I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The introduction of an Armed Forces Bill is always a significant occasion for defence. It matters in particular for three reasons. The first reason is its constitutional significance. We are renewing the legislation necessary for the armed forces to exist as disciplined forces. That legislation is currently the Armed Forces Act 2006, which provides the system of command, discipline and justice for the armed forces. It covers matters such as the powers of commanding officers to punish disciplinary or criminal misconduct, the powers of courts martial and the powers of the service police. The 2006 Act confers powers and sets out procedures to enforce the duty of members of the armed forces to obey lawful commands.
Since the Bill of Rights in 1688, the legislation making the provision necessary for the Army to exist as a disciplined force—and, more recently, the legislation for the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force—has required regular renewal by Act of Parliament. Without this Bill, the Armed Forces Act 2006 could not continue in force beyond the end of 2016. That reminds us that ultimate control over the system under which the armed forces are maintained resides not with the Executive, but with Parliament.
Secondly, this occasion is sufficiently rare in the lifetime of a Parliament to prompt us to reflect on the progress made since the last such Act, the Armed Forces Act 2011. The centrepiece of the last Act, the requirement to report on the armed forces covenant, remains more relevant than ever. The covenant has already made a huge difference to the lives of serving and ex-service personnel. In the past few years, we have seen not only the Government, but all 407 local authorities and more than 700 businesses, large and small, come together to make sure that our personnel get a fairer deal as a result of their service to our country.
We have perhaps been somewhat neglectful of armed forces personnel when they cease to be serving and become veterans. Does the Secretary of State agree that we must place a greater priority on ensuring that veterans have ongoing help and support because of the difficulties that many of them may still face as a result of their service in Iraq and Afghanistan?
I certainly do agree with that. This work is ongoing and is not yet done. We will continue to try to make progress. As the hon. Lady knows, we have implemented a number of reviews, not least Lord Ashcroft’s review of the mental health services that are available to veterans.
I assure the House that our commitment to the covenant remains unshakeable. Today, we are launching a credit union for armed forces personnel. By paying a regular amount of their salary directly into the credit union, they will be able to avoid the struggle for credit approval and the siren call of the payday lenders.
Thirdly and finally, the Bill gives us the opportunity to ensure that the 2006 Act remains fit for purpose for the next five years. The first clause keeps the 2006 Act in force beyond the end of 2016; provides for the continuation of the 2006 Act for a year from the date on which this Bill receives Royal Assent; and provides for renewal thereafter by Order in Council, for up to a year at a time, until the end of 2021. That will give Parliament a regular opportunity to debate the systems of the armed forces for command, discipline and justice.
Clauses 2 to 6 modernise and strengthen the service justice system by making sensible and proportionate changes to the existing provisions. I will take each of those clauses, very briefly, in turn.
Clause 2, on post-accident testing for alcohol and drugs, deals with the situation whereby a commanding officer may require a member of the armed forces or a civilian who is subject to service discipline to co-operate in a preliminary test for alcohol or drugs only when he or she suspects that an offence has been committed. The clause extends those circumstances by providing for post-accident preliminary testing without the need for suspicion that the person being tested has committed an offence. The new powers to require co-operation with tests will apply only after accidents involving aircraft or ships or other serious accidents. They are derived from, although not identical to, those in the railway and transport safety legislation under which civilians are required to co-operate with tests for alcohol and drugs.
Clauses 3 to 5 simplify the process of investigation and charging of criminal and disciplinary offences under the 2006 Act. The commanding officer rightly deals with 90% of cases in the service justice system, and that will not change. The remaining 10% of cases are those that the commanding officer does not have the power to hear, which involve offences such as perverting the course of justice and sexual assault. Some cases that cannot be dealt with by the commanding officer have to be referred by the investigating service police to the commanding officer and then by the commanding officer to the director of service prosecutions for a decision. That is an unnecessarily complex process.
Clause 3 provides for the service police to refer straight to the director of service prosecutions in any case where there is sufficient evidence to charge for an offence that the commanding officer cannot deal with on his own. That brings the service justice system into line with the civilian system.
No, because the commanding officer will be kept informed about the investigation and the stage it has got to. They are not being removed from the process; we are merely simplifying the procedure and shortening it so that the matter does not have to be referred automatically to the commanding officer and then back to the director of service prosecutions.
Clause 3 also deals with linked cases such as separate offences that occur during the same incident. Some cases may need to be sent to a commanding officer, even though they are connected to a case that has been sent to the director of service prosecutions, and that can result in separate decisions on whether to prosecute, and separate trials. Clause 3 allows the service police to refer a case to the director of service prosecutions if, after consultation, they consider it appropriate to do so because of a connection with another case that has also been referred to that director.
Clause 4 clarifies the procedure for the referral of those linked cases from the commanding officer to the director of service prosecutions, and clause 5 allows the director to bring charges. Currently, when the director of service prosecutions decides that a charge must be brought, they must direct the suspect’s commanding officer to bring that charge. Clause 5 allows the director to bring that charge, just as the Crown Prosecution Service brings charges in the civilian criminal justice system.
Clause 6 increases the range of sentencing options available to the court martial. Civilian courts are currently able to suspend sentences of imprisonment for up to 24 months, but service courts can suspend them for only 12 months. We would like courts martial to be given greater flexibility to vary the deterrent effect of service detention. In some cases it is right for suspended sentences to allow continued service alongside rehabilitation activities. The clause simply corrects the anomaly by giving courts martial the ability to suspend sentences of service detention for up to 24 months.
Clauses 7 and 8 give the director of service prosecutions power to give offenders immunity from prosecution, or an undertaking that the information they provide will not be used against them, in return for assistance that the offender may give to an investigator or prosecutor.
Will my right hon. Friend say what service offences he has in mind for immunity from prosecution? Will he reassure the House that that does not involve any form of plea bargaining, and say whether there are civilian equivalents of the kind of offences that he has in mind?
Only the most serious cases would involve that kind of immunity—perhaps the Minister will provide my hon. Friend with more examples of what such cases might be when he winds up the debate. These are cases where the evidence from a witness or defendant could be crucial, but where fears about self-incrimination stop someone coming forward and providing essential information.
In the civilian criminal justice system prosecutors such as the Director of Public Prosecutions have statutory powers to offer immunity and restrictions on the use of evidence, but the director of service prosecutions in the service justice system does not. That damages their ability to prosecute the most serious cases, because it may be necessary to rely on evidence from individuals who may not be willing to come forward and give evidence without conditional immunity, or an undertaking that that information will not be used against them. These clauses closely follow those in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 that apply to the civilian criminal justice system.
I assure my hon. Friend that as in the civilian criminal justice system, the intention is for immunity and undertakings not to use information to be offered only in the most serious circumstances for those who are found, after proper investigation, to have fallen short of the high standards that we set.
Clause 13 brings the Armed Forces Act 2006 back into force in the Isle of Man and British overseas territories except for Gibraltar. Under United Kingdom law, the 2006 Act has always applied to members of the armed forces, wherever in the world they are operating, and that will remain the case. That means that a member of the armed forces commits an offence under UK law if they do something in another jurisdiction which, had they done it in England or Wales, would have been a criminal offence.
In addition, the 2006 Act originally formed part of the law of the Isle of Man and the British overseas territories. However, the Act expired in those jurisdictions in 2011. Clause 13 and the schedule to the Bill revive the Act in those jurisdictions so that, as it currently has effect in the UK, it will also be in force there. That ensures that things that members of the armed forces might do under the 2006 Act in those jurisdictions, such as the exercise of service police powers of arrest or search, would be lawful there not only as a matter of UK law but as a matter of the local law. It also ensures that the civilian authorities within those jurisdictions can do things under the 2006 Act which they might not otherwise have powers to do under the local law, such as the arrest of a person suspected of a service offence under a warrant issued by a judge advocate.
An exception is being made for Gibraltar. This is because we are currently consulting the Government of Gibraltar on how best to extend the provisions of the 2006 Act—and, therefore, of the Bill—to that territory.
Clauses 14 and 15 relate to Ministry of Defence firefighters. The Defence Fire Risk Management Organisation has more than 2,000 personnel operating over 70 fire stations. Yet those firefighters currently have no specific emergency powers to act to prevent or deal with fires to protect life or preserve property. That could lead to a situation where firefighters entering a property to put out the flames might have to defend themselves against charges of breaking and entering, or where restraining family members from returning to a burning building might leave them open to a charge of assault.
Fire and rescue services at some MOD sites are currently provided by a contractor. They, too, should be able to deal with an emergency in the same way as MOD firefighters. Clauses 14 and 15 address this issue by giving defence firefighters the same powers to act in emergencies as employees of a civilian fire and rescue authority.
In conclusion, the Bill is an important act in continuing the authority of the armed forces. It makes modest but relevant upgrades to the existing system for the armed forces of command, discipline and justice. The world-class reputation that our armed forces enjoy is underpinned by many factors, one of which is that system of command, discipline and justice. We need to make sure that that system continues to be fit for the modern age. I commend the Bill to the House.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in today’s Second Reading debate on the Armed Forces Bill. This is my first opportunity to fulfil my new role in the House as shadow Secretary of State for Defence and I would like to begin by thanking the Secretary of State for the courtesy he has shown me so far in arranging appropriate briefing for me from his Department. I am grateful.
Let me start by offering my sincere condolences to the family and friends of Flight Lieutenant Alan Scott of 33 Squadron RAF and Flight Lieutenant Geraint Roberts of 230 Squadron RAF, who died in Afghanistan on Sunday. From the tributes I have read, both men were highly experienced, respected and valued members of the RAF family. Their deaths serve as a reminder of the commitment and dedication of our armed forces personnel, and of the sacrifices they make. The continuing work of our service personnel in Afghanistan makes a positive contribution to the safety and stability of that nation and beyond. I would also like to express my deepest sympathy and extend my condolences to the family of Megan Park, a young Army recruit who died last month while undertaking training in Pirbright. By undertaking her training, she showed her willingness to put herself in harm’s way for her country. My thoughts are with her family and friends.
The Bill renews the legal basis for retaining our armed forces in peacetime for another five years, while we are fulfilling Parliament’s hard-won right to give consent to the Government for so doing. As parliamentarians, we are fulfilling a key function when we consider whether to consent to this measure. That is one reason why the Bill is important. While our armed forces comprise some of our finest and most dedicated public servants, their actions are not protected or circumscribed by contracts of employment. They owe a duty of allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen, which requires them to obey lawful orders. It is the system of service discipline and justice, therefore, that enables commanding officers to enforce that obligation when necessary. We certainly have an interest in ensuring that the system of military discipline and justice is fit for purpose, up to date and works well. That is the second reason the Bill is so important.
The Secretary of State has set out the main provisions in the Bill. It seems to me that they are largely non-contentious, technical and simplifying provisions, all of which we will seek to probe in Committee to ensure they work as intended and to satisfy ourselves that they are fit for purpose. I welcome the provisions extending the circumstances in which commanding officers can require service personnel and civilians subject to service law to be tested for drugs and alcohol after accidents. We will want to be satisfied that the rationale for extending the provisions to cover the three new situations set out in the Bill is sound and to have a fuller explanation for the differences between the powers being taken and those upon which they are based in the Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003. We will also want to be clear that the new provisions are sufficiently comprehensive to encompass all likely circumstances.
We welcome the intention of the Bill in setting out to simplify how people are charged with offences within the service justice system. No one benefits from unnecessary delay or bureaucracy in the administration of justice, in whatever system such potential problems might arise. On the face of it, it seems entirely sensible to remove the delay that might be caused by the requirement to refer a case to the commanding officer when he is not in practice able to try it. If he must simply refer it to the director of service prosecutions, it seems sensible for that to happen without the reference from the commanding officer, but he must of course know what is going on with the men under his control. It also seems entirely sensible to refer to the DSP cases that are connected. We will want to probe further in Committee how much of the existing caseload is likely to be affected—I think the Secretary of State referred to some figures in his opening remarks—and where any disadvantages are perceived in the provisions as drafted. Similarly, provisions relating to enabling the DSP to charge directly instead of directing a commanding officer to do so seem sensible, but we will wish to have full assurances in Committee.
We will also want to be satisfied on the necessity of applying equivalent provisions to those in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 relating to immunity from prosecution, undertakings not to use information as evidence and sentence reductions for offenders who co-operate with investigations and prosecutions. We will start from the assumption, however, that if they are useful in the civilian justice system, they might well be useful in the service justice system as well.
The Bill does not cover how UK disciplinary procedures apply to foreign troops trained by British service personnel on British soil. Following the serious and regrettable incidents last year involving recruits from the Libyan general purpose force undertaking training at Bassingbourn camp, the Government published a summary of a report that looked at the Libyan training programme—the full report has now also been published. In January, following the publication of the summary, the Secretary of State said he had asked officials to consider applying UK service discipline to training foreign troops in the UK. In a recent Adjournment debate, the Minister for the Armed Forces said:
“The report asked whether we could apply UK service discipline to troops training in the UK. This would involve bringing foreign troops into the British military chain of command and require significant amendments to the Armed Forces Act 2006. My Department has assessed the challenges and downsides of making those changes and decided that they would currently outweigh any benefits, particularly as we are keen to provide training in-country. I have therefore not instructed my Department to instigate such changes now, but I will keep the matter under review.”—[Official Report, 10 September 2015; Vol. 599, c. 651.]
It is important that lessons are learned from that very serious incident and that foreign troops who come to the UK to train with our military adhere to the same code of conduct as British troops. It is equally important that disciplinary procedures can be put into effect swiftly in cases where criminal offences are committed. The Minister appears to be saying it is too difficult to do this at present, but I hope she will consider fully whether that is an adequate response. As the House will recall, these matters included very serious crimes of sexual assault and rape. Sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape are among the most serious of criminal offences in both civilian and military spheres, and the service justice system must take such crimes as seriously as does the ordinary criminal law.
From meetings I understand have taken place at ministerial and official level, the Minister will know about the military justice campaign being run by Liberty. It has raised serious issues about the collection of statistics on sexual assault and rape and how the service justice system deals with allegations of these serious offences. We will want to probe in Committee what the current state of play is in respect of ensuring that such offences are treated as seriously within the service justice system as they are outside it.
On the argument about people visiting this country being subject to our military law, a big worry would be that we do not want other nations to apply their military law to our servicemen when they allegedly do something wrong in those countries. We want our military law to extend to our servicemen, wherever they are in the world.
Of course, the hon. Gentleman has a lot of knowledge of these matters, and I appreciate that such issues, as the Minister must have found, are very complex and difficult. Given the seriousness of the incidents and the fact that the Government undertook to look at the matter, it is important to have a full discussion about why they have come to the conclusion they have. I have not said that I disagree with the conclusion, but I think the House needs to probe fully why the decision, which she undertook to keep under review, was made. We will seek to probe that further during the Bill’s passage. I say no more than that.
May I say how much I welcome my hon. Friend’s appointment? I totally agree about the need to probe the issue of extending British law to troops based and training here. The people of Cambridgeshire need a full explanation of why that was not possible. Whether it proves possible is moot. The important thing is that they know it is being fully explored. Will she also say something about the importance of opening up the ability of members of the armed forces to come forward when they have experienced rape and sexual assault, as often they are advised by people in the chain of command that it might damage their career to do so?
I thank my hon. Friend, who is a member of the Defence Select Committee, for her welcome for my appointment, and I hear what she has to say about these matters. The reason Liberty is campaigning on some of these issues is that, if things go wrong, it can destroy people’s lives and cause many difficulties, not only for the individuals affected but for the services. In Committee, I want us to debate the matter further with Ministers, who I know have met and considered these matters with campaigners, and to hear a bit more detail about policy development and where they are in respect of some of these things.
We have already heard from the Secretary of State the rationale for extending the provisions in the Armed Forces Act 2006 to the Isle of Man and British overseas territories, except Gibraltar, but we will want to make sure, by way of the normal scrutiny one would expect of a Bill, that the provisions are correctly drafted, fit for purpose and will do what he said he wants them to do.
We are concerned about the rationale for the provisions in clauses 14 and 15 relating to the powers of Ministry of Defence firefighters in an emergency. There is no discernible problem, or any reason why those provisions need to be in the Bill. The explanatory notes suggest, as the Secretary of State did, that MOD firefighters currently have no power in an emergency to act to protect life and property, but I wonder whether there have been instances of the kind of difficulty to which he referred. Have there been instances of such firefighters being prosecuted, or being sued for assault or for breaking and entering? If there have been any such instances, I can see why he might want to introduce these provisions. If there have been no such instances and this is simply a tidying-up exercise, how come he perceives a problem now?
Let me try to answer that, but first may I welcome the hon. Lady and her team to the Dispatch Box for the first time? This measure is, of course, a precautionary one to reinforce the powers of those firefighters. There may well be instances where they might have to enter service accommodation or a civilian house on or near an MOD airfield. In other circumstances, perhaps in a remote area, MOD firefighters may be the first to reach a civilian fire in a civilian area, having got there in advance of the local authority fire service, but they do not have exactly the same powers. The purpose of these clauses is to deal with these things.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that further explanation. In preparing for my remarks, I gave the chief fire officer of Merseyside’s fire and rescue authority a ring to ask whether the Chief Fire Officers Association, of which he is a member, has been consulted about these provisions. I thought it might have asked for this kind of measure. My contact with him was the first he had heard of these provisions, although he was of the opinion that he would have expected the CFOA or the local authority fire and rescue authorities to have been consulted ahead of their introduction. They are category 1 responders and would have expected to have been consulted on these provisions. There are well-known, regular opportunities for the MOD to consult and liaise with the civilian fire authorities and chief officers, but that has not been done in this instance, which made me wonder precisely what was going on. The provisions seem to imply the deployment of MOD firefighters beyond the confines of their current role on MOD property. The definition of “firefighter” includes, as I believe the Secretary of State said, contractors and subcontractors employed by private companies, and we are at a time when the work the Defence Fire Risk Management Organisation does is being outsourced or tendered. We will want to probe this matter further in Committee.
The Secretary of State has sought to reassure me, and I am open to being reassured. I am pleased to confirm that, with those few remarks and slight concerns notwithstanding, we will be supporting the Bill and seeking in Committee to probe its provisions, improving them where we can. Of course, if they cannot be improved, we will support them. [Interruption.]
I was extremely interested in speaking, but I was being very courteous in waiting to be called, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Like the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), I wish to send my condolences to the families of our service people who have recently died on operations and during training, and I echo the comments she made. That is a further example, as if we needed one, of the sacrifice and sense of duty of our service people, and the debt of gratitude we owe all of them.
I particularly welcome the Bill’s overall objectives and its content. It is in a noble tradition, stemming, as the Secretary of State said, from the Bill of Rights, under which no standing Army—obviously, that is now extended to our armed forces—may be maintained during peacetime without the consent of Parliament. That provision under the Bill of Rights is one of this country’s enviable documents that form our uncodified constitution, which balances the power of the monarch, the Government and the Houses of Parliament.
This Bill, enabling our country to maintain standing armed forces, could not come at a more relevant time, given the challenges we face around the world. We live in an increasingly dangerous age, with Putin’s army on the march in Crimea and Syria, and the problems we face in the middle east with ISIS. I understand that for some, although not I would think those on the Opposition Front Bench today, there is confusion about the importance of the defence of the realm; the Leader of the Opposition has said that he questions why
“a country of 65 million people on the north-west coast of Europe”
needs “to have global reach”. I am sure that none of the Opposition Front Benchers would agree with his comments on abolishing the armed forces and leaving NATO.
We of course need armed forces, and I am extremely proud of them, as I am sure everybody else here is. Our armed forces are the best in the world. I have some modest experience in this area, having had one of the best years of my life—so far—when I served with the fantastic men and women of 3 Commando Brigade in Afghanistan on Operation Herrick. I am very proud that 4,000 brave and extremely capable men and women are deployed around the clock on 21 different joint operations in 19 countries, which is double the figure of five years ago.
Britain has the biggest defence budget in the whole of the European Union and the second largest in NATO. I was delighted when the Chancellor rightly announced in July that the UK had committed to meet the NATO pledge to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence every year of this decade, with the MOD’s budget rising by 0.5% per year. Of course, an additional £1.5 billion a year by 2020-21 will be made available to the armed forces, and security and intelligence agencies in a new joint security fund. I do not think anybody here needs reminding of the significance of our armed forces; the defence of the realm is the first duty and responsibility of any Government. I have said it before, but one of my favourite quotes is from the late Lord Healey who served with the Royal Engineers during world war two and was military landing officer for the British assault brigade at Anzio. He said:
“Once we cut defence expenditure to the extent where our security is imperilled, we have no houses, we have no hospitals, we have no schools. We have a heap of cinders.”—[Official Report, 5 March 1969; Vol. 779, c. 551.]
But the UK is investing in British security, British prosperity and our place in the world, which transforms our ability to project power globally, whether independently or with allies.
I also had the privilege of serving on the Armed Forces Bill Committee during the last Parliament, when the Government took the historic step of enshrining the armed forces covenant in law for the first time. We now have an increasing number of veterans who have seen active service in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, and we have a duty and responsibility as a nation to make sure they are looked after and are not in any way disadvantaged by their previous military service. I worked with my local authorities to ensure that they signed the community covenant, too.
This Bill has some interesting aspects that we ought to explore further in some detail. We have talked about provisions whereby a commanding officer may require a member of the armed forces or a civilian subject to service discipline to be tested for alcohol and drugs, and about how we are looking to change things in that area. I share the concerns of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who said that he was worried that under the new provisions a commanding officer could be a little out of the loop when it comes to the welfare of, and duty of care towards, his or her men. I think we will look at that in more detail. As far as I am aware, the last two major deployments were largely “dry” operations, but when our military personnel are on duty they must not be under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Cutting red tape and potentially simplifying the way justice is carried out is sensible. The increase of the period that a sentence of service detention may be suspended from 12 to 24 months could enable a more flexible form of justice. As the chairman of the all-party group on Gibraltar, I will be interested to see how Gibraltar is incorporated in the extension of the Armed Forces Act 2006 to the whole of the UK, the Isle of Man and British overseas territories. I know that conversations are taking place and work is going on, but I will be interested to see how that will work out.
The House will obviously have to look in some detail at clauses 14 and 15, which propose extending the statutory powers to MOD firefighters in an emergency, providing the same powers to act as those of civilian fire and rescue authorities. I look forward to working with colleagues from all parts of the House on the progress of this very important Bill.
I, too, welcome the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) to her new role; I look forward to working constructively with her and her colleagues in the coming weeks and months. On behalf of the Scottish National party, may I also express our deep sadness at the loss of Flight Lieutenant Alan Scott and Flight Lieutenant Geraint Roberts? We, too, extend our most sincere condolences to their families and friends on the tragic loss of such highly regarded servicemen.
It goes without saying that we support the renewal of the Armed Forces Acts that enable our dedicated and professional service personnel to defend and protect the people and the interests of all four constituent parts of this United Kingdom. We will fully engage with the Bill as it progresses through Committee.
Let me put on the record at the first opportunity to do so since coming to this place that we wish to highlight some serious concerns about the current state of the armed forces, particularly pertaining to Scotland. It is an inescapable fact that since the last Armed Forces Bill came before this place, a record number of servicemen and women have been betrayed by a Government who have overseen historic levels of cuts to the number of service personnel and the military footprint in Scotland. Year on year, we have had to endure cuts to the number of people serving in our armed forces. The Scottish Government’s employment figures show a 9.5% drop in the number of people employed in the armed forces in Scotland. That is a staggering 2,800 jobs lost in just five years. It is a matter not just of military personnel but of Scotland’s military footprint.
Since the strategic defence and security review of 2010, we have lost two of our three air bases—Leuchars and Kinloss—and we have had to witness an act of gross military vandalism when the Nimrods, the nation’s strategically vital maritime patrol aircraft, were chopped into pieces and sent for scrap. Given the United Kingdom’s geographic position in the north Atlantic, not having maritime patrol aircraft is quite remarkable, but for the United Kingdom to have had MPAs and then to have had them chopped into pieces and scrapped simply beggars belief.
Many of us in the House would agree with what the hon. Gentleman says, and we opposed many of these sad cuts, which were necessary for the nation to break even. Will he enlighten the House? If the outcome of last year’s referendum had been different and we now had an independent Scotland, would he guarantee that the pre-cuts strength that he decries that we have lost would be replaced by the Scottish National party and the Scottish Government? Also, how many jobs would be lost if Trident were to be removed from Scotland?
Order. I can understand the temptation, but I do not want to open this pretty technical debate into a general point-scoring debate on policy. As I say, I can understand the temptation, but I am sure the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) will want to stick to what we are debating.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. To respond very briefly, I refer the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) to the White Paper published before the referendum. Everything would be contained therein. The Scottish National party is quite clear about its paramount commitment to conventional defences. We would thus obviously invest in such defences.
I shall take your advice, Mr Deputy Speaker, and perhaps not engage further, other than to say that we shall support the Bill as it makes its way through Committee. Most notably, at the 2015 general election, the SNP was the only party to make a commitment to providing a statutory footing for a British Armed Forces Federation. We would like to introduce such provisions into the Bill in Committee. There is, of course, already an established British Armed Forces Federation, which provides a professional, independent and apolitical voice for service personnel. The BAFF is, in its own words,
“a specifically British solution for the British Armed Forces”,
which campaigns on range of issues such as armed forces housing, compensation and improved medical care for veterans.
Veterans’ mental health is particularly important. I recommend anyone attending last night’s Adjournment debate—and those who did not attend it—to get hold of the Hansard and read the fantastic contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), ably supported by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer). This was a learned and informed debate—a shining example, I believe, of this House at its best.
If the BAFF were given statutory status, it would be a far more robust organisation in providing legal advice, aid for the writing of wills, anti-bullying advice, grievance reporting and, of course, aid to those with mental health problems. The idea of having an armed forces federation is not new and it is not radical. Indeed, there are several such federations operating extremely well within the armed forces of many of our NATO allies. Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Germany and Hungary all have armed forces federations, while there are also recognised and functioning armed forces federations in Australia and, closer to home, in Ireland. I firmly believe that a mature and responsible military such as that of the United Kingdom has nothing to fear from an armed forces federation.
As I said elsewhere, it should be seen as complementary rather than in opposition to the chain of command. A federation would not impinge in any way on the chain of command, but would rather give support to service personnel and their families—and, of course, to our veterans, to whom we all have a duty of care. If a federation works well for the police force, surely it is wholly appropriate that we extend the same right to our military personnel, who put their lives on the line every time they go on duty.
In conclusion, we support the Bill and will continue to support it, but we will go through it, as the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood said, line by line to make sure that the Bill will be the best that it can be. Our service personnel deserve no less.
I welcome the Bill, which allows our armed forces to be recruited and maintained as disciplined bodies. I want to pay tribute to our brave armed forces personnel, particularly in the Royal Navy. The House will know of my special interest in this service because my daughter is a serving Royal Navy officer. My interest goes further than that, however. HMS Raleigh, the premier initial sea training establishment, is based in my constituency. It provides considerable employment, as does the Devonport naval base and dockyard. There is also the Thanckes oil fuel depot at Wilcove. The Royal Navy is thus at the very heart of my constituency. Young recruits experience their first six weeks of what it is like to serve in our armed forces there. That is why the Bill is important—because we must maintain recruitment.
I welcome the clauses to modernise and update the Armed Forces Act 2006 to ensure that our armed forces are appropriate for modern times. It is important to pass the Bill to ensure that we recruit and maintain disciplined armed forces who will be able to operate professionally in our services. I particularly want to ensure that we man our Vanguard submarines, and I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has confirmed that four new successor submarines will be introduced. This Bill will ensure that the manpower is available for them to remain fully operational.
Devonport dockyard in Plymouth is the sole nuclear repair and refuelling facility for the Royal Navy. Its excellent work has been long championed by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile). I understand that my right hon. Friend may not be able to do so today, but I would be grateful if he could confirm as soon as possible that the continuing refuelling programme for the ballistic submarines will continue at Devonport as the new submarines are integrated into the fleet.
I feel that I should also mention my surprise that the Leader of the Opposition seems determined to compromise the security of our armed forces and this nation when he talks of abandoning our continuous at-sea deterrent.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to the new aircraft carriers. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already told me that they will be manned by a crew whose numbers will be similar to those on HMS Invincible, despite being three times its size. He has also told me that the Royal Navy is planning to ensure that it has the suitably trained and qualified people it needs, and that that will include training on HMS Raleigh in Devonport. It would be good to hear that he is confident that we have enough suitably qualified and experienced personnel who are ready when they are needed to develop the operational capability of both ships.
Let me finally say something about clause 14. I am pleased that the Act is being amended to recognise the brave firefighters in our armed forces, and to give them the same authority as our civilian firemen and women. I thank them for their brave work in keeping our military safe.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. Let me begin by expressing, on behalf of my party, sincere sympathies to the families of Flight Lieutenant Alan Scott and Flight Lieutenant Geraint Roberts, who gave their lives in Afghanistan.
I thank, with sincere appreciation, all who have contributed to the Bill’s progress so far, and who have introduced changes that have been in reserve until now. The issue that we are discussing is of the utmost importance to every Member. Those who are present have a specific interest in it, but many others who would like to be present are unable to attend. For the record, let me convey an apology from the Chair of the Defence Committee, and from other Committee members who cannot be here because they are dealing with other business, but who would have wished to participate if that had been possible.
A strong, effective and renowned armed forces has always been at the heart of our great nation—that united nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, with all four of its regions together—and has always been a proud and important pillar of our national identity. Like others who are present, I am strongly committed to the armed forces covenant, which I want to see delivered in its entirety throughout all four regions in the United Kingdom. I also believe that it is important to look after veterans with mental and physical disabilities. Last night, we had the opportunity to listen to an excellent speech by the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), who presented the case for those veterans. As we heard just now from the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), the report of that debate is well worth reading, including the positive response from the Minister for Community and Social Care.
I am sure Members agree that when our armed forces are having a positive impact, whether delivering aid to the needy or toppling a tyrant, that instils in us a great sense of pride in being British—and no one is prouder than I am of being British. That said, however, when something is broken it needs to be fixed, and when something could be better, it needs reform. Unfortunately, not all our personnel are receiving the protection that they deserve in terms of their human rights. It is time for a review and time for change, and that is what the Bill proposes. The key focus of the Bill must be on ensuring that we protect and uphold the human rights of those who serve in our armed forces.
I commend the Defence Secretary for creating a service complaints ombudsman. That positive legislative change was necessary, and it is vitally important to ensuring that our armed forces receive the fair treatment that they have earned and deserve. I was delighted with the amendment to the Armed Forces (Services Complaints and Financial Assistance) Act 2015, which granted the new ombudsman power to investigate the nature of service complaints rather than merely processing claims of maladministration. That was clearly a positive step.
However, while those developments are most welcome, more could and needs to be done. Members have mentioned alcohol and drugs: the Secretary of State did so in setting the scene, and no doubt others will do so as well. We need armed forces that are accountable and responsible, we need a system of regulating and legislating, and we need testing for alcohol and drugs.
There is overwhelming evidence that sexual assault and rape are a pressing issue for many of our service personnel, especially our servicewomen. In its 2015 sexual harassment report, the Army recorded that 39% of servicewomen questioned had received unwelcome comments about their appearance, body or sexual activities, compared with just 22% of servicemen. Furthermore, 33% of servicewomen had been subject to unwelcome attempts to talk about sexual matters, compared with only 19% of servicemen; 12% of servicewomen had received unwanted attempts to talk about sexual matters, compared with just 6% of servicemen; 10% of servicewomen had received unwanted attempts to establish a sexual relationship, despite discouragement, compared with only 2% of servicemen; 4% of servicewomen had been told that they would be treated better in return for a sexual relationship; and 2% reported that they had been sexually assaulted.
Those statistics reveal something that is totally horrendous and totally unacceptable, and the need for significant change. The Bill gives us a chance to make that change, which is good news. Some of the figures may seem small, but that does not make them any less unacceptable. Would any other line of work tolerate such figures? The Departments concerned would certainly be asked to make legislative changes. Indeed, would such figures feature in any other line of work? The figures that I have given show that sexual assault and rape are a problem that needs to be tackled within our armed forces—not least for women, who fare far worse than men.
We shall obviously have some idea of the Government’s thoughts on that when the Minister responds to the debate, but I think that the establishment of such a body would be very helpful, although its terms of reference would have to be discussed.
The nature of the Army prevents many women from speaking out, because they do not want to be perceived as weak in such an environment. The problem is that there is such a strong bond of camaraderie that the culture makes it important for servicemen and servicewomen to get along without creating a fuss. As we know, there have been stories in the press about service personnel who have been abused and subsequently traumatised, and who, unfortunately, may have succumbed to loss of life as a result. There needs to be a change in the culture of our armed forces in relation to this serious subject, but we, as legislators, can do our part by means of the Bill.
Data and evidence of such offences are scarce, because we lack a comprehensive and reliable collection of data. That, too, must change: we need to get a serious grip on the issue, and we need records so that we can monitor our progress. As well as monitoring, however, we should set a target for administrative change, and the Bill may make that possible. To fix any problem, it is necessary first to understand the extent of it, and the lack of data does not reassure those concerned that the issue is being taken seriously enough. This is just one of a number of areas that urgently need reform.
It is incredibly worrying that the Sexual Offences Act 2003 does not ensure that a commanding officer is required to notify the police of an allegation of a sexual assault. In fact, such an inherently serious offence ought to be subject to an automatic referral, and I should like that to be considered during debates on the Bill. Sexual assault is a gross violation of an individual’s physical integrity, and the repercussions for the victim can be endless. As I said earlier, we are well aware of high-profile cases in which people have taken their lives. The figures and statistics that have been cited today should shock each and every Member, and I hope they have made clear the need for urgent action.
I commend the changes relating to Ministry of Defence firefighters. It seems ludicrous that when firefighters need to break into a place, they should not be able to do so, and it also seems ludicrous that they cannot regulate traffic. Those are small changes, and it is only right that they should be made.
I hope and trust—indeed, I know—that Members will take seriously all the comments that have been made, and will continue to pay the utmost attention and respect to these incredibly important issues. I commend the Armed Forces Bill.
I rise to support the re-establishment of the British Army, a matter about which I assume there will not be that much dissent—although give it a couple of weeks and who knows where the Opposition Front Bench will be. Pleasingly, the British Army headquarters are based in my constituency, although I do not hear a huge amount from them. I assume they have more powerful allies in this House than me, but they will not have a more committed one. I am very pleased to see this Bill come forward, because this is an extremely important time for the British Army—a time of great flux in terms of challenge and budget, with 2% of GDP now having been guaranteed by the Government. That will be a challenge for the Army, going a little in reverse from where it has been, and matching that through the SDSR to capability is going to be something of an iterative process. In that regard, I wanted to raise a few issues.
First, the Army is devoting more time and energy to research and technology. The nature of warfare is changing significantly as automation becomes more and more the norm. At the moment we are largely seeing that in airborne form, but the day will come quite soon when our cavalry or tank regiments become more automated; unmanned tanks are on the horizon, and significant research is taking place in the United States and elsewhere into battlefield robotics generally. I urge Ministers to consider the implications for the future.
We have too often played catch-up in our procurement in the armed services. I am old enough to remember the Heath Robinson saga of the Nimrod which never quite kept up with requirements, and TRIGAT, an anti-tank missile which took so long to come to fruition that by the time it was ready to fire, tanks had been developed whose armour could resist its penetration. More investment in technology and research is therefore critical.
My second point is about resilience. Pleasingly, the Government have taken £145 million of LIBOR fines and devoted it to welfare among families of service people. I hope Ministers will consider making sure that a fair proportion of that is spent on mental health welfare, about which we have had numerous debates in this House, not least last night when we had an Adjournment debate on this very subject.
I do not know whether legislation is needed to extend the welfare capability of the Army to those of other nationalities who have served alongside. The Minister will know that I am particularly concerned about the plight of those who acted as interpreters for the British Army in Afghanistan, about which there has been some press coverage in recent weeks, and whether they and their families are in receipt of some of the welfare funding that is available, and whether the Army has the power to transfer money and resources to their assistance. I would like that to be considered.
There is one issue in respect of the Bill that Ministers might consider on Report. There is a pleasing and sensible measure to extend testing for alcohol and drugs when an accident has occurred. That made me wonder whether Ministers might consider incorporating in the armed service disciplinary code the penalty of compulsory sobriety. The Ministry of Justice has recently extended this innovative solution to alcohol-based crime to the whole country, so that police and crime commissioners can now use it on a regular basis, following a successful trial in Croydon, in which I confess I had a hand when I was deputy mayor for policing in London. Essentially, rather than being sent to prison or be subject to other draconian measures, those convicted of an alcohol-based crime are tagged for three or six months with a tag that tests them for alcohol every 30 seconds. If they contravene there are other penalties available, but pleasingly about 98% of people comply. The great advantage of this disposal is that nobody goes to prison so people maintain their job and contact with their family. Compliance is much greater and it removes the alcohol which is the source of the offending.
It might be sensible for Ministers to investigate whether this needs incorporating in the Army code, because I have a feeling that as a disposal it will grow in popularity across the country, as it is doing in the United States. We discovered this in South Dakota, where it has taken drink-driving from three times the national average down to below the national average, and the disposal generally is now creeping its way into being used in all sorts of offences, not least domestic violence, where alcohol plays an enormous part.
I welcome the Bill and support it. We need no greater reminder of its importance than the tributes paid to the airmen who lost their lives recently. They were the best of us and their families have our deepest condolences.
If ever there was a Bill that underlined the need for a written constitution, this would probably be it. When a constituent asks me what I do when I am down here, I do not think they would be happy to hear that we spend valuable legislative time renewing a Bill that was first put before the House in 1688. That shows that this country’s relationship with its armed forces personnel is outdated. The Glorious Revolution brought us this tradition.
I am astonished by that comment. The hon. Gentleman says he resents spending his time renewing this Act, but he completely misunderstands the point. The whole point is that it is this Parliament’s right and duty once every Parliament to renew our relationship with the armed forces. If, by a written constitution or some other means, that did not happen, our rights and duties in this place would be severely reduced.
My point is that if there were a written constitution we probably would not have to go through this process each time and our business might be better understood by the general public, who are sometimes at a loss to understand some of the intricacies of the ways of the House.
The tradition we have in Scotland of contributing more economically and in manpower to the armed forces than we receive in return is a different tradition. I thought that the rules now were that we pool our resources and fairly share the spoils of the UK. However, in terms of defence spending, Scotland continues to pool our resources, tax base and manpower, but much more of the investment is sucked elsewhere. That must change.
We look forward to the Bill being debated and scrutinised in Committee. It must be considered within the context of resources, where the service personnel are deployed and how that impacts on the families of service personnel and veterans. There is massive underinvestment in conventional defence forces in Scotland, which is both unfair and dangerous. The Ministry of Defence used to keep records of investments made in Scotland but mysteriously stopped, apparently when it became clear that questions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) were decidedly inconvenient to the idea of Scotland being “better together”.
Other Members have mentioned their constituencies and how investment is affecting work practices there. However, in Scotland we must also recognise that the 2010 defence review brought an end to many of our historical regiments, and that had an impact on both recruitment and morale. We have lost two of our three air bases with the third, Lossiemouth, yet to receive adequate assurances that it will outlast the Tornado. We are a maritime nation with a coastline about as long as that of India, yet we are without a maritime patrol capability. There is not one serious ocean-going surface-based ship in a country which built some of the best ships in the world at places such as Scotstoun, Govan or Rosyth in my constituency.
I do not want to spend much more time discussing the Bill as we will be scrutinising it in Committee. We welcome the progress that has been made so far, and we will continue to consider how it and other Bills will affect defence investment in Scotland.
On a rather sad note, may I pass on my condolences to the families of Flight Lieutenant Scott and Flight Lieutenant Roberts? At the same time, I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate all the young men and women who passed out of the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst this summer alongside my son. I know that they will serve their country with pride, and possibly with their lives, just as Flight Lieutenant Scott and Flight Lieutenant Roberts did. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray), I know how that must feel. I am sure that the whole House, including the Leader of the Opposition, will ensure that they receive all the necessary support—be it political, moral or financial—to ensure that they have the finest equipment and leadership, including the justice system which we are discussing today, to enable them to fight the battles that we will put them through.
Parliament takes the opportunity, by passing an Armed Forces Bill during each Parliament, to reaffirm its support for the armed forces and for the brave, selfless people who serve in them. It is an honour to represent Portsmouth, alongside the Minister for the Armed Forces, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt). It is the home of the Royal Navy and of its people, whose families are on the front line in every struggle this country faces. It is important that our forces should be properly equipped and that their laws should be clear and comprehensive. The UK has the chance, through the strategic defence and security review process and the renewal of this legislation, to review recent history and examine any mistakes, as well as to plan for the future.
People at home and our allies abroad will welcome our commitment to maintain our defence spending at 2% of GDP. In the long term, we might need to restore the defence budget to a higher level than that. Our capabilities have to match our commitments. I welcome the equipment plan for the coming decades, but we should also give more thought to the personnel operating that equipment. In my first few months as a Member of Parliament, I have already seen a number of serving and ex-service personnel facing a variety of problems, from family law to healthcare and housing, resulting from their time spent in the forces. Some of them wonder what the armed forces covenant actually stands for, when they find themselves banging their heads against the doors of officialdom.
In many cases, however, personnel have had recourse to the excellent charitable organisations, including Combat Stress, the Royal Navy and Royal Marines charities, SSAFA, the Royal British Legion and the Royal Navy Benevolent Trust. Some of them provide a central resource for those seeking help in Portsmouth at Castaway House; some have also received LIBOR money. I hope that the military covenant can be strengthened so that nobody leaves that place feeling as though they have been cast away.
After the election, it was an early priority of mine to meet those organisations to understand the challenges that they and the people they represent face. We know, not least from the debate last night, that Combat Stress has seen a 28% increase in referrals in the last financial year. I pay tribute to the work of the Department of Health, which makes a strong contribution to supporting veterans, but it is too often felt that we take a reactive approach to the challenges of service life and health outcomes, rather than a proactive one. At present, Combat Stress’s contract with the NHS in England and Scotland is due to be terminated in 2017. I hope that the Minister will assure the House that the great work that it does will be carried on in the future.
And that is why the military covenant should continue throughout the whole life of a veteran.
I welcome the further reform to the armed forces justice system that the Bill introduces. The services operate very differently from civilian life, and a specific system is necessary to cover them, but that does not mean that the rights of those in the forces should be any weaker. It is important that service personnel should enjoy the same protections of due process and the rule of law as those in civilian life. The reform of the operational period in clause 6 brings service practice closer to the operation in the civilian courts. I also welcome clauses 7 to 12, which extend the scope for granting immunity from prosecution in service cases. Sometimes that is necessary to uncover a greater evil and bring it to an end.
However, I believe that the legislation should do more to clarify and support whistleblowing in the services. It is a tragedy for the families of those involved that they are still looking for answers to what happened at Deepcut barracks almost 20 years ago. I welcome the new code of conduct for the Army on bullying. The Armed Forces (Service Complaints and Financial Assistance) Act 2015, which was passed at the end of the last Parliament, introduced an ombudsman process to allow personnel to raise issues and to allow the ombudsman to investigate the substance of those cases. I look forward to that process starting shortly.
The Government recognise the importance of bringing the same protections to service personnel that civilians enjoy. Since the passage of the Armed Forces Act 2006, the armed forces justice system has been brought a long way forward from the unsatisfactory state it had been in. But a justice system is there to protect people as well as to prosecute them, and there is still room for improvement, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, in key areas such as bullying and the prevention of sexual harassment. I am sure that we shall continue to improve the armed forces justice system and keep it under review, either through this Bill or through the armed forces legislation that I have mentioned, which I hope will be incorporated into it. We will be reviewing that legislation in every Parliament as well.
I am pleased to be able to follow the thoughtful speech by the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond). I should like to reflect on the events of a century ago and put on record some of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. War memorials in Scotland record many lives lost at the battle of Loos, which raged briefly in September 1915. The newly built war memorial funded by the people of Neilston, in my constituency, remembers the sacrifice of soldiers from the village and the surrounding areas who were killed in world war one, a number of whom were lost at Loos. I grew up in Carnoustie, a town that prides itself on two men who were awarded the Victoria Cross. Lance Corporal Jarvis of the Royal Engineers was the first recipient of the Victoria Cross in the first world war. He risked his life for over an hour under enemy fire to destroy a bridge to protect retreating colleagues. Petty Officer Samson of the Royal Navy Reserve gained his Victoria Cross for tending the wounded on the beach at Gallipoli.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) has said, we support the Bill. I also echo the words of the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), in saying that we look forward to debating the detail of the Bill in Committee, to ensure that it will be the best and most effective that it can be.
It is worth recalling that the backdrop to recent legislation in this area has sometimes been the fraught relationship between the Government and the armed forces in regard to issues such as Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, senior officers were forced to go public in an effort, as they saw it, to protect those under their command. The current members of our armed forces are entitled to ask that we learn lessons, when they are there to be learned, and that we do not repeat any mistakes that might have been made.
We also need to look at how best to support those who have been involved in wars. As my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute said, the Scottish National party’s manifesto made a commitment to the creation of a British armed forces federation. I was encouraged by the positive words from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on that subject. This would represent real progress in the way we deal with our responsibility to undertake our duty of care to our service personnel. We absolutely must use the opportunity that we will have in Committee to continue to modernise the governance of our armed forces and to consider properly how we treat those who enter the services. In so doing, it is particularly important that we understand and act on our responsibilities to those who suffer as a consequence of their service, and to their families—for instance in relation to their housing needs. The Scottish Government’s funding for supported housing in Cranhill is very welcome in that regard.
It was positive to hear the Prime Minister’s comments yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions on the care that the forces medical services provide so well. It was also useful to participate in yesterday’s Adjournment debate on veterans mental health provision, secured by my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron). There is clearly a will in this House to properly and effectively consider the mental health of our service personnel during and, importantly, after their service. We need to work together to ensure that the provisions of the Bill reflect that good will towards our armed forces.
We must commit to doing more work like the intensive post-traumatic stress disorder treatment programmes that NHS Scotland and Combat Stress are undertaking. Like the hon. Member for Portsmouth South, I have been fortunate to meet a number of organisations dealing with veterans over the last few months. It is striking how much of a support network is provided by charities such as the Coming Home Centre, Horseback UK and Scottish War Blinded. The work that they and others do to support our armed forces and our veterans is immense and we owe them a debt of gratitude.
I am pleased that Scotland is leading the way with the appointment of a Scottish veterans commissioner. That appointment is most encouraging, and it reinforces the Scottish Government’s commitment to providing support to the 400,000-plus ex-servicemen and women living in Scotland and to the capacity-building funding they are providing to Veterans Scotland to allow the organisation to work on developing and improving support for our veterans over the next two years.
Let me briefly mention my own constituency. I was heartened by the focus on the veterans in East Renfrewshire as well as in neighbouring Inverclyde. Our local authorities are working together in Renfrewshire on a veterans support service, which provides local support to address individual circumstances.
Veterans and our current serving personnel will rightly expect this House to use the opportunity of this Armed Forces Bill to examine all the issues, including the creation of a federation, the extension of veterans’ initiatives and how we continue with issues relating to the gathering and use of data, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Strangford.
I strongly agree with much of what the hon. Lady has said in regard to veterans, mental health and a number of other things. However, I am a little unclear as to which part of the Bill she thinks can be amended to take account of the things that she proposes? For example, where will she get this proposed armed forces federation into this particular Bill?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and for his positive words. As I mentioned earlier, there are important discussions around these areas that we must bring forward in Committee.
In conclusion, let us be ambitious for our armed services, our veterans and this important Bill. Let us work in Committee positively to improve the Bill, to probe and to debate so that we make real positive progress for our armed forces and veterans.
I welcome this Bill. As was said by a number of Members, including the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State, this is an important Bill in that it involves a key constitutional issue. This Bill might seem quite dry and boring, but it actually asserts Parliament’s control over the armed forces and the fact that we have a standing Army. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) did not understand the significance and importance of that. As he is new to the House, I may suggest to him very gently that if he does not understand something, it is perhaps better not to comment on it.
I am a veteran of Armed Forces Bills. I considered the Armed Forces Act 2006, which was a major Act in that it radically changed the disciplinary acts of the three services. Unfortunately, it then followed me into ministerial office in the Ministry of Defence. The constructive way in which that Bill Committee did some very detailed work over a number of months not only improved service discipline and brought the Acts into the modern day, but helped to address some of the public concerns.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) talked about Deepcut, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned the service complaints commissioner. Getting those issues into place has involved a long journey. We are now in a good place with regard to the service complaints commissioner. I was on the Defence Committee when Nicholas Blake compiled his report on Deepcut. I met the families involved on numerous occasions. Were they let down by the system, by Governments and by the Army? Yes, they were. Could we turn the clock back and find out what happened in those cases? Tragically, the answer is no, but what came out of the Blake report was a step forward in terms of the armed forces commissioner. I welcome the Government’s current commitment to the armed forces ombudsman. The Act tried, where possible, to apply to armed services personnel the modern standards that we would expect in civilian life. That is difficult because we are asking people to do different things. Where possible, the two areas should be mirrored. Clearly, the transparency that people expect in their dealings with Government should also be afforded to members of our armed forces. The ombudsman is a move in that direction.
The Bill before us is a piece of cake compared with the 2006 Act. It tidies up quite a lot of minor issues. As my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State said, we will support that, and ensure that those issues are scrutinised so that any unintended consequences are addressed. It is important that we send a message to the members of the armed forces that we are taking these things seriously. When they raise matters that they are not happy with, we should consider whether we can amend and change things for them. Obviously, I am not talking about interfering with the rigid discipline that is required or breaking the chain of command. The hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond)—I must welcome her to the House and say that she is a vast improvement on her predecessor—made a point in that regard.
One issue that came up in the 2006 Act—it is a continuing one that needs to be addressed—is whistleblowing. I am not talking about whistleblowing for minor complaints or things that are not relevant. If members of the armed forces have serious concerns, there needs to be a mechanism, or a safety valve, in the chain of command—I know that the ombudsman will address some of this—so that these things can be dealt with. That is very important.
The worst thing that happened in previous years was that some complaints were not taken seriously—that has improved greatly—and delay added to the problem. Quite minor things should have been dealt with lower down the chain of command. Not only would people have felt that they had been treated better, but the bureaucratic outcomes for both the armed forces and the individuals would have been better.
We had seven contributions in this debate. I am not sure that many were on the actual details of the Bill, but I will touch on some of the remarks. Let me turn first to the hon. Member for Portsmouth South. I congratulate her son on graduating from Sandhurst. The academy does a fantastic job. She made a really important point, which is that we need to be proactive, not reactive, on issues. Those issues could include mental health, service discipline or just the way that we treat people. I also pay tribute to the work of Castaway House. I visited it when I was a Minister and saw for myself what a fantastic job it does in supporting veterans and the wider armed forces community in Portsmouth and the surrounding area.
We also had a contribution from my friend, the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray), who paid tribute to the work of HMS Raleigh. I agree that the Royal Navy does a fantastic job there with its new recruits. One of the many highlights of my ministerial career was attending a passing out parade on HMS Raleigh. It is humbling to meet both the parents and the recruits and to see the dedication and hard work that goes into ensuring that those people are not only transformed in the short period that they are there, but given life opportunities to work within our armed forces, which many would never ever get.
The hon. Lady was a little bit naughty, which is unusual for her, when she referred to the nuclear deterrent. The hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) also referred to the Labour leader’s position on the nuclear deterrent. May I reassure them that the Labour party policy on the nuclear deterrent has not changed? It was agreed at the Labour party conference this year that we are in favour of a minimal credible nuclear deterrent provided by four boats under the continuous at-sea deterrent. We are committed to ensuring that we are part of multilateral disarmament talks so that we get to that point that everyone in this House wants to get to, which is a reduction in the ownership of nuclear weapons.
It is up to the Prime Minister of the day to write whatever advice he or she wants in the letter to the commanders. The hon. Member for South East Cornwall said that our policy had changed, but it has not. It is very clear. End of story.
Labour Members past and present have contributed to the armed forces and I know that my constituency and those of many other Members make a tremendous contribution through their sons, daughters and others who work not only for the regular forces but for the reserve forces. I am proud to represent a constituency with a long history of connection with the forces, and long may it continue. I reassure everyone that I will ensure that I champion their interests and ensure that their welfare, which is important in terms of this Bill, is taken care of.
The hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse)—I am not sure whether he is in his place—made an important point. The Bill refers to drug testing, but, as we all know, one of the biggest issues that needs addressing, which was an issue when I was a Minister, is alcohol. The question is how we address that, not in a nanny state way but by ensuring that people’s health is not affected by the drinking culture not only while they are in the armed forces but after they leave. Perhaps we could consider the question of alcohol and the armed services in Committee.
The hon. Member for Strangford talked about the contribution made by his part of the world to the armed forces as well as the idea of ensuring that people’s voices and complaints are heard. I, too, welcome the Government’s commitment to the service complaints commissioner.
We then heard three contributions from the Scottish nationalist party. I do not want to reiterate the issues about some of their points, but the Scottish nationalists cannot have it all ways. They cannot argue that they are committed to and want more defence resources for Scotland and then argue that an independent Scotland could produce even a fraction of what Scotland gets now.
I get a little disturbed when I hear the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife use the phrase “the distribution of spoils in the UK” to refer to the armed forces, as though the defence of this country is somehow about moving resources around the country in such a crude way. It is actually about ensuring that the country is defended and has the capability to defend itself. He talked about warships never being based in Scotland, but conveniently forgot to tell the House that our submarine base and defence are in Scotland and that that would be put at risk if we followed the proposals to abandon the nuclear deterrent that he and his party want us to follow. The Scottish nationalist party should be honest in this debate and say that what is being proposed for an independent Scotland would not have anything near the footprint or the proud history that is there at the moment. He referred fleetingly to the idea of regiments, and the idea that the SNP would reinstate all those regiments in an independent Scotland is complete nonsense.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) mentioned the White Paper on independence. I read it in detail, and not only its costings but its military strategy were complete and abject nonsense.
I thank my friend for allowing me to intervene. The Scottish nationalist party would have six battalions of infantry, which is twice the number pro rata that my constituents have in England. Pro rata, Scotland has twice the number of infantry battalions that English men and women have.
I agree, which is why the White Paper was complete nonsense. Not only did the sums not add up, but there were no practical proposals to generate those forces from an independent Scotland. Scotland would have information, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance capabilities and other assets but would have no capacity, because of the numbers involved, to analyse what was collected or what its purpose was. For example, it would need fast jets and other things. It was just bizarre, to be honest.
I know that the Scottish nationalist party wants to play up its victim mentality, which it has turned into an art form that I admire, but the idea to which the hon. Gentleman’s White Paper refers, which is that Scotland could provide the manpower needed for its proposals from the Scottish population, which is getting older, was absolute nonsense—[Interruption.] May I give him some evidence? He needs only to look at the recruitment to Scottish regiments when they were reorganised. Why was one regiment in Scotland—
Order. We have moved way off the subject of the Bill. I understand that there is a desire to keep proceedings going, so I am not trying to pin it down to a tight debate, but I like to try to keep the debate on the subject of the Bill at least a little, so I am sure that the hon. Gentleman could mention it now and again. Given his experience, I know that that will never be a difficulty.
I would refer, for example, to the recruitment of overseas nationals from the Commonwealth. The regiments that had to backfill with Fijians were the Scottish regiments because they could not get the numbers within Scotland. If the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute has some magic pool of people in Scotland who will suddenly join the armed forces or if there is some huge boom that will happen in the next few years that means that 18-year-olds and fit individuals will join the armed forces, I would like to see them.
I shall try to resist the urge to go off the point, Mr Deputy Speaker. The shadow Minister is a very experienced Member of Parliament and when he started his political career the world was a different place from what it is today. Does he recognise the necessity of having a much more flexible military system to deal with the threats that are evolving and changing in the world today?
Order. I think I might be able to help here. The hon. Gentleman might have been referring to the civil war as regards Kevan Jones, as he has been around for a long time, but we are not going to open up a debate about when he first got here and how the armed forces have changed.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, however. It is not just the equipment and how we deploy things that has changed. The armed forces do not sit in a vacuum away from the rest of society, and that is one of the main issues for consideration. Things that were acceptable 20, 30 or 40 years ago for young people who joined the armed forces no longer are. When I was a Minister talking to senior military personnel, I heard that young people were far more questioning, although not in a disrespectful way, and more knowledgeable about their rights. They wanted to engage rather than take instructions. That is a challenge for the armed forces. We need to ensure that there are mechanisms in place for when things go wrong and, as I said in an intervention during the speech from the hon. Member for Portsmouth South, a safety valve to deal with complaints.
Indeed. I have always said that. As the current ministerial team recognises, we should celebrate the life chances that membership of our armed forces gives young people. They get opportunities and skills that many of them would otherwise not have. That initial training is part of that ongoing process. It is not newsworthy to say that joining the armed forces is good for their career prospects, and what I am about to say might not be popular, but all the evidence suggests that it is good for their mental health as well. However, when things go wrong in service or after service, we need to make sure that mechanisms are in place to deal with that.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) spoke about the armed forces federation, which might be relevant in that situation, although I am not sure how it would fit into the Bill. Clearly, this is the SNP’s latest campaign issue, but may I disappoint the hon. Gentleman? I got there first: I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill on that topic in about 2005. In other countries, as he said, such organisations work effectively, and provided it did not interfere with the chain of command, an armed forces federation could improve the system, as it does in other countries, by acting as a safety valve. Alas, having read the Bill, which I am not sure others have, I am not sure how we could get that into the Bill.
We will examine the Bill in detail in Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) has outlined our approach. We will not oppose the Bill. Much of what it contains is sensible and includes a number of tidying-up measures. In any scrutiny process, it is important that any changes made do not result in unforeseen consequences, so in Committee we need to make sure that we road-test our ideas to destruction. I accept the assurance from the Secretary of State on the fire regulations. Those seem sensible, but it may be helpful if chief fire officers are asked for their views before the Bill goes to Committee.
I look forward to serving on the Committee for my third Armed Forces Bill. I am thankful that it will not be the marathon of the 2006 Bill. Our approach will be constructive, with the aim of ensuring the best outcome. Across the House, we want the best for our armed forces personnel.
We have had a useful and interesting debate. It is a pleasure to follow a veteran such as the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones). Compared with him, I feel like a mere newcomer as this will be only my second Armed Forces Bill. I am most grateful to hon. Members on both sides of the House for the contributions they have made and I thank them for their interest.
Unusually for the Ministry of Defence, this is the third piece of substantive legislation we have introduced in the past two years, the other two being the Defence Reform Act 2014 and the Armed Forces (Service Complaints and Financial Assistance) Act 2015. I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Durham for his positive comments as the ombudsman starts her new role early in the new year. It is not too surprising that the Armed Forces Bill we have introduced this year is relatively modest and focused mainly on the service justice system. Modest it may be, but that in no way diminishes the significance of its provisions, as it provides for the continuation of the single system of service law under the Armed Forces Act 2006 which applies to all members of the armed forces, wherever in the world they are serving.
As we heard during today’s debate, this Bill mostly covers a small number of issues relevant to the service justice system, plus the wider defence issue concerning statutory powers for MOD firefighters, which I will come to in a moment. Hon. Members raised a number of points about these proposals and also about issues that we have not included in the Bill. Indeed, much of the discussion seems to have been on issues that are not included in the Bill. I shall attempt to deal with as many of these as I can, and undertake to write to anybody to whom I fail to give an answer today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) made a passionate and well-informed speech on behalf of the armed forces, based in no small part on his own service, to which I pay tribute. My hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) has a long-standing family connection to the armed forces and asked some detailed questions about Devonport, about which I will write to her in due course. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) made a plea for more investment in technology. He may be aware of the announcement by the Secretary of State of an innovation fund as part of the strategic defence and security review, and the increasing work of the defence growth partnerships. I encourage him to visit Army headquarters in his constituency, which I would be delighted to arrange. In fact, I sense an invitation winging its way to him as we speak.
My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) made a passionate speech. I am not sure I was entirely grateful to her for reminding me that it is 27 years since I went to Sandhurst, but I was cheered up to turn around and see my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). I think it may be a few more than 27 years since he went there. My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South gave a powerful speech focusing on many areas of the military covenant, in particular mental health. This is a key area and she will be aware of the improvements that have been made in recent times, partly as a result of the “Fighting Fit” report by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison). I join her in commending the charity Combat Stress, which was the first charity I visited after taking up my appointment.
I shall respond to the contributions from other hon. Members as I touch briefly on some of the clauses in the Bill, but only those that were referred to during the debate. In her opening comments the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) raised the issue of visiting foreign forces being subject to the Act. I acknowledge her concerns and look forward to exploring the matter in Committee. I draw the attention of the House to the recent Westminster Hall debate on the unfortunate events at Bassingbourn, in which the current Government position was outlined.
Clauses 3 to 5 simplify the process of charging offences under the 2006 Act. Both my hon. Friends the Members for Beckenham and for Filton and Bradley Stoke sought reassurance about the role of the commanding officer. Commanding officers will continue to be concerned with probably over 90% of service issues. It will be only about 10% of issues that they will not deal with directly, but they will continue to be kept firmly informed of what is going on.
The hon. Members for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) and for Garston and Halewood asked why sexual assault was not included among the most serious offences in schedule 2. I want to make it clear at the outset that sexual assault is absolutely unacceptable in wider society or in the armed forces. Schedule 2 to the Armed Forces Act 2006 sets out the most serious disciplinary and criminal offences, including murder, kidnapping, grievous bodily harm and rape. A commanding officer must make the service police aware of an allegation or circumstance which indicates that a schedule 2 offence may have been committed. To move sexual assault to schedule 2 would make it a legal requirement for every allegation of sexual assault—an offence which covers a wide range of conduct—to be referred directly to the service police, whether or not the victim wanted that to happen.
We take the view that there are already processes and safeguards in place to ensure that victims of such offences are properly supported and that any allegations are properly investigated. All commanding officers are under a legal duty to ensure that all offences are investigated appropriately. Guidance given to commanding officers makes it clear when it would be appropriate to make the service police aware of an allegation. Guidance also sets out clearly the way in which these cases should be handled and the support that is to be provided to victims. We believe that the current legal arrangements and the guidance to commanding officers provide an appropriate framework for investigating these offences, but I accept once again that that could be discussed in Committee.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned sexual harassment. This is as much about changing culture as it is about legislation. The Chief of the General Staff has made addressing issues of equality, diversity and inclusivity a priority in order to ensure that the Army is a modern employer that is capable of recruiting talent from all sections of society. The Army’s change programme on maximising talent, which the Chief of the General Staff launched on 19 June, demonstrates the progressive nature of the measures being taken to ensure that talent is able to thrive, regardless of ethnicity, gender or sexuality.
The survey was conducted between March and April 2014 and was sent to over 24,000 regular and reserve men and women, and over 7,000 responses were received. The overall conclusion from the survey was that there is an issue with an overly sexualised culture in which inappropriate behaviour is deemed acceptable. Although that does reflect wider society, the Army’s values and standards mean that it should not be accepted as the norm. I am delighted that the Chief of the General Staff is taking action to address that through his leadership code.
Clauses 14 and 15 deal with the powers of MOD firefighters in an emergency. I would like to reassure Opposition Members that the Chief Fire Officers Association was consulted and that the letter was published on its members’ forum, advising all chief fire officers in England and Wales of the provisions. Only Hampshire fire and rescue service responded, and it was positive about the provisions.
The hon. Members for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara), for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) and for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) all touched, understandably, on matters relating to Scotland. With regard to manpower in Scotland, there are currently 9,400 military personnel and 3,770 civilian personnel based in Scotland. The UK is delivering on a realistic plan for defence. The number of military personnel in Scotland is actually set to increase, but it is also likely to be affected by the SDSR, which will be published in due course.
The number of personnel at various locations across the UK, including Scotland, will fluctuate as the military make the necessary changes in unit moves to deliver the Future Force 2020 basing lay-down and target strength. The UK Government’s basing plans, which were announced last year, offer clarity and stability in our defence footprint in Scotland. That is a visible sign of our commitment to Scotland and to Scotland’s continued vital role in defence. On current plans, by 2020 Scotland will be home to all Royal Navy submarines, one of the Army’s seven adaptable force brigades and one of the three RAF fast jet main operating bases. Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde is already the single largest employment site in Scotland. Overall, employment figures will rise to 8,200 by 2020.
Hon. Members also touched on armed forces representation. Representation and safeguarding the wellbeing of service personnel are vital functions of the armed forces chain of command. The MOD recognises the British Armed Forces Federation and other such organisations as effective mechanisms by which the views of service personnel can become known. Service personnel are free to join them, provided they do not take a particularly active part in any political activity. To be honest, we are not aware of any groundswell of opinion from members of our armed forces that the remit of the armed forces federations should be extended or that they should be established on a statutory basis.
As I have made clear, the Bill is important to the armed forces, not least because it renews the legislation necessary for them to exist as disciplined forces. As the debate has demonstrated, it is also important to us here in Parliament, because it provides for our scrutiny of that legislation. That scrutiny is achieved by means of an annual continuation order, which must be approved by both Houses, and by primary legislation every five years.
I have a personal interest in this Bill. As a member of the reserve forces, I have been subject to the provisions of the 2006 Act, and many friends and colleagues still are. I also take very seriously the obligations that I have to the men and women who choose to abide by the high standards of discipline and behaviour that this Bill supports. I very much look forward to taking it through the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Armed Forces Bill (Programme)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Armed Forces Bill:
(1) The Bill shall be committed to a Select Committee.
(2) The Select Committee shall report the Bill to the House on or before 17 December 2015.
Committee of the whole House, Consideration and Third Reading
(3) On report from the Select Committee, the Bill shall be re-committed to a Committee of the whole House.
(4) Proceedings in Committee of the whole House on re-committal, any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings on Third Reading shall be taken in one day in accordance with the following provisions of this Order.
(5) Proceedings in Committee of the whole House and any proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which proceedings in Committee of the whole House are commenced.
(6) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.
(7) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings in Committee of the whole House, to any proceedings on Consideration or to proceedings on Third Reading.
(8) Any other proceedings on the Bill (including any proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments or on any further messages from the Lords) may be programmed.—(George Hollingbery.)
Question agreed to.
ARMED FORCES BILL (SELECT COMMITTEE)
That the following provisions shall apply to the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill:
(1) The Committee shall have 14 members, to be nominated by the Committee of Selection.
(2) The Committee shall have power—
(a) to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, to adjourn from place to place and to report from day to day the minutes of evidence taken before it;
(b) to admit the public during the examination of witnesses and during consideration of the Bill (but not otherwise); and
(c) to appoint specialist advisers either to supply information not readily available or to elucidate matters of complexity relating to the provisions of the Bill.—(George Hollingbery.)