Bill, as amended in the Committee, considered.
I beg to move, that the Bill be now read the Third time.
I have in front of me a four-hour speech because I did not quite manage to cover everything that the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle) and the shadow Defence Secretary raised with me two days ago.
As hon. Members will know, in essence, our purpose in this debate is to agree that the Bill has been scrutinised by the House and to wish it well as it moves to the other place. The Ministry of Defence does not often introduce legislation, so this is a task that very few Defence Ministers have the pleasure of performing. As is the custom, I should like to use this occasion to pay tribute to a number of people who have helped during this House’s consideration of the Bill. Before I do so, I should like to discuss some weightier matters.
For the Ministry of Defence, the Bill represents an important step regarding the armed forces covenant. For the very first time, the armed forces covenant has been recognised in statute. Some 10 years ago, people did not talk about a military covenant; that is a relatively recent development. However, everybody, over centuries, has recognised what is meant when people refer to it. The Prime Minister said that the armed forces covenant would be recognised in law, and it will be so recognised through this Bill.
The Bill will have an enduring legacy. Under its provisions, annual reports on the covenant will be required. We are very serious about the covenant. It is not a political fad—something that will be allowed to wither away in a year or so as political fashions change—because the armed forces are far too important for that. We expect that Parliament will want to debate the issues that are highlighted in the report, and I certainly do not see any way in which anything will be covered up. It is right that Governments, of whatever political hue, should be held to account for the way in which they uphold the covenant.
We discussed the covenant at length during the Select Committee stage. Hon. Members have expressed differing views, as have people outside Parliament. The Government have listened to those views and tabled the amendments that were accepted on Tuesday.
The Minister will be aware that many, if not most of the public services covered in the covenant are devolved. I am sure that he will join me in commending the work of Major-General David McDowall, the Scottish Government’s expert adviser on veterans’ affairs, for his efforts in this field. Will the Minister confirm that there has been correspondence between the First Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence to confirm the delivery of the covenant in Scotland?
I pay tribute to Major-General McDowall. Although I do not know him, I am sure that he does a very good job. I have of course met Alex Neil, as the hon. Gentleman will know. There has indeed been correspondence. That will not be a surprise to him, as he was in the House on Tuesday when I read out half the letter, but there we go.
The House has agreed that the amendments bring clarity about the principles that the Secretary of State must take into account in preparing his report. I was particularly pleased that they were accepted in all parts of the Committee on Tuesday without a Division, and that they have also been welcomed outside Parliament. The result is clause 2, which establishes the annual report as a route towards achieving real benefits for armed forces personnel, former members of the armed forces and their families.
As hon. Members will know, the Bill has been used to amend the legislation governing the reserve forces. This is an important change, because it will allow us to call out reservists for service in the United Kingdom in a wider range of circumstances than is permitted at present. For instance, we discussed on Tuesday the recent floods following snowfalls in Cumbria, where reservists would have been ideally placed—particularly medical reservists to deliver blood supplies. We also discussed the forthcoming Olympics. There are a huge number of occasions where we currently do not have the power to call out reservists, even should they volunteer.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is long overdue change, and that given the ongoing review of the reserve forces, it will make them much more relevant in years to come?
I do think it is overdue. It provides the opportunity to call people up in the same way that we can use the regular forces. It also fits in well with the reserve forces review, Future Reserves 2020, which we are undertaking to ensure that this country makes proper use of the reserves. The amendments that we made this week anticipate some of the changes that may be proposed in the review and that the study is likely to recommend when it is published later this year.
When we debated the amendments earlier this week, the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire raised a point about the Reserve Forces (Safeguard of Employment) Act 1985. She rather threw me because I was not an expert on that Act, but I have now looked up the details, so I should like to take this opportunity to respond to her point. It concerned the Cabinet Office’s red tape challenge, which is a welcome initiative to look at legislation and identify where it is no longer required. One area of legislation to be reviewed relates to employment law. I gather that on the website, under the heading, “Managing Staff”, 127 pieces of legislation are listed for review. I congratulate her on having studied this website, or perhaps on having a very assiduous researcher who has done so for her. The list includes the 1985 Act, which appears at the top of the list only because that is how the list has been ordered, not because it is a particular target for rationalisation. Of course, we carry out reviews from time to time to ensure that our existing employment legislation is appropriate, and we will continue to do so. However, I can assure her that for the foreseeable future it is absolutely our intention that the protection that this Act provides for reservists and employers will continue to remain available.
If the review that is being carried out into the reserve forces comes up with recommendations that would need to be written into the covenant, would it be possible to update it in the yearly report, or would the covenant, as now written, have to await the five-yearly report under the Bill?
The hon. Gentleman raises two points. First, should things change as a result of the reserve forces review that might give rise to something different, that would not necessarily be covered in the Bill as enacted but might require some other form of legislation. Secondly—I am delighted to see the coalition acting as one on this—we have argued all along that we want broad guidelines within the covenant report, not boxes to tick, so the Secretary of State can consider almost anything he likes when preparing his report. Furthermore, the external reference group, or anybody else, can raise whatever they like under the covenant report and our subsequent discussions about it.
To return to the protection of employment for reservists, the 1985 Act will apply to the amendment that we passed to widen the use of reserves in the UK and to all other current operations. I hope that the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire will accept that assurance as a response to her earlier point, and I will not send her a letter if that is okay.
I think that this is a good Bill. It is the first Bill that I have taken through the House.
And the last.
I might concur. I am proud to have served on the Select Committee that scrutinised the Bill and would like to thank my fellow Committee members, most of whom are here, for the serious and careful way in which they went about their work.
Where are the Labour ones?
I will resist the cry from behind me to be partisan on this occasion, although I would not usually.
The Committee undertook visits to Chilwell, Headley Court and Colchester, which helped Committee members in their consideration of the Bill. I thank everybody who put themselves out to arrange those visits for us, both here and in those places.
I thank the Select Committee Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), for his good humour and wise guidance and I thank the Committee staff for their work behind the scenes. There is a gap in my brief because my civil servants said that they could not possibly put in that I would like to thank them. I would like to thank the Ministry of Defence Bill team for the work that they have done on our behalf. Sometimes, they found things marginally fraught, but most of the time they just got on with doing their work in a good-natured way. One has to take tranquilisers if one works for me. [Interruption.] I thought I would get that in before anybody else. I still have not got the letter from the mayor of Bradford, by the way.
We have a good Bill, which has benefited from the scrutiny it has received. I believe that the Bill we send to the other place is in good order. Above all, it contains much that will benefit the many people who have served, do serve or will serve in our armed forces. I wish the Bill well in its remaining parliamentary stages, and I commend it to the House.
The Minister has surprised me by giving a much shorter speech than I expected, considering his contribution on Tuesday.
I am awfully sorry, but I think we need to get it on the record that my speech on the group of amendments on Tuesday was shorter than the hon. Lady’s.
I think the Minister will find that I spoke for a shorter time than he did, but, on the basis that my speech was rather more engaging, I took a number of interventions. As such, my speech took up a greater amount of parliamentary time. I shall move on.
I very much welcome and support the Bill, just as I welcome all measures designed to improve welfare for the armed forces, their families and veterans. I appreciate the Minister’s commitment to this issue. As has been said by the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, this Opposition will always act in the interests of what is right for our country and will always support the Government when they do the right thing by our forces. In this Bill and the amendments to it, the Government have made progress in the welfare of our armed forces and all service families. The Government have committed to stronger provisions to enshrine the covenant in law. As we have done throughout this process, we will work with Ministers whenever necessary to ensure that the path from rhetoric to reality is as smooth and fruitful as possible.
It is worth reminding ourselves that although the right decision has now been taken by the Government, they acted reluctantly, in the face of public pressure and following much denial from Government Members that any amendments were required. Indeed, on 10 February, at the first sitting of the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, the Minister stated:
“The covenant is a conceptual thing that will not be laid down in law.”––[Official Report, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, 10 February 2011; c. 21.]
He went on to say that it is a “conceptual, philosophical statement”. I imagine he wishes that he could eat his words now. Although we support the Government, we will scrutinise and form judgments based on their actions and not their words, which have been proved in this process to sometimes be two different things.
Many provisions in the Bill concern the welfare, well-being and management of our service personnel. The previous Government had a strong record in this area, not just through the introduction of the Armed Forces Bill in 2006, but by ensuring that the forces’ pay increases were among the highest in the public sector; investing in accommodation and rehabilitation facilities; increasing access to the NHS for dependants; and introducing the personnel Command Paper, the first ever cross-Government package of benefits.
The military covenant is the bond between the nation and our services. It says that the United Kingdom’s commitment to its armed forces is made in recognition that a career in the armed forces differs from all others. The covenant recognises that service personnel agree to sacrifice certain civil liberties, to follow orders and to place themselves in harm’s way in defence of others. In return, the United Kingdom shall help, support and reward our armed forces, their families and, of course, former serving personnel.
I am still somewhat new to this place—I am not sure how much longer I will get away with saying that—but I firmly believe that one of the most difficult decisions we are asked to make is to ask our service people to put themselves in harm’s way for the protection of this country and to safeguard human rights around the world. I felt that responsibility strongly when we voted on 21 March on action in Libya. I know that Members who have been here longer than me have been even more greatly vexed about these issues in recent memory.
Upholding the covenant is now more important than ever. At a time of unprecedented cuts to the defence budget, when we have seen allowances and pensions cut and personnel made redundant in record numbers, and when there are warnings about the capacity of our forces to perform at the current tempo for 90 days longer, it is vital that all service people have the protection to which they are entitled. The principle that no member of the service community, including dependants, should suffer disadvantage arising from service and that special provision may sometimes be needed to reflect their sacrifices is vital. We support the introduction of that principle to the Bill.
It is important, however, that such principles apply to policy making and implementation in all public bodies to ensure that all action undertaken by public servants is in tune with our commitments to the armed forces. I am still concerned, therefore, that the Government amendments did not go as far as they could have gone. As the Bill stands, the Secretary of State must only “have regard” to the principles in
“preparing an annual armed forces covenant report”.
That is a limited application of the principles, which we have all agreed are vital. Rather than applying across Government to all issues, the principles will apply to only those issues the Secretary of State deems fit to include in his report. There is, therefore, ministerial judgment about where the principles of the covenant apply, rather than an obligation on all public servants to take heed of them. I hope that the Minister appreciates the difference that I am pointing out.
I support the action that the Secretary of State is taking, and I believe in the Prime Minister’s desire for a genuinely enshrined covenant, but I fear that we will not fully achieve that unless the principles of the covenant are given due regard in all aspects of public policy making. As the Minister knows, I tabled amendments at earlier stages to try to achieve that. I am sorry that we have not persuaded the Government to go quite as far as we would have done, but as you would imagine, Mr Deputy Speaker, we are delighted that the Minister has come as far as he has. Having stated in Committee, as I said, that the covenant would not be enshrined in law, he has now been forced to support amendments that ensure it will be.
When I asked the Minister on Tuesday what had changed his mind, he stated that he had engaged in a listening process. I have to say, we saw very little evidence of that in the Committee’s debates or evidence sessions. I am sure that everyone would be grateful if, at some stage, he provided an explanation of his change of direction.
To ensure that the ambitions that we all hold for the covenant are realised, it is vital that there is sufficient accountability between members of the armed forces and the public servants charged with its implementation. I fear that the Government’s proposed annual report, in which Ministers will report on what they deem fit to report on rather than being obliged to provide an update on all aspect of forces’ welfare, may still be somewhat inadequate.
An annual debate in the House on the covenant is very welcome, but it should not be at the expense of real scrutiny. For the report to be meaningful, the Minister knows that I believe that there needs to be a greater number of fields on which Ministers are compelled to report. I have asked the Minister to explain why he has chosen only the three subjects that are specified in the Bill for inclusion in the report, but he has not yet given a rational explanation of why other welfare issues for which the Secretary of State is directly responsible are not included.The original intention behind the introduction of a covenant report was clearly to allow Ministers to say that they were enshrining the covenant in law, whereas their actions now demonstrate that they knew all along that that was not what they were doing. As such, the Minister will forgive me for being concerned that the Secretary of State will decide which issues to put into and leave out of his report.
My bigger worry is that without a duty on public bodies to give regard to the principles of the covenant, and without a responsibility on the Secretary of State to report on a wider set of concerns than is currently included in the Bill, there will not be a thorough examination of the possible issues of disadvantage that we have discussed, covering all relevant responsibilities of the Government.
On accountability, we welcome the Secretary of State’s confirmation that the external reference group, which I understand may now have had a name change, will publish its comments on the annual report alongside the report itself, and that as such its terms of reference will be updated. It would therefore be useful if the Minister confirmed at the earliest opportunity that the change means that the group will now be a permanent body, charged with overseeing the implementation of all policies that relate to forces welfare. I also look forward to his advising us of when updated terms of reference will be ready, and whether they will be placed in the Library for Members to view.
For the enshrinement of the covenant principles to be genuinely meaningful, there must be a proper system whereby service people can report on whether those principles are being upheld. All would agree that the Bill must be about people’s lives, not simply about securing the safe passage of legislation. When asked in a recent parliamentary question who was the legal arbiter of any complaints by service people about the principles of the covenant, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff), stated that the chain of command or the Service Complaints Commissioner was responsible. That is surprising, because in her annual report last year the commissioner said the existing complaints mechanism was a
“most ineffective system. It causes extreme delay and fails to deliver justice. It also leads to inconsistencies.”
The very arbiter whom the Government recommend that armed forces use to determine whether the covenant is being upheld says that the system is not good enough.
This is not about creating new rights, it is about the accountability of those charged with upholding the principles that the Government are enshrining in the Bill. The commissioner recommended that an armed forces ombudsman be introduced, and I would be interested to hear what consideration was given to that recommendation. As the Minister did not support amendments earlier in the week regarding the creation of an ombudsman to oversee these issues, I am anxious to find out what measures will be introduced to ensure that our forces have the opportunity to make their own judgments.
I just wish gently to point out to the hon. Lady, apropos our altercation at the beginning of her speech, that she has now spoken for rather longer than me on Third Reading as well.
I am not really sure that that was a substantive intervention, so I will carry on.
The three fields specified in the Bill as being covered by the annual covenant report are devolved, so Scottish and Welsh armed forces or veterans are potentially excluded from any recommendations at all to be made in the report. We need clarification of whether the report will apply to all UK forces and what the devolved implications of the Bill are. On Tuesday, the Minister produced a letter from the First Minister of Scotland. I do not doubt the First Minister’s intentions with regard to this matter, but I know that the Minister will be shocked to hear that the First Minister does not always do exactly what he says he will. I therefore look forward to the Minister confirming his own view of what the devolved implications of the Bill are.
There was some confusion in Committee on Tuesday about the Government’s position on the reserve forces’ employment rights. I very much welcome the Minister’s commitment, which he reiterated today. Indeed, I congratulate him on standing up to the Secretary of State for Defence, who refused to give such a commitment just a matter of weeks ago. However, it would be welcome if the Minister confirmed what discussions he has had with the Cabinet Office to ensure that all his colleagues are on the same page.
As I said initially, the Opposition will judge the Government on the military covenant on their actions and not on their words. One of the Government’s first major acts since their U-turn on the military covenant is their decision to abolish the Chief Coroner’s Office. The Royal British Legion has called that “a betrayal” of armed forces families that “threatens the Military Covenant.” That very neatly demonstrates the need for accountability and the need for the principles of the covenant to apply to all Government policy.
The Bill would not have prevented that decision, and nor does it provide for servicemen and women who feel disadvantaged as a result to seek redress. The Minister said earlier this week that he could not speak for the Secretary of State for Justice, but I am asking the Minister to speak to him—I urge him to persuade the Secretary of State for Justice to do the right thing for service families. However, the Minister should also look at this carefully as an example of why the Bill does not go as far as it could, or indeed should.
In conclusion, the principles of the military covenant ensure that we do our bit for the men and women of our armed forces who serve this country and their families. I welcome the Bill, which has been much improved since we started out. I am delighted that the Government have come so far on this issue, and I look forward to pushing them a little further forward at the earliest opportunity.
Several hon. Members
Order. May I just remind hon. Members that we have only two hours—the Bill must be done and dusted by 4.11 pm?
I am grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker. You can be sure that my remarks will be brief.
I must confess to three interests. First, I am a medical officer in the Royal Naval Reserve. Secondly, I am a potential beneficiary of the naval medical compassionate fund, which is in clause 27—“potential” because one must decease before benefiting. Thirdly, I have a non-pecuniary interest in my book, which was published today, by happy chance, on the military covenant.
I am pleased to support the Bill, which has gone a long way. There are two authorities in this field that we should not upset: one is the Royal British Legion and the other is Joanna Lumley. Consecutive Governments understand the truth of that. It is quite something when the Royal British Legion writes to MPs, as it did on 9 June, to say that the Bill represents an historic agreement. Notwithstanding the reservations that it has expressed as the Bill has gone through the Commons, it is clearly of the view now that the Bill represents a positive measure that will materially benefit the welfare of the men and women to whom we owe so very much.
I should like briefly to address the subject of the chief coroner. I have an interest, in that Mr Masters has sat in Trowbridge in my constituency, and I have visited his court and discussed the matter of military inquests with him at some length. I gently point out to the Opposition that both Mr Masters and Mr Walker in Oxford have done a wonderful job over the past several years in highlighting the plight of men and women in the armed forces and in standing up for the families of those who have sadly deceased. It is not clear to me that an office of the chief coroner would have added to that process. Indeed, I would go further: there is every prospect that such an official could be more biddable than local coroners because he is more central.
The big thing that has stood out over the years from those inquests is their independence and their willingness to find out what is happening on the ground. I pay tribute to both those two gentlemen.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman and pay tribute to those two individuals. However, he does not understand that the chief coroner’s role is to drive up standards across the country. Following pressure from the hon. Gentleman when he was in opposition, we rightly allowed military inquests to move away from where the body arrives back in the UK and inquests can now be heard at other coroners courts. The important thing about the chief coroner is that his role would be to ensure that the high standards kept by the two coroners of whom the hon. Gentleman speaks are consistently applied throughout the country.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but I would say to him that we now have several years’ experience of a local model with two excellent coroners who have not held back when they have felt it necessary to criticise the Government. That is absolutely appropriate. I understand that Labour Members bear the scars on their backs from these two gentlemen, but that is precisely as it should be. I have to say that I have been very impressed with how Mr Masters in particular has conducted his business and has got to grips with the reality of front-line service.
At the heart of the military covenant lies the concept of “no disadvantage”, which I am pleased has informed much of this debate. “No disadvantage” is played out on two levels: first, no disadvantage in access to public services, which can be easily understood by those of us who represent large numbers of servicemen and women. We have seen it in the disadvantage that service children have been put to when they move around frequently. I am pleased, therefore, that the Government have introduced, as part of the pupil premium, a sum that will, in some small way, mitigate the disadvantage they suffer. We see it also in servicemen and women being bumped off NHS waiting lists and having difficulties accessing dentists.
Secondly, at another level—perhaps a more fundamental level—we have the concept of “no disadvantage” in relation to those who have suffered greatly, physically and mentally, as a result of their military service. It is surely the mark of a civilised society that, when men and women who have contributed so much to that society are injured physically or mentally, we do everything in our power to mitigate the disadvantage that they suffer. I believe that that is what is in Ministers’ minds with the concept of special provision, which has been introduced under amendments to the Bill, and which we discussed on Tuesday.
It is vital that men and women who give so much of their mental and physical health are restored to health so far as is reasonably practicable. I have been impressed recently while touring limb centres, and particularly Headley Court, by the importance of ensuring that that care is ongoing. The Minister can be certain that as this matter returns to Parliament annually the ongoing care of those who have suffered mentally and physically will be brought up time and again. I am very concerned that as the tempo of operations reduces, and as the battle rhythm declines over the years leading up to 2015, the prominence of military matters and our military personnel will decline. Throughout our history, that has always been what happens after the war fighting stops. Indeed, Rudyard Kipling’s sardonic poem “Tommy” highlights that very well. We need to bear in mind Tommy Atkins and his plight, and I believe we need to think about that as we plan how to keep this issue in the public mind and, by extension, the minds of politicians.
The annual report has come in for criticism. Some think it is flute music, that it has no substance. I think it is vital, and I commend Ministers for introducing it as part of this Bill. I am also delighted that the Government have listened so well to external bodies that have impressed on Ministers the need to ensure that those who feed into that annual report are heard properly, and that the report, when it comes to Parliament, properly reflects their views and input. In a year or so, we will have the opportunity of seeing this process in action, and I confidently expect the House to have every opportunity to debate the military covenant again and in depth. I suspect that the Minister knows full well that if this looks like being a superficial exercise, he will come in for a great deal of criticism. However, I confidently expect that in a year or so, we will be able to commend him once again for this measure of his to which we are going to give a fair wind today.
There are those who say that the Bill does not go far enough. There are also those who say that we should be more didactic in what we write into the Bill. They are simply wrong. We have support from an unlikely source, in the Archbishops Council, which will of course reflect the views of the unlikely guest editor of the New Statesman magazine. He is not a gentleman who is necessarily known to be a supporter of the coalition Government, yet the Archbishops Council is quite clear that the military covenant exists in the moral realm. It is not contractual, and it is not statutory.
There is a risk, however, that pressure from Europe could codify a military covenant. There is something called Synchronised Armed Forces Europe—which is known by the rather misleading acronym SAFE—which seeks to impose a European soldiers statute that would codify the covenant. I urge Ministers strongly to resist such a thing.
I do not intend to detain the House any longer, as a number of colleagues wish to speak. I congratulate Ministers on bringing forward this measure. The Government have taken the Armed Forces Bill—a Bill that, as something of a constitutional anomaly, we take through this House every five years, with the exception of the Armed Forces Act 2006, which dealt in depth with service discipline—and really added substance to it. This is a truly historic Armed Forces Bill that will do much for the men and women to whom we owe so much, and will honour the covenant that we all have with them.
I would like first to offer the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle), who spoke for the Opposition, and the Minister the opportunity to join the reserve forces, because if their combative skills in this place are anything to go by, they would both be welcome in whichever element of the service—
I am too old.
One is never too old to give service to one’s country.
I join the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) in paying tribute to the two coroners who have dealt with military deaths up to now. I have assisted families who have been through that process, and they have always been very complimentary about the way the coroners have acted, the way they were treated by the court and the way the coroners—they believe rightly—tackled the very controversial issues that had resulted in the deaths of their loved ones. I have yet to meet or hear from anyone who is seriously dissatisfied with the behaviour of those coroners, both of whom rightly deserve to be congratulated and thanked on behalf of this House and all the families who have been through that process.
There are those Members who would like more written into the Bill than the three points in the covenant, but really the list is endless. The three issues identified were those that have been raised most consistently, but that is not to say that the others will be ignored. One benefit of having a yearly review and a report to this House is to give all players—those inside and outside the armed forces, whether former or serving members, and other groups representing them—the opportunity to put into play their points of view. Therefore, not writing things into the Bill is not as relevant as some would want to think. I happen to believe that Members from all parts of the House who have worked as Ministers in the Ministry of Defence have tried to put the armed forces at the forefront of their endeavours to be fair.
I also criticise those who do not believe that the covenant is a contract. It is a contract: a contract between the British people, through this House, and the armed forces. Those who have criticised the idea that the covenant is not a written contract are mistaken. At a time when the armed forces have never been held in greater esteem, the people of this country believe that we have a duty not only to honour the covenant, but to make it work for those inside or outside the forces. The idea in the Bill of giving greater independence when complaints are made and dealt with is to be welcomed. However, I am slightly dismayed that we have not done more to introduce a proper ID card for veterans, to give them the same status that veterans have in other countries. I am grateful that the Minister and the Secretary of State have at different times conceded that further consideration will be given to that matter. We need to be sure that we honour our pledge to provide these services through the covenant and through the Bill, wherever they are asked for around the country. It should be irrelevant where the person lives at the time.
The Bill has a number of attractions for people in the armed forces, but it does not really satisfy those who have an interest in the way in which reservists who go on active service are treated when they return. The Select Committee on Defence has taken evidence recently on the way in which returning reserve service personnel are treated—by the health service or by employers, for example. The situation is unsatisfactory in that there is still a sense of exclusion. Returning reservists are not given enough support, for example, when they have problems with their employers.
We need to build into the review of armed forces legislation over the next five years, and into the covenant itself, greater support for reservists who are having trouble. It is often difficult for someone returning to the United Kingdom after serving abroad for six months to deal with problems arising from their employment. Where do they get the help and support that they genuinely need? In some parts of the country, it is very difficult to get that sort of assistance, and we must look at that.
What sort of help is available for a Territorial Army reservist when he has problems with his job? How can the Government help, given that a commercial arrangement is involved?
I think that the military legal services ought to be made available to them. The hon. Gentleman has a distinguished record of service in the armed forces, and I believe that the same facilities that would have been offered to him, should he have encountered difficulties during his military career, such as medical or legal advice, should be forthcoming to others. I want those facilities to be offered to individual reservists on their return to the United Kingdom, and I hope that the Ministry of Defence will consider that matter seriously.
On behalf of my hon. Friends on the Liberal Democrat Benches, I should like to say how delighted I am that the coalition has been able to deliver on its promise to armed forces personnel and their families that the covenant would be written into legislation and therefore deemed to be part of the law of the land. People can now have great confidence that the armed forces, if not the national health service, are safe in the hands of the coalition.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock), who speaks so clearly on this subject. I shall be brief, but I should like to make one or two points. There can be few more solemn moments in the Chamber than when the names of the dead are read out at Prime Minister’s questions on a Wednesday. This is now happening practically every week. I therefore find it interesting that, despite the statements of support and grave interest in our armed forces, our debate on the very thing that supports them—namely, the military covenant—has been scheduled for a Thursday afternoon. There are very few Members present—disgracefully few on the Opposition Benches—and there is a larky atmosphere with people trying to get out of this place as quickly as they can. That is a discredit to the men and women who serve us, and to the subject that we are debating today.
I am pleased to see so many hon. and gallant Members and former comrades in arms around me, however. I should like to pay tribute to the excellent speech made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison). It was a highly intelligent speech, but I disagree with him on one subject. He used the very moving terms “battle rhythm” and “tempo of operations” aspirationally, saying that he hoped that both of those things would decline. It is worth bearing in mind that in April, 1st Battalion The Rifles deployed to Helmand province, and that, 131 years ago, its predecessor, the 66th of Foot, also deployed to Helmand. That was exactly the same area and exactly the same regiment facing exactly the same tribesmen, and with a similar political backdrop. In four hours, 994 men were killed in the battle of Maiwand, which now falls within the area of responsibility of the 1st Battalion The Rifles—what a coincidence.
I do not think that the tempo of operations or battle rhythm is going to decrease at all. As the fighting operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan decline, I have every confidence—I say this with no pleasure—that other operations will come up that will require our fighting men and women to be deployed in other parts of the world and that the military covenant will be just as important then as it is now.
Despite my earlier rather churlish comments, I am delighted that this Government have chosen to put these measures in a place where they can be properly recognised. I think it crucial to support the morale not just of the fighting men and women but of their families by assuring them that things are being done for them. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who I know is going to speak later, used to command the Cheshire Regiment. [Interruption.] I gather that he is not going to speak later, which will be a great disadvantage to the whole House, I am sure. When he and I were serving, I know that we felt that no differentiation was made at all, as no particular support or advantage was given specifically to soldiers, sailors or airmen and their families. I thus rejoice in the fact that health care, schooling, taxation and other individual items are to be put on a more sensible basis for those who serve to protect us.
I ask the Minister to think carefully about how the military covenant—ill defined as it necessarily and properly is—might evolve and develop, and about whether we can learn anything, particularly from our American cousins.
There is one thing that completely defeats me. As a former commanding officer, I knew that I had only one thing to hand by which I could financially advantage those under my command. In those days, it was called the commanding officer’s discretionary fund. Over the years, that fund has gone up and I understand that it is has recently been about £60 a head. Forgive me for teaching the House to suck eggs, Mr Deputy Speaker, but this is simply a fund of money given to commanding officers—be they commanding mobile bath units or a battalion of the guards—to spend as they see fit on those under their command without any further reference to higher authority. It is an extremely important fund. It has been spent recently on preparing homecoming parades; it has helped with regimental funerals; it has provided people with excellent opportunities for training; and it has allowed people to enjoy themselves a little and to get some quality time.
Modest though it is, this discretionary fund is extremely important, yet it has been cut, which I do not understand. This fund is immediate, important and goes right to the heart of the military covenant. I appreciate that in the overall scheme of things it is not a big sum of money and I appreciate that it is not a large issue overall, but to the men and women inside the units, it is crucial. I deplore the fact that it has been cut, because that stands on its head the logic and the propriety of everything else that has been done through the military covenant.
I will spare the House any more of my rhetoric. I am grateful for the opportunity to have made these points and I am grateful to this Government for what they have done. I hope to see the military covenant evolving and improving, and I have absolutely no doubt that the Minister will now think carefully about the commanding officer’s discretionary fund—and I am sure that he will restore it.
In this, my first year as a Member of Parliament, it has been a revelation and a reassurance to know that so many colleagues throughout the House have served in our armed forces, and I am even more surprised and steeled by the number who continue to serve as reservists. Their front-line experience is priceless in these thorny and precarious times. I do not share their direct experience of the ways of modern warfare, but I certainly see the landscape from a different plane. I am the mother of a teenage son who is training to become a Royal Marine commando, and my constituency is home to 36 Engineer Regiment and the Queen’s Gurkha Engineers. The health and well-being of our armed forces is therefore very close to my heart.
I do not intend to make a long speech, but I want to say a little about clause 2, about the military covenant, and, in particular, about how the covenant can help our military families. Isolation is a significant issue for military families when their loved ones are away, and in my constituency some Army mums have set up a local support group called Troopers Mums. Those inspirational women support themselves as well as the servicemen and women of whom they are so proud. They say that one of the most important factors for families dealing with isolation and worry is the existence of a support network of like-minded, empathetic people who are undergoing the same fears and anxieties. Sometimes it can be as simple as knowing, just from a look, when someone needs a cup of tea and a chat. Those women rely on each other in moments of need, and in many cases a problem shared is truly a problem halved. Troopers Mums are not asking for help; they simply want to be able to help themselves.
I know from my own research that other good support groups exist, but their functioning seems to be fragmented, unconnected and sporadic. Perhaps we can explore how we might develop and support a more uniform and accessible network across the country. When I use the word “support” I do not refer to state finance, state interference or yet another layer of state bureaucracy, and I echo the sentiments of one of the mums who said that she would not want a single penny to be diverted from the front line, but I think that with Government endorsement and some sponsorship from the private sector, we could assist families in a real and tangible way by helping them to set up and operate networks of their own.
The second point that I want to make about the military covenant concerns our nation as a whole. The covenant is a commitment between the Government, our service personnel, families and the nation. What worries me is that even if we enshrine the Government’s part of the bargain in legislation, things can still go badly wrong if our nation does not buy in. In conversation with my Troopers Mums, I heard of many instances in which a little kindness and understanding could have gone a long way, especially in the workplace. One mum told me that she had not been allowed time off to attend her son’s medal ceremony because she had already been given time off to attend his graduation some years earlier. Another told me that when her son was severely injured while serving in Afghanistan, she began to struggle at work. The response from her superiors was that she should “pull herself together.”
Closer to home, here in Westminster, I recently attended an armed forces dinner. I sat next to a man who had served in Iraq and had been awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross, which is one down from the Victoria Cross. He had also served in Afghanistan, where his gallantry had earned him the Military Cross. I asked him about his Army life, and we talked of many things. He mentioned his home on an Army base, where he lives with his wife, who will soon turn 50. They cannot close the windows properly in their house because the double glazing framework has blown out. Their kitchen is made up of badly fitting, ill-matching units which are dysfunctional and look a complete shambles. They are sometimes embarrassed to ask people to supper because of the state of their accommodation.
Warrant Officer Mick Flynn is one of Britain’s most highly decorated soldiers. He is one of our heroes. He has given his entire working life to his country, and he is justly proud of his career. He does not complain, and he asks for little. I think that, as we debate the military covenant, the House will agree that we should support the rhetoric with practical action, such as ensuring that someone goes round to Mr and Mrs Flynn’s house to sort out their windows, fix the kitchen, and restore a little dignity to their home.
They will now.
Good. That will give some tangible meaning to the term “military covenant”.
There is a positive side, however. I heard a story of a uniformed serviceman boarding a civil jet to return to the UK and the other passengers giving him a spontaneous round of applause as he took his seat. That is a great example of attitude, awareness and respect, and perhaps we should do much more of that kind of thing unreservedly. In order for the covenant to work, society must also modify.
I am very proud to support the Bill. I hope it will help to maintain public awareness of the sacrifices made by our military personnel and their families every single day.
It is a pleasure to be called to contribute to this debate. I welcome the Bill’s provisions, especially the enshrining of the military covenant into law.
I have not been able to contribute to earlier debates on the Bill, nor do I have any military service as distinguished and gallant as that of some Members who have spoken. My only experience of military service was going to Leconfield base when I was about eight or nine with my father, when he was in the Territorial Army in east Yorkshire. That is as far as my direct interaction with the military goes. However, my constituency, and east Yorkshire and north Lincolnshire in general, is a major recruiting ground for our military. Consequently, a number of veterans in my constituency and across the area regularly contact me on military matters, as do the families of serving personnel. This subject is of great local interest, therefore.
The constituency also has a long and proud history of supporting our military and playing an important role in military operations. Only last week, I attended a ceremony in Goole to mark the anniversary of D-day, and the Mulberry harbour was, of course, constructed in Goole, so the military is never far from the minds of the people of Brigg and Goole. I have also been working with a number of charities in my local area, not least the National Gulf Veterans and Families Association. The Minister knows of my interest in it, as he recently met me at the Ministry of Defence to discuss its work. I know it will welcome the military covenant provisions.
I may not have any direct military service history, but a month or so ago I spent some time with the armed forces scheme in the Falkland Islands, which was incredibly enlightening as it gave those of us without that experience the opportunity to engage with service personnel in all three branches of the military. I was staggered to hear how poorly some of them feel they are both treated and prepared for leaving the military. I was especially shocked to learn that many of them find that it is a problem for them to wear their uniform when they return to the UK. In fact, some of them highlighted that they had been verbally assaulted for wearing their uniform. That demonstrates that we have to ensure that more respect is shown to our military by the general public, and there is no better way of leading on that than by enshrining the military covenant in law.
When talking to those soldiers, sailors and airmen in the Falklands, I was most interested by what they planned and wanted to do on leaving the military. As a former teacher who takes a close interest in educational issues, I was struck by the fact that in the past there has been insufficient support for those leaving the military, and I certainly hope the covenant will address that. I particularly welcome the Government’s announcements on independent learning funds for those in the military and greater support for those leaving the military. I hope we hear more about that in the coming months and years.
We have heard a lot about the Joanna Lumley test. In my constituency, I apply the Mavis Vines test. She is a constituent of mine who worked for 25 years in Berlin for the British military before returning to Goole, and who now continually, and quite rightly, pressures me on the issue of how our veterans and serving personnel are treated, especially as her son has just returned from Afghanistan. One issue that she continuously presses me on—quite rightly—is housing. In 10 years as a local councillor, I saw the pressures relating to housing. We are all aware of those, but housing is never far from the minds of those who serve in our military and are transients, to say the least, when serving. Consequently, I hope that enshrining the military covenant and the annual report on the covenant in law will address some of the pressures and challenges that service personnel face.
I needed no more evidence of how a great deal remains to be done on our treatment of our military, but I received some when a constituent came to see me a couple of weeks ago. His son is a ground crew man who is working as part of Operation Ellamy in Italy. My constituent informed me, against the wishes of his son, that service personnel were continuing to be served rotten food and that they had insufficient computers to make contact with their families back home. This relates back to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) about isolation. When these people are on active service overseas, that isolation is not helped if there are not enough computers, mobile phones or communication routes back to their loved ones back home. Although progress has been made since this Government came to power, a great deal more clearly can and should be done to support people on active service overseas.
I do not want to detain the House for too long, but I do want to express my support for the Bill. The Government are right to enshrine the covenant in law. I heard the words of the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle) and I will resist asking why these things were not done previously. The Labour Government did have a number of years in which they could have enshrined the covenant in law. I hope that we can proceed in a cross-party way on this issue. There remains much to be done to support our military, but the amendments that have been made to enshrine the covenant are the right ones. I am sure that hon. Members from all parts of this House will support the Bill, as I will, and I conclude by wishing our service personnel all the very best.
I would like to start my contribution by putting on the record just how much I enjoyed serving on the Armed Forces Bill Committee. Not only was that a great honour for me, but it was very interesting and, at times, fun, as others have said. It was my first Public Bill Committee and it would have been my first choice in terms of subject. I am sure that one of the reasons why I was asked to serve on it was because of my military background, although I can assure the House that my military experience is very modest.
I am sure hon. Members are aware that I am a serving reservist. I am currently a trooper in the ranks with the Royal Gloucestershire Hussars, as part of the Royal Wessex Yeomanry. Previously, I was a gunner with 266 Commando Battery in Bristol and was attached to 29 Commando on Operation Herrick 9. Because of injury—I snapped my collar bone—and the general election interrupting my military service, and despite my best efforts, I have not been able to join the friends I served with last time who are in Afghanistan, on Operation Herrick 14, as part of 3 Commando Brigade. That has made me feel guilty from time to time, and it leads to some days when I am a bit out of sorts because I am here when they are out there doing the business and doing a great job. While they are out there serving our country, if I have been able to serve on this Committee and make a small contribution that will in the end improve the lives of servicemen and women, veterans and their families, at least I will have done my bit in some way. I hope the rest of my friends’ deployment goes very well and they all come back safely.
On occasion, the Committee has been more partisan than I would have liked. However, that has mainly been on the detail and emphasis, rather than the principle of doing the best that we can for our troops, veterans and their families—in principle, there is complete agreement on that. I am glad that there is broad agreement across the House and the party political divide on this final version of the Bill.
I want to pay tribute to all my colleagues on the Committee, with whom I have really enjoyed working, especially my new friend the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who is, I know, very passionate about the armed forces and did some fantastic work in the previous Government, when he was a Minister. [Laughter.] Sorry, I could not resist.
We all recognise that the most important and prominent duty of any Government is the defence of the realm and the protection of our people. I believe the whole House is also in agreement that it is of equal importance that all Governments value the contributions and sacrifices that our servicemen and women make in carrying out that most crucial task. The welfare of our nation’s servicemen and women is rightfully at the top of the political agenda and the Government have moved swiftly to ensure that any lapses in the commitment between Government and our armed forces are rectified.
In the Bill, we have a piece of legislation of historic importance to our nation and to our armed forces. The commitment has existed since the inception of the nation state—from the times when the ancient Romans gave land to their veterans to provide them with a livelihood to 1593 when Elizabeth I recognised the country’s responsibility to wounded veterans—and the passing of the Bill, in this House, proves our firm and now unbreakable commitment to our service personnel, veterans and their families.
Most significant will be the statutory duty on the Secretary of State to report annually to Parliament on the effects of service in our armed forces and on the welfare of serving and former members of the armed forces and of their families. That provision will ensure that the armed forces covenant that the Government are rebuilding will be advanced year on year. Each report will have to set out how the Government are supporting our armed forces, their families and veterans in key areas such as health care, housing and education.
For the first time in the history of our nation, the Bill will give statutory recognition to the armed forces covenant and provide a mechanism for ensuring that it is addressed by Ministers and Parliament. As I have mentioned, in Committee there was broad agreement, at least on the key principles that underpin the armed forces covenant. To me, those principles are that when our armed forces personnel on operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere face paying the ultimate price in the protection of our country, its citizens and our freedoms and way of life, we should only ask them to do so in the knowledge that they are properly equipped for the task, that they will be trained to the highest level and that when they retire or should they be injured, wounded or indeed killed, they and their families will be provided for in recognition of and admiration for the sacrifices that they have made.
The covenant between the state and the men and women we ask to defend it is rightfully a long-standing tradition and commitment and its continuation and development is more important than ever before. That is why I, too, welcome the amendments tabled in the name of the Secretary of State for Defence, which were accepted by the House. Those amendments have been welcomed by Chris Simpkins, the director general of the Royal British Legion, who said:
“I firmly believe that we now have a much better Bill, which is not just fit for purpose, but also embodies the ‘historic agreement’ and covenant principles”.
The way in which the covenant was reflected in legislation was debated in great detail in Committee, and we can all be proud of what has come out of those deliberations.
This Bill is recognition of a duty that precedes even this place, the mother of all Parliaments, and that is the duty of care, protection and equality for those who are asked to defend our country. This is a proud moment for this Parliament, which will enshrine that covenant in law for the first time.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.