Thursday 31 January 2013
[Sir Alan Meale in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Karen Bradley.)
Thank you for chairing this debate, Sir Alan; it is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I extend my appreciation to the Backbench Business Committee for responding positively to my request for this debate. Its members, like all Members here, recognise the importance of S4C.
The purpose of this debate is to recognise and underline the important role that S4C has played in Wales over the past 30 years, but I also want to look forward to how the channel can develop and respond to changing needs in the new media age. This is also an opportunity to seek assurances from the Minister about his Department’s continued role in supporting and funding the channel.
It is hard to recall how broadcasting in Wales looked before S4C started transmitting in 1982. I can just about remember when Welsh language programmes used to appear on the BBC and ITV. They irritated non-Welsh speakers and could hardly meet the demand of those who wanted to watch Welsh language programmes. “Pobol y Cwm”, “Heddiw” and “Fo a Fe” are just three of the programmes I remember best. Although “Pobol y Cwm” remains with us, it has changed significantly and holds the record for being the BBC’s longest-running soap opera. It is interesting to note that the first Welsh-language broadcast was in 1923, when Mostyn Thomas sang “Dafydd y Garreg Wen” on the radio.
S4C was born of the Broadcasting Act 1980, which established Channel 4 across England, Scotland and Northern Ireland and S4C in Wales. Before that time, there was some controversy. We should pay tribute to two people who played key roles in securing the Welsh channel. The first was the former Plaid Cymru MP Gwynfor Evans, who campaigned tirelessly; the other was Wyn Roberts, then MP for Conwy and now known as Lord Roberts. His influence as a Welsh Office Minister was key in encouraging Margaret Thatcher and Willie Whitelaw to agree to the channel.
Over the past 30 years, S4C has boasted a host of nominations and awards, including numerous BAFTAs. “Hedd Wyn” and “Solomon a Gaenor” were nominated for Oscars in the best foreign-language film category, along with several Emmys and New York film festival awards. S4C has an excellent reputation for animation; “Superted”, one of its first programmes, broadcast in 1982, became the first ever British animation series to be broadcast by Disney. I could go on and on.
Those awards not only demonstrate the channel’s cultural and artistic influence but underline its economic role. Films and programmes of such calibre have naturally created demand from international broadcasters. I could highlight several examples, but one of the most notable is “Jesus: The Miracle Maker”, seen in the cinema and on television by some 40 million people, including two peak-time viewings on the ABC network in the US.
The fallout from such success and Government spend has been the creation and development of a broadcast industry. Wales has 40 independent television companies, some of which have become significant UK players and are expanding internationally. Two obvious examples are Boom Pictures, which developed from Boomerang and is in the news today because of its deal with MainStreet Pictures, and Tinopolis, which bought Mentorn Media and Sunset and Vine.
Other notable companies winning commissions from UK networks are Rondo, Green Bay, Cwmni Da and many others. Their main activities are in Wales, where they create employment and wealth for the UK economy.
What does the hon. Gentleman think the state of the creative industries in Wales would be if there had not been an S4C?
The hon. Gentleman might be familiar with the Hargreaves report, which said that it is unlikely that there would be an independent television industry in Wales if not for S4C. The economic impact now adds between £80 million and £90 million to the economy. Although that is positive, it needs to develop further with a multiplier effect; I will return to that a little later. I note that every one of S4C’s chairmen and chief executives have contributed significantly to that success and provided excellent leadership over the years.
Digitisation created new opportunities, but also caused the channel some difficulties. S4C established its digital channel in 1998, changing the landscape significantly. Rather than broadcasting a limited number of hours of Welsh programming and taking the remaining feed from Channel 4, S4C Digital started broadcasting Welsh-language programmes all day long. Although there was a change in the funding formula, budgets naturally became tighter with increased demand for output. Increased viewer choice also had a fallout on viewer numbers. Depending on how we measure the channel’s success, audience numbers would naturally have been squeezed. Recent changes in viewing patterns to online, on-demand, satellite, mobile and other innovative formats have made Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board data less reliable.
Some politicians and leading individuals have sought to exploit the need for changes in the running of S4C for their own ends. Just over two years ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) held a debate on the channel here in Westminster Hall, after the Minister first proposed to change the predominant funding source from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to the BBC. That debate was exploited to the full, despite assurances and guarantees offered by the Minister and the Secretary of State at the time. Questions were asked about operational independence and commissioning guarantees to independent companies. Despite the commitments offered by Ministers to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy and me, the critics continued to be negative and to use the channel as a political stick, creating uncertainty and undermining confidence.
The hon. Gentleman uses the interesting word “exploit”. Some might characterise what we said at the time as proper concern for the national channel and the only channel broadcasting in Welsh. He and I differ in our views. Clearly he has his own beliefs.
I remind the hon. Gentleman how packed Westminster Hall was on that occasion. People who had never shown any interest in the channel came merely to use it as a political stick, rather than listening to the reassurances given by the Secretary of State and the Minister, which have now been realised in the agreement signed earlier this week. Until then, the channel had avoided being used for political purposes. I hope that it can return to that state of consensus on how it is supported. That is the best way to secure its long-term future. This week, those guarantees from the Government have become reality. I was pleased that the BBC Trust and the chairman of S4C approved their operating agreement. It is excellent news and exactly meets the Minister’s commitments. It satisfies the demands of the Welsh public, the industry, S4C and the BBC.
Some points in the agreement are still open to interpretation. They relate to powers to intervene, which lie with the trust rather than the corporation, and extreme circumstances in which the BBC could withdraw funding. It is important to emphasise that interpretation of “the BBC” in that document should refer to the BBC Trust, and that there is an expectation that the BBC Trust would consult Ministers and others well before getting into a position to withhold funding.
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. The agreement is testament to the hard work of the chair of the S4C authority and the commissioner for Wales of the BBC. They seem to have managed to square a circle. Does he share my concern, however, that the agreement might be problematic if we had a commissioner for Wales on the BBC Trust who was hostile to Welsh-language broadcasting?
I refer to the point I have already made. I pay tribute to the people the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, but the agreement follows the commitment and guarantees that were given by the Secretary of State and the Minister at the time of the previous debate. It brings those commitments into reality, and I absolutely take confidence in the document and in the comments made by the chairman of S4C, its chief executive and the chairman of the BBC Trust. I absolutely accept those comments. That is why I wanted to clarify today the small points that are down to interpretation. It comes down to the matter of the BBC Trust, and there is a long process before the BBC would ever get to a position of withholding funding.
With those doubts resolved, we are left with the challenges and opportunities for the future. We are already seeing the benefits of closer working with the BBC. There is on-demand provision through iPlayer and Clic, where common platforms provide opportunities for savings, and some central services can be reorganised to save more money. Such joint working, however, should not be at the cost of commissioning from the independent sector. In fact, money saved through joint working should be able to increase resources available for commissioning.
Commissioning programmes to be made in both English and Welsh makes good sense, and it opens the door to international markets.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
For the information of the Minister and those who might not have heard what I said during the Divisions, I will push on so that we can get everyone in, in particular those who have to leave early. If Members who are called to speak could keep their contributions down to five or six minutes, in the early stages at least, that would be really helpful.
Before the interruption, I was talking about the joint working with the BBC and how that should release funding to enable more money to be spent on commissioning from independent companies, although, as one of my hon. Friends commented during the interval, the Divisions make it seem as though S4C is being subject to some interference. Commissioning programmes to be made in both English and Welsh makes good business sense and opens international markets. “Mathias”, or “Hinterland”, is one such example —the programme has already been sold to a Danish broadcaster.
Viewing figures alone are not necessarily the best measure of the success of a channel. The limited number of BARB boxes in Wales leads to significant fluctuations in the audience numbers recorded, and a recent saving of £250,000 was made by removing the additional BARB boxes commissioned by the channel. That was sensible, and the right thing to do, but we need to bear those fluctuations in mind. If measuring audience numbers alone is too simplistic, we need to recognise the limited audience and compare S4C with other channels that operate in specialised areas, such as BBC 4. I do not have a solution to the problem of how we measure success, but it needs to be considered.
New media technology also provides new opportunities to reach new audiences, and means that language need not be a limitation. Two-language commentary on sport is an excellent innovation that should be developed further. Although the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has been supportive of S4C’s expansion into new media, legislative changes are needed, because of the limitations of the existing Communications Act 2003. Such changes would enable the channel to become more effective and to operate in further areas of new media. That has a direct link with the economic impact of the channel, but the multiplier has to improve further. The digital development and co-production funds offer opportunities to attract additional finance, support creativity across platforms and develop new companies and innovations. It would be good to see S4C expand yet further in that way.
It is important for S4C to be at the centre of the media industry developing in Cardiff. I hope that comments about setting up offices elsewhere do not detract from the cluster effect that can give critical mass, allow the transfer of skills and creativity and, ultimately, generate wealth for the UK economy.
I absolutely agree, and it is important for the channel to reflect the culture of the whole of Wales, so commissioning from companies outside Cardiff is important. S4C, however, has to be at the centre of the dynamic media innovations in Cardiff, to create that cluster effect, generate wealth and provide opportunities for greater export of programmes. I do not detract from the channel’s activities elsewhere, but I hope that those activities elsewhere do not detract from its focus at the centre of that media development.
Finally, I want to talk about the importance of the funding from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I hope that that was our last Division this afternoon, and that this important debate can continue. I was about to make my final point, which is about the importance of funding from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Not only is the £7 million important financially, but it prevents the BBC from holding a near-monopoly on the funding and commissioning of programmes in Wales, although ITV plays a part, and that is important to the plurality of media in Wales. I appreciate that the Minister’s hands are tied and that he cannot provide a copper-bottomed guarantee because of Treasury rules, but I would like some words that show his and his Department’s commitment to the channel, and a reassurance within the constraints and limitations on him.
Having spoken to the Minister and the Secretary of State previously, I have been encouraged by their response and commitment to S4C. They have lived up to every commitment they made when, two years ago, the channel had difficulties with its longer term future. I am confident that the coalition Government and, I hope, a future Conservative Government will retain that commitment to the channel in the longer term.
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate on a very important subject. This is a great moment in our history, celebrating, as we do, the 30th anniversary of the world’s only publicly broadcasted Welsh language channel. Of course, we now take the channel’s existence very much for granted. We are not only used to S4C, but used to seeing and hearing the Welsh language, though I certainly do not accept the view of some commentators that the historic struggle for securing the future of the Welsh language is over. None the less, it is fair to say that Welsh is still a living language. It stares at us from road signs, beams down from the large letters beloved of supermarkets, and plays on our television sets, radios and on the internet. It is the language of much, though not all, official documentation.
One thing I am sure of is that none of that happened by magic or by chance. The existence of S4C is a reminder of a diverse history of people—some of them famous, but most of them not—who fought for the Welsh language in times when it was not fashionable to do so. The fact that we are here at all today is testimony to them, and they, above all, deserve our publicly expressed thanks and admiration.
In case we need reminding of the scale of the challenge that they faced, I would like to share with hon. Members the words of Mr E.R. Appleton, who was the senior BBC official and man in charge of broadcasting in Wales in the late 1920s. When questioned about whether the people of Wales might have a modicum of Welsh language in broadcasting, he said that
“the official language is English. When His Majesty’s Government decided to form a corporation for the important function of broadcasting, it was natural that the official language be used throughout. To use the ancient languages regularly—Welsh, Irish, Gaelic and Manx—would be either to serve propaganda purposes or to disregard the needs of the greatest number in the interest of those who use the language for aesthetic and sentimental reasons rather than for practical purposes...If the extremists who desire to force the language upon listeners in the area were to have their way, the official language would lose its grip.”
There we have it—no Welsh-language broadcasting, or it might affect the grip of the English language. That is not quite a reflection of what happened.
In the 1950s, our great Welsh youth movement, the Urdd Gobaith Cymru, implored the youth of Wales, “Cymraeg yw iaith yr aelwyd, siaradwch hi”—“Welsh is the language of home and hearth, speak it.” It spoke of an era when Welsh was commonly spoken by all members of a family. The greatest challenge then was seen as ensuring that the young carried on speaking and using the Welsh language. However, that is no longer true for most families today, including my own, and those of us who come from homes where Welsh was not spoken by all members of the family owe S4C a particular debt of gratitude.
It is a great privilege to have been brought up in a country with a television station such as S4C. It is a privilege to have been a viewer of S4C as a teenager in Wales, and as an adult in both Wales and London. Last September, on my first holiday to that great European city of Barcelona, a Freesat box meant I was able to watch S4C there too. I have no complaints about people in Barcelona, or indeed, England, needing a Freesat to watch S4C. However, I object to the fact that according to a recent admission by Ofcom, 2% of Welsh viewers need to do the same. I have brought that matter up in the House before, and I will do so again. If the technology of transmitters is beyond the collective abilities of Digital UK and Ofcom to sort out, I believe that they, and not Welsh television viewers, who pay their licence fees every year, should foot the bill for the Freesat boxes.
I grew up in Rhosllannerchrugog, which is Wales’s largest village, though I know there are some in south Wales that have a different version of events on that one. I think it could be described fairly as a village with two community languages. My father came from a village five miles away, where Welsh was not a community language. He does not speak Welsh. My mother speaks Welsh as a second language. English was the language of our household, but my community and school were bilingual.
In the household that I grew up in, the regular presence of S4C, sometimes with subtitles on, did much to normalise the use of the Welsh language for me. It brought bilingualism to life in my family and in many other families in my local community. Through it, Welsh became not only the language of chapels and older people, but a contemporary medium with a diverse range of interesting programmes. One of only five television channels on offer at the time in our area, it provided something new and different. It made Welsh relevant, and for people from backgrounds such as mine, it gave us new impetus to use the Welsh language.
Today, S4C faces a different media age. In the internet age, the development of the channel’s online presence is vital, as is its work in commissioning broadcasts produced by media companies across Wales. There is a real challenge in what must be the development of new media companies in our Welsh-speaking heartland communities, offering diverse programming and a genuine cultural renaissance and regeneration in those communities.
Those challenges will not be easy. There were those of us who wanted to take S4C out of the Public Bodies Act 2011. At the time, on that Bill Committee, three parties, dare I say it, were acting “in the national interest”—myself, along with the hon. Members for Arfon (Hywel Williams) and for Ceredigion (Mr Williams). That was voted for by all Opposition parties and a few Liberals who had a bit of the best Welsh Liberal tradition at heart. That was contrary to the UK Government’s policy, and, I believe, to the policies of all parties in the National Assembly for Wales. We did that, not because we wanted to be awkward, controversial or any of the suggestions that people far less pleasant than those in this room might make, but because we knew the scale of the challenge that S4C would face, even without the disproportionate level of cuts that the channel saw levelled against it.
According to S4C’s calculations, those cuts amount to 24% over a period of four years—a real-terms cut of 36%. In 2010, S4C’s grant was £101 million, and it was reduced to £90 million in 2011 and £83 million in 2012. Last summer, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport announced further reductions—1% in 2013-14 and 2% in 2014-15. From April this year, most of S4C’s funding will come from the licence fee through the BBC Trust for the duration of the existing BBC Charter, due to be renewed in 2017. We do not know what will happen after that. As noted from this week’s statement from the BBC, the funding from the BBC will go down every year between now and 2016-17. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the £7 million received by S4C from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will be received after 2015. According to S4C’s figures, if that £7 million was not there, there would, in fact, be a 42% cut. It is no wonder that the 1,200 people in that mass e-mail and letter lobby—organised so well by the Welsh Language Society—of Members of Parliament serving on the Public Bodies Bill Committee were so concerned. They were absolutely right to be.
For those learning Welsh, and for those longing to be able to speak Welsh by the time of the next census, I believe that we need to consider the situation—to celebrate S4C’s 30th birthday, certainly, but also to look forward to its future and the future of Welsh, as a living, sustainable language throughout Wales.
Before I call the next speaker, may I go through a number of points? You will all realise that we are running over time. The debates in this Chamber today can now run until at least 5.14 pm. I expect the first debate—this debate—to finish at about 3.45 pm. I plan to start to call the Front Benchers at about 3.15 pm. I did ask earlier for hon. Members to be kind to one another and to restrict their speeches to five or six minutes. I remind you all that whether we get everyone in depends on how quick the Back-Bench speeches are. We also want to get those people in who have already indicated that they need to get away at a certain time because of previous engagements. I therefore call Glyn Davies.
Thank you for calling me, Sir Alan. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister and to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), because I shall have to leave at approximately 2.50 pm. Indeed, if you had not been sufficiently generous to call me now, I probably would not have been able to be called at all, so I am most grateful to you.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) on the work that he has done, with the Backbench Business Committee, to bring about this very important debate. I look at it as a parliamentary extension of the birthday party that S4C will have enjoyed on its 30th anniversary. It is an opportunity for us to pay tribute to S4C. As everyone in this room will agree, it is a hugely important organisation for Wales, in terms of Welsh employment, the profile of Wales and the diversity of the economy of Wales. It is particularly important for the Welsh language. I agree with the comments made by the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) in that respect: I do not think that there is any guarantee at all that the future of the language is secure. We have seen recent census figures that show threatening trends. That is an issue that we must concentrate on completely.
S4C has played a very major part in enabling me to learn to speak Welsh. When I was elected to the National Assembly in 1999, I was not able to speak Welsh at all. I would not have been able to appear on “Dau o’r Bae” tomorrow or “Pawb a’i Farn” next week.
It would have been, indeed. Nor would I have been able to do a half-hour programme tomorrow with Dewi Llwyd, “Rhaglen Dewi Llwyd”, based really on my birthday. That is coinciding with the debate about the birthday of S4C.
S4C is hugely popular. We can tell that because the political parties in Wales compete with one another to claim credit for creating it. It was created, of course, at a time when Mrs Thatcher was the Prime Minister of the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan has paid tribute to the work of Lord Wyn Roberts and to Willie Whitelaw. We should also refer to the work of Lord Crickhowell at the time, because he played a very significant part in what happened. I, too, want to pay tribute to Mr Gwynfor Evans. He made a massive commitment, over a long time. All we remember is his threat to fast to death if this channel was not created. I do not know whether that threat was a help or a hindrance to what happened, but it certainly demonstrated a massive commitment to the Welsh language.
I still remember what happened very clearly. The most important thing that the Thatcher Government did was not only to create S4C, but to commit to a funding level tied to a mechanism to continue that, linked to inflation. That happened right the way through until two years ago, and this is where I enter what is perhaps more controversial territory. The love of the language, the feeling for the language, caused many people to pressurise me, as a member of the Public Bodies Bill Committee, which was considering the breaking of the link. I know just how much the people of Wales care about it. At the time, I thought that it was inevitable. I thought that it would be unrealistic to retain the position that we had, but without the link, we will occasionally refer again to the funding levels for S4C. It will crop up in the parliamentary timetable. Certainly I and, I hope, the successors to all of us will fight S4C’s corner to maintain a realistic budget, in the economy of the time, and to make certain that we have a strong S4C.
We have had a period when S4C has seemed to be in a bit of a bad place. I felt that there was almost a self-destruct button being pressed three or four years ago, but what do we have now? We have two bodies, two broadcasters in Wales, that are committed to the Welsh language—the BBC and S4C. They are working very closely together. We have seen the operating agreement. We have seen two chief executives who are working very well together. We have seen the two channels produce the “Mathias” or “Hinterland” programme. That is the sort of thing that I hope we will see happening again and again in the future. We are in a position from which we can celebrate S4C. It is in a wonderful place at the moment. Wales is a small country and is very lucky to have a channel that does such a wonderful job.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) on securing this debate on a topic that is so important to the people of Wales. It is an opportunity for us to reflect on how the Welsh-language television channel, S4C, came into being, how it has progressed over the past three decades, its current challenges and its future prospects.
The hon. Gentleman has his roots in the western edges of the south Wales valleys, where he had the good fortune to be educated in Ysgol Gyfun Ystalyfera—the bilingual comprehensive in the Swansea valley, where all three of my children were educated. No doubt the debates at the school in the early 1980s mirrored those throughout Wales. It was a time of great economic, cultural, political and linguistic uncertainty. The late historian, Gwyn Alf Williams, even asserted in his memorable BBC Wales lecture, “When was Wales?”, that the Welsh had virtually voted themselves out of history with the decisive 1979 Welsh devolution referendum defeat. It was a time of steel and mining strikes and of heavy industry redundancies. I know that the hon. Gentleman was part of the vigorous discussions at the school—I had regular reports at home about them. There would have been many supporters of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, Nelson Mandela and the Greenham Common peace protests. Socialists of various kinds were there—and there was at least one Conservative in the school.
If we look back at that time, it seems somewhat surprising that Sianel Pedwar Cymru—S4C—did emerge. The moment, of course—we have heard this several times, and rightly so—was Gwynfor Evans’s decision to “fast unto death” to achieve the channel. We should leave it to the historians—as a lapsed historian, I welcome their taking on that challenge—to debate how S4C was actually created.
What is not in doubt is that the Welsh language was —unnecessarily, I believe—a matter of conflict and division, which partly influenced the 1979 referendum result, but ultimately the achievement of a Welsh language television channel became a politically unifying force, with all political parties and movements rightly claiming their part, to varying degrees, in its creation and its subsequent achievements, which we are rightly celebrating today.
We should of course acknowledge the decades-long campaigns in the defence of the Welsh language—we have heard something about that today—involving a very diverse range of movements, parties and organisations, encompassing the Urdd, eisteddfodau of all kinds, including the one that my late father and I were associated with—the bilingual miners’ eisteddfod at Porthcawl—Sunday schools, the Welsh medium schools movement, which was absolutely critical, particularly in the south, and of course the Welsh Language Society itself.
The point that I am making is that at a time of fracture, fear and, indeed, retreat, the very creation of S4C, in the midst of all that—unexpectedly for many—served, over time, as a focus of political and cultural unity. The Welsh language then ceased to be a party political football, and I certainly do not believe that it has become so again, even today—the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan made passing reference to the matter. I do not believe that S4C is seen as a matter for party political debate. Everyone in the room today and beyond celebrates S4C’s achievements.
Over time, S4C has made its contribution in creating what the great Welsh writer, Raymond Williams, called “the idea of a common culture”. For me, that means a common democratic culture that embraces our two Welsh languages—English and Welsh—and a growing belief that both languages belong to us all in Wales.
In reflecting on the programmes of S4C, from “Pobol y Cwm” and “Dinas”—I should declare an interest in that my son had a part in “Dinas” over many weeks—to “Superted” and “Y Byd ar Bedwar”, I am struck by one particular iconic cultural creation, which represents for me one of the very best creations of British television. It was created by S4C and is a signifier of the common culture I mention: the 1999, award-winning, Oscar-nominated, trilingual film “Solomon a Gaenor”, which has already been mentioned. It portrays poignantly, painfully and beautifully the class and racial tensions of early 20th century Wales. It is a story for today and for all time—We recently, sadly, commemorated Holocaust memorial day.
Thirty years on, a more democratic and, I believe, tolerant Wales is also more at ease with itself. For all our problems and challenges—there are many—S4C has played its part in sustaining one of our languages. It has done so by ensuring that it is more of a force for political and cultural unity than for division.
For all the progress, there are great uncertainties regarding funding, quality, standards, working conditions, sustainability and indeed democratic accountability. I am not at all convinced that the agreements and arrangements with the BBC are sustainable in the long run, nor am I convinced that the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport is necessarily the appropriate line of democratic accountability. I am not clear that the funding following the comprehensive spending review—the cuts have already been mentioned—is viable, notwithstanding DCMS obligations under the Public Bodies Act 2011.
As Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, I am keenly aware of the need to protect all our cultural rights in this country, including the Welsh language, and ensure that financial considerations do not overwhelm linguistic and cultural priorities. The linked questions of quality, standards, working conditions and so on largely stem from the funding cuts outlined. Vital issues relate to screen quality suffering, health and safety, morale and the loss of skills and expertise in Wales’s creative industries, but all that is for another debate and another day. We celebrate today S4C’s achievements and trust that it will have, in Raymond Williams’s words, the “resources of hope” to sustain itself for another three decades and I hope more.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir Alan. I am delighted to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) on spear- heading the effort to secure the debate this afternoon. It is timely not only in the sense that it is the 30th anniversary of S4C, but because we are celebrating and promoting the new historic partnership agreement between the BBC and S4C, which will safeguard S4C’s editorial, managerial and operational independence.
I would not have said those words during the passage of the Public Bodies Bill. As the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) alluded to, some of us, for good reason, attempted to instil other safeguards and to address the funding formula between S4C and the BBC. I remember my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), now the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, and my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) were there as well. There was a spirited campaign. I do not deviate from the thinking behind that campaign in any way. I would not say that I resent, but I do take exception to, the argument that that campaign was political posturing. The amendments we tabled and the campaign we raised were a genuine response to the many hundreds of concerns that had been raised with us.
Members of the Bill Committee will recall that many of the e-mails we received were remarkably similar and came from one source. Members who do not represent Welsh constituencies were bemused and confused at the scale and substance of many of those e-mails. I was more interested in the concerns of the many individual constituents of mine and the many organisations across Wales. I come here today at least in part reassured by what has happened and the emergence of the agreement, and in part because our job is to show a healthy scepticism—even, on occasion, of the things that come from a Government of our own side of the House.
S4C’s chairman, Huw Jones, has said that the agreement provides security for the channel until 2017. The new operating code will allow BBC intervention in editorial matters in extreme cases, only where there has been a material breach of its remit. We have heard about the funding. S4C will receive £76.3 million directly from the BBC Trust, falling to £74.5 million in 2016-17—an issue of some concern, of course. I welcome that agreement. As I said, it reassures me, but we should not lose sight of how different the funding settlement is from that previously guaranteed in statute. S4C came into being because of a people’s campaign. It was set up to provide a vital service to the Welsh people, and my impression was always that the strength of feeling was the justification for enshrining the arrangements in statute.
I remember as a student in Aberystwyth 28 years ago going to a hostelry called The Coops, which will be known to some of my colleagues, to listen to Mr Gwynfor Evans. I was struck by how that very quietly spoken—he was advancing in years—mild-mannered man had spearheaded that great campaign with such persistence and determination. It was Conservative Ministers in this place, Lord Wyn Roberts and others, who pushed the cause through Parliament.
I am pleased to see the arrangement. It will bring stability and I welcome the concept of partnership, but I am conscious of what our Select Committee on Welsh Affairs said in the last report we undertook on the subject —that
“we believe that it is essential that there is a long term funding formula enacted in primary legislation…Any reduction in S4C’s funding should be comparable to other public service broadcasters.”
We have spoken about the requirement for the Minister to reassure us, as far as he can, about the £7 million from DCMS. That is very important.
There are many positives in the agreement. The statutory minimum 520 hours of programming supplied to S4C from BBC Cymru Wales is important, as is the emphasis the new agreement places on the creative industries. Highly popular programmes, including “Pobol y Cwm”, coverage of the Eisteddfod and “Y Clwb Rygbi”, as well as “Newyddion”, remain at the heart of S4C’s schedule. Significantly, the BBC will also contribute programming to the value of £19.4 million.
S4C is unique. It is the only Welsh-language TV channel in the world. It is far more than a public service broadcaster. The hon. Member for Clwyd South talked about the influence of S4C on English-speaking families. English speakers in my family are now outnumbered four to two by Welsh speakers. I have four young children who speak the language. The language is not now isolated in Welsh-medium education in the classroom in the village school that my children attend. They can hear it in the media as well, which is critical to extending the impact of the language.
We have talked about digital options and the role of S4C in pursing digital platforms, which is also critical. The contribution of the growth of the independent production centre—with 2,000 jobs and £90 million—is also hugely significant not only right across Wales, but in notable pockets.
In relation to my constituency, there has been mention of “Mathias”, or “Hinterland”, a programme commissioned by S4C and the BBC that is filmed in Aberystwyth, Borth and Ynyslas in heart of Ceredigion. We look to that programme to do for the promotion of Ceredigion what “Inspector Morse” did for Oxford. It has already done a huge amount to promote Wales internationally and, as we have heard, it has been sold to the Danish broadcaster DR. That is a very good story to tell, and we look forward to the development of S4C in years to come.
I want to make one more quick comment. In talking about my constituency, broadcasting and the independent sector, I want to pay tribute to the late and much missed film-maker John Hefin, a constituent of mine who died last November. He was an award-winning director and producer, who had been at the heart of broadcasting in Wales since the 1970s. He played a key part in ground-breaking productions in both languages, such as “Pobol y Cwm”, “Grand Slam” and “The Life and Times of David Lloyd George”. Over 30 years, it was his kind of inspiration and innovation that helped to establish S4C’s reputation for high-quality production and to make the creative industries in Wales thrive. Long may that continue.
Finally, today is a celebration. We can reflect on issues that have not been so cheerful over the past 30 years, but we are celebrating, because S4C is still at the heart of the nation. From those of us with more anglicised backgrounds through to the indigenous Welsh community, we must do all we can to protect and enhance this valuable service.
Order. I remind Members about the speaking times. We have had a torturous afternoon so far and Members have tried to be helpful, but we are running out of time. Two Members who wrote in asking to speak have yet to be called and, quite rightly, one of the Welsh nationalists should also be called. That is before the speeches of the two Front Benchers and the winding-up from the Member who secured the debate. Please, please try to keep your speeches to five minutes. If you do so, everyone can be called to speak, but otherwise there will simply not be time.
In 1973, the concept of a fourth channel seemed an impossible, impractical dream. That year’s report, “Television in Wales”, which became Labour party policy in Wales at the 1974 election, called for such a fourth channel. The writing of that report was fascinating, because it went into areas that were unknown—certainly, to me—at the time, including that so much was going on in minority languages throughout the world. As my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) has said, there was an inability to understand how it could be made to work.
One thing that I discovered in compiling the report was that the Inuit word for television is “the shaking tent”. Before Eskimos saw television for the first time, they had an ancient practice of going into a tent and starting an oil lamp burning so that, when the tent was shaken outside, they could interpret the shadows on the screen. Given the quality of television at the time—fog with knobs on—they thought it was another version of the shaking tent. It also came out that, for example in Canada, Ottawa had a station broadcasting in 30 languages, none of which were Canadian or Eskimo ones.
The point I want to make—we have to nail down the history that we can remember—is that, although Willie Whitelaw has been praised, he was not one of the heroes of the process. He was the one who turned the channel idea down. I had a minute, protozoan moment in that history, in that I was the acting chairman of the Broadcasting Council for Wales at that time. I served in that post for a record time that I am certain will never be equalled—15 minutes. I went into the first meeting and resigned after the minutes had been read, as a protest against the cancellation of a fourth channel, although that did not have a great effect on the history of the matter.
What did have an effect, and it was an almighty one, was, as we have heard, Dafydd Iwan and the young people who sacrificed so much and went to jail. I can remember a young man on “Disc a Dawn” called Huw Jones—I cannot think what has happened to him—but many people worked to build up the feeling that there was a great injustice.
The event that changed the situation, after the idea had been emphatically rejected by the Conservative party, was the lucky one that Margaret Thatcher had been reading about Irish history—she was deeply ignorant of it at the time—and was struck to find out that, following the Easter riots and the shooting of Irish nationalists, the interest in Irish nationalism had multiplied enormously. When Ireland had its martyrs, what was a tiny fringe group suddenly became the majority of the nation. She saw a film on television of Gwynfor Evans in the Sophia gardens in Cardiff with a crowd chanting, “Gwynfor, Gwynfor.” She calculated that if he carried out his fast and died, Wales would have a martyr around which a movement would develop. She rightly saw that that would happen—I am certain he was a man who would have stuck to his fast, if the channel had not arrived—but the Government had to find a pretext, because they could not possibly give into pressure or blackmail. There was therefore this little pantomime in which three of the great and the good in Wales visited Mrs Thatcher to persuade her that it was a good idea and that she was wrong to reject it. That was the naissance of the fourth channel, S4C.
That is a matter for great celebration. Looking back on those 40 years, we remember that on the Labour party’s approach—there were many others—there was unanimity in Wales. It meant a great deal to non-Welsh speakers, too, although for other reasons, to get a fourth channel. Great meetings were held, including one in the city hall in Cardiff, at which everyone agreed that the channel would be a great thing.
At the time, we did not envisage that it would be possible for the channel to create many of its own programmes. It was thought that, to fit with the amount of money that was likely to be available, the only way would be to dub or subtitle programmes and so on. With all the pessimism about people watching subtitled programmes, it is interesting to see the current fascination with “Borgen”. Subtitles do not matter. An audience can be got for a programme if the quality is there.
This is a moment of great celebration. The work of S4C was beyond anyone’s expectation then, and from decade to decade its glorious success has continued. If the Catholic Church saved the Breton language and the chapel saved the Welsh language in the past, it is S4C that has maintained and enriched the life of the Welsh-language world. Congratulations to all concerned. I think that the parties in this House will be united in ensuring that these 30 years will be followed by a glittering future for yr hen iaith.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) on securing this debate, and thank you, Sir Alan, for your efforts to enable it to take place.
To inject a perhaps political, but not sour political, note, I must say to the House that this is the only Parliament in which we can properly discuss S4C, because this Parliament is responsible for it. However, our debate has so far been interrupted four times by Divisions in the House on amendments—I hope that they were not frivolous amendments—tabled by a few Tory MPs, as I understand it, to Lords amendments to the Canterbury City Council Bill, which has now reached clause 6. If that is the importance afforded a debate such as this in this place, it is high time that broadcasting was devolved to Wales. The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan may say that I am making political capital, but that is what I wanted to say.
The hon. Gentleman started by saying that S4C was born out of the Broadcasting Act. I have a long speech in front of me saying that it was not, but despite the Tolstoyan labours I expended on my speech, I will take your strictures to heart, Sir Alan, and confine myself to a few notes.
I had a small role in the actual genesis of S4C, which began more in the early 1970s, with the campaign by Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, the Welsh Language Society. I had slightly more than a walk-on role, but slightly less than a starring role—somewhere between Hamlet and third noble on the left. The same is true of a large number of people in Wales who now hold responsible positions. We subsequently came to a consensus on the language and on the value of S4C, and I welcome that.
On a quick historical note for the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr Francis), I was at the meeting in Porthmadog on the night it was decided to establish the channel. The meeting was held to welcome Gwynfor Evans, who was on a tour making speeches about his decision to fast. I was sitting in the body of the hall as it filled up. Then, the aisles filled up, the sides of the hall filled up and the stage filled up. When Gwynfor Evans eventually came in, he could scarcely find room to stand. That was because his campaign was popular, and he had captured something in the national mood, so I pay tribute to him. I am also glad to pay tribute to Wyn Roberts, whose role in this matter is sometimes not recognised.
The channel’s cultural achievements are astonishing. Wales, with a population the same size as those of Bedfordshire, which has a little over 600,000 people, Wiltshire and Worcestershire, has produced a TV channel responsible for creating films that have been up for Oscars and BAFTAs and for filling a great number of hours during the week. That cultural achievement is astonishing, and we have to pay tribute to S4C and the people who contribute.
I want S4C to develop and to be fully funded, and I am sure the Minister will give us assurances on that. I want it to be managed co-operatively by the S4C board and the BBC. I also want there to be accountability to the Welsh people, possibly through devolution.
The channel operates throughout Wales. In my area, there is a large independent sector, which I would like the channel to develop much more effectively. Great developments are afoot, but more needs to be done. With those few words, I will sit down.
I will be brief. I associate myself with the comments of most Members this afternoon, especially about S4C’s success over the years. It is a matter of great pride that we have had Oscar-nominated films such as “Hedd Wyn” and that we have fantastic programmes that are enjoyed by many.
The hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), whom I often disagree with, touched on an important point regarding the challenge facing S4C as it moves forward. We have been concentrating on the challenge it faces as a result of the funding cuts, and there has obviously been a political discussion about them. However, I grew up in an area where people spoke, and still speak, Welsh as a natural community language. People could go to a public house on a Saturday night, and the whole place would stop to watch “C’mon Midffild”. There was a sense of community about a programme that really touched on the community S4C served. That reflects the challenge the channel now faces.
When S4C was established, Welsh was the community language in large swathes of Wales, and more than 70% of people spoke it in various wards. Recently, however, that has been challenged by a decline in the Welsh language, although not in terms of actual numbers—we have seen an increase in numbers, despite the disappointing fall in the recent census in the number of places where more than half the population speaks Welsh. Overall, however, the number of people who speak Welsh or claim to speak it has increased since the channel was established. None the less, the number of communities where it is the predominant language has fallen. That has happened not least in Carmarthen, where the figures are quite worrying. The number of people speaking Welsh in the historical county of Carmarthen, which was always a Welsh language bastion, is down to 43%.
The challenge was highlighted by the hon. Lady. In the past, the channel would have enjoyed the support of families in which every member spoke Welsh, but it now faces a very different situation. Often, we will have a mother and a father, and one will speak Welsh, while the other does not. Equally, the children might speak Welsh, while the parents do not. We heard about that from the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), who said he was outnumbered in his own house by Welsh speakers, and I suspect they will be the children. In the same way, I know that Henri, the son of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns), can speak Welsh but that his mother does not.
Such things are a huge challenge for the channel. We have one television channel that can produce programmes in Welsh, and it has to deal with the challenges posed by a changing Welsh-speaking community. It also has to make sure that it appeals to young children, adults, pensioners, people who think they are trendy and those who think they are not. The challenges facing S4C, therefore, are great. However, although the funding agreement might not be perfect and might not be what people wanted, we can build on it and we can move forward with it.
I want to give a quick warning about the situation we face in the run-up to the changes. There is no doubt that S4C has made a huge contribution, but it took its eye off the ball. There was a feeling that viewing figures did not matter, that establishing the channel in west and north Wales was not crucial and that everything could be done from Cardiff. However, there has been a wake-up call, which is not something we welcome, but it does not do any harm.
Moving forward, we face challenges, but there are significant opportunities as well. Good programmes are being produced under the new regime. My son, who is 15 and a half—not the age to be watching programmes with his parents—loves watching “Alice”. He watches a recording of it on Monday night, because he watches something else on a Sunday. My children still subscribe to S4C’s children’s programmes, which are often ignored as attracting no viewers, but that is because the papers do not understand the issue.
I shall be brief, Sir Alan, because you need to call the Front-Bench speakers, but we should put this debate in context. We have had funding cuts, but we have great opportunities, although they exist in a complicated and changed scenario. I have only one question for the Minister. I accept that the settlement is good and positive and that it gives stability. I am not one of those who believes that the BBC is necessarily bad for Wales. In many ways, it has done a lot of good for Wales. The key issue is that we have argued for a settlement for S4C that is on par with what the BBC is facing. We have not quite managed that, but we have a degree of stability. However, the one thing the BBC has is the ability to plan while knowing where it stands.
I ask the Minister to consider again whether it is appropriate, given the cuts at S4C, for the DCMS contribution to be cut further. After all, that contribution has fallen dramatically. As a Member who has supported the changes, I ask him to reconsider the further cut that has been announced, as a goodwill gesture towards a channel that is crucial to the future of the Welsh language.
Thank you, Sir Alan, for the way in which you have managed to fit us all into the debate, despite the difficulties.
First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) on his part in securing the debate. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for according us this opportunity to celebrate 30 years of S4C. The debate comes at an important time for S4C, given that we had the announcement only yesterday that the BBC Trust and the S4C Authority have agreed the operating agreement that will govern the future funding and accountability arrangements between S4C and the BBC from April 2013. From then on, the majority of S4C’s public income will be provided by the BBC from the licence fee.
We have heard slightly different versions from both sides of the Chamber of the history of S4C and how the channel came about. The important thing, however, is that it now has support on both sides of the House. I pay tribute to Gwynfor Evans for his work and his determined stance. He is best known for his threat to go on hunger strike, but he did a lot of work before that. I should particularly mention the intervention of the so-called three wise men: Syr Goronwy Daniel, the former principal of the university of Wales in Aberystwyth; the former Archbishop of Wales, Gwilym Williams; and Cledwyn Hughes, the former leader of the Labour peers in the House of Lords. They intervened to try to prevail on the then Prime Minister to change her mind. So it was that Sir Goronwy Daniel became the first chairman of the new channel, and Owen Edwards was appointed chief executive. It may interest hon. Members to know that S4C first broadcast on 1 November, before the new Channel 4, which broadcast on 2 November, in 1982. To start with, the agreement was for 22 hours a week of broadcasting, for a trial period of three years. That seems a long way in the past, but that is how it was then. What a difference that is from the 7 am to midnight service that we enjoy today.
It is not always fully understood that S4C is a commissioning body. In other words it has a finance, contracts and legal department, and a commissioning arm. It has been responsible for commissioning programmes from independent companies across Wales. There was an agreement from the beginning with the BBC to provide 10 hours of programmes per week, but apart from that the output is commissioned by S4C from independent companies. The growth in output from the original 22 hours a week to the current daily coverage, from early in the morning to late at night, has led to a flourishing Welsh-language media sector in Wales, with independent companies across Wales employing some 2,000 people. That has been important not only in providing much needed quality jobs in Wales and a range of Welsh media work experience and apprenticeship opportunities for young people; it has given people in Wales pride in the language and an opportunity to show what we can do. Companies such as Tinopolis in my constituency compete internationally.
Of course, there is a knock-on effect into the local economy. More than 100 regular employees come into the centre of Llanelli to work in Tinopolis, not to mention the many guests who come to stay there to work with the company, who increase footfall in the local shops and businesses. That is a real boost to the local economy and I believe that such decentralisation, and the way independent companies have been able to work across Wales, has been important for many communities. It has given them pride that their company takes part in something as big and important as S4C, and has provided job opportunities, and skills opportunities for young people.
Hon. Members from both sides of the House have mentioned funding cuts, and particularly the worrying cuts from the DCMS budget. I hope that the Minister hears that, and I will not go through the figures again. However, the impact of the cut in S4C’s programming budget, from £85 million to £65 million, is already apparent. Jobs, and opportunities for young people, are already being lost.
As a language teacher, I am particularly aware of the huge importance of S4C in fostering the use of the Welsh language. People choose to use one language or another in different circumstances for complex reasons, but S4C has had a significant role in encouraging and facilitating the use of the Welsh language and in helping people to feel confident, and to find it natural to use it. One problem is that pupils may be attending, or have recently attended, Welsh-medium or bilingual schools, but once they are outside the school the world around them is often dominated by English. That is not just because English is the main language of 80% of the people who live in Wales, nor just because of the influence of our neighbour, England; it is also because English is a worldwide language, used for communication between people of many different tongues, and it has a dominant place in popular culture.
S4C has been vital in helping to foster use of the Welsh language in the past 30 years. One of its great challenges has been to be everything to everyone, from soap opera to highbrow. We all have certain registers of language, but S4C programmes help us to extend them, whether in current affairs and new vocabulary, documentaries, popular comedy series or soap operas. We are exposed to registers that we might not naturally use. We are exposed to different regional accents so that we become less insular and more aware of how people say things in the north or south of Wales. We are better able to communicate as a nation; S4C has done a lot to help with that. Fifty per cent. of Welsh speakers come from homes that are not solely Welsh-speaking, so even people who are not surrounded at home by speakers of the same language have opportunities to continue to hear, use, repeat and be aware of the language.
Subtitles are vital for helping people who are less confident. When I talk about learners I do not mean just people who arrived in Wales and began learning the language yesterday. Most of us in Wales are learners in one way or another. We all feel less confident about some areas of our language than others. We all have the opportunity, through different types of programme, to increase our fluency and understanding.
The range of children’s programmes is fantastic, and the introduction of the new “Ti, fi a Cyw”, to help parents who are not Welsh speakers to learn alongside their children who watch the programme, is important. There are also things such as “Stwnsh”, for older children. It is important, particularly for teenagers, that Welsh TV is not seen just as the language of mam-gu—just the hymn singing and the countryside programmes, which perhaps do not appeal to the younger, teenage audience. It is important for things to be brought up to date. Sport has been crucial to that, because if people want to watch a programme for its own value, they will want to understand it. Tribute has also been paid, of course, to high-quality productions such as “Hedd Wyn” and “Solomon a Gaenor”.
Funding and high-production drama is important. It can take three or four years to get from concept to production, and that is why certainty of funding is important, and why the point made by the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) at the end of his speech is especially pertinent to the debate.
Indeed; the hon. Gentleman is right about that.
People who live in parts of the United Kingdom outside Wales—some 144,000 of them a week—tune in to S4C. That is immensely important. Students and working people may live in different parts of the UK during their lives, and that helps them to keep up to date, and keep up their Welsh skills.
During the lifetime of S4C there has been unprecedented change in communication technologies. It is almost unbelievable that in 1982 we were still putting film in our cameras, and journalists used to rush to phone boxes to relay breaking news. It was in that year that my constituent Winston Thomas, the owner of Pembrey airport and founder, owner and chief executive officer of Celtic Engineering, was part of a team that developed the first commercial e-mail and numerous other products and services, including fibre-optic systems. We have come a long way from there, but what does the future hold? Gone are the days of the family huddling around one TV set in the living room, and arguing over which of the four channels to watch. People can now access numerous channels, through a wealth of different media devices, and it is a complex thing even to collect current viewing figures, never mind to predict viewers’ future behaviour. That is a challenge for S4C.
As I mentioned, S4C and the BBC have had a long relationship, and we all welcome the announcement made yesterday, setting the agreement between them on a firm footing. Of particular importance in that agreement is the affirmation that
“S4C shall retain its editorial, managerial and operational independence from the BBC at all times during the term of this agreement”.
“S4C shall retain its commercial freedom and S4C’s commercial activities shall continue to operate in accordance with the relevant statutory framework.”
Those are important aspects of the agreement. Not only funding but independence has been set out.
I have a few questions for the Minister. Members on both sides of the Chamber have mentioned the importance of funding, and £7 million per year of S4C’s funding will continue to come from the DCMS budget; but that sum is guaranteed only until 2015. Continued funding from DCMS is vital to the future of S4C. If it were not forthcoming it would equate to total real-terms funding cuts of 42%. Under section 31 of the Public Bodies Act 2011, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport must ensure sufficient funding for S4C to provide its public service. What will happen about funding post-2015? How does the Department propose to make the evaluation of the public service provided by S4C? What criteria will the Department use to work out what constitutes sufficient funding for that public service?
As the Minister will appreciate, and as mentioned by the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), S4C, as a commissioning body, needs to plan well in advance, and it is keen to engage with officials as soon as possible to discuss the criteria. Will he confirm that his officials will engage with S4C on the issue? When will the meetings begin? I can understand why the Minister will say that he cannot commit beyond the period of the comprehensive spending review. Indeed we on the Opposition Benches certainly hope for a change in Government in 2015. However, as he and I both know, there is homework to be done on this. Whoever is in Government, the officials in the DCMS will continue, and the matter cannot be left to drift. Will the Minister confirm when he will engage with S4C on what constitutes sufficient funding for its public service commitment?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. Although I regret that my time has been reduced, I recognise that many other hon. Members in this Chamber have also had their time constrained and have been restrained from waxing as fully as they could have done about the successes of S4C, so I take my time constraint in good part.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) on securing this important debate to celebrate 30 years of S4C. I also congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), and for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) on their contributions. There were contributions, too, from the hon. Members for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), for Aberavon (Dr Francis), for Newport West (Paul Flynn), for Arfon (Hywel Williams), and for Llanelli (Nia Griffith). It has been, for the most part, a good natured debate, because all hon. Members came here with a common purpose in mind: to celebrate the achievements of S4C over 30 years. They should have had a full hour and a half, but were interrupted by Divisions. None the less, many hon. Members were able to put on the record their association with S4C and to fill in some of the important history that led to the creation of the world’s only Welsh-language channel. The other matter that united all hon. Members in the Chamber this afternoon was a commitment to secure the future of S4C.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan is a staunch supporter of S4C and has many times made sure that the important issues facing the channel have been brought to my attention and to the attention of the House. As I said earlier, there is no doubt that S4C makes a tremendous contribution to the cultural and economic life of Wales. This 30-year birthday is a key milestone not just for S4C but for the broadcasting sector as a whole. The length of service has been due not in small part to the relentless dedication of its staff whom I thank on behalf of the Government and of the whole House. In fact, it is good to see what I suspect is most of the senior management of S4C in the Public Gallery today.
Let me reiterate some of the achievements of S4C. It undoubtedly provides an invaluable service to the people of Wales, being the only Welsh-language public service broadcaster. It is also part of the United Kingdom’s public service broadcasting system and we as the Government continue to recognise the utmost importance of its statutory duty to provide a high-quality television programme service.
The total hours of programmes transmitted by S4C during 2011 amounted to 6,410. The Government are fully committed to the Welsh language and to providing Government services in the Welsh language where there is demand for them. It is particularly important for its Welsh-language mission that S4C offers comprehensive services for children, including for young children and teenagers. The innovative children’s programming that S4C has developed, such as the highly successful nursery programme, “Cyw”, is helping the next generation of language speakers. It was certainly heartening to hear hon. Members talk about the role that S4C has played not only in their own Welsh-language education but in that of their children.
It is also important to highlight the wider contribution S4C has made to the creative industries in Wales, which is well known for having a forward-looking digital media agenda and for producing high-quality programmes.
S4C’s commissions have received many national and international plaudits, including winning last year a very impressive 13 BAFTA Cymru awards and a silver prize in the best sports promotion category of the Eurovision TV summit in Copenhagen.
As well as sustaining and promoting the Welsh language and supporting high-quality public service programming, the channel provides a focal point for the celebration of Welsh national events. For example, 1.3 million people tuned into S4C’s events coverage, including the National Eisteddfod, the Llangollen International Eisteddfod, and the Royal Welsh agricultural show.
The hon. Member for Arfon asked whether we should consider devolving broadcasting. Unfortunately for him, this Government are committed to maintaining broadcasting as a non-devolved matter. There are good reasons why broadcasting was not devolved in the devolution settlements, and there is no evidence to suggest that devolution of broadcasting policy would benefit licence-fee payers. Essentially, the UK as a whole benefits from pooling the licence fee, advertising revenue and subscription fees that go to fund the excellent broadcasting output across the UK. It allows major investment to be made in a range of programmes that we can all enjoy.
Everyone is well aware of the significant changes that S4C has seen to its funding and management arrangements in the last few years. It has been through a process of reform since the October 2010 spending review, when this Government resolved to reform the whole portfolio of public bodies. I was the Minister when we made those changes. We had a vigorous, but sensible and good-natured debate on the matter. Just as this debate has been characterised by a common purpose, I strongly felt then that although our changes were challenging to some people, it was clear that the Welsh broadcasting community and the Welsh community at large were prepared to unite behind a solution. As is well known, that solution is that from April 2013, under the Public Bodies Act 2011, the BBC will become S4C’s majority funder, using licence fee revenue and working in partnership to provide the best possible service to the Welsh people, both in terms of quality and value for money. That decision was taken to secure S4C’s future while delivering a better service through a partnership with the BBC.
It is of course inevitable that the new arrangement between the BBC and S4C will bring a number of challenges as it involves major changes for both organisations. However, the arrangements will bring a wide range of benefits, including protecting the editorial and managerial independence of S4C, while safeguarding appropriate accountability to the BBC Trust for licence fee funding spent by the service.
To facilitate the new funding arrangements, the BBC and S4C are entering into a governance partnership, and, as the hon. Member for Llanelli said, that was published yesterday. This will ensure that S4C remains a unique entity and retains its independence.
Following the announcement in October 2011 that the BBC and S4C had reached an agreement in principle on the future funding, governance and accountability of S4C, a lot of work was done and a public consultation undertaken to formulate an operating agreement, leading to the announcement yesterday that that had been ratified.
Having thanked all staff at S4C for their hard work over the last two years, I should like also to thank those in S4C and BBC who worked hard to make the changes happen. I thank the chairman of the S4C Authority, Huw Jones, the current chief executive, Ian Jones, and his predecessor, Arwel Ellis Owen, as well as the chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten, and his staff.
The Government have repeatedly emphasised their commitment to a strong and independent Welsh language TV service. We are convinced that the agreement between S4C and the BBC over the future and funding of S4C until 2017 provides the stability and certainty the broadcaster needs to go from strength to strength. I say to those who are concerned about the funding arrangements for S4C that, rather like the BBC, it is in a very good position in that it has certainty of funding going forward. The package of money may not be as generous as it has been in the past, but it is certainly still a very generous sum indeed.
We will definitely engage with S4C in the future. We need to engage with S4C on its digital strategy. I know that it is looking at plans regarding how it wants to change its digital commissioning, and we will assist it with that. We will also work with it in looking at its future funding requirements. Of course, our door is always open.
To begin with, I thought that the hon. Member for Llanelli was implying that there would be a Conservative majority after the next election, but she quickly corrected herself to point out that perhaps her party might win. However, I return to the main point, that we are all united in wanting to secure the future for S4C.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan, who secured this debate, was quite right to say that he did not want to tie my hands, because I cannot tie the hands of a future Government. However, I will say—in fact, I will repeat—that we want S4C to be adequately funded, we want to secure its future, it is a fantastic channel and this debate has shown that it remains enormously popular with the people of Wales.
I am not one to make confident or sure predictions, but perhaps as I end my remarks today I might predict that my successor and the successor to my hon. Friend might be celebrating S4C’s 50th anniversary, 75th anniversary and perhaps even its 100th anniversary in this place in years to come.
Thank you, Sir Alan, for calling me to speak again. I am grateful for the opportunity to close this debate, and I am also grateful to the Members who have contributed to it: the hon. Members for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) and for Aberavon (Dr Francis), and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb), who focused on the importance that S4C has attached to the Welsh language; the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), who focused on the agreement between the BBC and S4C, which was signed just yesterday; my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) and the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), who, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy, highlighted the funding issues; and the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), who talked about the history of S4C, but I think that he almost forgot to mention that it was a Conservative Government who ultimately set it up. The hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) called for devolution of S4C, which is an issue I will return to in a moment, and the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) covered many of the points that I have already mentioned, and more, in this interesting and constructive debate.
The Minister responded by reassuring the House that there are no plans to devolve S4C and broadcasting. I am grateful for that reassurance, and I think that that feeling is also reflected among the Opposition Members who have spoken. Those who call for the devolution of S4C need to remember that there have certainly been squeezes in budgets in Cardiff Bay. I certainly take more comfort from the security of funding from the UK Government than I do from the funding from the Welsh Government. I just point to the Arts Council of Wales, and the questions and controversy about it in Wales over time, and some of the advocates for devolution might need to look back at recent history.
The funding challenges will always remain; I think that that is a healthy tension. Perhaps in the past, there has not been the debate and discussion about the funding challenges, when there was an automatic RPI increase. It is important that we maintain the dialogue, but the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Wales Office Minister—it is a great delight to see the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) here supporting the debate—will recognise the feeling among all parties represented in Westminster Hall today that the future funding of S4C is important, needs to remain in focus and will not be forgotten.
Thank you, Sir Alan, for chairing the debate.
Military Justice System
[Jim Dobbin in the Chair]
It is a pleasure, Mr Dobbin, to serve under your chairmanship for what I believe is a very important and serious debate this afternoon.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate, and I thank colleagues for their support. A number of colleagues who wanted to speak in this debate have been unable to do so, either because of Committee meetings elsewhere in the House or constituency responsibilities.
The British military is a highly efficient, effective and disciplined force. This debate will examine the military justice system. Serving and ex-service personnel, military and civilian charities, and statutory and non-statutory organisations have all expressed to me their concerns about the system set up to address both complaints and criminality. I repeatedly asked everyone I met, “Is there a problem?”, and I was told, “Yes, there is. Keep digging.” I thank them all for their willingness to share what at times were distressing stories about the complaints and injustices that people have faced. It is right and appropriate that the problems within the armed forces are raised in this House. It is Parliament’s responsibility to ensure that necessary changes are supported, promoted and implemented.
This will be a wide-ranging debate. I could take 60 minutes of the 90 minutes allowed for the debate just for my speech—I promise Members that I will not do so—and still not do the subject justice. I am pleased that the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), will respond to the debate. He has been most generous in meeting me, along with senior military police officers, to discuss some of the concerns that I am raising today; I thank him for that. I am confident that he is also eager to address the problems that I will outline today, and I am also confident that we will get the changes that we need.
As I explained to the Minister when we met, my interest in military justice was sparked by learning of the extent of rape and sexual assault in the US armed forces. A report found that in the US a female soldier was more likely to be raped than killed or injured by enemy fire, in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In the US in 2011, 3,192 service personnel reported being raped or sexually assaulted. The US Department of Defence admitted that 80% of victims do not report the crime against them, and the conviction rate for sexual assault was just 8%.
However, the US is tackling the problem. Having visited numerous US bases recently, I can report seeing billboard-size posters on the walls of bases, and every toilet door has a poster and every corridor is covered in posters, all of which highlight the importance of ending sexual assault and rape within the US military. In Australia, the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, recently issued an apology to all servicemen and women who had suffered abuse. So Britain is not alone in needing to tackle this issue. We do not have the same scale of the problem as in the US, but we cannot be complacent. For the sake of the reputation and integrity of our armed forces, the issues raised today must be addressed.
I have been inundated by e-mails and letters from people who have been through the military justice system having their complaints and offences examined. All of them felt that they did not receive justice and were dealt with unfairly. Most of them wish to remain anonymous, as they are fearful of what will happen if they are identified as complainants. Meetings away from the House to protect the identities of individuals have been necessary and—well-founded or not—a level of fear exists. Sadly, for many people the experience has led to mental health problems.
Cases have highlighted problems with the conduct of summary hearings and problems created by the lack of access to an independent employment tribunal system. Many people accepted the findings of a summary hearing, which they saw as a hearing into a disciplinary issue, without realising that they would incur a criminal conviction. Many only discovered that years later when they left the services and applied for residency or civilian employment. They accepted the summary hearing and its findings because the alternative would have been a court martial.
The system runs on a basis of “Shut up, put up and don’t make waves or you’ll regret it”. Stories of bullying and harassment resulting from complaints and attempts to fight injustice were numerous. I apologise that I will not have time to refer individually to the many stories that I have heard.
Mr Dobbin, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that you answer the question, but I can confirm that someone guilty of a minor theft would incur a criminal record. Someone responsible for a disciplinary issue of a minor order, such as failing to salute, would not. What is sad is that criminal records are seen differently depending on which part of the United Kingdom they are recorded in. Someone might get a criminal record for a certain offence in England and Wales, but not in Scotland. I hope that other Members will address that issue later, as I will not have time to do so. In the system, people face bullying when they register complaints.
In 2005, the Equal Opportunities Commission suspended a formal investigation into sexual harassment following an agreement with the Ministry of Defence. Surveys were instituted in 2006, 2007 and 2009 asking servicewomen and men how they perceived sexual harassment, what experience of it they had had and whether they had reported it; sexual harassment goes through the complaints system.
A total of 9,000 servicewomen responded to the survey in 2006, and reported widespread sexualised behaviour. Some 67% had encountered behaviours ranging from unwelcome comments to sexual assaults; 21% cited their line manager as a perpetrator, and 36% cited another senior person. Some 35% said that they did not think they would be believed if they complained, and only 5% made a formal written complaint. In 2009, 78% of the 16,000 servicewomen who replied had experienced an unwelcome comment, and 65% had been asked about their sex lives or been told sexual jokes. The number of people who made formal complaints hardly changed between 2006 and 2009, although awareness of what constituted sexual harassment increased.
I quote two brief responses to the 2006 survey:
“A friend was out on an exercise when a group of men ducked her head in a bucket of water and each time she came up for breath she had to repeat ‘I am useless and I am a female’. She told the story and said it was a joke but I could see she was upset.”
Another person said:
“Go through the complaints procedure—you must be joking! We’ve no confidence in it at all. One senior officer was suddenly removed from the unit I was on…all kinds of high-ranking bods came to investigate. It was a sexual harassment case. But he popped up elsewhere and we never heard any more about it. It doesn’t give you confidence when you see the officers getting away with it”.
The military knows that it has a problem. Why else would the Adjutant-General ask Major-General Lorimer’s views on equality and diversity? Major-General Lorimer, replying in November 2012 after his survey of 6,000 personnel, said:
“Every female officer or other rank that my Command Sergeant Major has spoken to claims to have been the subject of unwanted sexual attention…There is an overriding sense that soldiers who believe that they have been treated unfairly are not inclined to report the fact because they lack trust that the chain of command will deal appropriately with the complaint.”
Sexual harassment has not gone away. I am told that in the military culture, sexual harassment is an everyday occurrence. Making a complaint is not an option because it involves reporting through the chain of command, which could include the perpetrator or a friend of the perpetrator, and because the complaint could have consequences for the victim’s future career. The perpetrator may often be seen as a good soldier who is not to be lost and who must be protected. I am told that reporting results in social isolation and ostracism within the unit and is seen as showing a lack of mettle and an inability to get on with others. The victims are seen as being at fault: they are the ones who should not have been drinking or in the room, and apparently they also lack a sense of humour. In the military, fortunately, at least women cannot be blamed for wearing high heels and short skirts.
A culture in which sexual harassment is prevalent can be a factor in rape and sexual assault, which are criminal offences. A US Department of Defence survey found that 55% of women and 38% of men reported that their assailant sexually harassed or stalked them prior to the incident of rape or sexual assault.
I have tried to establish how many rapes and sexual assaults are reported by serving personnel, and have received conflicting data. A response to one of my myriad parliamentary questions stated that 18 rapes were reported across the three services in 2011. When I asked for a gender breakdown of those 18 rape victims, the number dropped to four: three female and one male. In a letter from the Minister for the Armed Forces, the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), I was informed that the figures were lower because the original figures included reports by civilians, which implies that 14 civilians or members of the local community had been raped by members of the armed forces.
The figures for sexual assault in 2011 are confusing. A reply from June 2012 said that there had been 36 reported sexual assaults across the three services, but one in July 2012 said that there had been 58, and one in November 2012 said that there had been 40. Yet the Army Justice Board’s item 6, “Allegations of rape and sexual offences”, shows more than 80 allegations of rape and more than 60 allegations of sexual assault in 2011. In the three years between 2010 and mid-2012, a parliamentary question informed me that there had been 53 rapes, but Army Justice Board figures show 268. According to a parliamentary question, there were 86 sexual assaults, but again, an Army Justice Board slide shows 179.
The figure of 53 rapes is for those reported to the service police. The Times was told that the 268 cases may include cases reported by members of the Army and cases investigated by civilian police in which the alleged victim was not a member of the armed forces. However, the Home Office tells me that it has no equivalent data on civilian police referrals of rapes and sexual assaults within the armed forces. The MOD reply to The Times states that the figures include that information. It also suggests that 215 civilians may have been raped by serving members of the military.
This is not just about the rape and sexual assault of women. Although the figures that I have are small, servicemen too are victims of rape and sexual assault; in the 2007 survey, 26 servicemen reported having been sexually assaulted. I asked a parliamentary question about how many service personnel had been discharged or left the forces following a conviction. I was told that the information was not held centrally and could only be provided at a disproportionate cost.
Another parliamentary answer underlined further confusion, stating that
“in the UK the civilian police deal with the vast majority of cases of rape or sexual assault allegedly involving a member of the armed forces. The Service Police investigate a relatively small number of cases.”—[Official Report, 7 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 36W.]
It is not clear whether that refers to rapes or sexual assaults perpetrated against personnel or by personnel against civilians, or why service police may at any time be involved in investigating offences against civilians.
Who investigates what is unclear. Another question showed that a protocol exists between Ministry of Defence police, service police and civilian police, stating that
“while there may be concurrent jurisdiction, local civilian forces have primacy…There are no specific guidelines issued to the Service Police…on whether allegations of rape or sexual assault made by armed forces personnel should be referred to the civilian police for investigation.”—[Official Report, 7 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 36W.]
We know that personnel have reported offences to their local civilian police forces and have then found themselves referred back to the service police. There appears to be no formal external inspection by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary of the three service police forces, and there is no independent oversight of the forces in the form of an independent police complaints commission.
Reliance on reports of rape and sexual assault is a problem. There is reticence to report also in the civilian world. A recent study estimated that 67,000 women were victims of rape last year and that only 15% of women report rape to the police, but only 4% of servicewomen ever make a complaint about anything. Why are they not complaining to their chain of command? The chain of command is fundamental to how our armed forces are organised, with complaints and reports of criminal acts being passed up the chain to the commanding officers, who have responsibility for discipline and welfare. The COs combine the roles of judge, jury, manager, social worker and enforcer of discipline, and they are in a position of considerable power and influence. The 2006 survey indicated that in 57% of cases the sexual harassment was perpetrated in the chain of command.
Where a case is to be prosecuted, it is taken via court martial and passed to the Service Prosecuting Authority—SPA—which decides whether to proceed. I know how seriously the authority takes its cases, but there are concerns about the continuity of case ownership and the quality of information that the authority is fed by the chain of command. A letter from the SPA to the Chief of the General Staff stated:
“We were not informed that the soldier referred had attempted suicide and had been sectioned under the Mental Health Act. In another case it was only fortuitous that we discovered that the accused was the brother of a soldier killed in Afghanistan and had ‘gone off the rails’ on one occasion in an otherwise exemplary career. The list goes on. We would welcome more active engagement with COs when referring cases to us to better inform our judgment when considering the service interest. In appropriate cases we engage with the three services to consider their views on the service interest. While the ultimate decision is for the SPA we welcome representations.”
I have consulted widely about the changes we need to address the reputation, integrity and operation of one of the finest militaries in the world. The men and women who serve in our armed forces need to know that stamping out injustice is the priority of all personnel. They need to know that the person standing next to them values and respects them, and sees them as an equal.
In relation to complaints and criminality, we must have accurate data. It is unacceptable that the extent of the problem of rape and sexual assault is not clearly known and set out, or is being obscured, and I ask the Minister to address that problem. Responsibility for the investigation of rape and sexual assault should be clear and transparent. It should rest with either the service police or the civilian police, and accurate records should be maintained. I ask the Minister to address that, too.
Everyone I spoke to agreed that the most difficult problem is a cultural one. I was told “equality and diversity jobs are seen as something for softies who cannot operate on the front line.” Major-General Lorimer suggested:
“We will derive most benefit from the introduction of widespread, effective and professionalised equality and diversity training. Deepening our soldiers’ understanding of the issues and driving lasting, attitudinal changes to behaviour will, in my view, cement respect for others in the forefront of our normal daily routine, where it should be.”
I do not think that anyone would disagree with that, but to bring cultural change such training must come from civilian experts and not simply involve personnel listening to a law lecture. It needs to be external experts talking inside the closed system of the military. Will the Minister commit to that?
Senior oversight was seen as essential by everyone. I was told that until there is a very senior officer responsible for driving the change and reporting directly to the Chief of the General Staff and the chiefs of staff committee, little will happen. I was also told that change will be limited until there are women air marshals, admirals and major-generals, but I hope that that is wrong. The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills recently said in relation to the financial services sector that frequent travel and working in remote areas of the world had been cited as barriers to appointing more women, but that successful, modern companies learn to adapt, and said that
“doing nothing is not an option anymore”
where senior positions are concerned. Will the Minister commit, please, to such senior-level posting?
The Service Complaints Commissioner—SCC—exists to provide service personnel with a vehicle by which to make complaints about non-criminal issues such as sexual harassment and bullying. Everyone has stressed the need for the commissioner to become an ombudsman. The 2011 Service Complaints Commissioner’s report states that
“for the fourth year running, I am unable to say the Service complaints system is working efficiently, effectively or fairly.”
As the hon. Gentleman might have realised from my speech, I have tried to talk about the two parallel issues. The military justice system means someone being able to get access to justice for the complaints they are pursuing. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that sexual harassment is a matter of justice, even though it is not necessarily a criminal offence. Sexual harassment cases dealt with by the Service Complaints Commissioner would be a form of complaint, hence I have included both issues in my speech.
The problem is the lack of capacity for the Service Complaints Commissioner to investigate complaints. The Deepcut inquiry recommended external oversight and an inquiry capability provided by an ombudsman. The chain of command rejected that because of a fear that it would undermine its authority. The 2011 Service Complaints Commissioner’s report states:
“The SCC is judged by Ministers and Service Chiefs to be playing an effective part in assuring the proper treatment of Service Personnel. The Government’s formal response to my Annual Report 2010 confirmed the value Ministers and the Service Chiefs placed on my work and my team. They commented that: ‘The independent oversight and scrutiny you provide of the process is fundamental to the continued improvements that are being made to the way in which we manage Service complaints.’”
Will the Minister commit to the creation of an ombudsman?
The military is a command and control organisation, whose members are used to being directed from above. It is an organisation capable of cultural change. Major-General Lorimer noted in his letter that
“racism is now regarded by the vast majority as being entirely unacceptable”.
The necessary changes must be implemented. We need accurate data. We need summary hearings brought into the 21st century, the criminal records issue addressed, external inspection and oversight of the military police, the Service Prosecuting Authority having continuity of prosecution teams, and an ombudsman, all well supported by the chain of command, so that men and women can serve with pride, security and equality.
We are sending our service personnel to protect, build and secure populations in countries threatened by terrorism, where people need to know that our military represent our society’s values of equality, transparent justice and integrity. I hope that we see that move forward today.
I draw attention to my interest as a member of reserve forces.
I was the Member of Parliament who asked the Select Committee on Defence, of which I am a member, to take evidence from the Service Complaints Commissioner on some of the issues touched on by the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon). I asked because of some of my casework as Member of Parliament for Portsmouth North.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. I will raise various points, but it is important to put on record that these cases are not the norm. I say that not to belittle the issues that have been raised or to dispute the figures that she quoted. The one message that must go out from this Chamber today is that if someone in the armed forces has been the victim of such behaviour, they must report it. As a member of the Royal Naval Reserve, I would say it is their duty to do so. We must ensure that people do not lose confidence in their ability to report such matters.
I am glad the hon. Lady recognises that our armed forces are highly professional, and I testify that the training we receive and the protocols we are taught are extremely politically correct—in fact, they might be a little over the top for our own Speaker—but they are very good. The emphasis in training on leadership, responsibility and integrity is important. I disagree with her on the armed forces’ ability to address equality issues with their own people without relying on external trainers; I think they can address that in-house.
The hon. Lady might wish to seek out Captain Hancock, as she now is, who received her fourth band of gold on the day I passed out of Dartmouth. She has done an amazing amount of work on equality in the armed forces and is a real trailblazer. I think she was the first female club swinger for that service.
We must recognise that the cases we are discussing are not the norm, and we must also recognise the good work that has gone on. In her session before the Defence Committee, Dr Sue Atkins highlighted many examples of good practice, such as how the Royal Navy addressed the backlog of complaints that all the services were facing by being extremely pragmatic, by empowering people lower down the command chain to clear the general admin cases—issues about pay, terms and conditions, and so on—and by putting resources into the more serious issues that the hon. Lady has raised.
The bulk of the cases addressed by the Service Complaints Commissioner are on things such as pay and admin. I have raised with the Minister many times the importance of getting that right and the woes of joint personnel administration. It is important to learn from that and to note that the lessons and good practice that are going on in one service are being shared across the other services. There are many things in the Service Complaints Commissioner’s report that give us confidence for the future.
Unfortunately, things go wrong, particularly in a case I have dealt with: a nasty assault that I will not detail, although the Minister is aware. I will highlight a few learnings from that. First, it would be helpful if serious allegations are immediately picked up centrally. The chap I was dealing with, after he made his allegation, was placed back in the unit with the perpetrators of the assault. That is absolutely wrong, and if allegations were picked up centrally, that would not happen.
Secondly, there are clearly complexities in taking statements from individuals. Someone may be deployed between an incident happening and being reported, but it is important that we ensure such investigations take place swiftly.
Thirdly, there must be support for the individual. From my experience, I praise the work of the Royal Marines. The chap I was dealing with is from the Army. He had a placement on light duties with the Royal Marines, which was not only a way of parking him until things were resolved; there was proactive work to help him to get his confidence back. That was deeply impressive.
I also want to highlight support for families. People who have experienced a traumatic event often leave their unit and their service accommodation to stay with their parents, who are sometimes elderly. With the emotions they are going through, such people might be violent or kicking off a bit, and dealing and coping with that is particularly hard for older parents. In cases I have seen, the Service Complaints Commissioner and the Naval Families Federation were wonderful: they got in touch with the individual, and were able to provide him with a safe house to go to when things got a bit too much at home.
Finally, we must be aware of how we deliver sometimes bad news to victims of assaults. If an investigation has not gone their way, or if a panel has made a decision that might be difficult for them to hear, support for the commanding officer or the other ranks who may have to deliver that news is vital. On occasion that is done badly. In the case I was dealing with, for example, the parents were asked to be the messenger, which is not good.
We must ensure that people are properly supported. Such cases are not the norm, but they are evidence for why the Service Complaints Commissioner’s role is incredibly important. Her intervention in the cases I have dealt with has been extremely useful. She respects the chain of command, but she points out what is not acceptable. She gives practical help to the individuals and families involved, and, as an individual and an office, she can call on a great network of people across the services. Although this guy was from the Army, the Navy and the Marines provided assistance.
The Service Complaints Commissioner is frustrated in acting swiftly and having basic common sense taken up and acted upon. We must support her and the role. I agree with her call that she should be an ombudsman, which would make a difference in the small cases where we have difficult issues to address. She should be allowed to investigate and report on some of those issues. Given the myriad figures quoted by the hon. Lady, everyone would benefit from ensuring we have got the facts right.
Complaints are seen as an employer-employee dispute. If someone makes a complaint and then dies, whether it is in service or if they are hit by a bus when crossing the road, the complaint dies with them. That is deeply unsatisfactory not only for the family of the victim, but for the person against whom the accusation has been made. The Service Complaints Commissioner ought to be involved in the development of the military covenant, and certainly with its annual report.
Those are all sensible measures that would help to get better outcomes for victims and better support for commanding officers.
There is a resource issue. The bulk of the cases the Service Complaints Commissioner is addressing are technical. Although serious for the people making the complaints, the cases are about terms and conditions, pay and so on. We need to address her resources, but we must also consider how she may use them and who else she can call on.
The things we would like to see for the Service Complaints Commissioner are completely compatible with the chain of command. I thank the Minister for his support with the casework issues I have raised with him. When we deal with tough stuff such as this, and the general challenge of defence, it is reassuring that we have a ministerial team that, as well as talking the talk, has walked the walk. The Minister is a former Territorial Army officer for the Royal Anglian Regiment, and his colleagues have distinguished service careers, too. I think he appreciates what needs to happen for us to improve on the good work that has already gone on.
We all owe Dr Sue Atkins a tremendous debt of gratitude for her excellent work in moving this agenda on, day to day, whether speaking at a warrant officers’ conference or in the work she does on these complaints.
My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), who is not here today, deserves a mention. The way that he dealt with the case of Sergeant Danny Nightingale, getting the balance right between justice and the debt and duty of care that we owe to those—
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) on securing the debate. I apologise to her and to you, Mr Dobbin, and particularly to the Minister, because due to the change in timings I have to leave before the end of the debate.
I start by expressing my respect and admiration for the armed forces and my gratitude for the work that they do, including the Royal Military Police, who often investigate alleged criminal offences in difficult circumstances and face unique challenges. Nothing that I am going to say should detract from that at all.
Nevertheless, in the course of military justice and the way it is conducted—not so much to do with the facts of law in any case—some recurrent themes to do with process and transparency seem to occur a little too often. The confidence of the public and the people involved comes from good process and a degree of transparency. My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Sir Nick Harvey), the former Armed Forces Minister said,
“It ruffles an awful lot of feathers and people of a traditional viewpoint don’t agree, but if it is the view even of the commissioner that there is still a need for an independent ombudsman figure, I think we ought to sit up and take notice of that.”
He is right. I urge the Minister to seriously consider the establishment of such an ombudsman figure.
We are talking about a number of different things in this debate, including complaints, some about matters of law and others about matters of natural justice but not involving the criminal law. I want to focus on the conduct of legal cases, but not the matters of law involved. A number of cases have been mentioned. The hon. Member for Bridgend raised important points relating to those involving sexual harassment and rape, where, of course, the civilian justice system has evolved markedly over recent years in an attempt to be more sensitive and supportive of victims. There may be questions about whether the same kind of progress and evolution has taken place in the military justice system.
Tom Deacon, a former airman, does not contest the facts of an incident in 2007, when he apparently damaged a barrack room door with a vacuum cleaner—that must have been quite a party—but he argues that the criminal conviction he received was unduly harsh. The issue is not so much the legal facts of whether that criminal conviction was right or wrong; in his case, he was not warned that a criminal conviction was even possible in a summary hearing. The summary hearing took place behind closed doors and he did not find out about the verdict until three years afterwards, when it emerged through a Criminal Records Bureau check. His comment to the media was:
“The MoD can do what they like…They are completely above the law.”
I am sure that no hon. Member would necessarily endorse such a harsh judgment, but if there is even a perception of that kind it must give us pause and require us to pay attention to what is happening.
The Minister will be aware of a case that I raised with the Ministry of Defence over several years, which has subsequently been taken up by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), who has conscientiously supported a former constituent of mine, Mr Wayne Moore. The Minister replied in detail to an Adjournment debate last year on this case, expressing confidence in the legal outcome and that, in this case, there had been no real prospect of a conviction being secured. Again, this is not the place for anyone to challenge that judgment. Yet I think that the Minister would accept that, in that case, there were missed investigative opportunities—admitted by the Service Prosecuting Authority—unwarranted delays, particularly in the adequate gathering of evidence and poor communication between various military authorities, particularly between the SPA and the Royal Military Police. There was also poor communication between those authorities and Mr Moore, who was at various stages left in the dark for months on end about what was happening in the process. I am sure that other hon. Members will mention other cases.
The creation of an ombudsman in response to such problems with process and transparency will by no means be a panacea. It will not reassure everybody in every case that has not gone the way that they would want it to go—it will not cure all these things, which are sometimes cultural and sometimes to do with the conduct of individual officers and authorities—but it would at least mean that there was some recourse to an independent view of whether the process had been properly carried out. As the Service Complaints Commissioner herself has said,
“The purpose of the Service Complaints Commissioner was to give confidence to people using the system. For five years I said delay is a problem. If you had an independent level of appeal at the end you could simplify the system. It was my view that that would give people confidence in the system.”
Confidence is what we need here. An ombudsman figure would be independent and would be perceived as such. I am sure that an ombudsman would not be able to second guess the legal facts of cases that had become criminal cases, but would be able to investigate process and the conduct of military authorities and to suggest redress, as other ombudsman authorities can. An ombudsman figure would provide a powerful incentive to have better conduct of such cases and it would at least allow failings that had occurred to be identified and addressed by Ministers or the military authorities, even if it could not necessarily bring about redress in every case.
Nobody is above the law and no one is suggesting that the British military are above the law, but greater transparency and scrutiny, and access to independent review, might ensure that that is also seen to be the case.
I am not going to talk about specific cases. I want to talk about the system of military justice, just to put it on the record. Military justice is superimposed on civilian law. It is an addition to, not a subtraction from, the civil law of our land. Military law imposes additional responsibilities on people who are subject to it. Military justice has evolved recently. It has changed quite a lot—notably in 2006—and was amended in 2011.
Criminal cases in the Army are investigated by the Special Investigation Branch of the Royal Military Police, and I understand that there is an SIB element in the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force as well. The Special Investigation Branch of all three services deals only with criminal investigations. The SIB is independent of the military chain of command. Its investigators report directly to the Director of Service Prosecutions, who is currently Bruce Houlder, QC. He and not the military authorities decides whether a serious prosecution should go ahead. I accept the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) was talking about the interface with complaints, but I will talk specifically about the system—if it works, which it normally does.
The system itself is okay, but it does go wrong, normally because of human beings. In 2010 Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate reported that the Service Prosecuting Authority was one of the most successful areas that it had investigated throughout the land. The military justice system has of course changed—quite significantly—since I left the Army in the dark ages of 1996 but, in principle, it still consists of three levels. First, normally, a person charged under military law appears in front of his or her sub-unit commander—in the Army, for instance, usually a company commander, normally a major. Those charged have the right to have a friend or adviser present. They also have the right to opt for court martial should they so wish. If a sub-unit commander deals with a case of petty discipline such as insubordination, the accused has the right to appeal up to 14 days thereafter, against both the verdict and the punishment.
The next level is the commanding officer—normally, in the Army a lieutenant-colonel, in the Navy a commander and in the Royal Air Force at least a wing commander. Again, the accused has the right to have a friend or adviser present—they are clearly told about that right—or they can opt for trial by court martial, if they so wish.
My hon. Friend is speaking from great knowledge and experience, but one of the complications, as in the case of Mr Moore, my former constituent, is that a civilian is sometimes the alleged victim. The SIB process, therefore, which was involved in his case, is particularly untransparent to people who are not part of the military.
If a civilian is involved, as I understand it, civilian police and civilian court proceedings deal with the case. I do not know any specific instances and I am not going to go through it, but that is my understanding from when I was a commanding officer—a long time ago, as I said.
At commanding officer level, the accused has a right to have a friend or adviser present. Again, however, he or she can opt for trial by court martial. If convicted and sentenced, that person also has 14 days in which to appeal.
At the third level is the possibility of a court martial, which is obviously for serious cases. Again, accused personnel in such circumstances have the right to be represented properly—normally, in courts martial at which I have been present, by someone quite senior, such as a Queen’s counsel. The armed forces insist that things are done properly, and such people are brought out to wherever the court martial is taking place. Someone convicted by a court martial has the right to appeal to the court martial appeal court, which operates as part of the Court of Appeal and consists of civilian judges—nothing military. I am trying to point out that the system includes a largely civilian component.
In summary, there will always be cases in which military justice could have been improved. In general, however, the system itself is pretty good for all members of the armed forces, and indeed for civilians who work under military law. I note the time, so I will now sit down.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) on securing this important debate.
I reiterate the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) about respect for everyone in our armed forces, including those who seek to ensure that justice within them is true and fair. I have, however, been dismayed by constituents’ concerns about possible miscarriages of justice, denial of fundamental rights and, in certain cases, abuse. That is in addition to serious allegations, well documented in The Times newspaper, by service personnel who have bravely decided to speak out. It takes courage to serve in our armed forces, so we should not be surprised that such personnel have found the courage to speak out about what they see as the closing of ranks above them.
Those who have come forward have highlighted worrying cases, including maltreatment of personnel, service personnel with criminal convictions as a result of otherwise casual processes and people finding their charges against others dropped without notice or due process. Some who have spoken out or rightly sought redress have been targeted with unfair sanctions or informal social exclusion. Ultimately, the huge time delays involved in having appeals investigated result in disillusionment, anxiety and resentment. In some cases at least, something serious has gone wrong, and appropriate investigation and review are warranted.
I fully appreciate that in some respects the military operate outside, or as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) described it, supplement what we might normally consider the legal framework of civil society.
Much better—I defer to my hon. Friend’s choice of language.
The armed forces, I understand, are heavily reliant on a hierarchy that provides a rigid chain of command and that fosters and values highly the principles of loyalty and authority. Orders are given and orders must be obeyed. Such factors help us to understand the frame within which military justice operates, but can they ever be excuses for denying justice?
We have heard much about serious and criminal matters in the debate but, instead of repeating such points, it might be helpful if I drew attention to some issues to do with what one might think of as administrative justice and the operation of service complaints. Understanding the culture surrounding the issue is certainly relevant. I have received reports of hearings behind closed doors and of superior officers acting as both prosecution and, effectively, judge. Such matters, if allowed to happen, make access to a proper appeal process against those decisions all the more important. Furthermore, if the process is drawn out for as long as we read about in some cases, such appeals risk being rendered irrelevant on the ground by the time that they are concluded.
I hope that we all want to see values of independence and openness instilled into the proceedings, to restore the faith of service personnel in the system and to ensure that they receive justice. We have heard much reference to the better understanding of the situation that has come from the work of the Service Complaints Commissioner, Dr Susan Atkins. She has continually voiced complaints about the length of time appeals take to be heard and how, in some cases, appeals have not even been dealt with before people leave the armed forces.
When we ask for independent oversight of such processes, I have read that some people point to the role of Dr Atkins and say, “There you are, there is independent oversight.” What good is that independent oversight, however, if the Ministry of Defence does not act sufficiently to resolve the very criticisms that are aired by the Service Complaints Commissioner in her work?
I am anxious to leave time for the Minister to give a full response, and many of the concerns have been well aired. I add my support to the calls for a strengthened institution to provide independent oversight capability. Clearly one option is an independent ombudsman. I would like the Minister to address the parallels with the Independent Police Complaints Commission, and to say whether there is a case for equivalent powers in the oversight of military justice. The confidence of service personnel in how the system operates is important. We ask an enormous amount of them, and they go out of their way to protect others, so it is of great concern when we hear reports of instances, such as have been well outlined in this debate, of our armed forces being unable to protect their own.
The principles of transparency and accountability are key in reaching what must ultimately be everyone’s objective for the justice system. With transparency and the accountability that that brings, everyone is removed from any conflict or any temptation away from what is at the heart of any justice system: that the conclusions reached and the sanctions imposed are ultimately understood to be fair.
It is a pleasure, Mr Dobbin, to serve under your chairmanship today. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) on drawing attention to the important issues that we are debating. The vast majority of our armed forces do their job with the utmost professionalism and commitment, and nothing we say here today should take away from our gratitude for their service. However, we have a responsibility in this place to give an accurate reflection of the issues we discuss, and some people, not necessarily in this Chamber but outside, may want to suggest that there is no problem. A combination of the statistics and the stories shows that there is a problem, and it needs to be addressed.
Servicemen and women need to have confidence in their justice system. They need to know that if they are wronged against, they will get redress, and if they wrong someone else, they will be held accountable. The key principle of the armed forces covenant is that no one serving in the forces, their families, or veterans should be disadvantaged because of their service, and there is agreement that the covenant should cover all aspects of life in the service community. There is a paragraph in the 2012 covenant report abut the Service Complaints Commissioner, but the wider and more complex issue of military justice is not covered, and I hope that that will be on the agenda for the next report.
There is concern that the system is not properly serving the forces. When the same person in an organisation is responsible for discipline and justice, there is a real danger that the lines may become blurred. We must look properly at giving people access to justice outwith the chain of command. It is not difficult, even for those of us who have never been in the forces, to see how concerns about career prospects, promotion, redundancies and relationships with colleagues and senior officers might get in the way of ensuring that justice is done.
I am a little worried about where the hon. Lady is going in her remarks. Is she suggesting that commanding officers should be divorced from the system and that someone else should deal with military justice inside it? That is not the military way, and it would not help.
With respect, the phrase, “It is not the military way”, is sometimes part of the problem. I am happy to repeat what I said: I think we must look at whether there is a need to give people access to justice outwith the chain of command. As I said, it is not difficult to see how the lines may become blurred, and we have heard many examples of that today.
The figures on sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape are extremely worrying, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend outlined. Such actions should not be tolerated in any workplace. I appreciate that the armed forces are a unique working environment, but that must not be an excuse for any toleration of such behaviour. Even when complaints are made, there is concern that they are not treated or taken forward as they should be. The chain of command is integral to service life and it is right that there is a distinct service justice system that recognises the unique nature of service life, but that does not mean that we should not look at ways to ensure it works as well as possible and whether it could work better.
We have heard a little about the summary hearings process, which is used to deal with both discipline issues and minor criminal offences. A commanding officer handles the whole process from start to finish, receiving the initial complaint, investigating it, carrying out the hearing and finally issuing the judgment and punishment. The commanding officer acts as prosecutor, judge and jury all in one, and we must seriously consider whether external oversight is required.
Nacro, the crime reduction charity, recently published a report on military convictions and criminal records. It found inconsistencies in the way punishments are recorded in the hearings system. For example, as the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) outlined, if someone has committed a minor offence and is fined, that is added to their civilian criminal record. However, if someone has committed a more serious offence and been demoted in rank, that is not recorded on their criminal record because there is no way for it to be recorded on the police national computer. In some cases, it is only after the serving person has left the forces and is trying to get a job that they find out that that minor fine is preventing them from getting on with life in civvy street because they now have a criminal record. Nacro also found inconsistency in the rehabilitation period, and highlighted that the period for a fine was five years, the same as for service detention, which is a much more serious punishment, presumably for a much more serious offence.
I understand that there are concerns about the annex 40K form system, and that there are instances of them going missing, with the result that the information is not always recorded on the police national computer, which again highlights inconsistency.
Some serious issues have been raised today, including the level of sexual harassment experienced by women in the forces, some serious cases of assault and rape, concerns that individuals may not feel able to report incidents, and concerns about whether the system is as open and transparent as it should be when complaints are made.
I think that all parties agree that the Service Complaints Commissioner is doing an excellent job, but she and the British Armed Forces Federation have called for the creation of an ombudsman, and we agree with that proposal. We also believe that independent oversight of the military police, similar to the role of the Independent Police Complaints Commission, should be considered, and I hope the Minister will explain the Government’s thinking on that. When the Service Complaints Commissioner was originally set up, it was seen as controversial. At the time, it was quite a culture change, but it is now seen as crucial to the process, and we should not be scared about looking at whether further changes need to be made.
People have tragically lost their lives because they felt that the system let them down. It is not in any way about painting the armed forces, and the police within the military, in a bad light, but we let down those who take their responsibilities seriously if we allow wrongs to go unchallenged, and we run the risk of losing valuable people if justice is not available and people feel unable to continue in their jobs.
I am very pleased that we have had the opportunity to discuss matters today. I hope that this is the beginning of a discussion, because there are issues that need further exploration and consideration.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Dobbin. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) on securing this important debate. It is testimony to her determination to raise the profile of the issues under examination today, and I know that she takes these matters seriously. She kindly said that I do as well, and I hope that in my remarks over the next few minutes, I will be able to persuade her and the rest of the Chamber that I intend to continue taking this issue seriously.
Our armed forces can be asked to deploy anywhere in the world, often in unstable areas. That kind of agility and reach, coupled with the professionalism that is their hallmark, requires the highest standards of discipline. In order to enforce those standards, they are subject to a justice system that, although encompassing the key tenets of the UK criminal justice system, is, to some extent, separate and distinct from it. That point was made clearly by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who brings to bear in this debate his personal experience as the commanding officer of a regular infantry battalion—and a very good battalion at that.
The system that we have in place reflects both the unique role of the armed forces and the environment in which they live and work. It recognises offences specific to the armed forces and calls to account those who are found, after a proper investigation, to have fallen short of the high standards that we rightfully expect. The Armed Forces Act 2006 drew together the disciplinary systems of the three services, so that all service personnel are dealt with under a common system. Acknowledging that our armed forces train and operate in some countries with legal systems unlike our own, the service justice system applies a single code, based on our own criminal laws, transportable anywhere in the world.
Separate from the service justice system, but acting in parallel with it, is the distinct service complaints process. That has been a matter of considerable discussion this afternoon, and was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), the hon. Members for Chippenham (Duncan Hames), for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) and for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle) as well as the hon. Member for Bridgend. The Service Complaints Commissioner, Dr Susan Atkins, and her staff act as an independent starting point for personnel who want to make a complaint but are concerned about how their chain of command might deal with it. In addition, they provide independent oversight of how the complaints system is working and report back to Ministers and Parliament. In cases of bullying, harassment or discrimination, the MOD is obliged by law to update the commissioner on progress with allegations that she has referred to the chain of command for investigation.
I have great respect for the role of the commissioner and recognise the enormous benefits that we have derived from Dr Atkins’s unique, independent position. I met Dr Atkins before Christmas and will do so again in March. We are actively engaging with her to determine what further resources, including staff, we can offer to assist her in carrying out her important work. One thing that we will discuss in March is the expected benefits of the changes that we have just made this month to speed up the administration of the complaints system—changes that I believe will have a real effect in 2013. For instance, we are encouraging greater use of informal means of resolution, and stressing to commanding officers the importance of getting to grips with complaints early to maintain unit cohesion and, ultimately, operational effectiveness.
In addition, we have also provided a formalised avenue for the Service Complaints Commissioner to approach commanding officers directly, so that if she feels that a complaint has not been dealt with with sufficient alacrity, she can now formally approach the relevant commanding officer and raise that personally with that CO, in order to allow that to progress. To some degree—to be as complete as possible—that already happened in some cases informally, but we wanted to formalise it to make it clearer that the SCC had that right in just about all cases. She—and she can be quite a feisty lady, I have to say—can now go to a CO directly, bang the table and say, “You’ve not dealt with this in the way you should have done”, or “You’ve not dealt with it quickly enough.” By that method, she can accelerate the process.
As I say, we have just brought in those reforms. They have literally just begun, but we believe that they will help to speed up the process. Where there have been delays, we hope that the changes will help to reduce them significantly in 2013.
I thank the Minister for giving way. That is excellent news, and from the cases that I have been dealing with, I know that it will help greatly, so that is a good thing. Will the SCC also have similar powers if she spots trends with less serious complaints, such as admin, or something that can easily be rectified? Can she speak directly to someone who could rectify that situation?
My understanding is that the SCC can go directly to a commanding officer about any complaint. She can use her discretion. Whether she would want to go to the CO about every single matter is an issue of balance, and a judgment for the commissioner herself, but she has the formal right to do so if she wishes. If, for some reason, a relatively minor complaint has been—to use a colloquialism—gummed up in the system for some time, she would have the option to go straight to the CO in the unit and say, “Do what you can to speed it up, please.” In our discussions in March, I am hoping to review those matters and take stock of how the new system has been operating in the first three months or so. We believe that it will help to speed up the process materially.
The hon. Member for Bridgend kindly acknowledged that she and I met in early January to discuss sexual offences involving service personnel. I trust that she left that meeting in the MOD with no doubts whatever about how seriously I take her concerns.
The hon. Lady is kind enough to nod her assent. Sexual offences of any kind are not to be tolerated anywhere in the Ministry of Defence. When reported, they are dealt with by specially trained investigators conversant with modern techniques in identifying offences, evidence gathering, forensics, and crime scene management. To support victims of such crimes, service police are able to draw on specialist civilian facilities such as sexual assault referral centres when they believe that may be appropriate. A number of safeguards are in place to ensure that investigations are handled properly and professionally. Allegations of serious sexual offences must be reported to the service police, who act independently of the chain of command, as we have heard, and answer to their service provost marshal.
If sufficient evidence is found to charge an individual with one of those offences, the case must be referred to the Director of Service Prosecutions, currently a civilian QC, who carries out his functions under the general superintendence of the Attorney-General rather than the Ministry of Defence. He decides whether charges should be brought, which is a process that mirrors the relationship between the civilian police and the Crown Prosecution Service. In essence, it is the same principle.
In the United Kingdom, members of the armed forces are subject to both service and civilian criminal jurisdiction. Broadly—I make the point broadly—offences that have a civilian context are dealt with in the civilian jurisdiction. Service police would generally lead an investigation only if both suspect and victim are serving members of the armed forces. Servicemen and women are entitled to report offences either to service or civilian police.
As the hon. Lady is aware—we have discussed this at some length, I think it is fair to say—there is therefore no single, consolidated set of statistics relating to sexual offences involving members of the armed forces, and there are considerable practical obstacles to producing such a comprehensive overall report. Let me give an example of why that is. A service man or woman who suffered a sexual assault might have suffered it while on leave in their home town and reported it to their local, Home Office police force, rather than to the service police, particularly if the alleged perpetrator was a civilian, not a member of the armed forces. The point that I am making is that it is difficult, with the data that we have available, to provide an overall and comprehensive report.
However, against the background that I have set out, I have been pressing my Department hard to produce the most accurate information possible. That work is still in hand. It is complex, and given the seriousness of the subject, we must be thorough, but the initial trends suggest that incidents of sexual offences in the armed forces are declining. That work needs time to mature; it will not be finished tomorrow night. I therefore say in all seriousness to the hon. Lady, before she beats her well trodden path to the Table Office, that it would be helpful if she could allow us to evolve that work. In return, I give her a sincere assurance that as the work matures, I will write to her to update her on its progress, and of course, in accordance with convention, I will then place a copy of that letter in the Library of the House.
If hon. Members consult the annual reports published by the Service Complaints Commissioner, they will see that the total number of complaints about sexual harassment has fallen year on year since 2008. That is reflected in the most recent armed forces continuous attitude survey, which shows a recent decrease in the number of respondents who believe that they have been subject to discrimination, harassment or bullying.
For the avoidance of doubt, let me say that of course even one occurrence is too many, but it is vital that the reputations of the massive majority of our outstanding servicemen and women are not tarnished by the actions of a few. None the less, my Department will continue to be proactive in raising awareness of the standards of behaviour that we expect and in tackling offences across the whole spectrum. I am pleased to report that positive steps are being taken across the services. I shall choose one example from each.
The Army’s Speak Out campaign informs Army personnel of the bullying, harassment and discrimination helpline. The Army has established that confidential helpline to allow service personnel who believe that they may be victims of that to report it. The Army also has a poster campaign that targets sexual offenders and reassures victims. We have consulted local authorities that are leaders in that field, and the hon. Member for Bridgend was shown some examples of that work when she came to visit me in the Ministry of Defence.
The RAF has in place mandatory equality and diversity training, designed with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, and is planning to conduct a sexual harassment survey in mid-2013. The Royal Navy police have conducted an internal communications campaign aimed at raising awareness of sexual offending. Reducing sexual offending also features as an area of priority in the RNP’s annual strategic assessment.
Further to impress on the Department the importance that I attach to this issue, I have convened a meeting of the provost marshals of the three single services to discuss how best we can continue to ensure that these offences are recorded, investigated and then thoroughly pursued. In essence, I will speak to the head of each of the three service police forces so that we can discuss this in detail.
In addition, I spoke yesterday on precisely this issue to the principal personnel officers for the three services: the Second Sea Lord, in the case of the Royal Navy; the Adjutant-General, in the case of the Army; and the Air Member for Personnel, in the case of the Royal Air Force. It is very clear that we are all of the same mind—that this kind of behaviour is unacceptable and must be challenged head-on. I will be discussing this issue further with the three principal personnel officers in the near future.
As I said at the outset, I believe that the hon. Lady and, I hope, other hon. Members who have participated in this debate accept that my Department takes the issues under discussion very seriously. The hon. Lady should be in no doubt: we are not complacent and we are taking steps to expose and eradicate behaviour that has no place in an institution with such an outstanding heritage and reputation.
The right hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire—sorry, I mean the hon. Lady; it is only a matter of time—asked whether we had considered the possibility of empowering a body such as the Independent Police Complaints Commission, or an equivalent, to take a role in overseeing the work of the service police. As she may be aware, there is already a protocol, which has been signed by the three provost marshals, which says that if one of those police services needs to be investigated, in the first instance one of the other service police forces will conduct that investigation, in the way that one civilian Home Office police force might be asked to investigate another if there is a serious matter to be looked into. That protocol, as I understand it, is already in existence and in operation.
The hon. Lady’s question was whether we would go further and ask the IPCC to have an overall role. That is a slightly complex question, and I will explain why. Let us say that it was to be given that responsibility. As I understand it, under current legislation the IPCC has no remit in Germany, so if, for instance, it was asked to investigate the work of one of the service police forces there, it would not, at the moment, have the power to do that. The point I am making is that it is not an absolutely straightforward choice. However, I can tell the hon. Lady that work is under way to consider that possibility. No decisions have yet been taken, but giving the IPCC such a role is something that we are in the middle of considering at the moment, although we have not yet reached a conclusion, partly for some of the reasons that I have just given. I hope that that deals with her question.
As I have said, changes will be made this month—in fact, they have already been made—to give the Service Complaints Commissioner better oversight of delays in handling complaints and their causes. That will also give those who approach her, I hope, even greater confidence that she can have a positive impact. The single services have put in place a number of measures both to deter potential offenders and to encourage victims to speak out. I will get the chance to judge the impact of that for myself as I talk to our servicemen and women up and down the country and overseas. In my role as the Minister for defence personnel, welfare and veterans, I try to travel as much as I can, practically, to visit our servicemen and women, and that will be something that I will have my ears open for.
Specifically on sexual offences, we will continue to provide the right training and resources to those who investigate and prosecute these abhorrent crimes and best support those who have been subjected to them. We ask an awful lot of our servicemen and women. We expect them to adhere to the highest standards of conduct and operational effectiveness. In return, whether they are in Aldershot or Afghanistan, they are entitled to a service justice system that provides consistent and fair access to justice for both offender and victim and a complaints process that is fast, effective and efficient. They deserve nothing less, and we are doing our best to deliver it.
We heard an excellent speech from the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) in which she outlined the importance of not deploying individuals back to units where perhaps perpetrators of offences are still serving. I endorse that call, and I am sure that the Minister will have heard that request. The hon. Lady also made an excellent point in relation to the support for families of victims. I welcome also her call for an ombudsman.
The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) also called for an ombudsman. In addition, he called for recognition of the importance of support for victims. One of the things that I have heard repeatedly from people who felt that they had been victims was that there was no support in their units from their chain of command. If what had happened to them had happened in the civilian system, they would have received such support. I agree that the investigative process needs to be examined by an ombudsman, which he also called for.
The hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) spoke with great insight and personal experience of operating within the chain of command, but I feel that operating within it does not necessarily mean that he has heard some of the tragic stories that have come my way over the past few months and weeks. I welcome his endorsement of the Special Investigation Branch. It is an excellent branch of the military, but the problem for many of the victims has been that they never got that far: their attempts to bring forward their experience as a victim never reached either the military police or the Special Investigation Branch. They were squashed earlier in the chain of command by threats and intimidation and did not take their complaint and experience further.
The hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) talked of the social isolation of those who speak out, delays in the process and hearings behind closed doors. He called for increased confidence in the system and faith in the justice system, which we all endorse. He, too, called for an ombudsman.
I was particularly pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle) mention the problems that the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders highlighted on openness and transparency, in particular the findings of summary hearings. Such hearings have left people with criminal records; a more serious offence often leads not to a criminal record but merely to a demotion, whereas a minor offence can lead to a criminal record. There needs to be greater understanding in the chain of command of the consequences of the findings of summary hearings.
I thank the hon. Gentleman.
Finally, I welcome some of the commitments in the Minister’s response. I welcome the fact that the Service Complaints Commissioner will be given additional staff and that she will have access to commanding officers to assist the progress of any complaint that is being delayed. That is an excellent step. I also welcome his commitment on sexual offences. He said that they must be reported to the service police and the Special Investigation Branch. I hope that he will drive that message deep down into the armed forces, because the reputation of everyone in the forces is damaged by one perpetrator. We must drive it out.
I welcome the Minister’s commitment to the provision of new data and the clarification of the data that are out there. Doing such things is absolutely essential to clarify what problems we have and to ensure that they can be indentified and dealt with. I also welcome all the individual initiatives that he outlined for the three forces. We need to ensure that they learn from one other to guarantee that best practice—
Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).