officers to fill that breach will not be met.
We now have a situation in which we have Army families and civilian families and the demarcation between policing is not clear. The lifestyle of civilians is not always compatible with the military ethos of the service families. I am trying to choose my words carefully. All I am saying is that the presence of MOD police officers brought a security and comfort to military families which has been lost at the same time as the ethos of a 100% Army estate has been dramatically reduced. I put it to the Minister that the Government need to look carefully at their proposals to reduce dramatically the number of MOD police officers. It will have little effect in Colchester because 27 police officers have already been got rid of and, with only three left, we do not have much further to go.
I welcome the armed forces covenant, previously known as the military covenant, and congratulate the Royal British Legion on all it has done. We should all be grateful to the legion. My only regret is that some people appear to be trying to turn it into a party political football.
I will respond initially to some of the points raised by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell). I do not want to mislead him, but I am pretty sure that the pay will continue for all members of the Parachute Regiment who are able to parachute, and certainly for those in parachuting jobs, so we are not scrapping parachute pay. I think that I am the only Member in the Chamber who has received pay for jumping out of aircraft, and it was very welcome at the time.
May I just point out that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and I got not a single penny when we were thrown out at 13,000 feet?
Well, the hon. Gentlemen obviously got parachutes, which might not be my intention for one or two other people.
I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s serious concerns about housing, which is an ongoing problem that we wish to improve. We inherited a bad situation, but I do not question the good faith of the previous Administration because it is a difficult matter—[Interruption.] Well, I do not think that we can be blamed for the state of housing 14 years ago.
Will the Minister give way?
Oh, apparently we can be blamed.
If the previous Conservative Government had not sold off the estate to Annington Homes, which the Minister will find hamstrings him in what he can do with housing, we would be in a better position.
I do not think that we want to revisit debates from 1996 and I doubt that you, Dr McCrea, would allow it—[Interruption.] Shall we revisit that debate from 1996? I have to say that I had words with Ministers at the time and was not entirely enthusiastic about the policy, but there we are. It is important that we continue to work on housing because we do not wish people to live in substandard accommodation.
The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle) mentioned the Defence Police Federation’s annual conference, which took place up near the Clyde, next to her constituency. The head of the federation works on the floor above me in the MOD, and I have invited him to come to talk to me about the issues. I do not think that that is particularly unreasonable, especially since the conference is taking place today and I have to be here.
I will consider the large number of amendments in three chunks. I will speak first to the Government amendments, secondly to the amendments tabled by the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) and thirdly to the official Opposition’s amendments. When the Government decided to include clause 2 in the Bill, we had two main objectives: to recognise the armed forces covenant in legislation, as we are committed to doing; and to strengthen the Government’s accountability to the House through the mechanism of an annual report on the covenant.
The clause rightly places the covenant at the heart of our national debate on whether we are treating current and former members of the armed forces as they deserve to be treated. This is not a matter in which only the Government have an interest; right hon. and hon. Members are well aware that groups that aim to speak for the armed forces community, including the Royal British Legion, take a close and constructive interest. The legion has now made clear its overall support for what we are trying to do in relation to the covenant. I do not apologise in any way for listening to what it and others have said and, having done so, making changes to the legislation.
Does the right hon. Gentleman regret the process by which the Bill has come about? What exactly changed his mind?
I do not regret the process at all. What has happened—I would have thought that the hon. Lady had spotted this, because she is a capable person—is that we have been discussing and listening to things and came to the view that we might enhance the Bill, which is what we have done.
Contrary to what the hon. Lady says from a sedentary position—perhaps she is reading what is on her BlackBerry—it is not chaos.
Those other organisations are as concerned as the Government are to avoid the pitfalls of the covenant ending up in the courts. They have also pointed out where they think we can do better, and we have listened to them. They argued persuasively that the language of the Bill that related to the armed forces covenant report did not go far enough in explaining our intentions. Our amendments aim to put that right, and I hope that everybody in the Chamber welcomes that.
So why did the Minister, along with his Liberal Democrat colleagues, argue forcefully in Committee on numerous occasions that the Bill as it then stood enshrined the covenant in law, when clearly it did not?
The hon. Gentleman, together with the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire, is continuing to fish for any minor criticisms that he can make. We have listened to what people have said and responded, and they might welcome that rather than carping at it.
Does my right hon. Friend think that this is rather rich coming from Labour Members, and certainly from the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones)? Having had 13 long years with the time, the majorities and the money to introduce a Bill, they merely produced a Green Paper, whereas we introduced a Bill within 12 months. Is not my right hon. Friend rather proud of that?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support.
Our amendments do not seek to introduce new constraints to prevent the Secretary of State from using his discretion in preparing the report. They do not try to prejudge in detail exactly which subjects will be relevant—unlike, I fear, several of the amendments that we are discussing. Rather, they allow us to be clear about the principles to which the Secretary of State must have regard, especially now that the armed forces covenant has been published. The three ideas or principles contained in amendment 11 are, I trust, the subject of agreement in all parts of the Committee. The
“unique obligations of, and sacrifices made by”
our service personnel are matters of fact: the requirement to deploy anywhere in the world at no notice, to put themselves in harm’s way, and to use lethal force—all without question, as the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire said. No other part of our society is called upon to undertake those obligations. The sacrifices made not only by those who suffer injury or death, but by those who give up the kind of family life which the rest of us take for granted, are also of a different nature from what is expected of others. We are not in danger of forgetting that, but we recognise that there should be no doubt that the Secretary of State will take it into account when he is preparing the annual armed forces covenant report and considering the effects of service.
The other two principles listed in the amendment are not statements of fact in the same way, but they should command the same level of consensus. They are at the core of the Government’s and the nation’s obligations under the covenant. We can never remove all disadvantage that results from membership of the armed forces—the very nature of the job prevents it—but we can, and must, do all we can to minimise disadvantages, particularly when it concerns access to public services. In preparing the amendment, I paused for a long time over the word “desirable”. Surely it is more than desirable to remove disadvantage. “Desirable” gets overruled by words such as “essential” or “important”. Nevertheless, we must recognise that it will not always be feasible to remove every disadvantage. Therefore, in terms of legislation, we must not express the principle in language which we could never achieve. Let the Committee be in no doubt, however, that where it is appropriate to take action, the Government see that as much more than “desirable”.
The question of disadvantage is dealt with more fully in amendment 12—an important new provision that clarifies how the annual report will deal with removing or reducing disadvantage. The first part requires the Secretary of State to make a judgment about whether the effects of service constitute or result in disadvantage when he is looking at a particular field—an element of the covenant such as health care or housing. He is also required to look at service people or
“particular descriptions of service people”.
In other words, he will be looking at individual elements of the armed forces community. That could be a very broad category including families or ex-service personnel, or it could be a smaller grouping such as those injured in service or foreign and Commonwealth personnel. The Committee will understand that this gives the Secretary of State the ability to drill down to find the real problems, which often do not affect a whole group but a small part of it. The amendment also gives the Secretary of State the responsibility of deciding who should be the subject of that comparison. In some cases, the right comparison will be with the ordinary civilian; in others, it may make sense to look at a rather more specialised comparison such as with members of the emergency services.
The second part of amendment 12 sets out what the Secretary of State must do with his judgment. He must go on to say in the annual report what is his response to the disadvantage that he has identified. Perhaps nothing can be done about it—it may be an inevitable result of the military profession—or he may be able to announce how the matter is to be resolved, or who has responsibility for doing so. In all cases, the House will be in a position to decide whether that response is satisfactory.
Returning to amendment 11, the final paragraph refers to the principle that “special provision” or special treatment “may be justified”. Again, this is expressed in a form that is appropriate to the circumstances. It is not trying to pre-ordain any particular form of special treatment—that would be quite wrong—but it establishes the key place of special treatment in the obligations that we owe to service people.
Amendment 13 adds more about special provision. It requires the Secretary of State to look at the effects of service covered in his annual report and to reach a view on whether special provision would be justified. It adds that when he believes that special provision would be justified, he must say so. As with the previous amendment, he is not obliged to treat service people as if they are a single group who must all be treated in the same way. He can again consider
“particular descriptions of service people”
and make detailed judgments about how we should respond to their circumstances.
Members of the armed forces community do not, as a rule, want special favours. They accept that they are citizens like their civilian neighbours. They expect fair treatment. They do not like finding themselves at the back of the queue because they have joined the services, but they do not insist on being at the front of the queue. However, there may be times when we wish to place them at the front of the queue. Of course, when personnel are injured in the course of their duty, or when they lose their lives, the obligations on us are even greater. We can never truly make up for the sacrifice that they or their loved ones have made, but we do make special provision for injured personnel and bereaved families, and we must look out for sensible opportunities to do more. For example, this Government have introduced scholarships in higher education for the children of those killed in service since 1990. That step has been widely welcomed, and we are now processing applications. The amendment does not require us to extend special provision in particular ways or to try to prejudge when it will be appropriate. Instead, it requires us to keep the principle at the forefront of our minds when preparing the annual report so that Parliament can decide if we have treated these particularly deserving groups in the right way.
The three amendments will mean that, for the first time, an Act of Parliament refers to the key principles of the armed forces covenant. They do this in a form which does not give them legal force in terms of individual actions but which ensures that the Secretary of State has regard to them in his important new duty to prepare a report. That will strengthen further the accountability that the Government are seeking to build.
I turn to the amendments in the name of the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, which cover a good deal of ground. New clause 2 and amendment 2 would require the creation of a new Minister for former armed services personnel. I do not take his comments amiss in any way. I do not think that he was particularly getting at me in suggesting that there should be such a Minister—he said specifically that he was not—but I am, of course, responsible for former armed forces personnel. As he said, ex-service personnel issues lie across the whole of Government, not just within the Ministry of Defence. However, the MOD is uniquely placed to play a leading role. After all, we run the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency, and we are closely involved in the transition of members of the armed forces to civilian life. I believe—I know it to be true, in fact—that we have a special understanding of what our people have been through. For those reasons, I am confident that the current arrangements are fit for purpose. That does not mean that they cannot be improved, but we work on that as things evolve. Looking at the different roles envisaged, I can find no justification for a new post. It is right that the Secretary of State for Defence, with overall responsibility for current and former members of the armed forces, has the responsibility of preparing the annual report. I fail to see the value in requiring a Minister to conduct activities that are positive to the well-being of former services personnel. Such legislation is not necessary.
Another proposed duty is to conduct research. The MOD commissions a great deal of high-quality research relating to current and former service personnel. For example, the King’s Centre for Military Health Research has followed a cohort of more than 20,000 members of the armed forces to investigate the impact of service in Iraq and Afghanistan. We continue to work with the voluntary and communities sector to improve understanding of the issues faced by the armed forces community and to build up evidence to monitor progress. There is no need for legislation. I know that the head of the King’s Centre for Military Health Research would be willing to talk to the all-party parliamentary group for the armed forces. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to pursue that, I think he would find it extremely useful and interesting, particularly on mental health issues.
We can consider amendment 3 in two halves. The first half would require the Secretary of State to take into account the operation of a range of instruments and bodies, which would be created in turn by new clauses 3 to 6. We do not think that those new creations are necessary. New clause 3 would require the Government to draw up a charter for former armed forces personnel. It gives a list of things that should be included. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman accepts that the proposal for a charter is overtaken by the publication of the armed forces covenant. The approach that we have taken in the covenant is better, because it avoids the creation of legal rights, which his charter could easily do. The covenant extends to service personnel and family members and is based on firm principles. In contrast, new clause 3 lists specific issues. All of them are important matters, but we believe that they are all captured in Government policy.
I will go through the list briefly. On psychological assessments, we are currently building a greater focus on mental health into service and discharge medical examinations. On resettlement, we are committed to supporting service leavers in making the important step back into civilian life. There is a full package in place, which we are looking to improve. On access to support and advice, all former service personnel facing difficulties have access to the free veterans helpline, which receives between 150,000 and 200,000 calls a year. We also have the veterans welfare service and the veterans in custody support programme, which provides tailored support for former personnel in the criminal justice system. None of that required a charter setting out legal requirements.
New clause 4 also focuses on support in the prison and probation systems. I note that the right hon. Gentleman feels deeply about this issue and has raised it on many occasions. I must tell him that his proposal for—[Interruption.]
Order. I ask right hon. and hon. Members to keep the noise down. We want to hear the response from the Minister. A lot of people intervened and asked questions. It is only appropriate, proper and courteous to hear the answers.
If Members have come in at the behest of the Whips because they expect a Division, they might as well go out for a bit longer, because I have a lot more to say that will delay the Division. They are very wise to do so.
New clause 4, which I was addressing, proposes a legal obligation to appoint a former armed forces personnel support officer to every prison and probation service in England and Wales. That would impose an unnecessarily legislative framework. The veterans in custody support programme focuses on the early identification of ex-service individuals who would benefit from extra support. It offers advice on a range of issues from housing and mental health to medals and war pensions. The voluntary sector provides excellent additional support.
New clause 5 would require financial support to be provided for a range of welfare groups. I pay tribute to the invaluable role played by numerous service and ex-service organisations in promoting the welfare of the armed forces community. Some have been doing so for a very long time. Only this month, we celebrated the 90th anniversary of the Royal British Legion. Indeed, there was a garden party—indoors because it was raining—at No. 10 on Friday, at which the Prime Minister spoke. Members of the Royal British Legion and its supporters, such as Vera Lynn, all appreciated it enormously. Similarly, last week I went to the service at the Guards chapel on the 40th anniversary of the War Widows Association of Great Britain, with which we are in touch a great deal. Many such bodies have an expert understanding of the needs of service and ex-service personnel. Their support sits alongside the provision of facilities from public funds and we have close working relationships with many of them.
However, it would not be appropriate for the Government to give general financial support to such groups. Registered charities are and should remain independent. It is right that they raise their own funding, whether they are concerned with the armed forces or not. It is a long-standing practice that central Government do not provide funds raised through taxation to assist the core activities of individual charities. In any event, given the number of charities, the Government would not be able to do that in a fair manner. I pay tribute to the many charities that are raising a great deal of money at the moment, such as Help for Heroes, the Royal British Legion and Combat Stress—we have been discussing mental health. They are working to raise funds to support our armed forces and I pay tribute to them.
New clause 6 proposes the creation of a policy forum for former service personnel. Is there a need for another policy forum and, if so, do we need to legislate to create it? There are already a number of groups that help to shape the delivery of veterans’ welfare. The external reference group on the covenant brings together armed forces advocates from across Government and external members from ex-service organisations. It provides co-ordination for the effort across Government and oversight of the Government’s performance in rebuilding the armed forces covenant, and it allows ex-service organisations and other experts to influence the development of Government policy. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Confederation of British Service and Ex-Service Organisations. There are regular meetings between COBSEO and senior MOD staff and Ministers, including myself. The annual welfare conference organised by the MOD allows many smaller organisations to debate these issues. There are 13 veterans advisory and pensions committees throughout the United Kingdom that provide assistance to the service and ex-service community and local public service providers. They raise awareness in public bodies and the local community about the needs of veterans. I trust that I have made my point that establishing another former armed services personnel policy forum would not offer any tangible benefit.
I now turn to the second half of amendment 3. [Interruption.] For the benefit of people such as the shadow Secretary of State for Defence who have just walked in, perhaps I should repeat what I have said.
Order. I ask right hon. and hon. Members once again to be courteous and to listen to the responses. If they want to have conversations outside this business, they can do so outside the Chamber.
For those who have arrived recently, it would be discourteous of me to not respond to those who have raised points, such as the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd. I have yet to achieve the same length of speech as the right hon. Gentleman or the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire. [Interruption.] Indeed, the night is yet young.
The second half of amendment 3 sets out nine headings that must be covered in the annual report. I do not deny the importance of any of those topics. Some are broad and some are fairly narrow, such as “debt management” and “domestic violence”. However, it is not a comprehensive list and I am sure that other hon. Members could add many suggestions. We would rather not legislate for such a list because it may change over the next few years. The question is whether we should cram all possible issues into the legislation and turn the annual covenant report into a box-ticking exercise, or whether we want to give the Secretary of State the opportunity to identify and investigate the problems that are actually faced by service people. Amendment 3 would deny the Secretary of State the flexibility to deal with the effects of service that are considered to be the most important or relevant at the time of each report.
Finally on this group of amendments I come to amendment 4, which we do not believe would add a great deal to the Bill. The Secretary of State has made it clear that he will seek views and evidence in preparing each annual covenant report. If there are issues, he will respond to them and give a time frame for implementing any recommendations. The amendment would simply get us into questions about who is and who is not an expert in this field. This country is fortunate to have an active community of well informed, constructive and articulate groups that are committed to improving the welfare of service people and want to work with the Government to achieve that. Many are brought together in the external reference group, and I can assure the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd that they are not slow in coming forward. We have stated that we will publish their observations alongside the annual report.
I now turn to the official Opposition’s amendments. I know that Opposition Members who have just come in will be particularly keen to hear about them—[Interruption] —especially the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy).
I’ll take her out.
I do not think the hon. Gentleman needs to offer to do that. That is a bit sexist, if you ask me, but there we go.
The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire asked earlier from a sedentary position where we got the idea from that there was a £38 billion black hole. May I tell her that it came from the National Audit Office report “Ministry of Defence: The Major Projects Report 2010”?
Will the Minister give way?
Well, Dr McCrea—[Hon. Members: “Give way!”] Go on then, why not?
I am sorry, but if the Minister reads the NAO report, he will see that it states that the figure is between £6 billion and £37 billion. The only way we can get to the £37 billion figure is if we include all the forward programming for the forward thing. The problem is that, like a lot of his colleagues, he cannot get away from the spin of central office.
The hon. Gentleman talks about the “forward thing”, but we have to do the sums, and I am afraid his maths is obviously not very good. If he does not believe that the Ministry of Defence is short of money, he is wrong.
The Opposition’s amendment 16 represents a further attempt to reduce the discretion of the Secretary of State to consider which subjects to include when preparing his annual report. I have three difficulties with it, and they lead me to oppose it. [Interruption.] I can find more, if the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) would like.
I look forward to it.
Well, one is that the amendment, no doubt with the best of intentions, describes in more detail the subjects to be covered in the covenant report. As drafted, clause 2 requires the Secretary of State to address accommodation, health care, including mental health care, and education. We have included those topics because it is pretty inconceivable that there would ever be circumstances in which they were not relevant. However, the list is meant to be illustrative, not comprehensive. Any attempt to be comprehensive in the clause would run the risk of missing out something significant, and it would be doomed to become out of date as circumstances change. All the topics listed in the amendment are important and deserve consideration by Parliament, yet the list leaves out many other important matters such as pay, recognition and how we treat personnel on deployed operations.
That leads to the second difficulty with amendment 16. Its supporters may argue that if they fail to make their list comprehensive, the gaps will be filled in by others, hence the reference to
“such other fields as the External Reference Group may determine.”
I am a great admirer of the work of the external reference group, as I have made clear to the House on numerous occasions. By coincidence—[Interruption.] The shadow Secretary of State obviously does not want to hear my response to his colleague the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire, who has raised a great deal that needs to be covered in the debate. That is why we have a Committee stage in the House of Commons.
He obviously does not realise that.
By coincidence, the external reference group is meeting tomorrow. I offered to go to the meeting, but it wished to consider how it may respond to the covenant report when it comes out. After discussions, it was thought that I might be in the way rather than anything else. The group’s advice and expertise will be of huge benefit to the Government in preparing the annual report, but we cannot place on the group the duty of deciding what subjects the Secretary of State will cover. That must be his decision, so that he is answerable to the House for it.
Finally—[Interruption.] I mean finally on amendment 16. It would remove the reference to “particular descriptions” of service personnel. That is a vital provision, despite the slightly arcane language, because it allows the Secretary of State to distinguish between different groups rather than cover the whole of the armed forces community when there is no need to do so. Leaving it out would make the annual report unwieldy and less useful.
That leads us directly to amendment 17. Inquests are a crucial part of how we support those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country. Two of my hon. Friends from Wiltshire mentioned the matter earlier. Although inquests allow families to learn in detail how their loved ones died, and help them to reach closure, they also bring home to all of us the tragedy of loss and the cost of the operations on which we are embarked. Ensuring that the inquest system is fit for its very important purpose is a responsibility that the Government must never forget.
However, the amendment makes for me precisely the point that I raised earlier. It is an afterthought. Having tried to list the subjects that the Secretary of State should cover, the Opposition realised that they had left one out. That shows the weakness of trying to come up with a comprehensive list in legislation. Next week, people might come up with another category, but it would be too late to amend the Bill. I hope that we can look forward to a happier time when the operation of the inquest system is of less concern to the armed forces community because we are not involved in deployed operations and there are no fatalities.
It is somewhat rich for the Minister to say that it is we who are treating inquests as an afterthought, given that it is his Government who have scrapped the office of the chief coroner. How would he respond—I urge him to make it a brief response—to the comment of the Royal British Legion that it is a betrayal of service families to scrap that office?
Unfortunately, as the Members on either side of the hon. Lady—the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and the shadow Secretary of State—will understand, I cannot speak for the Ministry of Justice. It would be beyond my remit. May I also say that she spoke for longer than I have yet achieved? Don’t worry, I’m working on it.
New clause 13 relates to armed forces advocates. Advocates are an excellent idea, and in UK Government Departments and the devolved Administrations they face in two directions. They ensure that their own Department’s policies take account of the special needs of the armed forces community, and they communicate their Department’s perspective to my officials and external stakeholders.
I turn briefly to new clause 14, on the ombudsmen. I pay tribute to the parliamentary and local government ombudsmen for their work. I do not think any of us doubt the important role that they can play in helping members of the armed forces community, and they have welcomed the familiarisation events that my officials have organised. However, the new clause is unclear about what exactly the ombudsmen are intended to do, and we are not minded to accept it. The Government will continue to work with public bodies and local authorities to implement our commitments, and we will encourage them to help to remove the disadvantage faced by service people and afford them special treatment where appropriate. The ombudsmen have a vital role to play, but it is not the one described in the new clause.
Finally—[Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] Yes, finally, I come to the Opposition’s new clause 17. Once again, the concept outlined in it is perfectly reasonable. I want, just as much as the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire does, a world in which those who make policy take into account the needs of members of the armed forces community as a matter of routine. The best way of ensuring that we avoid problems of disadvantage is to prevent them from happening in the first place. The issue is how to achieve that. We must consider whether the right course of action is to create a legal duty to have regard to certain matters, or to adopt a more practical approach. In the Government’s view, placing a general duty on all public bodies and Ministers in the preparation of all policy would be unhelpful and unfocused. It would lead to more of a box-ticking culture and a cottage industry of assessments. As I have said throughout the debates on the Bill, we are interested in results and want the armed forces community to be looked after better, but that does not involve box-ticking.
I agree with the Minister that results and outcomes are the most important thing, but with reference to the earlier discussion on devolution, how will he ensure that all servicemen and women and ex-servicemen and women are treated equally in all parts of the United Kingdom? There may be some resistance at devolved level, particularly in Northern Ireland where vetoes are in operation.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and I know that he takes the matter very seriously. We did not put forward the devolution settlement, of course—that was done by the previous Government—but we are working with all three devolved Administrations to try to ensure that there is no disadvantage to any ex-service person. However, I absolutely take on board his point and the particular circumstances that he mentions.
Rather than the system set out in new clause 17, I would prefer one in which I and my ministerial colleagues across Government continue to work with public bodies to ensure as far as possible that they take account of the armed forces covenant in their preparation of policy. Much progress has already been made, and the imposition of a new statutory duty would not be of benefit.
The Government look to the annual report to be a powerful, flexible tool to focus Parliament’s attention on the key issues of the time. I fear that the Opposition’s proposed amendments would make that task more difficult and impose a package of unnecessary processes. [Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] I have only another 300 pages to go, but I shall leave it at that, and allow the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd to wind up.
I am not altogether happy with the Minister’s response—in fact, I am desperately unhappy with it—but I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment proposed: 16, page 2, leave out lines 8 to 12 and insert—
(d) mental healthcare;
(e) pensions and benefits;
(f) employment and training;
(g) support for reservists and their employers;
(h) the running of the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme;
(i) progress on Armed Forces rehabilitation services; and
(j) such other fields as the External Reference Group may determine.’.—(Gemma Doyle.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
14 June 2011
The Committee divided:
Question accordingly negatived.View Details
Amendments made: 11, page 2, line 12, at end insert—
‘(2A) In preparing an armed forces covenant report the Secretary of State must have regard in particular to—
(a) the unique obligations of, and sacrifices made by, the armed forces;
(b) the principle that it is desirable to remove disadvantages arising for service people from membership, or former membership, of the armed forces; and
(c) the principle that special provision for service people may be justified by the effects on such people of membership, or former membership, of the armed forces.’.
Amendment 12, page 2, line 12, at end insert—
‘(2B) An armed forces covenant report must state whether, in the Secretary of State’s opinion, any effects covered by the report are such that service people or particular descriptions of service people are at a disadvantage as regards the field or fields in question, when compared with other persons or such descriptions of other persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.
(2C) Where the Secretary of State’s opinion is that service people or particular descriptions of service people are at a disadvantage as mentioned in subsection (2B), the report must set out the Secretary of State’s response to that.’.
Amendment 13, page 2, line 12, at end insert—
‘(2D) As regards effects covered by an armed forces covenant report—
(a) the Secretary of State must consider whether the making of special provision for service people or particular descriptions of service people would be justified; and
(b) where the Secretary of State considers that such provision would be justified, the report must contain a reference to that fact.’.—(Mr Robathan.)
Clause 2, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 3 to 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 1 agreed to.
Clauses 15 to 26 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 2 agreed to.
Clauses 27 and 28 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 3 agreed to.
Clause 29 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedules 4 and 5 agreed to.
Clause 30 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 31, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 32 and 33 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
New Clause 1
Closure or realignment of Armed Forces bases
‘(1) Prior to commencing a programme of closure or realignment of Armed Forces bases the Secretary of State must—
(a) prepare a base closure report;
(b) lay a copy of the report before Parliament.
(2) The Secretary of State may not proceed with any realignment or closure of armed forces bases without the approval of both Houses of Parliament.
(3) In this section a “base closure report” is the recommendation of the Ministry of Defence for the future Armed Forces basing requirements of the United Kingdom and British Overseas Territories including the criteria used when reaching its recommendations and the priority given to each criterion.
(4) In this section an “Armed Forces base” is a base or series of installations consisting of facilities necessary for the support of the British Army, Royal Navy or Royal Air Force including security, communications, utilities, plants and systems, or property for which the Armed Forces have responsibility.
(5) In this section “realignment” means any action that alters the function of a base or any action for the purpose of transitioning the base to serve another branch of the Armed Forces.’.—(Thomas Docherty.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: new clause 16—UK Defence Base Closure and Realignment Commission
‘(1) An independent UK Defence Base Closure and Realignment Commission shall be established.
(2) The Commission shall be comprised of 12 members reflecting the nations and regions of the United Kingdom.
(3) The Select Committee on Defence of the House of Commons shall, within a fortnight of the conclusion of a Strategic Defence and Security Review, propose the membership of the Commission, giving due weight to—
(a) the nations and regions of the United Kingdom;
(b) military and strategic expertise; and
(c) experience in assessment of economic impacts.
(4) The proposed membership shall be subject to approval by resolution of both Houses of Parliament.
(5) The Commission shall convene following the conclusion of a Strategic Defence and Security Review to consider a draft force structure plan submitted by the Secretary of State for Defence, and shall arrange for its reports to be laid before Parliament within six months of the conclusion of such a Review.
(6) The Commission will make recommendations for base closures and realignments following consideration of the force structure plan, the economic effects of a closure or realignment of a military installation and the strategic military presence across the nations and regions of the United Kingdom.
(7) The Secretary of State shall lay a draft Order in Council to give effect to the recommendations of the Commission which shall be brought into effect only if approved by resolution of both Houses.
(8) The Secretary of State shall not give effect to the draft structure plan referred to in subsection (5) until parliamentary proceedings under subsection (7) are concluded.’.
Amendment 1, title, line 2, after ‘Police’, insert
‘to provide for parliamentary control of proposals to close or realign bases for the armed forces.’.
New clause 1 stands in my name and those of several colleagues. It is a pleasure, once again, Dr McCrea, to serve under your chairmanship. I very much enjoyed serving on the Finance Bill under your leadership, and I hope that you will keep me in order as we go through this evening’s proceedings.
New clause 1 should be relatively non-contentious. We have seen, in the last strategic defence and security review, an unprecedented attack on our defence of the realm capabilities: we have seen, as the Secretary of State himself admits, a Treasury and financially driven round of armed forces restructuring; we are seeing the British Army reduced significantly; we have already seen the closure of RAF Kinloss, as well as the loss of our Nimrod capability, which, as the First Sea Lord admitted to the Defence Committee, has placed our maritime surveillance capabilities at a severe disadvantage; and we are also bringing home the British Army from the Rhine.
Each Government, over the past 40 or 50 years, have reconfigured our armed forces structure to best suit the challenges as they have seen them, but never before have we seen one so radical and based not on the nation’s defence needs, but on the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s needs. For that reason, there is great concern in communities up and down the country that decisions are being made not by the Ministry of Defence, but by the Treasury, and that therefore those decisions are not being made because they are the correct defence decisions but because they are the most expedient or financially convenient for the Treasury and in order to save money.
I have great respect for the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan) and his ministerial colleagues, and I know that they are fighting valiantly to persuade the Chancellor that he is plain wrong, but we cannot assume—because we have not seen any letters yet from the Secretary of State to his counterparts—that he will be successful in persuading the Treasury to provide additional money. If the MOD team are unsuccessful, next month there will be some extremely bad news for a number of communities throughout the United Kingdom.
Will the hon. Gentleman explain what a Labour Government would be doing differently, because I have heard nothing from Opposition Front Benchers to indicate that they would be doing anything different.
I will happily answer the hon. Gentleman’s question. In fact, I would point him towards his colleague, the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), who has articulated exactly what is wrong with the defence review. What would normally happen is what happened in the defence review that Lord Robertson of Port Ellen carried out in 1998. The correct order of events is to begin by determining our foreign policy objectives and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, what the strategic defence risks facing our nation are. He and I would probably agree on the likely scenarios—one would undoubtedly involve Tehran; another would be terrorism. From those two decisions, we would determine the defence posture that we needed to adopt. Having determined that defence posture, we would configure our armed forces to deliver it. Finally, we would sit down and have a relatively civilised conversation with the Treasury about how best that could be funded. Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman’s Government have done the absolute reverse. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has said to the Defence Secretary, “This is your pot of money. Now you need to make your armed forces fit it.”
Our Front Bench team has made it absolutely clear that we would freeze this defence review and have another, fresh defence review based on the criteria and priorities that I have set out. We have made it clear that we would not close RAF Lossiemouth, RAF Leuchars or RAF Marham. We would also approach bringing home the troops from Germany in the following way. First, moving 18,000 soldiers and their dependants back to the United Kingdom would have to be in the best interests of the Army. Secondly, we would make the needs of their families the top priority. The hon. Gentleman has a long record of standing up for constituents at his local Army base, and he will know that we face housing challenges. When we debated the issue previously—in December, I think—he and I were at one in recognising that the previous Government did a lot of work to improve the housing of the families of those in our armed forces, but there is still a lot more to be done.
Notwithstanding the redundancies that will take place, one of the greatest challenges in bringing back that part of the Army that is based in Germany will be in rehousing probably half the current number and their families at bases around the United Kingdom. I tabled a number of parliamentary questions earlier this year to ask the Government what discussions they had had with the Scottish Government and the Department for Education about how we would educate the 7,000 children who are currently being educated in Germany. It will probably shock the Committee to discover that the Government have had no conversations at all with either the Scottish Government or the Department for Education about how to move 7,000 children back from Germany into schools in this country.
I do not know whether the Under-Secretary—[Interruption.] I know that he is paying close attention to this discussion, but will he update the Committee on what discussions he has had with the Scottish Government or the Department for Education in recent weeks. I suspect that the answer will be: “Not much more than we’d had several weeks ago.” Therefore, to answer the question that the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) asked—some time ago now—before we made any decisions, not only would we conduct a thorough, rational defence review, but we would ensure that the infrastructure was in place to house those armed forces personnel and their families.
As we have debated the issue over the past eight months, it has become increasingly clear that the ongoing briefing, leaks and speculation coming out of parts of both the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury have been causing a great deal of distress in various parts of the country. I know that the Minister would dissociate himself from any such leaks or briefings against the Army or the Air Force, or about the thinking, but we have left those communities in a state of uncertainty and limbo for too long.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the problem is not just the distress caused to the service and non-service communities in places such as Moray, Fife, Norfolk and elsewhere? Scores of businesses are going to the wall because of the delay in the review process. It is absolutely right to highlight the distress caused for service families—“Will I remain in service?”, “Will I remain here?”, “What will I do with my house?”, “What will I do about the education of my children?”—but there is also an existential question for the many people in those areas whose businesses are going to the wall totally unnecessarily.
The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. One thing that the Government have not yet fully grasped is that a lot of those service personnel will have been at their bases for significant periods, particularly those at Royal Air Force bases. Indeed, one of the differences between the Army and the Air Force is that those in the Royal Air Force tend to spend the vast majority of their careers based in one location. I was recently told the story of some aircraft mechanics who had been at the same base for going on for two decades. People make family connections. Their husbands or wives move with them permanently to the bases at which they are stationed, and they then seek local employment and raise their families in the area. There will also be local businesses that depend on work from those RAF bases, as the hon. Gentleman said. They now face a period of great uncertainty.
I say very gently to the Minister that we have seen the date gradually slipping back. Indeed, it is probably fair to say that our understanding now is that we will not get a decision until the very day that the House rises. I would not for a moment seek to besmirch the Ministry of Defence’s thinking, but some uncharitable people outside the Chamber might suggest that the Government were hoping to sneak out the announcement on the last day when no one was looking, although I am sure that Mr Speaker would ensure that the Secretary of State at least came to the Chamber.
Were any Minister to try to slip something out on the last day, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would be here to ensure that they did not get away with it.
I am grateful to the Minister for that, and I am happy to confirm that I will not be going anywhere on the last day for that reason. However, I am sure that if the Secretary of State waited until the last moment and if it then slipped his mind to request an oral statement, Mr Speaker would ensure, for the probity of the House, that he found a suitable opportunity—
The Minister shakes his head. I understand that there might be some vacancies coming up at the Department of Health shortly. I think that he might be up for promotion, so I could not possibly comment on whether he would be on the Front Bench next to the Secretary of State for Health—although the Defence Secretary is a GP, of course, and would be eminently suitable as a Health Secretary, if such a vacancy were to come up. However, having to wait until 19 July—the last day before the recess—is frankly not a comfortable position to be in.
I understand why the Ministry of Defence did not wish to make an announcement during the period of purdah for the Scottish elections. When the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife had a debate in the House on RAF Leuchars in January, the Minister of State made it clear that he did not wish to do anything that might upset the election results—I should point out to him that putting that decision off did not do the Lib Dems much good in North East Fife. However, we are now well past the Scottish elections. There is no particular reason why the Government could not come to the House now and announce the decisions that we know they have made.
The purpose of my new clause is to ensure parliamentary oversight of the decisions made by the Ministry of Defence. As I said earlier, we are talking about a unique set of closures. We have probably not seen anything like it since the days when Denis Healey was a Minister for the armed forces and we reconfigured and abandoned our positions east of Aden. Now, however, the decisions are being driven entirely by the Treasury.
The purpose of new clause 1, which thankfully I will not read into the record, is not to affect the way in which the Ministry of Defence gathers information. It does not seek to make the process more transparent or, as the Minister said earlier, to tie the hands of the Government so that they cannot carry out these processes. The new clause proposes that, once the Ministry of Defence has determined which bases it wants to close or realign—for example, by switching their use from the Royal Air Force to the Army, or, as we read in Scotland on Sunday at the weekend, by switching the Condor base in Arbroath from the Royal Marines to the Army—the decisions would be subject to two conditions. First, the Secretary of State would be required to lay a report before the House setting out not only his rationale for making the decisions but the weighting he has given.
Those colleagues who have attended the Adjournment debates on these matters here and in Westminster Hall will have noticed that there has been inconsistency between the views expressed by the various Ministers in the Ministry of Defence about what weighting is being given to each of the criteria: the Secretary of State, the Minister of State and the other Under-Secretary of State—he is the Minister for aviation, as far as I can tell—seem to have different views. One Minister will tell us that the finances are paramount; another will say that defence needs come first; yet another will tell us that the RAF’s needs are the most important, while another says that the Army’s needs are the priority. Then we get back to the arguments about the socio-economic arguments and the wider impacts of the decisions that the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) has mentioned. Those are all valid arguments, and the Ministry is right to consider the socio-economic factors, the financial costs to the Treasury and how best a base can be recycled for use by another service. However, that all needs to be done in a transparent and coherent manner.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case. He referred earlier to the unique context in which he is proposing his new clause. Does he not regret the fact that a Bill such as this was never introduced under the Labour Government? We have suffered base closures in Northern Ireland that had a serious impact on the local communities, yet none of these considerations was discussed at the time, despite the best efforts of some of us to point out the consequences. I know that the hon. Gentleman cannot go back in time, but will he acknowledge that that is the case?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention; I know that he takes a keen interest in the armed forces. He is right to say that the previous Government did not get everything right, but I am not sure whether a Bill was ever introduced to put this process on to a statutory footing. I think that the idea is relatively new. I first came across it when, as part of the British-American Parliamentary Group, I visited the Pentagon last September. The process was explained to the delegation at that time; I think that it has been in place there for about 18 years. It is possible, therefore, that previous Governments were not fully au fait with how the system has worked in America, and that could be why we have not had this debate before. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that the closures that took place in Northern Ireland were, thankfully, driven by the peace process and by the leadership of the then Prime Minister and members of parties that are present today. That is obviously different from the situation today, in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer is calling the shots—please pardon the pun—on the Ministry of Defence.
Under the new clause, the Secretary of State would compile a report setting out what weight he was giving to each of the criteria, which might be quite mixed. Having had a chance to review the report, a future Defence Select Committee might wish to invite the Secretary of State to appear before it and to scrutinise it, although I cannot bind any such Committee to do so. The report would then be subject to a straight-up-and-down vote in the House. There would not be an option to cherry-pick individual bases; it would be a straight-up-and-down report, as they have in the United States. If the House really felt that the Government had got it wrong, it would send the matter back and ask the Government to reconsider.
Crucially, no one could play politics with the process, because they could not pick off one individual base. For example, if there were a base in what was previously a Lib-Dem seat—I suspect that there will not be many of those left after the next election—or in one of the new Conservative marginals that might pop up, it is quite possible that a less strong-minded Secretary of State for Defence might give in to parliamentary pressure from his colleagues. The process I propose would prevent that from happening, because it involves a straight-up-and-down vote. Only when the Secretary of State had gained parliamentary approval could he proceed with the closure of the bases.
I want briefly to comment on new clause 16, tabled by the hon. Member for Moray, for which he is keen to press the case. I have adopted a very different approach from his. The key factor for me and other members of the Defence Committee when we visited the Pentagon in April was that the process should be kept in-house, and my approach would keep it within the Ministry of Defence. I suspect that the Minister, who I know is studying hard before making his response, will be busy coming up with new arguments. The problem that he has with the new clause is that it would keep the discretion over decision making within the MOD. I think that the American process takes two years, and I am concerned about the uncertainty that that could cause if a similar process were adopted here. I look forward to hearing how the hon. Member for Moray would prevent the process from spilling over in that way. I am sure that the Minister has worked up a thorough and detailed response, and I also look forward to hearing his arguments.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty). I have listened closely to his arguments, and I found them tremendously persuasive. When discussing his new clause and mine, the question we must ask is whether the way in which the Ministry of Defence deals with base closures or realignments is adequate. Is the way in which the criteria are established widely understood? Is there transparency and consistency in the process?
It is well known to the Minister that I represent the most defence-dependent constituency in Scotland. We have already heard about the sad and, I believe, avoidable closure of RAF Kinloss. The present basing review is also considering the potential to make this a unique double base closure involving RAF Lossiemouth as well. I therefore have a close understanding of the way in which the Ministry of Defence deals with base closures and realignments. I hope that, having listened to me and the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife, the Minister will at least concede that there are areas in which improvements could be made.
The Secretary of State has been gracious with his time, and he has met me on three occasions to discuss the impact of base closure considerations in order that I might share those matters with the community that I represent. The insight from those meetings was quite constructive, because what he said to me then was not what he has said in the Chamber thus far. On the day of the announcement of the strategic defence and security review, he told me that he understood that Moray was a very defence-dependent constituency, and that any delay would cause distress to the service and non-service personnel and have an impact on the local economy. He was confident that the basing review affecting RAF Lossiemouth would be concluded by December—December 2010.
Shortly thereafter, the Secretary of State had another meeting with me at which he said that the considerations in the basing review had changed. He said that it was no longer just a consideration about where Tornado aircraft should be based—and hence a straight choice between RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Marham—as the Ministry of Defence was looking at issues such as the repatriation of UK forces from Germany, so it made sense for the Department to roll into one all the issues around basing. He was confident at that time that a recommendation would be made by the Department by February and that the decision would be taken within weeks thereafter. That meant spring 2011. Then, at our third meeting, I was told that the announcement on RAF Lossiemouth and all other bases would not take place on the second date that had been promised, but would take place some time before the summer recess.
I have to tell the Minister that I represent people who are making decisions about their mortgages, their rent and their children’s education, and businesses that are finding it difficult enough in these times of economic austerity to get a loan from the bank and are holding it together from one month to the next. Thus, having been told authoritatively, as I was by the Secretary of State, that an announcement would be made within weeks—that is, before Christmas—it is not good enough to then be told that, unfortunately, because the criteria for the basing decisions were being changed it would not happen until the spring after the recommendation at the end of February and on and on, only to be told at the end that we shall have to wait until just before the summer recess. That is no way to run a basing review.
When we talk about a covenant, it should not be a covenant only with our service personnel; surely it should also be a covenant with the communities that have associations, long and deep, with the armed forces, whether they be based in Fife, Moray, Norfolk or anywhere else. The Ministry of Defence owes it to our defence communities to treat them better than they have been treated throughout this basing review.
My experience led me to try to understand what represents best practice—what I encountered is certainly not best practice—in the United Kingdom. I visited the United States, which has two approaches that I believe it is important for Members who care about defence matters to understand. Frankly, I believe them to be the gold standard.
First, the process through which decisions on base realignment and closure are considered in the United States is totally transparent. The criteria need to be explained by the Department of Defence in the US—and the procedure is not ad hoc. First of all, the DOD needs to come forward with an explanation of how it plans to base its service personnel. These matters have since time immemorial—whether it be in the United States or in the United Kingdom—always been the subject of discussion and questions arise such as whether there has been political intervention. Are decisions made more on the basis of geography, which might have more to do with the advantage of political parties, than on military or strategic considerations?
The US took a decision more than 20 years ago that it needed to deal with base realignments and closure in a totally different way. It still protected the important role of the Department of Defence in making suggestions about what it believed needed to happen, about which bases should remain open and which should be changed through use realignment. What I have sought to crystallise in my new clause is the fact that a commission was created and its members were people with real military experience. Nominations were made from both sides of the aisle to ensure that it was a non-partisan process.
The commission’s criteria include ensuring that the impact of the decisions brings about a defence footprint across the United States—not just in one or other part of it—and looking closely at the recommendations of the DOD. The commission then makes a recommendation that goes to the Hill for approval on a “yea or nay, take it or leave it” basis. This ensures that party political considerations are taken out of the equation. It ensures that the recommendations coming forth from the commission make sense across the US. All the legislators I spoke to from both sides of US politics said that this process was a Godsend, which had made a profound difference to how these matters were dealt with in the US. I believe that that is worthy of consideration.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife made the point that it is important to have parliamentary oversight; I totally agree. The way in which our review has been conducted over recent months has, frankly, been lamentable. For one thing, those of us who are reasonably close to understanding how the processes have worked are aware that the criteria have changed and that political decisions have been made about how many bases should be in different parts of the UK, with people then being asked to get a fit around which bases they should be. That is no way to run an orderly base realignment after the strategic defence and security review has been concluded.
I agree that there should be parliamentary oversight; this should not be conducted only by the Ministry of Defence. I have no reason to believe that the information provided to Ministers to help them make their decision is not well thought through: I am sure it is, but it has taken such a long time. The issue is not just about parliamentary approval, however, as there needs to be a degree of independent insight, which is why I believe we should have a commission nominated by the Defence Select Committee.
The hon. Gentleman says that the information might have been well thought out within the Ministry of Defence, but is it not the case that what we have seen is a rushed and ill-thought-out defence review that was thrown together on the back of a fag packet at the very last minute? That applies to the decision to take the Ark Royal out of service and the decision on the aircraft carriers. Is not the Ministry of Defence now having to play catch-up after the ill-conceived decisions made last October?
The hon. Gentleman makes valid criticisms of the SDSR, but I am talking specifically about the process in which issues of base realignment and closure are addressed. There was some debate across the Chamber about the criticisms of the SDSR, but I think that might have detracted from both the hon. Gentleman’s proposals and mine. Frankly, our proposals should win favour from the Government Front-Bench team. Why? Because this is the gold standard. This is the best way in which the very difficult process of base realignment and closure has been dealt with, very effectively, by another nation.
I have not yet decided whether to press the new clause to the vote. My proposals might be new to the Government Front-Bench team, so I will be looking for assurances that the Government acknowledge that the process of base realignment and closure should be subject to improvement. If the Government propose ways of ensuring that there will be no delays, that there will be transparency, and that the criteria used in the current round of base realignments and closures will be changed, I may be persuaded not to press the new clause to a vote. However, I believe that communities—in Moray, in Fife, in Norfolk or anywhere else—that have suffered as a result of delays deserve something better. If at least one good thing comes out of this botched process, namely an acknowledgement from the Government that they could and should improve it, I will not proceed with my new clause, in the hope that the Government will return at some stage with better-thought-through approach for the future.
The Government have created a huge amount of worry and uncertainty through their decisions about bases in Scotland and, indeed, other parts of the country. It is entirely understandable that communities feel aggrieved about the process that the Government are undertaking, and I sympathise with the aims of both my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) and the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson). As we have heard, serious complaints have been made about the process. Defence Ministers have been dragged into the House on a number of occasions of late, and this is yet another area in which they need to get their act together.
I have huge sympathy for those who have been put in a position of uncertainty and, perhaps, adversely affected by the closure of bases. The hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) has stood up for his constituents a great deal, and he has made the point that it is his job to make. I take that entirely on board. I am afraid I cannot say that we will change everything, but I will deal with his points later. First, however, I will deal with what was said by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty)—and let me say for the avoidance of doubt that I do know who he is.
New clause 1 is very unwelcome at a time when we are trying to streamline the way in which the Government conduct operations. It would require the prior approval of both Houses of Parliament to any alteration in the function of, and any closure of, any of our bases anywhere in the world. As well as bases in the United Kingdom, it would affect bases in Germany, Cyprus, the Falkland Islands and Afghanistan. That would hamstring our operations. It would involve our revealing publicly our plans and, no doubt, a great deal of highly sensitive information so that the Houses could debate it.
Even assuming that the real intention of the new clauses and amendment relate only to bases in the United Kingdom, as I am sure is the case, I believe that the proposed action would be inappropriate. In practice, Parliament would be notified of any major base closures or realignments. The Department already undertakes a significant amount of consultation on stake sales with local authorities, interest groups, trade unions and local Members of Parliament. Notwithstanding the widespread view that we do not listen, I have undertaken consultation with local Members of Parliament about certain cases, not necessarily involving big bases but involving MOD sites. I have taken a couple of issues very much to heart, and am looking into them in detail. I assure the hon. Gentleman that it is not just a case of window-dressing.
Base closures and changes are already subject to a number of legislative requirements through, for example, planning consents and the need for sustainability assessments. Parliament already has ample opportunity to make its views about proposed major changes known to the Government, and Parliament and indeed the nation will no doubt hold the Government to account for the decisions that they make. We believe, however, that it must be right for the Government to make those decisions. Requiring advance approval would constitute an abandonment of the Government’s responsibility, and would make vital strategic decision-making impossible.
I asked earlier what discussions the MOD had been having with stakeholders such as the Scottish Government and the Department for Education about school provision, which was clearly a huge problem. Are those discussions still taking place?
The Minister for the Armed Forces has been dealing with specific bases. I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the information for which he has asked, but I should be happy for him to meet me or, perhaps more appropriately, my hon. Friend to discuss the issue. I shall mention that to my hon. Friend, although he will spot it in Hansard in any event. Amendment 1, of course, is linked to new clause 1.
I did not know that the hon. Member for Moray had engaged in a discussion that seems to have continued for longer than he may have wished, but I think it important for us to get this right. Contrary to what people think, we care what happens not just to our service personnel but to the people who work in and around service bases, because it affects their lives. I am aware that the hon. Gentleman has taken a close interest in the review of defence basing and estates requirements over the last year, not only to represent his constituency interests but because RAF Lossiemouth has featured heavily in speculation. Given that the hon. Gentleman is his party’s defence spokesman, of course he is interested in what is happening in Scotland.
One of the problems with this new clause is to do with the Base Realignment and Closure Commission in the United States. The hon. Gentleman may have offered that before as a model that we should follow, but we take the view that the Defence Secretary must act in the best interests of defence—that is what he is appointed to do—and where defence assets and personnel are based must depend on strategic considerations for the security and defence of the United Kingdom and value for money for the taxpayer.
I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for the process used in the United States, but in our parliamentary system the Secretary of State for Defence is accountable to Parliament in a way that does not apply in the United States. Members of Parliament can, and do, make representations directly to Ministers, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that those representations are heard. This is not pure window dressing, so I hope he, too, will not press his amendment to a Division.
I will be brief, as an important set of new clauses are to be discussed next and I know colleagues wish to have a full debate on them.
I have been heartened by some of the Minister’s remarks. I did not agree with all he has said, but he nevertheless offered an eloquent defence of his position. I was particularly heartened by his offering me a meeting with his ministerial colleague, the Minister for the Armed Forces, and I will be delighted to accept that offer. In turn, I am sure he will be delighted to know that the Defence Committee has decided to undertake a review of the basing decisions in the autumn. I suspect he and his colleagues will therefore eagerly anticipate appearing before the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), who chairs the Select Committee, along with his Select Committee colleagues, including myself.
Based on the assurances I have received and the good debate we have had this evening, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Clause, by leave, withdrawn.
New Clause 7
Voluntary discharge of under-18s
‘(1) The Armed Forces Act 2006 (c. 52) is amended as follows.
(2) In section 329 (Terms and conditions of enlistment and service), after subsection (3) there is inserted—
“(3A) The regulations shall make provision that any person under the age of 18 shall be entitled to end their service with a regular force by giving not less than 14 days’ notice in writing to their commanding officer, and shall ensure that any person enlisting under the age of 18 is informed of this right when they enlist.”’.—(Dr Huppert.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 11 —Enlistment of minors
‘(1) The Armed Forces Act 2006 is amended as follows.
(2) In section 328(2)(c) (Enlistment) the words “without the consent of prescribed persons” are omitted.’.
It is a great pleasure to move this amendment in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Tessa Munt), who is present. It would allow under-18s to leave the armed forces as of right, if they so wished. There have already been some discussions on this with the Minister, so I shall not detain the Committee for too long. It is an important issue, however, and a number of groups have worked hard, along with my hon. Friend, myself and others, to press for this change. I wish to note in particular the efforts of the Quakers in Britain, especially Michael Bartlet, who has spearheaded much of the awareness-raising that has led to our reaching this point.
The proposal to allow under-18s to leave as of right has also been supported by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. I should declare that I was a member of it at the time, which may or may not be coincidental. It gave a clear recommendation that—astonishingly—fits extremely well with the amendment I am now proposing:
“We recommend that a right to discharge for under-18s be established, and that all those recruited under the age of 18 be told of this right.”
The hon. Gentleman has referred several times to under-18s having a right to leave. I had the privilege of serving on the Armed Forces Bill Select Committee and we took some evidence on this matter, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman would accept that they do currently have a right to leave, but that the length of notice is different from that which he proposes.
They do not have the right to leave before they turn 18. After the first six months, a 17-year-old, or a 16-year-old even, does not have the right to leave. In the case of the Army, they are there for, I believe, six years after they pass that first six months. In practice, that is not necessarily enforced, but that is not the same as their having a right.
I have heard the argument about five or six years before. When personnel turn 18, they have an absolute right to choose to leave at that point. I accept that, perhaps, that is not as well publicised as it might be, but this talk of their being in for five or six years is not entirely accurate.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point, but I think he would agree that somebody who joins on their 16th or 17th birthday currently has no right to leave, although in practice they might be allowed to, which is a slightly different issue.
Why is this an issue for under-18s? We have a whole lot of rules for under-18s: we do not allow them to vote—although many of us think that we should because they are adult enough to do that—we do not allow them to have credit cards or to enter into other legal decisions because they are not treated as adults who are able to commit themselves for such a long time; and they cannot bind themselves to a credit agreement to pay a certain sum of money the next month, except in very exceptional circumstances. They can, however, commit themselves to an extended period in the armed forces.
It is quite clear that in many cases they are allowed to leave, even though they do not have that right. It is hard to be sure, however, whether that covers every case of somebody under 18 who wishes to leave. We would not know if they were too scared to ask their commanding officer or if some other social pressures made it hard. We know that there are cases of bullying in the armed forces and although I am sure we all abhor the fact that that goes on, there are a number of such cases and it is hard to know what would happen then.
The situation is unclear, so we proposed an amendment to make it absolutely clear what was and was not allowed. I am grateful to the Minister for responding to the report produced by the Select Committee on the Bill after the amendment was tabled and after a number of discussions, parliamentary questions and so on. He has made a welcome announcement, stating 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.”—[Official Report, 19 May 2011; Vol. 528, c. 26WS.]
I want to place on record my thanks to the Minister for taking that step, which is very welcome to a number of the people involved. I have a few specific questions, however, and I hope that he will be able to clarify the situation for me.
First, what is this period of consideration or cooling off and roughly how long would it last? My amendment allowed 14 days’ notice; I suspect he has a different figure in mind and it would be helpful to know what it is. The second part of the JCHR’s report and of the amendment state that any person enlisting under the age of 18 should be informed of their right and I hope the Minister would agree that it would ideal for them to be told that they have it, even though he would hope that many of them would not avail themselves of it. Finally, will he update the Committee on the process as it stands? Has he given instructions that the rule should apply as of now and will people be told that there is this right? He talks about requiring secondary legislation to make such a provision, which I look forward to seeing, but when will such an instrument be laid before the House?
I want, briefly, to support new clause 7 and I also want to express my thanks to the Minister for his statement about improving the system. He seems somewhat surprised to get unanimous support—
It is amazing.
I can assure him that it will not last for long.
I also want to argue in favour of new clause 11. My new clause, like new clause 7, is based on the briefings that we have received from the Quakers and I pay tribute to them for the work they have done in raising the issues about the recruitment of under-18s into the military. I also want to thank Michael Bartlet for the work he has done in raising the profile of the issue over some time.
My new clause would simply end the recruitment of anybody under the age of 18, because I find it extraordinary that when it comes to military recruitment or their engagement in the military, we do not treat under-18s as minors. Legally, that is what they are. I therefore find it extraordinary that we allow children to sign up to involvement in the military, legally—currently—making a commitment for six years. They are minors, signing up to a process that could put them in harm’s way and which certainly puts them under a disciplinary regime and environment that has made a number of them vulnerable over the years.
For the record, I understand that there are currently 580 16-year-olds and 1,970 17-year-olds serving in the British armed forces. I have been surprised to learn from parliamentary answers and MOD information that between April 2007 and April 2010, three 17-year-old service personnel were deployed to Afghanistan and two to Iraq. I have also been concerned to learn, in answer to a parliamentary question, that on 1 December 2010, there were five under-18s serving sentences at the military corrective training centre at Colchester for having gone absent without leave.
We have had various debates in the Chamber condemning the practice in developing countries of recruiting child soldiers, but that is what we are doing—we are recruiting children into the military services. As the MOD information shows, we are not only sending them to war zones but subjecting them to military discipline that involves their detention in a corrective establishment. I just do not find that acceptable and I do not think it is a practice to which this country should adhere. The Minister might correct me on this, but I understand that we are now the only European country that recruits under-18s to the armed forces. I would welcome a rethink from the Government about the whole practice of recruiting children into the military and the possibility of phasing it out. I understand that the Minister might not want to accept the amendment this evening and I will not press it, but I would welcome consideration from the Government about phasing out the recruitment of children to the military.
We have a duty to protect young people, which sometimes involves protecting them against decisions that they make at an age at which, in other circumstances, we would not consider it appropriate for them to make the sort of commitment that is involved or to put themselves in situations that might lead to their being in harm’s way or to their lives being at risk.
I thought this might be a good opportunity to point out that new clause 7 would alleviate some of the difficulties mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. With extensions to education and training in 2013 and 2015 up to the ages of 17 and 18, more young people might find themselves momentarily attracted to joining the forces. They can get through the first part but, as the hon. Gentleman’s point about the young people who have gone absent without leave shows, they sometimes experience a crisis in their lives. New clause 7 would alleviate the problem.
I think that new clause 7 would bring an immense improvement to current practices and I support it, but I object in principle to the recruitment of children into the military. For 13 years, I was the part-time house father of a children’s home when they were run as family units and one could pursue one’s own career while also operating as the father of a family group. In that time we dealt with a large number of young people from extremely disturbed backgrounds and prepared them for fostering into ordinary homes. A number of those who came to us were extremely vulnerable and I remember many of them going into military service at a very young age, almost because they were looking for the security of an institution because they had, frankly, been institutionalised as a result of their lives in care. At the time, I thought those young people were extremely vulnerable and were making the wrong decision. At the age of 16, people are too young to make that major decision to go into the armed forces and put themselves under a disciplinary regime that can result, as it has done, in a number of youngsters being put in corrective establishments. As I have said, some others have been sent to war zones. I would welcome a careful rethink from the Government about this issue and I hope that they will consider coming back with proposals to accept the measures in new clause 7 and to follow other European countries in phasing out the recruitment of children into the Army.
I am grateful to the hon. Members for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for their compliments. I am not used to that and, as the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington said, I do not expect it to continue. Never mind. We enjoy these things while they happen.
I was interested in some of the comments that were made because I think the hon. Member for Cambridge is quite keen on reducing the voting age to 16, which seems not entirely at one with some of the things that were said during the debate. However, I shall not dwell on that.
Young people who join the armed services at the ages of 16 and 17 are a valued source of manpower—it is particularly man power in the Army—but we take the duty of care seriously too. When the subject was first raised with me, I had not appreciated that there was what we might describe as a certain element of confusion over whether people could leave at the age of 18. The situation is changing, but currently if a young man—they are typically young men—approaching his 18th birthday said that he was unhappy, he would be dubbed an unhappy minor and in practice he would be allowed to go after a cooling-off period. However, the situation is slightly confused.
People who go absent without leave do not necessarily do so because they want to leave the armed forces. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington might say that that is ridiculous, but sometimes people go AWOL because they have done something wrong and they do not want to face the music. There can be other reasons.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Simon Reevell) has spoken to me about the situation too and, after listening to people and to the debate in the Select Committee, it seems to me that it is important to clarify the position. As the hon. Member for Cambridge said, people will have a right to leave up to the age of 18. However, I am not saying that we want them to leave, so we shall give them a cooling-off period. It is likely to be longer than two weeks. It is a genuine change and will be enacted in statute, because it is right that people understand that they do not have to beg to leave; they have the right to leave, but we shall make every effort to dissuade good young people from leaving if we wish to retain them.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the time scale. People are currently informed of their rights and that will continue. The answer to his question is the old parliamentary expression, “We expect secondary legislation soon.” I hope it will be before the recess, but it may not be. I do not want to get it wrong.
I turn to people who are less satisfied, if I can put it that way, such as the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington. We want good young people to join the armed forces and we get a pretty high quality of recruit these days, as I think the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) would agree. Prohibiting the enlistment of people under the age of 18 would be to the detriment of the armed forces. We take real pride in the fact that the armed forces provide challenging and constructive education, training and employment opportunities for young people.
Not all the young people who join the armed forces come from happy backgrounds. The hon. Gentleman talked about young people leaving care and joining the armed forces because they saw it as a way out of their difficult circumstances. It is important to bear that in mind.
I shall digress if I may, although it is absolutely germane to the discussion. Probably—notwithstanding other claims—the most decorated man in the British Army at the moment has two conspicuous gallantry medals, a George medal and an MBE. He is now a lieutenant-colonel. When I met him last year, he told me that he spent the night before he joined the Army, aged 17, in a police cell in Bradford. He will not mind my saying this because he told me quite openly—[Interruption.] I know; being in Bradford is a bit much—[Laughter.] Oh God, I’ve let myself in for a few questions now. Humour never translates on to the pages of Hansard.
That man decided that the future for him was either one that did not look very good and might involve further visits to prison and police cells, or that he would join the Army. He joined the Army at the age of 17 and he has not just made an outstanding career for somebody without great educational qualifications but, if I may say so, has made himself a role model for many people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Does the Minister agree that although there are such individuals, there are also many who go, for example, through the Harrogate college and gain qualifications, or through the excellent Welbeck college where they do A-levels? Not all are from the kind of background that he describes, although I accept that some are. Those colleges give them life chances and educational opportunities that they might not get elsewhere.
The hon. Gentleman is right. I could not agree more. We get some very high-quality people—I presented the prizes at Welbeck two weeks ago, and there is also the apprentice college, Harrogate.
I could not agree more that young people should be in college or in education of one sort or another. If that is attached to a military establishment, that is fantastic. Will the Minister confirm, however, that three 17-year-old service personnel were deployed to Afghanistan and two to Iraq between April 2007 and April 2010? I know that that is not very many young people, but the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty), who is no longer in his place, implied that in Committee he had heard evidence that that did not happen. I may be incorrect. Can the Minister clarify the position?
I think the hon. Lady has in her hand a parliamentary answer that I gave her on exactly this issue. Those cases occurred under the previous Government and it was a mistake in each case. Funnily enough, the young men involved wanted to go on operations. A mistake was made, out of 24,000 reservists, as we have just heard, deployed on operations Telic and Herrick. Thousands are deployed each year and I am afraid that mistakes are made. If memory serves me right without having the answer in front of me, I think that two of the individuals mentioned were within a few days of their 18th birthday, and one was found out and sent back. We try to rectify mistakes when they are made, but there are a large number of people and if they do not own up to their age, that can be a problem. We do not intend that that should happen and we will pursue the matter to make sure that it does not.
So that we get absolute clarity, it is the unanimous view of the Committee, therefore, that no minor should be taken to a war zone. Let us get that on the record.
That has been policy since before I joined the armed forces, which I am afraid to say was in 1970. [Interruption.] No, not 1870. It was 1970.
I can assure the Committee that we recognise the need for special care in recruiting and training under-18s. There are currently no plans to revisit the Government’s recruitment policy for under-18s, which is fully compliant with the optional protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict in the United Nations convention on the rights of the child.
The Minister may have been about to answer my question. What action has been taken since the UNCRC 2008 report, which asked the Government to look again at their proactive policy of recruiting under-18s? [Interruption.]
I hear from a sedentary position the suggestion that perhaps the previous Government did not take any great action on that. We do not intend to revisit our policy on the matter. However, it is important to say that all service in the armed forces is voluntary, unlike in many other armies around the world. Furthermore, no person under the age of 18, because such a person is deemed a minor, can join the armed forces unless the application is accompanied by the formal written consent of a parent or guardian. As I have just said, our defence policy is that no such service personnel are knowingly deployed on any operation outside the UK that could result in their becoming engaged in hostilities. We take very seriously the duty of care of all recruits, particularly those aged under 18, who, inevitably, can be more vulnerable than some older people. This is not a partisan position, because we have inherited this from the last Government and it has run through several Governments.
To this end, parents or guardians of all younger personnel, as well as the applicants themselves, are given comprehensive written and face-to-face guidance on the terms and conditions of service and the right to discharge during the selection process, and will be when it changes. This occurs at various times before the parent or guardian provides formal written consent for the child to enter service.
In the light of that and our clear determination to give good careers to young people under the age of 18, be it for three or 30 years, I hope that the hon. Member for Cambridge will withdraw the motion.
I thank the Minister for answering all my questions. My only reservation is that I hope that the time period for cooling off will not be too much longer than two weeks. Sixteen days would be absolutely fine. I look forward to seeing what the Minister says.
I also thank the Minister for his comments about adulthood at 16. I look forward to his joining our campaign to get votes at 16. That is a welcome step. He shakes his head, but I assume he really means to be supportive. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Clause, by leave, withdrawn.
New Clause 15
‘(1) The Secretary of State for Defence shall publish annual statistics on—
(a) defence spending by each Government Office Region by—
(i) equipment expenditure;
(ii) non-equipment expenditure;
(iii) service personnel costs;
(iv) civilian personnel costs; and
(b) defence spending in each local authority area by—
(i) equipment expenditure;
(ii) non-equipment expenditure;
(iii) service personnel costs;
(iv) civilian personnel costs.
(2) The Secretary of State for Defence shall publish annual estimates of national and regional employment dependent on MoD expenditure and defence exports.’.—(Angus Robertson.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, that the clause be read a Second time.
It is a pleasure to speak in favour of new clause 15 on defence statistics, which, for some, might appear a dry subject but which, after a strategic defence and security review and during an ongoing basing review, is quite important. It is especially important to those of us who have concerns that the way in which the Ministry of Defence has been managing its infrastructure, manning levels and spending is grossly imbalanced. We know all this because it has consistently provided parliamentary answers that show it to be true. It is true in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in a number of English regions. The worrying prospect is that the result of this basing review will confirm that many of the trends that I have raised repeatedly here, in Westminster Hall and in parliamentary questions will continue.
There are reasons to be worried. For example, the Ministry of Defence has confirmed that since the last strategic defence review in 1997, 10,000 defence jobs have been lost in Scotland. We also know that between the last strategic defence review and this current review, the gap between Scotland’s population share of defence spending and the amount of money actually spent on defence in Scotland was £5.6 billion. The underspend statistics for Wales and Northern Ireland during the same period are £6.7 billion and £1.8 billion.
The hon. Gentleman knows full well that if he had his way and Scotland was independent, the MOD footprint would be non-existent in Scotland. He may wish to come to an arrangement with England or with the MOD in an independent Scotland, but he has to assume that all military assets would be withdrawn. Furthermore, he supports the scrapping of Trident so, implicitly, the MOD spend would be less than it is now.
I am interested in the hon. Lady’s intervention. I am sorry that she did not take the opportunity to support the case I am making. The case about defence statistics is quite important, which is why the leader of her party in the Scottish Parliament, Iain Gray, put his name to a joint submission that used those very statistics, together with the leader of the Conservative and Unionist party and the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Scottish Parliament. Incidentally, all those party leaders have hinted at their resignations, having lost in the recent Scottish Parliament elections. None the less, all three leaders, together with the Scottish National party, put their names to that submission.
The hon. Lady wishes to entice me to talk about the advantages of independence in relation to defence, which I am happy to do at any point. I note that she did not take the opportunity to apologise for the loss of 10,000 defence jobs in Scotland while her party was in power. I am more than confident that using our population share of defence spending in Scotland would provide a net increase in spending and manpower, protecting the bases that have been closed by both her party and the Conservatives.
To return to the publication of defence statistics, I would have thought it was a matter of concern to Members on both sides of the House that rather than continuing to provide statistics on these matters, the UK Government have simply stopped answering parliamentary questions and providing the important information. Members who have not looked at the issue might be asking themselves, “Are the statistics that the SNP is taking about available in other countries?” The answer is, “Yes, of course they are.” The Canadian Department of National Defence provides statistics to its parliamentarians across the range of expenditure. In the United States, members of Congress and everyone else can access information on defence spend across the communities and states of the US. Until recently, that was the case here in the UK.
On jobs, we know that when Labour left office there were 10,480 fewer people in defence jobs than there were in 1997. That leaves the current uniform contingent in Scotland at 12,000, which is significantly less than our population share. Looking at the Government Front Bench, I am pleased that the Secretary of State for Defence acknowledged when giving evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee that there had indeed been a disproportionate reduction in defence jobs in Scotland under Labour. However, it must be pointed out that for a number of years we had consistent answers to parliamentary questions on service personnel costs, civilian personnel costs, equipment expenditure and non-equipment expenditure.
In fact, there is a complete dataset from 2002 to 2008 showing a number of important but very worrying facts. It shows that the defence underspend increased from £749 million in 2002-03 to £1.2 billion in 2007-08, a 68% increase in just six years. Between 2002 and 2008 the underspend on defence in Scotland under the Labour Government was a mammoth £5.6 billion, contributed by Scottish taxpayers to the MOD but not spent on defence in Scotland. Between 2005 and 2008 there was a drastic real-terms decline year on year in defence spending in Scotland.
I note that the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle) is not seeking to intervene to explain why the defence underspend was so large under Labour. There was actually a 3% cut in defence spending between 2006-07 and 2007-08, a shocking indictment of the previous Labour Government. If we widen the scope of the statistics to include Wales and Northern Ireland, we see that in the six years from 2002 to 2008 there was an accumulated underspend of £14.2 billion. In the same period in which there was an underspend of £5.6 billion in Scotland, there was a staggering £6.7 billion underspend in Wales and a £1.8 billion underspend in Northern Ireland. I point out to right hon. and hon. Members on the Government Benches representing constituencies in England that regions across England similarly have significant issues of defence underspend.
What the statistics show is shocking enough, but just wait for how the Ministry of Defence chose to deal with this! Did it make policy choices to deal with the underspend or make decisions to remedy the fact that there were these cuts in defence manpower? No, it did not. In 2009, tucked away at the end of a report, there was an “important note” entitled “Cessation of National & Regional Employment Estimates”, which stated:
“Ministers have agreed that after this year (2009) the Ministry of Defence…will no longer compile national and regional employment estimates because the data do not directly support MOD policy making and operations.”
I thought, my goodness, surely there is some mistake—that could not be the case. Then, on 6 April last year, the then Secretary of State for Defence provided what turned out to be the last parliamentary answer on defence expenditure in Scotland, confirming that it was not a mistake, and that rather than dealing with the policy challenges the MOD was going to get rid of the proof:
“Since 2008 the MOD has not collected estimates of regional expenditure on equipment, non-equipment, or personnel costs as they do not directly support policy making or operations.”—[Official Report, 6 April 2010; Vol. 508, c. 1200W.]
The information is still readily available within the Ministry of Defence, but the decision was taken not to provide it to Parliament.
This has happened since the time of the last Labour Government. Given the public pronouncements about transparency, new politics and the respect agenda that we heard from the Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat coalition allies, I hoped that their rhetoric might be matched by openness. I have not been encouraged by much in the coalition agreement, but it says on page 7:
that is, the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats—
“are both committed to turning old thinking on its head and develop new approaches to government. For years, politicians could argue that because they held all the information, they needed more power. But today, technological innovation has—with astonishing speed—developed the opportunity to spread information and decentralise power in a way we have never seen before. So we will extend transparency to every area of public life.”
Section 16 of the agreement, entitled “Government transparency”, continues:
“The Government believes that we need to throw open the doors of public bodies, to enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account. We also recognise that this will help to deliver better value for money in public spending, and help us achieve our aim of cutting the record deficit. Setting government data free will bring significant economic benefits”.
There were two specific commitments. First,
“will require full, online disclosure of all central government spending and contracts over £25,000”;
“will create a new ‘right to data’ so that government-held datasets can be requested and used by the public”.
Aha! I was encouraged. Surely, given those commitments, we would see the information. I am delighted that the Minister for the Armed Forces is able to join us at this stage, because what I am about to say relates directly to him.
I was delighted to hear similar claims of openness from the new ministerial defence team in the House of Commons debate on the strategic defence and security review on 21 June. Hansard records that the new Minister for the Armed Forces said:
“Hon. Members—and everybody else—have the opportunity to contribute and make whatever representations they wish to make. If there are hon. Members who feel that they are under-informed, and want more information to inform representations that they might make during the review, they need only let us know. Ministers have an open-door policy, and Members are welcome to any further information that they feel they need.”
That prompted me to intervene and ask:
“During the previous Parliament, the Labour Government provided statistics on employment and expenditure throughout the nations and regions of the UK. Will the new coalition Government give a commitment to continue producing those statistics?”
The Minister replied:
“Yes. Whatever information right hon. and hon. Members need in order to make representations to the review—”
but to be doubly sure, I interjected:
“Is that a yes?”
The Minister answered, unambiguously:
“That is a yes. Hon. Members need only ask for any information that they need.”—[Official Report, 21 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 132.]
Naturally, I was delighted.
Our position then, as today, was that we are only too ready to share with hon. Members any information that we have and that we compile. As the hon. Gentleman knows only too well, the previous Government ceased to compile that information, and frankly for very good reason. It was unreliable information being measured against an old and out-of-date baseline. No defence decisions were being made in the light of that information. It is several years since that information has been compiled. We are happy to share with him any information that we have in this regard, but we do not have that information any longer.
I am terribly sorry, but I just do not think that is good enough. I know that the Minister has just arrived, and no doubt he has come from an important engagement, but before he arrived I was making the case that there are very good reasons to continue to have this information. It seems to me that the very good reasons in the MOD for stopping the publication of these datasets is that, frankly, they are so embarrassing.
I return to the turn of events, which it is important for Members to understand. Having received those assurances from the Minister for the Armed Forces in this Chamber, I wrote a grateful letter to him:
“I wanted to thank you personally for your unambiguous commitment during this week’s debate on the Strategic Defence and Security Review that the new Coalition Government will continue to publish both employment and defence spending statistics for the nations and regions of the United Kingdom… Towards the end of the term of office of the last government it was proving difficult to secure these important statistics and I am appreciative that you have given such a clear assurance that they will continue to be published.”
In the blink of an eye—I assume it was written as soon as my letter arrived in the Minister’s private office—I received a letter back saying much the same as he has just said from the Dispatch Box. In an instant, the Ministry of Defence reneged on a promise made in the House of Commons and in the coalition agreement that there would be openness and transparency. There are also vital clues that should concern everybody who cares about the defence footprint across the UK. Apparently, the Government think that there is
“no clear defence benefit to be gained”
from collating statistics by region and nation, and national and regional data do not
“directly support MOD policy making”.
That will come as a shock to many people, not least the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who has said publicly in terms that economic considerations will form part of the basing review. How on earth can we have an informed debate when the Government do not even provide the statistics?
I am not clear whether the hon. Gentleman is arguing that there is some value to the MOD in exercising its duty from collecting this dataset. Is there a value or not? If there is, what is it?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman because that is the crucial question. The information was viewed as essential by previous Governments. Why? Because it informed us about the impact of MOD policy making on the nations and regions of the UK. That was why the figures were collated in the first place and why the answers were provided to MPs. Members asked questions about the information because we thought it was important, and the Hansard record will show that those questions were asked by MPs of all parties.
The information is not just important in Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales but should be a matter of concern to people throughout England, too. They need to understand what impact MOD policy making is having on their part of the country. The figures should inform us of that. Should they lead all decisions? Of course not, but they should inform policy decisions.
We are talking about the publication of information and statistics that were previously published and are published elsewhere across the world. Such statistics are published on other matters, not just defence. Surely no one can argue against the hon. Gentleman’s central theme, which is that we should know the impact that this vast area of expenditure has on the regions and nations of the United Kingdom.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a point that everybody should understand. Providing the information is not difficult. Governments here have done it, and Governments elsewhere around the world do it. Frankly, we would be in dereliction of our duty as parliamentarians if we did not try to inform ourselves of how the Department that we are trying to hold to account is spending our constituents’ tax money. How that informs our political priorities is a totally different matter, but the coalition parties made an express commitment to everybody in the United Kingdom that they would seek and deliver transparency. When it comes to defence statistics, they have reneged on that.
This is an opportunity for both Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members—and Labour Members if they have found their conscience on the issue—to understand that this is an important problem that is easily remedied. The new clause would allow that to happen, as it would force the MOD to provide and publish the statistics that we all deserve. That is why, unless the Minister agrees to publish the statistics, I will force a Division on this important issue.
Having listened to the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), I have to say that I thought his indignation was completely synthetic. What is important is how the money is spent, not how statistics are gathered, and I will put on record what we feel.
The Ministry of Defence has no plans to reinstate the publication of annual estimates of regional defence spending or the employment effects of that expenditure. The Department decided to stop the compilation and publication of those statistics three years ago. Although the statistics were valuable in giving national and regional employment context to defence spending, the data did not directly support MOD policy making and operations. Furthermore, the compilation of the series depended on external sources that had not been updated for some years. The MOD had been struggling to maintain the quality of the statistics even to a basic level. To reinstate their compilation would cost the Department about £500,000 in the next four years.
The purpose of the defence budget is to maintain the armed forces so that they can contribute to our nation’s security—a nation that includes, I am glad to say, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Every pound that the MOD spends must contribute to the security of the United Kingdom, and it gets doled out not on a regional basis but on a defence-needs basis.
I stand as a member of a Unionist party in Northern Ireland that is proud to be part of the United Kingdom, but this is not about being part of the UK. It is about the information that is available to Members of Parliament and the public. Surely the Minister should recognise that distinction.
Information on employment is quite readily available with a little bit of hard work, but I am afraid that we must consider the cost of compiling inaccurate statistics. The previous Government took their view, and we support it. Decisions on where personnel are based and which contracts are let to which firms are based solely on what is best for the armed forces and the defence of the realm. It is the duty of Government to ensure that the defence budget is spent wisely, maximising the resources available on the front line and ensuring that every pound counts.
The Minister points out that because a caveat in the coalition agreement suggests that the publication of some statistics is more expensive than the publication of others, he has a get-out-of-jail card in respect of publishing statistics on defence and the MOD.
I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman is being deliberately obtuse. The point is that the Government do not have all the statistics to publish, and compiling them would be extremely expensive—and, as I just said, they are becoming increasingly inaccurate. We do not compile statistics on everything.
Those estimates were difficult and intensive to maintain. They relied on analytical tables produced by the Office for National Statistics that have not been updated since 1995. As I have explained, the statistics did not support the MOD’s decision making. I have looked into how much it would cost to reintroduce the estimates and the cost is higher than the benefit to defence. My main focus, and our main focus, must be on doing what is best for the armed forces.
I note from previous debates on this subject that the hon. Gentleman is concerned that the cessation of those statistics will mean that a gap emerges in information on defence, particularly with regard to Scotland. It should be noted that assessments of the employment effects of MOD expenditure will continue to be undertaken for individual defence projects, and as part of the regional impact assessments that are conducted to inform MOD base closures. For instance, we know how many people are employed at specific bases—that is quite straightforward—but we do not compile huge tables of statistics that are of no great value. Decisions and policy in these areas will continue to use evidence about the employment impacts.
In the light of that, I hope the Committee rejects new clause 15.
I pointed out that the coalition parties made a pledge on transparency in their agreement. They said that they would provide all information on contracts of more than £25,000. I am sorry to say, however, that the Minister has suggested at the Dispatch Box that, somehow, the coalition does not have to live up to that commitment in defence matters. The commitment that the statistics would be provided was also given to me in this Chamber, but it has been reneged on. More importantly, Members of Parliament should have those statistics as a matter of course. The fact that the outcome of those statistics is unfortunate for decision makers in the MOD is no reason not to publish them. That is why I press new clause 15 to a Division.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.
14 June 2011
The Committee divided:
Question accordingly negatived.View Details
New Clause 17
Duties of public bodies and Ministers
‘(1) In preparing policy, public bodies and Ministers must have regard to those matters to which the Secretary of State is to have regard in preparing an armed forces covenant report, under subsection (2A) of section 359A of AFA 2006.
(2) In preparing policy, public bodies and Ministers must consider whether the making of special provision for service people or particular descriptions of service people would be justified.’.—(Gemma Doyle.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.
14 June 2011
Question accordingly negatived.View Details
The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.
Bill, as amended, reported.
Bill to be considered tomorrow.