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Armed Forces (Prevention of Discrimination) Bill

Volume 557: debated on Friday 1 February 2013

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

“In this age of moral equivalence it must be said that no other occupational group in the United Kingdom matches up to UNMS”—

the unique nature of military service.

“In particular, none belong 24/7 to the Crown, is exempted from normal working practices of the sort governed by the European working-time directive and national minimum wage legislation, has no organised representation, may not easily terminate their service particularly on notice for deployment, will probably sustain some sort of illness or injury if deployed and has liability up to and including death with all that means for dependants cascading through the generations.”

Those are eloquent words, and because they are eloquent words, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am sure you realised that they were not mine. They are the words of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who I think, in the genuine cross-party spirit of this subject matter, has eloquently defined the unique challenges facing our military.

I have introduced the Bill after reading, as I know the Minister has done, the report published last year about some of the adversities that our armed forces face, not on the battlefield, not in theatre of operations, but when they are here in the United Kingdom. I pay tribute to the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois). I have had the privilege of serving with him in the House for the past two and a half years. I know he is a passionate supporter and champion of our military personnel and I welcome him to his role. I think this is the first time we have had an opportunity to debate the issue.

I thank The Sun, which has supported our campaign to put in statute particular protection for members of our armed forces. It is fair to say that there is no sensible Member of the House present today—I see that the hon. Member for Bradford West (George Galloway) is not here, so I am fairly confident that I can say that—who does not believe that protecting our armed forces is the first duty of the Ministry of Defence.

I have drawn the Bill narrowly. I place on record my thanks to Ms Kate Emms and Mr Simon Patrick for their incredibly sterling work in helping to draft the Bill. Let me clarify what the Bill does not cover. It does not cover the issue of trade and sales, or the outrageous cases in which service personnel are refused entry to pubs. I commend to the Minister of State an excellent book which he can probably get from the Library, although as I know he has deep pockets, he would probably go on to a website and buy his ministerial colleague’s book, “Tommy This an’ Tommy That”, which eloquently sets out some examples. There was the notorious case where Harrods refused service to a serving member of the armed forces who, I think, had come in after a Remembrance day parade.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words earlier and also for his reference to the book, which was written by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who is sitting on the Front Bench next to me. I am delighted to reassure the hon. Gentleman that I was present at my hon. Friend’s book launch and purchased a copy of the book from my own perhaps not quite so deep pockets. It is a very good read.

I am grateful for that, and I am reassured that the right hon. Gentleman used his own money to purchase the book and did not borrow the £15 from his ministerial colleague.

As the book sets out, there have been some ridiculous examples, such as the one, when somebody in their uniform who had been at a Remembrance day service was refused service by Harrods. The Under-Secretary subsequently visited the store after a bit of a campaign in which he had been involved, and thankfully Harrods has changed its policy. I am sure, Mr Deputy Speaker, that in your own constituency and others you are aware of incidents where, regrettably, members of the armed forces have been refused service on rare occasions.

The report contains allegations that banks and building societies have turned down mortgage applications from armed forces personnel, and they have been unable to get mobile phones. I am conscious of hon. Members’ comments on previous occasions about narrowly defining Bills, so on this occasion I have not put such incidents into the Bill, but when the Minister responds I hope he will consider how widespread the problem is. The Ministry of Defence may wish to use a report mechanism to provide greater clarity on it.

I want to focus on the even more abhorrent incidents, which, thankfully, are relatively rare, but do occur, of verbal and physical abuse of members of our armed forces. No one present today and no one watching our proceedings would not condemn unequivocally the actions of a mindless tiny minority who when, for example, the coffins returned from theatre felt the need to hurl abuse and intimidate those who had gathered to pay their respects. I know that the Minister takes that very seriously.

The report also contains accounts of an RAF recruiter who reported that she had regularly faced verbal abuse. People had apparently called her a baby killer, which I am sure the House would find utterly despicable. It is such incidents that the Bill seeks to address, as well as physical assaults. I am clear, as I am sure is the House, that we are not talking about where soldiers, sailors or RAF personnel get into a fight as any other person might, but where they have been subject to an assault because of the fact that they are either in or out of uniform.

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case for his Bill. In my constituency we are proud of our links with the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, which has now effectively taken over from the Lancashire Fusiliers. Fortunately, I have not come across any cases like those he describes. Has he had representations resulting from occurrences in his constituency, and if so, will he outline them to the House?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s attendance today and the points he has made. I refer him for the detail to the report, or indeed to the Under-Secretary’s excellent book, which he can purchase for a small sum. Just to give one example from the book, I am sure that the hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) will recall, as I am sure you will, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that in June 2010, an organisation calling itself Muslims against Crusades attacked members of the 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment’s homecoming parade in Barking. That is the kind of despicable act that he asks about, which we all take incredibly seriously.

Another point that the Under-Secretary makes very well in his book is that this works both ways. The Chief of the Defence Staff and the Chief of the General Staff have also made that point. The Minister of State will recall that when we had the privilege of serving together on the Armed Forces Public Bill Committee we discussed the difference between our culture and that of the United States, which holds its armed forces in great respect. On the rare occasions that you get away from the House of Commons, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and travel to an airport in the United States, you will often find a VSO office providing refreshments and the opportunity to enjoy some relaxation. Regrettably, we have not yet persuaded our airports to do something similar. Perhaps the Minister will reflect on how we could do that.

The Chief of the Defence Staff makes the valid point that members of the armed forces have not always helped themselves. There is an ill-judged perception that some soldiers have gone looking for trouble. I think that perception is false, but I welcome what Army representatives said to the Defence Committee—that the issue is a cultural thing that they are working on. That is why the Bill is so important. It says that we recognise that the military have to do more, but we have to do more to protect the military.

The Bill is incredibly important. Has the hon. Gentleman received any correspondence or communication from my friends and colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches apologising for not contributing in any way to the debate and not being here at all today—or, indeed, last Friday? Perhaps they have sent a note of apology and said they are all in Eastleigh delivering leaflets.

Order. I am sure that we are not going to get distracted on to discussing the Liberal Democrats or the coalition. We are going to discuss the Bill, which is about discrimination against the armed forces.

You are entirely right, Mr Deputy Speaker; we should discuss serious matters, rather than the Liberal Democrats. It is right that the issue we are discussing should be approached by grown-up parties in a grown-up manner, as is happening today.

There is a genuine need for us to recognise that we can do more to protect our armed forces. I pay tribute to our armed forces. As a member of the Defence Committee, I have had the opportunity to spend a little time with them. I shall not open up the debate about service allowances. I know that the Minister never takes any pleasure in the choices that he feels he has been forced to make, but I hope the Bill is a small measure that will symbolise our determination not to tolerate hate crimes against our armed forces, that will move the debate on and that will provide greater protection for men and women who, as Ministers have in the past so eloquently set out, operate under unique and special circumstances. I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the Bill. I particularly thank the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) for introducing it, because he is a Scottish Member and the Bill applies to England and Wales. I hope that colleagues in the Scottish Parliament are looking carefully to see how it progresses in this Parliament, so that the whole of the United Kingdom benefits. One of the curious problems of devolution is that some sensible things that should apply to the whole of the United Kingdom do not because of the nature of the devolution settlement.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on getting so much on to the Order Paper today, most of which appears to be devoted to his Bills. Perhaps he could talk to colleagues on the Procedure Committee to ask whether it is appropriate, despite his many talents, for so many Bills to be taken forward by one person in any one day. Apart from anything else, it is an enormous burden for the hon. Gentleman, who spoke for an hour and a half in the first debate, to make a significant contribution to the second debate as well.

I turn to the Bill’s substance. To be frank, I am unclear about what has changed over time. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman was not here in 2008, although given his experience and command of the House, it is easy to think that he was. The former Member for Grantham and Stamford, who is now in another place—I am not sure whether to describe him as a colleague from the Government or Opposition Benches—proposed a similar Bill, which was rejected by the then Labour Government.

I am trying to establish whether this Bill is fundamentally different, whether the circumstances have fundamentally changed and whether the hon. Gentleman is saying, in retrospect, that the last Labour Government were wrong not to take forward the Bill on the national recognition of the armed forces proposed by the former Member. In all candour, I do not know whether the former Member was Conservative or Labour in 2008, although I am not sure that that is relevant.

I applaud the motives behind this Bill, which concerns an incredibly important issue that has been raised outside the House. I should like to go into a bit more detail on Lord Ashcroft’s report of May 2012 on the perceptions of our armed forces in society generally. It said that nearly one in 20 of the 9,000 personnel surveyed had had experience of violence or attempted violence in the previous five years. We should put this into perspective by saying that the level of violence towards other uniformed organisations—our fire service, ambulance service and police service—is equally appalling. I understand that there are differing circumstances. I also recognise that other Members would have criticised the Bill if the hon. Gentleman had drafted it even more widely. I merely raise this as a background issue rather than encouraging him to widen the scope of the Bill. I assume that it covers all our armed forces, including the Territorial Army.

That is good to know, and I apologise for not having picked it up in my reading of the Bill.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the service chiefs. As the Bill progresses, I would be interested to find out a bit more about the representations made by service chiefs and other members of the armed forces and the degree to which they see this as a major problem in terms of the number of offences. Clearly, one offence is one too many. This is about sending a message of support to our troops in saying that we want them to be uniformed when off duty or going about their business, because that is a very positive thing, but the question is whether it is also about addressing the problem of a large number of offences.

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it would be inappropriate for the services to make representations to Members of Parliament outside the ministerial channels. On the numbers involved, I am sure he agrees that even one would be one too many.

Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman is right, and he paraphrases my point. I also accept what he says about the service chiefs. Perhaps that question would be better directed at the Minister, but I suspect that he will find time to mention representations from service chiefs and other members of the armed forces. The armed forces are in a peculiar position compared with an accountant or a banker in making representations to Members of Parliament, and rightly so.

Let me turn to the detail of the Ashcroft report. We should not overplay the scale of the problem. We have said that one is too many, but 80% of our armed forces have not experienced problems or discrimination. In fact, 56% had had strangers come up to them and offer support, 29% had had strangers come up to them and offer to buy them a drink to thank them for the very good work that they are doing, and 26% had had spontaneous offers of discounts in shops and businesses—something that I would fully encourage. There were some problems at the other end of the scale, but there were many more positive than negative responses.

It is important that we send out a message to the armed forces that we support them and that we do take this seriously, but that in all probability they will not experience problems when going out and about in their uniform, which is a very positive thing to do in order to create civic pride and ensure that there is no gap between citizens and servicemen. It allows people to start conversations about what the armed forces do, it encourages recruitment, and it helps to do away with stereotypes in any way, shape or form. Although it is right to have this debate, I would not want members of the armed services to get the message that this is a massive problem that should deter them from wearing their uniform in public. In fact, as the Ashcroft report demonstrates, they are much more likely to be offered thanks, support, drinks and discounts than to experience any problems.

In June 2012 the Defence Secretary wrote to the shadow Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy), on concerns about discrimination:

“You suggest the need for anti-discrimination legislation to protect those serving in the Armed Forces, similar, I assume, to legislation we already have to protect other groups in society. My advice is that the Armed Forces do not want to be singled out in this way”.

That is interesting and I hope that the Minister will probe in more detail the feedback he has received from the service chiefs and the armed forces more generally. I am not sure what the logic behind the argument is, but if they are saying that they do not want to be singled out we should take that seriously.

This has been a constructive debate. We need to be clear—I hope the Minister will address this point—that, even though the armed forces would not expect to be singled out to an extent, we would none the less, despite their modesty, want to provide them with support, as this morning’s Sun has done.

I see where the hon. Gentleman is going and think it sends a message. This also relates to the other uniformed services. We could do something collectively—perhaps not by amending this Bill, but more widely—to create respect for people who serve us, whether they be in the ambulance service, the fire and police services or the armed forces. Indeed, in my constituency of Rochford and Southend East there seems to be a worrying number of people who feel that it is right to take a pot shot at national health service staff. There is now a police station in Southend hospital to deter that type of activity. That is of particular concern and perhaps presents the case for a slightly wider Bill than this narrow one.

My hon. Friend might be moving on to this point, but if this Bill becomes law, those employed by the national health service might want to suggest that they should be given similar protection.

Absolutely. One wonders whether we should look to raise standards overall. It is unacceptable to shout abuse at anyone, whether it be racist, homophobic or religious. The Ashcroft report states that some of those who responded to its survey had suffered absolute discrimination, such as being refused service in pubs or hotels, and 6% suffered violence or attempted violence. We should not necessarily distinguish between violence against someone in an Army or Navy uniform and violence against someone in an NHS uniform or, indeed, someone in a suit or jeans and T-shirt who is going about their business. There are many ways to tackle the underlying issues.

Having listened carefully to the speech made by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife and the interventions that have been made, I think there is a need to send a specific message to the armed forces. Perhaps that is something that the armed forces covenant can look at and perhaps it, rather than this or any other Bill, could send the message to the general public.

I again thank the hon. Gentleman for proposing the Bill. I also want to reiterate and lay on record my gratitude to the armed forces and ask them to continue to wear their uniform in public. We like it and respect it. It helps to initiate conversations about what the armed forces are doing and it allows for pride. It is right that we discuss issues relating to the protection of people in uniform, as the hon. Gentleman has done. I thank him for initiating this debate and look forward to the Minister’s reply.

I rise to support the important Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty). I congratulate him, not least because it is very unusual to see a Bill that takes up just one side of paper. As a former lawyer, I think that we see that far too rarely. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon), for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) and for Halton (Derek Twigg) for supporting the Bill.

We have been fortunate recently to have had many opportunities in the House to debate the armed forces and, in particular, the armed forces covenant, which the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) has just mentioned. I am pleased that the Government and Members from all parts of the House—even our absent Liberal Democrat friends—have supported making progress on the covenant, although perhaps not as quickly as some of us would like. That reflects the widespread support for our armed forces, which I think has increased enormously in recent years. Perhaps that is because of their enormously important and professional work in the military action that we have taken in various parts of the world.

A key principle of the covenant is that no one in the service community should face disadvantage because of their service. That needs to be applied right across society. I therefore welcome the Bill because it seeks to strengthen the covenant further by making a simple change to the Criminal Justice Act 2003. It would add service in the forces to the characteristics of a victim that can constitute an aggravating factor when the offender is sentenced. That protection is in place in relation to race, religion, disability and sexual orientation. We think that it is time to consider it for members of our armed forces.

We have heard reference to the valuable report by Lord Ashcroft, “The Armed Forces and Society”, which showed clearly that some members of the armed forces encounter problems in the community in everyday life. It showed that, regrettably, in the last five years, one in five members of the forces has experienced strangers shouting abuse at them while they have been wearing their uniform in public in the UK.

Members of this House must always bear it in mind that, on occasion, we ask the members of our armed forces to go to war. That is a profound decision for us as Members of Parliament and for Governments, and one that this House always takes very seriously. The individuals we put in that position must have our absolute support. We must therefore send out the message that we will not tolerate any individual receiving criticism for wearing the uniform that they wear so bravely at our request. It is quite unacceptable for them to be treated in that way. That is why we support the Bill.

As the Minister and other hon. Members will know, this is not the first time that discrimination against members of the armed forces and their families has been raised in this House in recent months. In June last year, my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Defence called on the Government to consider measures to tackle discrimination against members of the forces in the light of the publication of Lord Ashcroft’s report. We asked the Secretary of State to set up talks that brought together all parties, the armed forces and the service charities to consider how discrimination could be tackled.

It is clear from Lord Ashcroft’s evidence that there is a significant problem with the attitude of some people towards our forces. We believe that we need to look at that problem seriously. We are disappointed that our suggestions have not been carried forward by the Government and we would like them to respond more positively. If the Government are serious about taking forward the covenant and helping to make a difference to the everyday lives of the service community, they must accept that discrimination needs to be tackled. I therefore urge the Government to back this important Bill.

The Opposition welcome the changes in the Bill that would protect further our armed forces. Reference has been made to less obvious types of discrimination, and we should not overlook those, because applications for credit cards, mobile phone contracts and so on are sometimes difficult for service personnel. We are pleased that the Government have made progress on those issues, particularly in relation to the pairing of British Forces Post Office with standard UK postcodes, and giving greater recognition to addresses. The first annual covenant report was published late last year and I am sure all hon. Members look forward to debating it fully, hopefully in the coming months. There is a commitment to work with financial companies and credit agencies to overcome problems that service personnel might experience in accessing services, and I would welcome any further update that the Minister can provide about progress on that front.

We hope that the Government will support this Bill. If they do not, they will be failing to take a step that adequately reflects the position that we owe to our armed forces.

To be clear, Her Majesty’s official Opposition are urging the Government to do something, but there was an opportunity to introduce such a measure in 2008. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that there was a problem in 2008 but that it was not evidenced and that that is why the Government did not act? Has Lord Ashcroft’s report now provided evidence that gives the hon. Gentleman confidence to suggest a change that his Government did not take forward?

One of the advantages of losing elections—if there are any—is that it enables one to reflect and collate more evidence. We have heard reference to the incidents in Barking in 2010, and the additional evidence provided by Lord Ashcroft. As a result of that additional information, we have had the opportunity to reflect and I have outlined our position today. I do not know the particulars of the 2008 legislation, but we entirely support the Bill under discussion. I know there is a great deal of good will across the House on this matter, and we have today heard the strength of support for our armed forces. We hope that that will be carried forward by the Government in their response to this excellent Bill. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife on his eloquence and on his audacity in promoting so many Bills today. I hope he will receive a positive response from the Minister who is, of course, so committed to the armed forces.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) and I commend the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) for bringing this Bill before the House and giving us the opportunity to discuss what we all instinctively agree is an important subject. I also pay tribute to his knowledgeable service on the Defence Committee. He mentioned the important work of the Armed Forces Bill Committee. That led to the Armed Forces Act 2011—to which I shall refer in a few minutes—which enshrined the key principles of the armed forces covenant in law. I believe that we all did the right thing in that Act, and as I shall outline in my speech, it provides us with additional powers that may come in handy in responding to this Bill.

In a debate of this kind, which is rightfully conducted in a non-partisan spirit, it is important to make clear at the outset where we agree, as well as where we might differ. I think I speak for the whole House in saying that we all hold the same view about discrimination against members of the armed forces: it is a completely unacceptable form of behaviour towards the men and women who have committed themselves to defending this country, its people and its way of life—to defending us and our families. In doing so they make sacrifices and give up freedoms that their fellow citizens perhaps sometimes take for granted. Those who discriminate against service personnel, or against other members of the wider armed forces community, succeed only in diminishing themselves. In this House we can debate the best way of combating discrimination, but there is no dispute about the objective.

Discrimination can take many forms. Some of it is thoughtless or uninformed, for example, when public services fail to take account of the special circumstances in which armed forces personnel find themselves. Some of it is based on myth and prejudice—a view that soldiers create trouble or are unreliable customers. Like the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife, I do not believe that that is normally the case, but we have to accept that some people have that misperception and we must challenge it. Some discrimination or abuse stems from genuine hostility to members of the armed forces, motivated by politics or perhaps by some unfortunate personal experience. It is on that very narrow part of the spectrum that the Bill principally focuses.

The Bill would have the effect of amending section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which lays down circumstances in which the criminal courts must treat an offence as aggravated, for the purpose of deciding on the appropriate sentence. The aggravating factors currently set out in section 146 are that the offender either demonstrates, or is motivated by, a hostility towards the victim which is based on the victim’s disability, sexual orientation or transgender identity. Section 145 of that Act is also relevant, as it allows for an offence to be “racially or religiously aggravated” when a sentence is decided.

This Bill would add a further characteristic, so that the offence is aggravated if the offender’s hostility is based on the victim “being a service person”. The subsection on the meaning of a “service person” refers across to section 343B of the Armed Forces Act 2006, which was added by the Armed Forces Act 2011 and relates to the armed forces covenant. The definition in subsection (1) of section 343B is pertinent. It states:

“service people means—

(a) members of the regular forces and the reserve forces;

(b) members of British overseas territory forces who are subject to service law;

(c) former members of any of Her Majesty’s forces who are ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom; and

(d) relevant family members.”

My right hon. Friend did not mention cadets in that list. I am not sure if any guidance has been given on whether cadets would be covered by that definition, but does he think they would be?

That is a good question. My understanding is that cadets would not ordinarily be covered per se, but they might be covered if they were a family member of a service person. We could be making law here, so it is important to understand the technicalities of the drafting. I hope that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife will understand that we have taken his Bill seriously and we have looked very carefully at the legal effect of what he proposes.

I apologise if my right hon. Friend has already covered this issue, but I would like to ask about the many uniformed armed personnel who are not British citizens; I think of American soldiers and service personnel based in this country. They are used to wearing service uniform and being easily identified as servicemen in America, but they may also wish to receive the same protections in the UK as this Bill proposes for our own servicemen. Are they also covered?

I must confess that in preparing for this debate I had not looked at that question. My instinctive answer is that they would not be, because the Bill relates mainly to UK service personnel.

I see that the hon. Gentleman is nodding, so I hope I have that right.

Further on in section 343B, subsection (4) gives the meaning of the term “relevant family member”, but effectively allows the Secretary of State to interpret it as best fits the context. The Bill, however, replaces that discretion, for this purpose, by specifying that it should cover “any relative”. If I have understood the hon. Gentleman’s intentions correctly—I hope I have—he wishes the new provision to cover a large group of people, including all former members of the armed forces and all relatives of current or former service personnel. Offences against them would be treated more seriously, if motivated by hostility to service people.

Perhaps I can assist the Minister. He will be aware, from the examples cited, that the types of occasions concerned are those such as remembrance services and funerals. That is why the Bill is so framed. He was right to highlight it, but there have been regrettable incidents at such occasions.

Again, I can follow the hon. Gentleman’s thinking, but as I will explain it could present practical difficulties, if the Bill was passed, including for the courts. If he will allow me, I shall explain—clearly, I hope—why they might be.

We need to be clear about what the Bill will not do. Over the years, there have been reports of incidents in which hostility has been directed against service personnel because of their membership of the armed forces. Some of the actions of anti-war demonstrators, for example, fall into this category and have been widely and rightly condemned. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a protest at the homecoming parade of 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment. As that was my old regiment, I feel that particularly strongly, as he can imagine.

Those incidents should not be confused, however, with situations such as a refusal to admit members of the armed forces to a hotel or bar. These, too, have led to widespread public indignation, but it is important to recognise that the Bill does not address those situations, because they generally do not involve a criminal offence.

The hon. Gentleman nods in assent.

I recognise what the hon. Gentleman is trying to do, and I have no difficulty in principle with the signal he wants Parliament to send—that offences motivated by hostility to the armed forces are serious offences—but I have considerable practical difficulty with how he proposes to send that signal. In effect, I believe that the law of unintended consequences would apply, and I will explain why in a moment.

As a general rule, before we go down the route of new legislation, we must consider whether there is a need for it. The answer in this case is, on balance, no. The courts already have a wide power in sentencing to take into account factors that make conduct more serious. Criminal acts based on an irrational hostility to a person because he or she is in the armed forces will, if anything, often lead to a higher sentence anyway.

Does the Minister not accept that we need to send a clear message to people that such acts will be treated very severely?

As I said, I can understand the signal that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife is trying to send, but if we are talking about changing the law of the land, we need to look at the practical effect, including on the courts. I am trying to walk the House through what might be the practical effect in the courtroom. If the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) will bear with me, I shall attempt to develop that point.

I am aware of no evidence of courts finding that they have insufficient powers to give an appropriate sentence to an offender in this regard. I am not aware that we have received representations from the courts asking us to amend the law in this way.

In contrast, converting the flexibility that the courts currently exercise into a mandatory requirement—which is what the Bill says—would present them with practical difficulties. For example, in demonstrating to a court that the aggravating factor was present and should apply, the prosecution would need to show that the hostility was present. Perhaps that would be relatively straightforward in the case of a soldier in uniform, but the Bill as drafted extends the same protection to those not in uniform, which might be more difficult to prove. As we have seen, this provision also includes the families of service personnel and our veteran community—all 4.6 million of them, or about one in 10 of the adult population of this country.

Under the Bill as drafted, the court would presumably have to decide whether the offender was aware of that fact and whether it motivated the effect. The court might need to establish whether a victim was a relative—“any relative”—of a member of the armed forces. How are the courts to deal with a situation where an offence is motivated by excessive rivalry between different sections of the armed forces or, perhaps, a domestic dispute? A mandatory requirement for a higher sentence reduces the courts’ ability to take a sensible, common-sense approach to what is really going on in the circumstances they are examining.

I regret that the Minister and I are slightly diverging in our perspectives. My concern is that some of these arguments could well have been used by civil servants who were sceptical about the provisions in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 dealing with relatives and how someone knows that someone else is gay. The Minister is a wise individual with a great deal of common sense. He knows what we are talking about, even if his civil servants do not necessarily know, and I am confident that if he was on a jury, he would know what he was looking at.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s vote of confidence in that respect. It is kind of him. The point I am making is that his Bill would mandate the courts. My argument is that the courts already have sufficient power to increase sentences if they believe that such sentiments are an aggravating factor, but can make that choice at their own discretion. It is not as though the courts could not do that without the Bill. They already can; it is just that the Bill would mandate them to do so, which might lead to some practical difficulties.

It is also worth pointing out that there is a fundamental difference between offences provoked by hostility to the work of the victim and offences motivated by prejudice against the inherent characteristics of the victim, such as homophobic crime. Section 146 of the 2003 Act is designed to help to change deep-rooted prejudices. It would be quite wrong to suggest that such provisions were necessary in relation to the armed forces, because I do not believe that such deep-seated prejudices necessarily apply.

I have not yet mentioned what I regard as the most telling argument against the Bill: the views of the intended beneficiaries. I am not aware of any general desire in the armed forces community for legislation of this type and it has certainly never been proposed to me by any of the chiefs of staff. The servicemen and women who wear their uniforms with pride want to be respected in their communities and to be considered part of those communities, and rightly so. We should not necessarily put them in a position where they are forced to explain why they require protection in law in a way that is not enjoyed by, for example, firemen or ambulance staff. It is a firm principle of the armed forces covenant that special provision for service people may be appropriate in some cases, but I am not necessarily convinced at this stage that the way the hon. Gentleman has drafted his Bill would achieve the desired effect.

Finally, we have to recognise that the criminal law is a devolved matter. The hon. Gentleman is aware that this is a difficult area—in fairness to him, the Bill clearly states that, as drafted, it extends to England and Wales only, so he is definitely cognisant of that—but the Bill opens the way to a situation where offences against members of the armed services could be handled differently across the UK. We have no interest in creating further anomalies of this kind. I have no doubt that the Scottish Parliament would be as firm as Westminster in its views on discrimination, but we also need to acknowledge and recognise that the question is perhaps not as straightforward when seen from the perspective of Belfast. The introduction of a provision similar to the one we are discussing today could, practically, be quite problematic in Northern Ireland under certain circumstances.

In pointing out the problems with the Bill, I would not wish the House to draw the conclusion that the Government are complacent or that we are doing nothing to counter discrimination against service personnel—quite the opposite. The armed forces covenant and the principles that we enshrined in statute in 2011 have a high profile across the whole of Whitehall and beyond. The first principle, that members of the armed forces community should not suffer disadvantage as a result of that membership, has given rise to many initiatives that are making a real, practical difference.

In the first statutory annual report on the armed forces covenant, published in December 2012, we described what we were doing to make those principles a reality. Let me give the House some examples. We are working to remove the disadvantage that the children of service personnel can face in the schools system as a result of their mobility, through the admissions code and through the service pupil premium. We have been consulting on the disadvantages faced by reservists in the workplace. We are ensuring that service personnel and leavers encounter a level playing field in access to social housing or Government-funded home ownership schemes.

At the same time, we are working to build the links between the armed forces community and the wider community, to improve the knowledge and understanding that must be at the centre of that relationship. From knowledge flows the esteem for our servicemen and women that is ultimately the most powerful way to counter discrimination. The community covenant has now been signed in over 230 local authority areas from Cornwall to the north of Scotland, signifying a real determination to strengthen ties with the armed forces. I am confident that, during the year, it will continue to gain further support. The grant scheme linked to the community covenant has allowed us to back a range of schemes that will help to put those declarations into practice. To that, we can now add the £35 million fund created as a result of the LIBOR fines, which will support charities with projects to help the armed forces and their families.

In giving the Bill careful consideration, I hope that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife will not mind me pointing out that it is not an entirely new proposal. That fact was highlighted earlier by my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour, the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge). It is always good to see him in his place in the House of Commons. Something very similar was proposed by the then Member for Grantham and Stamford, now Lord Davies of Stamford, in his “Report of Inquiry into National Recognition of the Armed Forces” in 2008. The hon. Member for Wrexham said that he could not quite remember the details of the report, so I shall refresh his memory. On page 6, in the chapter on “Increasing Visibility”, the then Member for Grantham and Stamford said:

“We further recommend that the Home Office, Crown Prosecution Service and Ministry of Justice consider issuing guidance respectively to the Police, Prosecutors and Judiciary to the effect that where victims of violence or threats of violence are persons in military uniform, those offences should be considered aggravated by that fact.”

The Labour Government of the day responded to that report a few months later, in the name of the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth). By then, of course, the author of the report had become a Defence Minister. Nevertheless, the Government’s response to the recommendation I have just referred to was very clear. It stated:

“We are confident…that Service personnel are properly protected against criminal offences by the criminal law as it stands.”

It went on to state that

“we do not think that a change in the law is necessary or appropriate.”

Given that robust response, I had expected the Opposition to take the same view of the Bill as we do.

I had previously held the noble Lord Davies of Stamford in high regard, but I reassessed that because I felt that he had moved from this side of the House to the other side for reasons of naked opportunism. Is my right hon. Friend correcting me, and saying that it was not naked opportunism but related to his services to—

Order. The hon. Gentleman should not mention a Member of the other House in that way. I am sure that he will want to withdraw that comment.

A plethora of apologies to cover all bases. Perhaps it is best if I leave my right hon. Friend the Minister to reply in any way that he deems permissible.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. Lord Davies might have changed parties, but I will leave it to others to decide whether he has changed his mind.

Across the country, attitudes to our armed forces are positive and healthy. That is not only a good thing in itself; it is also an important contributor to morale. We should not underestimate the strength that our servicemen and women draw in doing their very difficult job from the knowledge that they have the respect and backing of their fellow citizens. They deserve it, and they earn it; we do not need to enlist the help of the criminal courts in order to engender respect for our armed forces.

Very briefly, is this an issue that the Minister will look at in the coming armed forces covenant report, and will he consider reporting back to the House on it?

The hon. Gentleman pre-empts me. I was about to say that as a result of the Armed Forces Act 2011, we have a new vehicle at our disposal in the form of an annual report to Parliament—effectively a report on the state of the armed forces covenant. As I have already mentioned, we produced the first report in December last year. I acknowledge that it does not refer in detail to the issues we have been debating this afternoon. Given the concerns expressed, however, I can see the case for monitoring developments in this area, and for including any findings in the next report at the end of 2013. The focus of the annual report on the removal of disadvantage as one of the key covenant principles gives us sufficient latitude to do so. I sense no will in the House to object to our being able to achieve that.

On that basis, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that my caution about the law of unintended consequences does not diminish in any way my respect for what he is trying to achieve. On the understanding that we will most definitely look at this issue in the context of the armed forces covenant report, I hope he will consider withdrawing his Bill.

This has been a very positive, consensual and useful debate. Briefly, I think there is a difference between the armed forces and other uniforms. The armed forces are unique in that they have no professional body; there is no equivalent of the Police Federation, the Fire Brigades Union or the GMB. That is an important point to note.

I am heartened by the fact that two Ministers have been prepared to give up their time to be here. I am heartened, too, by the pledge given by the Minister of State. I welcome that, and I look forward to working with him on it. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill withdrawn.