Skip to main content

Armed Forces Bill

Volume 603: debated on Wednesday 16 December 2015

[Relevant documents: Oral evidence taken before the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill on 18 November 2015, HC 618, and Proceedings of the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill on 24 November 2015.]

Considered in Committee

[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

Clause 1

Duration of Armed Forces Act 2006

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone.

The primary purpose of the Bill is to provide for the continuation in force of the Armed Forces Act 2006, which would otherwise expire at the end of 2016. Clause 1 provides for continuation of that Act for a year from the date on which the Bill receives Royal Assent. Thereafter it allows further renewal by Order in Council for up to a year at a time, but not beyond the end of 2021.

The 2006 Act provides nearly all the provisions for an armed forces system of command, discipline and justice. Crucially, it confers powers and sets out procedures to enforce the duty of members of the armed forces to obey lawful commands. The central effect of the expiry of the 2006 Act would be to end the powers and provisions to maintain the armed forces as disciplined bodies.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone.

I think this is my third Armed Forces Bill, and it is a minnow compared, for example, with the 2006 Act. However, it covers important issues that affect not only the operation of Her Majesty’s armed forces, but the discipline needed to ensure their effectiveness. As the Minister has outlined, it is an important constitutional Bill because it reaffirms the need for a standing Army to protect the freedoms that we have all come to rely on in this country. I look forward to the progress of the Bill and of the amendments in my name.

The SNP fully supports the Bill. We appreciate the requirement that Parliament’s consent is given to maintain an Army, as well as the significant contribution made by members of our armed forces. As such, one of the Bill’s most important functions is to provide the legal basis for the armed forces to continue to exist as a disciplined force, and we must continue to develop and support our armed forces as they undertake their difficult jobs. We support progressive change such as that found in the amendment that calls for a review into compensation for veterans who are suffering from mesothelioma, and that on the publication of statistics on sexual assault and rape. We want robust legislation that is fit for our dedicated armed forces.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2

Commanding officer’s power to require preliminary alcohol and drugs tests

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Currently, a commanding officer may require a member of the armed forces, or a civilian subject to service discipline, to co-operate with a preliminary test for drugs or alcohol on suspicion of a relevant offence. Clause 2 extends the circumstances in which a commanding officer may require co-operation with such a test. It provides for post-accident preliminary testing without the need for suspicion that the person to be tested may have committed an offence. The new powers to require co-operation with such tests apply only after accidents involving aircraft or ships, or after other serious accidents.

The powers will apply in the event of any maritime or aviation accident and other serious accidents that result in, or have created the risk of death, serious injury to any person, serious damage to any property, or serious environmental harm involving prescribed or other safety critical functions. The results of preliminary tests can be used in support of any type of investigation arising from the accident. The new powers are similar to those provided to the civilian police by the Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003 in relation to aviation and maritime accidents, and the Road Traffic Act 1998 in relation to road traffic accidents, but apply to a wider range of accidents.

We support clause 2. As the Minister has outlined, it brings into line the legislation that covers our armed forces and gives commanding officers the tools to investigate accidents in which drugs or alcohol may have played a part.

It is appropriate to enable commanding officers to require testing for drugs and/or alcohol after incidents associated with personnel carrying out safety critical duties. We support the ability of the commanding officer to deal with these matters. It is for them to consider and to proceed with the most appropriate action in relation to the requirement for testing.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3

Duty of service policeman following investigation

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 3 to 5 relate to investigations and charging. They make a number of changes to provisions in part 5 of the 2006 Act, which deal with the process of deciding whether a person is to be charged with a service offence under that Act. The changes simplify the process. For example, currently some cases that cannot be dealt with by the commanding officer must none the less be referred by the investigating service police to the commanding officer and then from the CO to the Director of Service Prosecutions for a decision on the charge and prosecution.

Clause 3 provides that where the service police consider there is sufficient evidence to charge an offence that the commanding officer cannot try summarily, the case must be sent to the Service Prosecuting Authority for a decision on charging. The Director of Service Prosecutions is responsible for decisions on the charge and prosecution in all cases that cannot be dealt with by the commanding officer. However, currently some of those cases have to be referred by the investigating service police to the commanding officer, and then, as I have said, from the commanding officer to the Director of Service Prosecutions. This adds unnecessary delay and bureaucracy to the process, which the clause seeks to remove.

The other main change made by clause 3 intends to deal with the problem that the 2006 Act currently requires some cases to be sent to a commanding officer to deal with, although they are closely connected with a case that must be sent to the director—for example, where separate offences occurred during the same incident. This can result in separate decisions on whether to prosecute, and separate trials. Clause 3 amends the 2006 Act so that the service police will also be able to refer a case to the Director of Service Prosecutions if, after consultation with the director, they consider it appropriate to do so because of a connection with another case that has been referred to the director.

Clause 4 makes a minor technical clarification to the procedure for the referral of linked cases from the commanding officer to the Director of Service Prosecutions. Currently, if the commanding officer is required to transfer a linked case to the director, the transfer is deemed to take place. Under clause 4, the commanding officer will actually have to make the transfer.

Clause 5 provides for the Director of Service Prosecutions to bring charges himself. Currently, where the director decides that a charge should be brought in a case, he cannot bring the charge directly but must direct the suspect’s commanding officer to bring the charge, and the commanding officer must then bring the charge.

The changes have the support of the Director of Service Prosecutions and the Judge Advocate General. No change is proposed to the circumstances in which the commanding officer is under duty to ensure that the service police are aware of an allegation.

Thank you, Mr Bone, for clarifying the process. I have put this all together, if the Minister could just bear with me.

The Minister referred to investigation and charging in relation to clauses 3 to 5 and I want to ask a question about that. We see a simplification of the process relating to service personnel charged with offences. I assume the Minister is saying that that will be achieved by reducing the number of stages required for the decision to bring charges. Not only will the provision make it easier to bring charges where appropriate, and ensure discipline and order are maintained in our armed forces, it will streamline the process and reduce bureaucracy so that commanding officers are free to go about other duties essential to the smooth running of all aspects of our armed services. Will the Minister clarify the role of the commanding officer in an investigation?

If the Minister will bear with me, clause 2 related to alcohol and drugs. As we are talking about investigation, I want to comment on that. The new rules on drug and alcohol testing are similar, but not identical, to the provisions under the Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003. The 2003 Act provides for an alcohol and drug testing regime that is applicable to both the maritime and aviation environments, but the armed forces have Crown exemption. Will the Minister clarify this matter in relation to the new rules on drug and alcohol testing and investigations?

The Bill will remedy that and strengthen the approach to alcohol or drug misuse within the armed forces, as well as being more specific about what grounds justify a drug or alcohol test. It will make it easier for those in charge of an investigation to order a drug or alcohol test when needed, which can only make our armed forces safer and more secure, while simplifying the process to make it easier for commanding officers to secure a drug or alcohol test.

The new statutory framework for immunity from prosecution will give the Director of Service Prosecutions and service courts powers that may assist investigators and prosecutors in cases where it may otherwise be difficult to persuade service personnel to co-operate with the service police and to give evidence. The Minister will be aware of a specific case in Northern Ireland where investigations are ongoing. I believe the provisions are a positive development that will improve transparency across our armed forces and improve the security of individuals. Of course, this could be particularly important to Northern Ireland where there have been continuous attempts, through spurious allegations, to drag the names of former soldiers through the mud. We must never let the legitimate forces of law and order be equated with cold-blooded murderous terrorists. I hope that this aspect of the Bill can ensure that the brave service personnel who fought terrorism in Northern Ireland will never be dragged through the courts by those who terrorised our state, or by their sympathisers and supporters.

On investigation and prosecution in relation to this particular issue, what role will the Minister play? I am sure we are keen to put in place a transparent method of investigation and prosecution. There has to be protection for our brave service personnel. Where we can, we should give them immunity, but we must always give them our full and unreserved legal support and aid, should they need it.

I hope that was clear for the Minister. I have raised several issues about investigation that have to be addressed.

As it is coming towards Christmas, we let the hon. Gentleman go back slightly to clause 2. [Hon. Members: “And forward!”]. And forward, yes. But we have been moving rapidly, and he was seeking advice as he went.

Thank you, Mr Bone. I will aim not to go backwards or forwards.

We support these common sense and proportionate clauses. As the 2006 Act beds in, they will improve the investigation and charging system by making it as efficient as possible.

Thank you, Mr Bone, for allowing me to go back, very briefly, to clause 2.

The new powers in clause 2 reflect the range of duties undertaken in the military environment—for example, diving, driving and commanding a mechanically propelled vehicle—not covered by road transport legislation. The use of firearms would not be covered either, and neither would other duties considered to be safety critical, such as running adventurous training. So there are some extra duties not covered by other legislation, which is why these provisions go slightly further.

On clause 3 and the question of whether we are effectively reducing the powers of the CO, the change to the procedure followed by the service police after an investigation relates only to cases where the CO does not have jurisdiction over the recommended charge. Such a case could still be referred back to the CO by the Director of Service Prosecutions if an alternative charge within his powers was considered appropriate. The uncertain power of the CO to wait and see and do nothing will be removed, but it is, in any event, vulnerable to attack, particularly given that it applies to serious cases in relation to which the service police have determined there is sufficient evidence to charge an individual with an offence that can be tried only by court martial. The change to the process of charging means that the DSP will have the power to bring a charge, whereas currently only the CO has the power, although he might be directed by the DSP to do it. I realise it sounds complicated, but actually it simplifies the process to avoid having to refer cases to the CO over which he has no power anyway. In more than 90% of cases, the CO will still be involved.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will remain in his place for the duration of the Committee, so I will deal with the other points he raised when we get to those clauses.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 4 and 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6

Period for which sentence of service detention may be suspended

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The clause increases from 12 to 24 months the maximum period for which the sentence of service detention may be suspended by a court martial. The civilian courts and courts martial can already suspend sentences of imprisonment for up to 24 months, but service detention is a unique military system offering greater rehabilitation arrangements. This measure would provide a court martial with greater flexibility in appropriate circumstances. Guidance on sentencing in a court martial sets out the relevant factors for the award of suspended sentences: whether the offender can retrieve his or her good name without undergoing a committed sentence—for example, if there has been a significant delay between the offence and trial, during which period the offender has performed his or her duties well and effectively rehabilitated him or herself; whether the offender has shown genuine remorse and voluntarily made reparation for any damage caused; whether the offender is young and inexperienced and it is clear that the offence is an isolated occurrence; whether the offence does not involve serious violence or violence towards a superior officer; and whether the offender is required for more important operational duties.

Again, I think these are sensible proposals that give courts martial the flexibility to award suspended sentences where appropriate. It is a tidying-up exercise in terms of the 2006 Act.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 6 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7

Immunity from prosecution

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Temporary Chair (Mr Peter Bone): With this it will be convenient to discuss clauses 8 to 12 stand part.

For the convenience of the Committee, I shall discuss together clauses 7 to 12, which deal with offenders assisting investigations. In overview, clauses 7 and 8 allow the Director of Service Prosecutions, in return for assistance provided by a person to an investigation or prosecution, to enter into an agreement with the person giving them immunity from prosecution or an undertaking that information will not be used against them in proceedings. Clauses 9 to 12 make provision with respect to reduced sentences for those who provide such assistance.

The provisions closely follow those in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, which apply to civilian prosecutors and courts. Under these provisions, an immunity notice or restricted use undertaking must be in writing and will normally include conditions, breach of which would lead to the immunity or undertaking being revoked.

The Director of Service Prosecutions will, as a matter of good practice, consult the Attorney General in relation to any offer of immunity. The DSP will engage with the Director of Public Prosecutions and devolved Administrations in the event of concurrent jurisdiction. Immunity notices and restricted use undertakings can be provided only if the DSP considers it appropriate in relation to the investigation or prosecution of a criminal conduct service offence, where the equivalent civilian offence is capable of being tried in the Crown Court, or a disciplinary offence, for which the maximum sentence is more than two years imprisonment.

I have one quick question for the Minister. He mentioned contacting the devolved Administrations, and I am wondering what credence is given to those Administrations in respect of decisions made by Ministers in the Ministry of Defence. In other words, if there is a disagreement between the devolved Administrations and the Ministry, which takes precedence?

As a member of the Select Committee, let me add that when we looked into these provisions and interviewed the relevant official, I was impressed with two things. The first was the need to refer to the Attorney General. The link between the DSP and the Attorney General is a good one. I have to say that I have forgotten what the second one was, but let the first point stand as the major point I wanted to make.

With the assurance that the Attorney General will be consulted only in very rare cases—I am not sure that the provisions will need to be used on many occasions—we support the clauses, which bring service law into line with best practice in civilian law.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman; it is anticipated that the provisions will be used only on very rare occasions and in the most serious cases. In response to the question asked by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), the process has not yet been tried, but it is hoped that there will not be any conflict between the various jurisdictions. If I may, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with further detail in due course.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 7 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 8 to 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 13

AFA 2006: Isle of Man and British overseas territories

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Temporary Chair (Mr Peter Bone): With this it will be convenient to consider the schedule to the Bill.

The clause and schedule provide for the Armed Forces Act 2006, as it currently has effect in the United Kingdom, to come into force in the Isle of Man and the British overseas territories, except Gibraltar, although we are consulting the Government of Gibraltar about extending the provisions of the 2006 Act to that territory. I should make clear at this point that, as a matter of UK law, the 2006 Act will continue to apply to service personnel wherever in the world they are serving.We have consulted the Isle of Man and the British overseas territories, and they are content with our approach. We are discussing with Gibraltar whether it would be best to provide for the 2006 Act and the Bill to extend to it as well, and if Gibraltar considers that to be the case, we will introduce an amendment to that effect.

I welcome the Minister’s commitment to ensuring that the 2006 Act will come into force in the Isle of Man and the British overseas territories, with the exception of Gibraltar, and that there will be the option of extending it to the Channel Islands. We too often forget those from the overseas territories and those who serve there. I am pleased to note that this is a truly British Bill which recognises our devoted armed services throughout the globe. This move is, I believe, long overdue.

I should like to ask the Minister two questions. First, will he give us some idea what is meant by “the option of extending it to the Channel Islands”? Secondly, is he able to give a commitment—I am not sure whether he is—that, as I hope sincerely to be the case, the exemption of Gibraltar is not due to any Spanish intrusion or interference? The sovereignty of Gibraltar is down to its people, and we should firmly uphold their right to remain British, no matter what actions or words may come from Madrid.

We support clause 13 and the accompanying schedule. It makes sense to extend the Act to the overseas territories.

May I ask the Minister what the timescale is for the negotiations with Gibraltar? I realise that the elections there may have interfered with the process. May I also ask what mechanism would operate if Gibraltar accepted that the legislation should extend to it? Would we have to wait for the next Armed Forces Bill to introduce any changes that were necessary?

Let me deal first with the question of Gibraltar. I can tell the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that this has absolutely nothing to do with the Spanish. In 2005 Gibraltar received a new constitution, which gives it wider legislative responsibilities. As I have said, we are discussing with its Government whether it would be best to provide for that through the 2006 Act or through its own legislation.

As the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) said, there has been a delay. That is simply because, as the House knows, Gibraltar was holding elections, which have now ended. I am keen to conclude the matter with Gibraltar as quickly as possible, and, if it wished to be included in the provisions of the Bill, the intention would be to introduce amendments in the other place at that point.

On the wider impact, the fact that the 2006 Act has not been in force in the British overseas territories—including the Isle of Man—since 2011 has not, to our knowledge, created any difficulties. The rationale for extending the Act to those jurisdictions includes ensuring that actions that might be taken by members of our armed forces would be lawful there, not only as a matter of United Kingdom law but as a matter of their own law. For example, service police would have powers of arrest, entry and search in those jurisdictions as well. Equally, the civilian authorities in those jurisdictions can do things that they might not otherwise have powers to do under the law there. Including them in the Act gives them extra powers as well.

All in all, we feel, having consulted, that this is a positive step.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 13 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 14

Powers of Ministry of Defence fire-fighters in an emergency

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

These clauses give MOD firefighters the same powers to act in emergencies as employees of civilian fire and rescue authorities. Those powers include powers to enter premises by force if necessary, to close roads and to regulate traffic. Clause 14 also makes it an offence to obstruct an MOD firefighter who is acting in an emergency.

Clause 15 gives MOD firefighters the same exemptions from provisions in certain Acts—for example, rules on drivers’ hours—as employees of fire and rescue authorities.

May I ask the Minister for clarification? If an MOD firefighter is on a base and sees a farm, say, afire, can they go straight to that and deal with it, or do they have to wait for civilian firefighters to come, if it is off the base?

I will come to that, but protocols are in place between MOD firefighters and local fire authorities and there have been occasions when MOD firefighters have supported local authority fire and rescue services. However, it is important that that is done in a combined and controlled way.

The Defence Fire Risk Management Organisation provides fire and rescue operational services and support across defence at airfields, specified domestic establishments and deployed locations in the UK and overseas. DFRMO falls outside the ambit of the primary legislation that governs local fire and rescue authorities in the UK. Contractors providing fire and rescue services for defence are also present at the Atomic Weapons Establishment, QinetiQ, Babcock and Serco. They operate at sites such as Aldermaston, Burghfield and Boscombe Down. DFRMO currently has 320 fire and rescue service contractors, out of a total strength of more than 2,000 personnel. Contractor firefighters, now and in future, should also be able to deal with an emergency in the same way as MOD firefighters. We are not aware of local fire and rescue authorities using or planning to use contractor firefighters. However, there are other private and specialised fire and rescue services at other sites such as ports and airports, power stations, industrial sites and some state properties.

The clauses constitute a simple, sensible change that gives MOD firefighters the same legal protections as their civilian counterparts.

The Minister referred to the legal protections that are provided. Is insurance protection provided as well? I am conscious that with firefighters’ extra responsibilities come the possibility of someone being hurt as a result. I would like to check that point.

We appreciate the work of MOD and other firefighters. It is important that we have in mind some of the concerns that the Fire Brigades Union has raised about the potential unintended consequences of the Bill. It has concerns about the impact of deploying MOD firefighters at fires and other incidents normally dealt with by local authority firefighters. However, there is clearly a need to deal with the issue that is at hand today and to streamline things. That is dealt with by the clause. We agree that it is important that we take the action suggested to close this loophole, as the clause does.

Again, this is a practical and sensible measure that closes a loophole that exists at present. Again, I pay tribute to MOD firefighters for the job that they do. I hope that these changes will ensure that they have the full protection of the law.

Simply to answer the question from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), we will of course ensure that all our firefighters have appropriate protection.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 14 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 15 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 16

Meaning of “AFA 2006”

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Clause 17 stand part.

Clause 18 stand part.

Government amendment 1.

Clause 19 stand part.

Clause 20 stand part.

Government new clause 1—War pensions committees and armed and reserve forces compensation schemes.

Government amendment 2.

I am delighted to be able to speak to these amendments today. New clause 1 acknowledges the importance that the Government place on the work of the veterans advisory and pensions committees in supporting our armed forces community. The new clause would amend section 25 of the Social Security Act 1989 to allow the Secretary of State to make regulations enabling the VAPCs to provide advice and deal with complaints in relation to the armed forces compensation scheme 2005 and future compensation schemes enacted under the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Act 2004.

The VAPCs already have certain functions and procedures, as described in section 25 of the 1989 Act and the war pensions committees regulations. This amendment would expand that remit, providing a legislative basis to underpin their broader role and functions. I should, however, say a bit more about the committees.

The committees were first established as the war pensions committees in 1921. Generally, we now refer to them as the veterans advisory and pensions committees. There are 13 such committees whose members I, as Minister responsible for defence personnel and veterans, appoint. There are about 223 members, all unpaid volunteers working within their regional committees to help ex-service personnel and their families, in particular those who are vulnerable. In exercising their statutory functions, the committees carry out a range of activities principally in relation to the war pensions scheme which until 2005 was the main scheme for payment of compensation to members of the armed forces and their spouses and dependants for injuries or death caused by service. These functions include providing local consultation with the MOD on issues concerning war pensioners and war widows or widowers; raising awareness of the war pensions scheme and the veterans welfare service; supporting and monitoring the work of the veterans welfare scheme to ensure the best possible service to war pensioners and war widows and widowers; and helping individuals in representing their difficulties or in making a complaint in relation to the war pensions or war widowers application or review process.

However, there are new armed forces compensation schemes that were not in existence when section 25 was enacted. These include the armed forces compensation scheme and further compensation schemes that have been enacted under the 2004 Act. The new clause, with its proposed amendment to section 25 of the 1989 Act, will enable the committees to be given comparable functions relating to those new schemes too. We want the good work of these committees to continue, helping to enhance the local services delivered by ex-service personnel and their families, giving local support in promoting the armed forces covenant and the development of local community covenants, providing independent opinion on policy changes that may affect veterans, and championing individual cases. New clause 1 proposed by the Government today is for the benefit of our veterans and their families, who deserve the best.

While discussing this new clause, I should also mention amendments 1 and 2, because they make small changes that are consequential to the new clause. Amendment 1 provides that the new clause does not extend to the Isle of Man or the British overseas territories. Section 25 of the 1989 Act, which would be amended by the new clause, extends only to England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and this will remain the case. Amendment 2 simply changes the long title of this Bill to include reference to the new provisions for the war pensions committees. These amendments would give the VAPCs, as the war pensions committees are known now, a statutory basis to continue their good work. With the consent of Parliament, our intention would be to make regulations to set out their new statutory functions at the earliest opportunity.

We welcome all progress in supporting our military veterans, and we are supportive of this measure and how it moves things forward. It is important that we do all we can to uphold our obligations under the military covenant and to consider how we can continually facilitate the development of services for our ex-service personnel and their families.

I do not want to intervene on the substance of this debate, but since this is the last grouping of such amendments, it is appropriate to offer my appreciation—I am sure the Minister would agree with me on this—to my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), who chaired the Select Committee that looked at this Bill in an excellent fashion. The Select Committee showed a tremendous degree of cross-party agreement on the Bill, and I thank the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for his involvement. The Bill is a direct result of that process.

I commend the comments that the Minister has made on this subject. I am keen to see the full implementation of the military covenant and the council community covenants across the whole of Northern Ireland, from county to county and council to council, with everyone getting involved. I am also keen to hear the Minister’s ideas on how to ensure that that happens in its totality in Northern Ireland.

I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) about the work of the Chair of the Committee.

The new clauses contain sensible proposals. When I was a Minister, I had the pleasure of meeting many of the individuals involved in the war pensions committees, and the Minister is quite right to pay tribute to the work that they do. They do not get paid for it, but they are committed to ensuring that the veterans get advice and, on occasions, to highlighting issues that might not have been relevant when legislation was being passed but that came to light afterwards, and ensuring that practical action is taken. They provide an important mechanism for supporting veterans. Perhaps I should not say this, but I am sure that the Minister is already aware that many of them have already given advice on other compensation schemes, so it is sensible to make what they are doing legal, in effect. We will be supporting the new clause.

The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) is right, as he so often is. I am well aware that those people are already offering advice, but it would not be for me to condone from the Dispatch Box any activity that was technically illegal in any shape or form. However, they do fantastic work.

I also echo the comments of other hon. Members who have thanked my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopreski) for his chairmanship of the Committee. We have not quite reached the end of these discussions, however, and I would not want to take it for granted that consensus is breaking out just yet. We still have a few more new clauses and amendments to go, but I hope that we will continue in the vein in which we have started.

In response to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), of course we want to see the military covenant progressed in Northern Ireland in the best possible way. Major progress has been made in recent months, not least when the first two local authorities signed the community covenant. I am looking forward to going to Northern Ireland shortly to do what I can to promote the covenant in the Province. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that these provisions are a major step in the right direction.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 16 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 17 and 18 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 19

Extent in the Channel Islands, Isle of Man and British overseas territories

Amendment made: 1, page 17, line 1, after “5(3),” insert—

“(War pensions committees and armed and reserve forces compensation schemes),”—(Mark Lancaster.)

This amendment provides that NC1 does not extend to the Isle of Man or the British overseas territories. Like section 25 of the Social Security Act 1989, NC1 is to extend to England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (see clause 18).

Clause 19, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 20 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

New Clause 1

War pensions committees and armed and reserve forces compensation schemes

‘(1) Section 25 of the Social Security Act 1989 (establishment and functions of war pensions committees) is amended as follows.

(2) After subsection (1) insert—

“(1A) The regulations may give the committees functions relating to one or more of the following—

(a) war pensions;

(b) war pensioners;

(c) AFCS benefits;

(d) AFCS benefit recipients.”

(3) In subsection (2)—

(a) omit the words from the beginning to the second “and”,

(b) for “it shall be their function” substitute “it is a function of a committee”,

(c) n paragraph (a), for “connected with war pensions or affecting war pensioners in their area and, where they think” substitute “connected with war pensions or AFCS benefits or affecting people in its area who are war pensioners or AFCS benefit recipients and, where it thinks”,

(d) in paragraph (b), for “to them by persons receiving or claiming war pensions and, if they think” substitute “to it by people receiving or claiming war pensions or AFCS benefits and, if it thinks”,

(e) in paragraph (c)—

(i) for “them” substitute “it”, and

(ii) for “they” substitute “it”, and

(f) in paragraph (d), for “war pensioners in their area” substitute “people in its area who are war pensioners or AFCS benefit recipients”.

(4) After subsection (3) insert—

“(3A) The regulations may provide for the committees to have names specified in the regulations (as well as being known as war pensions committees).”

(5) In subsection (4), before the definition of “war pension” insert—

““AFCS benefit” means a benefit payable under an armed and reserve forces compensation scheme established by order under section 1(2) of the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Act 2004;

“AFCS benefit recipient” means a person in receipt of an AFCS benefit, in the person’s capacity as such;”.” (Mark Lancaster.)

War pensions committees established under section 25 of the Social Security Act 1989 may be given functions by the Secretary of State by regulations. This new clause provides that the functions include functions relating to armed and reserve forces compensation schemes established under the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Act 2004.

Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 2

Voluntary discharge of under-18s

‘(1) The Armed Forces Act 2006 (c. 52) is amended as follows.

(2) In section 329 (Terms and conditions of enlistment and service), after subsection (3) there is inserted—

“(3A) The regulations shall make provision that any person under the age of 18 shall be entitled to end their service with a regular force by giving not less than 14 days’ notice in writing to their commanding officer, and shall ensure that any person enlisting under the age of 18 is informed of this right when they enlist.”” —(Liz Saville Roberts.)

This amendment ensures that those under 18 years of age are to discharge themselves from the Armed Forces should they so wish.

Brought up, and read the First time.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 3—Enlistment of minors

‘(1) The Armed Forces Act 2006 is amended as follows.

(2) In section 328(2) (c) (Enlistment) the words “without the consent of prescribed persons” are omitted.”

This amendment ensures that only those above 18 years of age are able to enlist in the Armed Forces.

I rise to speak to new clauses 2 and 3, which stand in my name and those of several hon. Members from various parties across the House. First, I wish to say that these are probing provisions and I do not intend to press them to a Division. Although the Bill does not contain provisions on the recruitment age, it is entirely appropriate that we consider this important issue within the context of this Bill. I should state at the outset that I am a great supporter of the work that the women and men who serve in the armed forces do daily, and that their honour and sacrifice knows no bounds; they are a credit to the communities they serve. Before turning to the new clauses, I would like to put on record my respect for the sterling work they do.

What I am concerned about, as are others from across the House, given the signatories to the new clauses, is the UK’s continued policy of recruiting children to the armed forces. As politicians, we have a duty of care to those we ask to serve on our behalf. The UK is one of only 19 countries in the world that recruit minors to the armed forces. It is the only member of the UN Security Council, the only member of NATO and the only European country that recruits children, and the policy needs to be changed to bring the UK into the modern world. I note that, to the UK Government’s great shame, even countries such as Zimbabwe, Iran and North Korea do not enlist minors.

While we are rightly saddened and repulsed by examples of child soldier recruitment in far-flung countries, some of which have experienced decades of civil war and economic turmoil and strife, we often forget that the UK’s whistle is not entirely clean when we inspect to see whether our own house is in order.

I am grateful to predecessors in all parts of the House who have campaigned on this issue down the years, seeking to get successive Governments of all colours to change policy on the recruitment of minors. Those with a keen eye and knowledge of this matter will probably recognise that these new clauses are not all that new and have been tabled before under various guises down the years. I am grateful to Members of the House past and present who have pressed this matter in years gone by, and I acknowledge their efforts. This a matter of a wren rising from the wings of eagles.

I am aware that recruits under the age of 18 are not required to fight in active combat roles. There may well be an argument in favour of allowing those with a calling—a vocation—to serve in the armed forces where they do not possess the drive or desire to pursue an otherwise academic route, or have a vocational route into other employment. For them, joining the armed forces provides focus and allows them a route to fulfilment. I am not opposed to children of 16 and 17 years of age being able to demonstrate their interest in the armed forces, or to their joining groups that can help them prepare for a career in the armed forces if that is what they wish to do upon reaching adulthood and the age of consent. What I am opposed to is the recruitment of minors into the armed forces, and the potential for such young people to make binding commitments at an unacceptably early age. I believe the Government should end this anomaly, live up to the standards they claim to demand from others and end the recruitment of minors.

At the very least—this is the thinking behind new clause 2—those under the age of 18 should be freely able to discharge themselves from duty should they so wish and not have to give three months’ notice, during which time they may very well be pressurised to change their minds. Three months is too long a period to have to wait having made that decision. They should also be robustly informed of the right to withdraw with a shorter period of notice—14 days—when they enlist.

The “Duty of Care” report emphasises that the youngest recruits, particularly those under the age of 18, who are legally children, were the ones who presented greatest concern in relation to duty of care. The report’s recommendation for a review has since been followed by a number of similar calls from national and international bodies. In 2008, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child asked that the UK

“Reconsider its active policy of recruitment of children into the armed forces”.

It also recommended that the Government ensure that recruitment

“Does not occur in a manner which specifically targets ethnic minorities and children of low-income families,”

and that

“Parents are included from the outset and during the entire process of recruitment and enlistment.”

This policy has been called into question by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and many other respected bodies, including children’s commissioners.

The welfare of young recruits has been in sharp focus since the tragic events at Deepcut barracks, which is in the news again with the announcement of the inquest early next year. Indeed, it is hard to believe that a decade has passed since those tragic events, yet the Government have still not implemented the recommendations of the Defence Committee’s crucial “Duty of Care” report, which recommended that the MOD examine the potential impact of raising to 18 the recruitment age for all three services, and ensure that those under 18 do not undertake armed guard duty. It also recommended a review of material, setting out rights, responsibilities and the nature of commitment in the sort of language that potential recruits will understand.

All four deaths at Deepcut involved a young recruit on guard duty, and two were just 17, yet the practice of under-18s taking part in armed guard duty continues to this day, despite the “Duty of Care” report. The MOD is prioritising operational effectiveness over the rights and welfare of young people in its care. It is high time that the UK moved into line and adhered to international norms on the military recruitment age.

It is also a matter of concern that the youngest recruits are most likely to be enlisted into roles that, when they do come of age, are potentially the most dangerous. I understand that that is particularly true of the infantry, which is concerned about bringing in more recruits. Young people will find themselves committed to a particularly dangerous role at an early age.

I have deep concerns about the armed forces and, as I have said, about the infantry’s recruitment practices of targeting schools while masquerading as educational visits, as well as frequenting poorer areas where other economic opportunities are fewer compared with those in wealthier areas. That is particularly true in areas of Wales and in my own constituency. However, those are matters for another time.

Has the hon. Lady visited the Army Foundation College at Harrogate? If not, may I invite her to do so?

I have not visited the college, but I would be delighted to do so. My background is in further education, and I have taught public services courses where boys and girls—young men and young women—were actively targeted, so I have some experience in this matter.

As I have just said, the matters that I have just raised are perhaps for another time. Today, we are concerned with the specific need to change the law, so that recruitment in the armed forces is in line with international and developed world standards and norms. I urge the Government to consider the proposed new clauses. If they are not minded to accept them, perhaps they can bring forward their own proposals.

I rise to endorse the status quo. I am sorry that I cannot agree with the new clauses proposed by the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), for whom I have the greatest respect.

Training starts at an early age. It starts with the cadets for a great many of our young boys and girls who go on, in the greater spectrum of life, to become the men and women in uniform. That introduction and early training at cadet level gives young people a chance to show their potential and an interest in the armed forces. It also enables them to go further with the training if that is what they wish to do. I am keen to see that training encouraged and retained. I am also conscious, as I know the Minister is, of the fact that a level of training needs to be achieved before a person reaches the age of 18. If we can start from the age of 15 or 16, or even earlier, we will have young soldiers—male and female—equipped and trained to the highest standard and with the necessary experience. With great respect, I feel that what we have at present is perfectly acceptable.

The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) spoke eloquently and sincerely, but I am afraid that I disagree with her. Many young men and women in my constituency, St Helens North, join the armed forces for the benefits of a constructive education, training and employment, and for those young adults serving their country drives social mobility.

Recruitment at 16 is fully compliant with the UN convention on the rights of the child. As the hon. Lady recognised, soldiers are not deployed until they reach the age of 18.

I caution against the use of the word “children” and particularly the term “child soldier”, which is not only incorrect but somewhat offensive. Indeed, it belittles the trauma and plight of those children across the world who are forced into war and soldiery. For all those reasons, I am afraid that, despite the hon. Lady’s forceful argument, I cannot support new clauses 2 or 3.

The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) makes her points regarding service personnel aged under 18 well. However, my hon. Friends and I think it important that young people have the opportunity to have as many career options and life choices as possible at that stage in their lives.

I echo the hon. Lady’s words when she said that it is our responsibility to remember the duty of care for service personnel young and old. In particular, we have a duty of care for younger members of our armed forces. We do not support the new clause, which would prohibit those who are under 18 from joining the armed services, and we note that they are not deployed at that age.

Young people who join the armed services have the opportunity to change career paths, and it does not seem unreasonable for them to do so by giving less notice, so we support the hon. Lady’s suggestion of their having additional opportunities to change their career paths if they so wish after a short period of notice.

The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) rightly raises recruitment to the armed forces at 16, and, as she says, this is not the first time that the issue has been addressed. It was discussed when I served on the Committee that considered the Armed Forces Act 2006. Like my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn), I think that it does us no service trying to draw an analogy between the recruitment of youngsters in the UK at 16 and those who are forced to join up to fight in wars, for example, in west Africa and other parts of the world. The contrast could not be starker, and, as my hon. Friend said, it does no good to our cause of trying to eradicate the practices that take place in other parts of the world.

Youngsters recruited from the age of 16 cannot be deployed until they are 18, and the activities that those individuals undertake are a force for good. I have visited Harrogate, and one of my most inspiring days as a Minister was spent at HMS Raleigh, taking a passing out parade. When talking to the individuals who had completed their basic training there, the changes that had taken place were clear, as was not only their pride but that of their families who attended the event. Some of the parents told me afterwards that the changes that they saw in the short time—10 weeks—that those individuals had been in the Navy was nothing short of remarkable.

On the tragic circumstances at Deepcut, I served on the Defence Committee, along with you, Mr Crausby, when we did a major investigation into the duty of care. Not only the last Government but this Government are committed to the changes proposed not only in the Select Committee report but in that of Mr Nicholas Blake QC on the tragic events at Deepcut. Is it right to say that there were problems? Yes, there were problems, and we referred to them in our report. Many of them have been addressed, including guard duty, which was used to occupy people’s time between phase 1 and phase 2 training.

The work that all three services do with the individuals who join up at 16 is certainly important. All three services do remarkable work correcting the problems that some of those individuals have had in the education system. Work such as that done at Harrogate and Catterick with Darlington college, for example, to try to raise literacy rates is not only helpful to the individual, but remarkably successful.

I see no problem with the recruitment of young people at 16. The involvement of parents has been mentioned. As far as I am aware, they are fully involved in the process before people agree to join the armed forces, and their involvement is ongoing. All three services work closely with parents and guardians. One aspect that we covered in the report by the Defence Committee was the case of young people coming out of care and joining the armed forces. I know that the MOD has put in place clear protocols for dealing with individuals in that situation.

An issue that requires attention, which I struggled with and which I think the Minister will struggle with as well, is early service leavers—people who leave not after basic training, but shortly after joining the armed forces. Such cases raise difficult questions about how the armed forces can help those young people in their transition back to civilian life, and how civilian life can address some of the problems that those young people have, not necessarily as a result of their career in the armed forces, but deep-seated problems that were present before they joined.

Anyone who meets recruits at our basic training facilities cannot fail to be impressed by the transformation of those individuals. We sometimes concentrate on the negative aspects of being a member of our armed forces. I have always been proud to say that in most cases being a member of the armed forces is life changing for those individuals, and has a positive impact on their career choices, their lives in the armed forces and subsequently, when they leave and become Ministers, like the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster).

I am delighted to be joined by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice who, I hear, joined the Army at the age of 16 years and two days—[Interruption.] A long time ago, yes.

I recognise that there are a variety of views across the Committee and I am grateful to be able to debate the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts). The MOD sees junior entry as offering a range of benefits to the individual, the armed forces and society, providing a valuable vocational training opportunity for those wishing to follow a career in the armed forces. We take our duty of care for entrants under 18 extremely seriously. Close attention has been given to this subject in recent years, especially after the tragic deaths at Deepcut. We have robust, effective and independently verified safeguards in place to ensure that under-18s are cared for properly.

The provision of education and training for 16-year-old school leavers provides a route into the armed forces that complies with Government education policy and provides a significant foundation for emotional, physical and educational development throughout an individual’s career. There is no compulsory recruitment into the armed forces. Our recruiting policy is absolutely clear. No one under the age of 18 can join the armed forces without formal parental consent, which is checked twice during the application process. In addition, parents and guardians are positively encouraged to be engaged with the recruiting staff during the process.

Service personnel under the age of 18 are not deployed on any operation outside the UK except where the operation does not involve personnel becoming engaged in, or exposed to, hostilities. In July 2015, the High Court dismissed a judicial review brought by the organisation Child Soldiers International, alleging that the enlistment of Army recruits aged 16 to 18 was in conflict with the equal treatment directive. All service personnel have a statutory right to claim discharge up to their 18th birthday, and the right of discharge is made clear to all service personnel on joining the armed forces. There is a long-standing legal right of all new recruits, regardless of age, to discharge within their first three to six months, depending on their service, if they decide that the armed forces is not a career for them.

Under armed forces regulations, everyone under the age of 18 serving in the armed forces has a further right to claim discharge up to their 18th birthday. For the first six months of service, this is achieved by giving not less than 14 days’ notice in writing to their commanding officer after an initial period of 28 days’ service. At any other time after six months’ service, those under the age of 18 who wish to leave must give notice in writing to their commanding officer, who must then discharge the under-18 within the next three months. For those who give notice just prior to their 18th birthday, this means that the latest they will be discharged is at 18 years and three months of age. These three months represent a cooling-off period to avoid the unintended consequence of a decision made in the heat of the moment. A shorter period may well be agreed with the commanding officer, but three months provides the under-18 with a period of due reflection and the right to rescind their request for discharge. This process ensures that individuals under the age of 18 have an appropriate period of time to consider their decision to leave, and offers flexibility depending on individual circumstances. Ultimately, all service personnel under the age of 18 have a statutory right to leave the armed forces up until their 18th birthday.

All recruits aged under age 18 receive key skills education in literacy and numeracy, should they need it, and all are enrolled on to apprenticeships. The armed forces remain the UK’s largest apprenticeship provider, equipping young people with valuable and transferable skills for life. Over 95% of all recruits, no matter what their age or prior qualifications, enrol in an apprenticeship each year. The armed forces offer courses in a wide range of skills, such as engineering, information and communications technology, construction, driving, and animal care. Ofsted regularly inspects our care of newly joined young recruits, and we are very proud of the standards we achieve. We welcome this specialist confirmation that we treat our young recruits well. In the Select Committee, the Chief of the General Staff, Sir Nick Carter, described the process of recruiting young people, treating them in the right way, and providing them with new opportunities as “incredibly positive”. I take pride in the fact that our armed forces provide challenging and constructive education, training and employment opportunities for young people while in service.

I take on board the point made by the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), and agree with him, about his concerns for early leavers. I am focusing on that area, and I am delighted that it is addressed by the new career transition partnership that was introduced on 1 October.

I thank everybody who has taken part in the debate. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 5

Requirement to publish statistics on sexual assault and rape

‘(1) Each service police force must collect and publish annually anonymised statistics on the number of allegations of sexual assault and rape made by and against members of the armed forces.

(2) The Director of Service Prosecutions must collect and publish annually anonymised statistics on the number of cases involving allegations of sexual assault and rape made by and against members of the armed forces, including but not necessarily limited to—

(a) the number of cases referred from the service police forces;

(b) how many of these cases were prosecuted; and

(c) how many convictions were secured.”—(Mr Kevan Jones.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 6—Removal of Commanding Officer’s discretion to investigate allegations of sexual assault

‘(1) Schedule 2 of the Armed Forces Act 2006 [Schedule 2 offences] is amended as follows.

(2) In sub-paragraph (12)(at), leave out “3, 66, 67 or”

New clause 7—Civilian investigations and prosecutions relating to murder, sexual assault, and rape

‘(1) The Armed Forces Act 2006 is amended as follows.

(2) After section 118 [Duty of service policeman to notify CO of referral to DSP] insert—

“118A Civilian investigations and prosecutions relating to murder, sexual assault, and rape

(1) Criminal investigations into allegations of murder, sexual assault, and rape by and against members of the Armed Forces shall be undertaken by the relevant civilian police authorities.

(2) Criminal prosecutions of charges involving murder, sexual assault, and rape by and against members of the Armed Forces shall be undertaken by the Crown Prosecution Service.””

It gives me great pleasure to speak to new clauses 5, 6 and 7. I apologise to members of the Select Committee who are here, because they have heard many of these issues discussed before. In the replies that we got in Committee, undertakings were given that some of those issues would be looked at. These are mainly probing amendments, but I will wait to see what the Minister brings forward.

New clause 5 is about the service police gathering statistics on serious sexual assaults and rapes. For the civilian police, there is no statutory obligation to do this, but it is now best practice, and individuals are able to look at trends in different police forces. In Committee, we were told by the hon. Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins) that the service police already collect such statistics and that they can be obtained through the use of parliamentary questions or freedom of information requests.

I give credit both to the Ministry of Defence and to General Sir Nick Carter, who gave evidence to the Select Committee. I think he is genuinely committed to changing attitudes in the Army, to ensure not only openness and transparency, but, as he has outlined in his introductory leadership guide, zero tolerance of anyone who steps outside of the law. He has also been commended for his efforts not only to recruit more women to the Army, but to ensure that they progress through the armed forces to more senior positions.

Evidence in the 2005 report shows that 39% of servicewomen questioned said that they had faced harassment, and that cannot be right. It also notes that 33% said that they had faced unwelcome attempts to talk about sexual matters or had felt uncomfortable in some conversations. Why is it important to publish such statistics? Clearly, they have already been collated. I know that the Ministry of Defence moves at a snail’s pace and occasionally needs a push to come up with best practice, but I cannot see any reason why the statistics should not be produced annually, given that they are already available. Doing so would enable us to look at trends—that has been important in civilian police forces—and at whether the initiatives to bear down on unacceptable behaviour in all three services are actually having an effect.

Members should not have to ask a parliamentary question or have to make a freedom of information request in order to get that information. I cannot for the life of me understand the reluctance towards making it available, apart from the usual conservativism—with a small “c”—and snail’s pace of the Ministry of Defence. Let us be honest: if the statistics are published annually, I assure anyone who is watching that the sky will not fall in. I think it would send a proper and clear message. It is important that what General Carter and others are saying about advancing and promoting women, and about bearing down on unacceptable behaviour, is scrutinised properly.

New clause 6 relates to the commanding officer, who is in the unique position of being able to decide whether an allegation of sexual assault should be referred to the military police or to the civil police for investigation. The Select Committee had a long discussion about this issue and I certainly feel that it puts a commanding officer in the position of making judgments when he or she might not be in full cognisance of the facts, so a referral to the police would be a better approach. However, General Carter indicated to the Select Committee that commanding officers are recommended to take legal advice before deciding how to deal with such cases. One way to reach a compromise would be to codify an obligation on commanding officers to take legal advice in all instances before taking such a decision.

New clause 7 deals with the serious issues not only of violent crime, but of rape. I tabled the new clause to raise the question of whether the military police have the capacity or expertise to deal with serious rape or murder cases. I accept what the Minister said in the Select Committee about the great advances made in training and support for the military police, as well as the techniques available. There has been some movement on things that are done as a matter of course by the civilian police.

We discussed the matter in the Select Committee, but I repeat that some of the cases, especially rape cases, are complex. Civilian forces have developed techniques, such as the use of rape suites for victims. The volume of cases dealt with by civilian forces means that they are more capable not only of supporting victims when they come forward, but of investigating such serious sexual assaults or rape. Thankfully, the number of instances dealt with in the armed forces is low. The Metropolitan police and other large forces clearly deal with a large number of cases, and they have both expertise and officers who have dealt with different types of sexual assault and rape. Such individuals or police forces would be better placed to ensure that a victim in the military received the same high standards and support that we would expect for the victims of such crimes in civilian life.

I wish to ask a question about new clause 7. I agree with the shadow Minister, who has very carefully and cautiously outlined the issues. In the past, there have been examples of women who have been abused and raped, which has led to suicide, trauma or depression. These are very important matters. Will the Minister confirm that, as part of an investigation within the existing process, an investigating officer has the power to call any soldiers whatever, male or female, who may have been present when something took place, and that none of them can say, “No, we won’t do that”? I want to make sure that there is a full investigation, and that the person assaulted is given the necessary protection.

It is vital that all matters relating to allegations of or concerns about serious and complex crimes, including sexual assault, rape and murder, are handled with the utmost seriousness, so it is important that such cases are dealt with by the appropriate authorities and with the benefit of the best legal advice. Commanding officers in our armed forces are men and women of skill, professionalism, grit and integrity, but it may simply not be fair to expect them to possess the same level of specialist investigatory skills as those with a professional background in such skills. We would not expect that of any other group. If the victims and alleged perpetrators are dealt with by specialist authorities, everyone will be aware that such matters are handled, as we would all hope, with the appropriate structure, uniformity of approach, transparency and professional best practice.

The maintenance and publication of statistics on sexual assault and rape are key. It is simply not possible or desirable to make assumptions about the level or severity of allegations, prosecutions or convictions. We can only know such details via robust, consistently formatted and regularly produced statistics that are put in the public domain. We would wish to see improvements in the 2017 survey relating to sexual harassment, compared with 2014.

Releasing such statistics is part of our duty of care towards service personnel. It was interesting and heartening to hear in the Select Committee that some of that happens anyway, but it is not approached in a uniform or consistent manner across all services. Without a uniform approach that has the same definitions, frameworks and publication dates, we cannot reasonably keep this matter under review, which we absolutely should do to ensure that we continue to work towards transparency, clarity and improvement for the benefit of all service personnel.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) has returned to these proposals and I welcome the opportunity to discuss these matters before the Committee.

Allegations of sexual assault and rape should never be treated lightly. It is important to us that members of the armed forces are treated well and that we foster an environment in which people have confidence that unacceptable behaviour is not tolerated and that allegations of such behaviour are dealt with. It is important that we are active in driving that forward.

The hon. Member for North Durham is right to raise the publication of statistics. During the Select Committee consideration of the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins) set out the current arrangements in the service justice system for the collection and publication of crime statistics. I will repeat them for the benefit of the Committee.

The service police crime bureau keeps records for all three services of allegations of rape and sexual assault that are made to the service police. That information is released regularly in response to parliamentary questions and freedom of information requests. In the case of the latter, the information is uploaded to the MOD’s online publication scheme, where it can be freely accessed. Let me be clear that I want to explore how we can be more proactive in releasing this information.

The service police crime bureau has been liaising with the Home Office police forces to analyse crime recording practices and rules to identify methods of improving crime recording. As a result, the bureau is working to establish a post of crime registrar, similar to that found in all other police forces, with a remit to scrutinise and audit the recording of crimes on the service police investigation management system. That will lead to further improvements.

The Service Prosecuting Authority records, for each year, the number of cases referred to it, the number of cases in which charges are preferred and the number of cases in which a conviction is secured. The Military Court Service publishes on the internet, on a regular basis, details of every case that is heard at the court martial, including offences, outcomes and punishments. There is, therefore, a clear picture of the extent of this type of offending within the services, giving a strong indication of the proportion of cases referred from the service police to the Service Prosecuting Authority that were prosecuted and of the conviction rate in such cases.

As General Sir Nick Carter, the Chief of the General Staff, said when giving evidence to the Select Committee on the Bill:

“In terms of publishing facts, figures and statistics, I am very solidly behind trying to do that.”

He said that the legislation goes far enough at the moment, but that we must do more, and I agree. Although I am not convinced that it is necessary or appropriate to set out requirements in legislation for the publication of such data, I am determined to make the data that we publish robust, consistent and accessible. To that end, I am actively considering how best to publish the data as an official statistic.

Turning to new clause 6 on the commanding officer’s discretion to investigate, I reassure the Committee that the armed forces already have procedures in place to ensure that allegations of sexual assault are handled appropriately. The commanding officer’s duties in that respect are clear. The starting point is that if a commanding officer becomes aware of an allegation or evidence that would indicate to a reasonable person that a service offence may have been committed by someone under his command, he must ensure that it is investigated “appropriately”. That is a specific statutory duty under the Armed Forces Act 2006. The commanding officer must therefore refer the matter to the service police if it would be appropriate.

The service police can, and do, act on their own initiative, even if a commanding officer does not think it appropriate to ensure that they are aware of the case. For example, the service police could be approached by a victim or a witness, they could come across an offence while patrolling, or the civilian police could become involved and pass them the case.

Almost all of the large number of sexual offences under part 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, including rape and assault by penetration, are already schedule 2 offences. If a commanding officer becomes aware of an allegation, or of evidence that would indicate to a reasonable person that one of those offences may have been committed by someone under his command, he must report that to the service police. We must consider whether a commanding officer should have any discretion over whether to report an allegation of sexual assault, exposure or voyeurism to the service police, in circumstances where a victim or witness does not report the matter to the service or civilian police, and when the service police are not otherwise aware of it.

Importantly, before a commanding officer takes command, he receives training in how to exercise his powers under the Act, and he has access to legal advice 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As the Chief of the General Staff, Sir Nick Carter, made clear, there is a specific requirement in the manual of service law that a commanding officer is to take legal advice when sexual assault, voyeurism or exposure have been alleged. The manual has been amended to make specific mention of those offences in the section on “deciding how to investigate”, and it states that there should be a presumption that the commanding officer will normally ensure that the service police are aware of an allegation of such an offence.

Crucially, although it will rarely be appropriate for the commanding officer not to refer an allegation of sexual assault to the service police, the offence is so wide that I consider it right for the commanding officer to have some discretion, taking into account the wishes of the victim. I fear that an unintended consequence of the new clause may be to discourage some victims from coming forward, since the matter of reporting to the police will be taken out of their hands. The victim, of course, retains the ability to report directly to the service police. I believe that there is already a robust framework and that it is not necessary to impose on commanding officers a statutory duty—which does not apply to any other employer—to refer every allegation of sexual assault and the other offences covered by the new clause to the service police, regardless of what the victim may want.

New clause 7 deals with civilian investigations into serious offences, and would require all investigations into allegations of murder, rape and sexual assault by and against service personnel to be undertaken by the civilian police, and all prosecutions for such offences to be undertaken by the civilian Crown Prosecution Service. The service police and prosecuting authority have the necessary expertise and independence to investigate effectively and prosecute serious offences, including murder, rape and sexual assault by and against service personnel. The service justice system has been scrutinised by the UK courts, and in Strasbourg, and has been held to be compliant with the European convention on human rights for investigations and prosecutions in the UK and abroad where the civilian police do not have jurisdiction.

The service police have been held by the courts to be structurally, and in practice, independent from the chain of command, and they are trained and able to carry out investigations into the most serious offences at home and abroad. All prospective members of the special investigation branch, which investigates serious crimes, must pass the serious crime investigation course before being selected for that unit. Officers receive specialist training on the handling of sexual offences, investigative techniques, forensic awareness, dealing with witnesses and suspects, the preservation of evidence, and interaction with victims.

Selected members of the service police attend a range of specialist and advanced detective training at the Defence College of Policing and Guarding, or externally with the College of Policing or training providers accredited by that college. At the Service Prosecuting Authority, prosecutors are trained to prosecute serious cases effectively. For example, prosecution of serious sexual offences requires attendance on the CPS rape and serious sexual offences specialist training course, and the SPA ensures that decisions on charging are taken only by prosecutors who have completed that training.

The prosecutors protocol of 2011 between the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Director of Service Prosecutions, and the Defence Secretary, recognises that any offence can be dealt with by the service authorities. The main principle in deciding who acts is whether the offence has any civilian context, especially a civilian victim. The protocol provides that cases with a civilian context are dealt with by the civilian criminal justice system.

I should also say something about independence, both of the service police and the Director of Service Prosecutions. This is important, because I want to make clear that there is no room for interference in investigations. The service police have been held by the courts to be structurally, and in practice, independent from the chain of command for investigative purposes. Like any police force, it is recognised that there is a need for arrangements to be in place to ensure that the independence of an investigation is not compromised, or perceived to be compromised. For example, it is recognised there are times when a particular service police force should not investigate. There is a tri-service investigations protocol, which provides for another service police force to carry out an investigation where a service police force would otherwise be investigating its own personnel.

The Director of Service Prosecutions is an independent civilian office-holder exercising statutory powers under the superintendence of the Attorney General. The Service Prosecuting Authority is created by statute, with three main elements. The first element is the creation of the office of Director of Service Prosecutions and his appointment by Her Majesty. The director is appointed on the basis of fair and open competition. The second element is the provision for who may act on his behalf. The Director specifies the lawyers who may act on his behalf. The third element is that the necessary statutory powers in relation to prosecutions in service courts are given to the Director personally, and not to the chain of command.

I believe that the service police and the Service Prosecuting Authority have the necessary expertise and independence to investigate effectively and prosecute the full range of offences. It is crucial to remember that, given that service personnel are subject to the provisions of the Armed Forces Act wherever they serve in the world, service police remain able to investigate in these areas where their civilian counterparts may not. This ensures that our personnel are dealt with fairly and consistently. I am confident that we do not need to legislate further on these matters. On that basis, I hope the hon. Member for North Durham will withdraw his amendments.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I was not wanting to question the independence of the military service police, but there is ongoing concern about its capacity and expertise. One way forward, on which the Ministry of Defence is moving very slowly, is the independent inspection of that force.

On the commanding officer, I hear what the Minister says. When General Carter came before the Committee, people were reassured that in practice allegations are taken very seriously and that when victims come forward legal advice is not only available but referred to. In saying that, if it is not going to be in the Bill that commanding officers should take legal advice before deciding on whether to take forward or dismiss a complaint, the services perhaps need to consider whether it should be codified through some kind of internal process.

On the publication of statistics, it is welcome that common sense has finally blossomed. The Minister is right that statistics are available. I cannot think he has anything to hide by not publishing them. I respect his commitment to come up with a system to publish them annually. I accept that perhaps more work needs to be done on the format and where they are produced. With the passage of the Bill I will be looking, as I am sure will fellow members of the Committee, to see how that advances. If I may give him a word of advice, in my experience he should insist on a timeline. Otherwise—no disrespect to some very able civil servants in the MOD—it might get pushed off into a siding and, if he leaves his post, might not be picked up by his successor. This is important. Neither the military nor the MOD has anything to fear from producing these figures, and it would add to the good work being done by the MOD and the three services to address these issues. With those comments, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 8

Review of compensation available to veterans suffering from mesothelioma

Within 12 months of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State must commission a review of how former members of the armed forces who have contracted mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos in the course of their military service are compensated, and must lay the report of this review before both Houses of Parliament.”—(Mr Kevan Jones.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

The new clause, which is similar to one I moved at an earlier stage, would affect veterans who have the misfortune to suffer from mesothelioma. You will know, Mr Crausby, from your engineering background, how debilitating this terrible condition is and the death sentence it imposes.

In 2014, the Government set up the diffuse mesothelioma payment scheme under the Mesothelioma Act 2014 to pay lump sum compensation to civilians who contracted mesothelioma in cases where former employers or insurance companies could not be traced. Under the Crown Proceedings (Armed Forces) Act 1987, many veterans are not covered by the scheme and so do not have the option to sue the MOD over this death sentence.

Great strides have been made to improve health and safety in handling asbestos, not just in civilian life but within the MOD, but we are talking here about cases that go back 30 or 40 years, if not further. Mesothelioma is one of those terrible conditions that affects people at random. In a previous life, when I was legal officer for the GMB, I saw old shipyard workers with asbestos scars on their hands who did not suffer from any other conditions, while some people exposed to quite low levels of asbestos developed mesothelioma and other asbestos-related cancers.

Under the current provisions, affected veterans can apply for a 100% war pension, if it is agreed that their diagnosis is related to their service. The Royal British Legion, which has campaigned on this, estimates that the option to claim compensation would affect 2,500 personnel, mainly—not surprisingly—naval veterans who handled asbestos in the course of their work. It tells me that asbestos has some peculiar effects for single individuals and widowers. The proposal is that the Secretary of State come forward with a scheme for veterans similar to the one outlined by the Government in 2014. It would also continue their work of supporting veterans, irrespective of where they served, and bring the law for veterans suffering from mesothelioma into line with that for civilians, who are covered by the 2014 Act. That is what organisations such as the Royal British Legion have been campaigning for.

I support the view of the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) that this matter must be dealt with. There is an urgency to it, because veterans suffering from mesothelioma simply do not have time for us to delay any further. We have heard about the campaign of the Royal British Legion, which calls on the Government to find fairer ways of compensating veterans suffering from this devastating condition. It has been an effective campaign, and it is right to highlight what a terrible disease mesothelioma is.

It is an unimaginable tragedy for veterans and their families to receive this diagnosis. We cannot imagine the enormous impact it has on their lives. To be clear, rectifying this unfair treatment will not make anybody suffering from the disease any better, but it might improve the quality of the period of life they have left and it might mean less anxiety about those they leave behind them.

Thousands of people serving in our armed forces prior to 1987 were exposed to asbestos while under military orders and have subsequently been diagnosed with mesothelioma. As the hon. Member for North Durham said, approximately 2,500 ex-service personnel are affected in this way. They clearly lose out very significantly when compared with civilians in the same position. For instance, while the civilian population suffering from mesothelioma is eligible for up to £180,000 in compensation, our ex-service personnel are eligible for only £31,000. Our veterans are clearly being treated less well than their civilian counterparts. This is a very significant difference, and it is no way to support our service personnel. I hope to hear some positive words from the Minister about this.

The military covenant commits the Government to removing disadvantages to service personnel—and this is most certainly a disadvantage at a very difficult time in people’s lives. We need to be able to deal with this—and quickly. The Royal British Legion summarises the situation very well when it says that it is

“unfair and has to change!”.

It is unacceptable to treat our terminally ill veterans in this way; the hon. Member for North Durham is correct in his call for urgency.

My concern is that this matter was already being discussed and highlighted as urgent when the Mesothelioma Act 2014 was being reviewed as a Bill in July 2013, yet so far this issue has not been resolved—despite assurances on many occasions that action was imminent. It is our duty to deal with it now before other ex-service personnel have their final months blighted by this financial worry and inequity. I hope that the Minister can allay these concerns today, so that we can see some positive progress made and deal with our veterans as we should.

I endorse the comments of the shadow Minister once again. As the Minister will know, we have had some fringe discussions on this issue in the Defence Committee. Furthermore, the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson), who usually sits behind me but is not in his place, has tabled an early-day motion to highlight the issue. The Royal British Legion, as the hon. Members for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) and for North Durham (Mr Jones) have said, has been part of the campaign and has lobbied hard.

We are all aware of some constituents who have this problem, but if I can be forgiven for saying it, the longer this goes on, the more the guys who would probably qualify for any agreed compensation are likely not to be here any more. That may sound cynical, but it crosses the minds of the potential recipients of the compensation and those of elected representatives who want to reflect the opinion that they are given by such people.

I and the shadow Minister both want to see a fair and equal distribution coming out of the compensation process—as it is for civilians, so it should be for those who have served in uniform. As the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire said when she dealt with the military covenant, these things should really happen normally, without any need for requests from this Chamber. The military covenant is clear; the negative obstacles should be taken away. Members should be able to express their opinion here on behalf of their constituents. There is an urgency about this matter because we need to put right an injustice. I just want to add my support to that of the shadow Minister and other Members who are not in their places today but would love to be here to support this request.

I commend the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for tabling the new clause. I wish to associate myself with what he said, and with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I also congratulate the Royal British Legion on the campaign it has been conducting over the past few months.

I believe that the Members who have already spoken have conveyed to the Minister the depth of feeling about mesothelioma and the impact of asbestos-related conditions on our service personnel. My constituency has a clear, direct link with mesothelioma through shipbuilding. We see the daily impact of asbestos on the lives of communities, not just the people who were in contact with it in the shipyards—both men and women—but their families.

It is inexplicable to me that we might not wish to provide equal support for our armed forces personnel. I think particularly of naval personnel who have been involved in the lagging of ship hulls during tours of duty, but I think also of Army personnel who have been based in premises that were built with asbestos cement, and mechanics who have dealt with vehicles that were insulated with asbestos. They will have not only come into contact with blue or white asbestos dust during their working lives, but brought it into their home lives.

I hope that the Government will recognise the intentions of the hon. Member for North Durham, and will seek to ensure that at least some cross-party work is done to enable us to bring this to a conclusion. Enough is enough: asbestos-related conditions form a major part of my constituency work. I am grateful to Clydebank Asbestos Group, which for many years, and with the support of many of my predecessors, has continued to work with other asbestos-related groups.

The Government really must listen to what the hon. Gentleman has said. Let us get this done.

The new clause would impose an obligation on the Defence Secretary to instigate a review of compensation for veterans with mesothelioma. My view is that such a step would not require legislation, and has been overtaken by events.

As I said on 19 November during the Adjournment debate on compensation for our military veterans who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, we recognise that it is a devastating disease that changes the lives not only of the people who are diagnosed with it but of those who care about them: their families and loved ones.

Veterans with mesothelioma caused by their military service are entitled to make a claim for no-fault compensation from the Ministry of Defence. The war pensions scheme provides a tax-free pension and supplementary allowances, along with dependants’ benefits. The Government ascribe great importance to the health and well-being of our veterans, and we are clear about the fact that they should not be disadvantaged as a result of their service. We are absolutely committed to supporting them and the wider armed forces community.

Mesothelioma is a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, and 40 years or more can often pass before it manifests itself and an individual is diagnosed, tragically with a short life expectancy thereafter. That is why it is so important to ensure that we provide the right support for those who are affected by the disease. We owe them all a debt of profound gratitude. I am therefore pleased to announce that any veteran who is diagnosed from mesothelioma from today will be offered a choice between receiving a lump sum of £140,000 and receiving the traditional war pension payments. It is currently proposed that the necessary legislative changes will come into force on 11 April 2016, but I am keen to consider options for bringing the date forward. Claimants choosing the option of a lump sum will continue to receive a monthly payment until the lump sum is paid. The Veterans Welfare Service will be on hand to help claimants to understand the new option.

As my hon. Friends will know, the policy of no retrospection has been maintained by successive Governments. Whether it should be applied to this group is a complex issue that has been the subject of much discussion within the Government. However, I have directed my Department to continue to review the options to support these claimants in a similar manner. I have received a great deal of correspondence, and I intend to write to the Members who have contacted my Department with a full update.

On that basis, I urge the hon. Member for North Durham to withdraw his motion.

I think it would be rather churlish if I did not! I thank the Minister. What he has said shows his determination to put this wrong right, and, as with many issues, he approaches it not only with compassion but with the aim of ensuring that we do the right thing. This is doing the right thing by these veterans, to whom we owe a huge debt. I congratulate him on his stance and I will look with hope at the other work he is doing on retrospection. I accept that there are difficulties with that and I would not expect solutions tomorrow, but I take his commitment at least to look at retrospection. On the happy note that this is moving in the right direction, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 9

Homosexual acts no longer to constitute grounds for discharging a member of HM armed forces (No. 2)

‘(1) The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 is amended as follows.

(2) In section 146(4), omit the words “discharging a member of Her Majesty’s armed forces from the service or” and the words “or, in the case of a member of Her Majesty’s armed forces, where the act occurs in conjunction with other acts or circumstances,”.

(3) In section 147(3), omit the words “discharging a member of Her Majesty’s armed forces from the service or” and the words “or, in the case of a member of Her Majesty’s armed forces, where the act occurs in conjunction with other acts or circumstances,”.’—(Mr Kevan Jones.)

This amendment removes the provisions applying to the armed forces from sections 146(4) and 147(3) of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

New clause 9 attempts—I referred to this in the Select Committee—to remove redundant legislation from the statute book. Sections 146(4) and 147(3) of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 contain provisions relating to a homosexual act constituting grounds for discharge from the armed services. The Act repealed a provision relating to male homosexual acts and the armed forces in the Sexual Offences Act 1967.

Clearly, that has been superseded by the fact that homosexuality in itself is not now grounds, thankfully, for being dismissed from the armed services, but the legislation referring to the armed forces remains on the statute book. I am not for one minute suggesting that anyone involved in a homosexual or heterosexual act in the course of their service should not be disciplined or could not be dismissed, but people think that it is discriminatory, and I agree, that the Act refers to homosexual acts, and not heterosexual acts in any way.

That legislation is redundant because we have moved, rightly, to ensure that members of our armed forces are not judged by their sexuality. My aim in the Select Committee and today is to find a mechanism—and I accept what the Minister said about the way forward—to take the provision off the statute book. It clearly discriminates against homosexuality, has no place on the statute book and serves no useful purpose.

I associate SNP Members with the comments of the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) about the redundancy of this provision. On a personal level, I am shocked that it is still there and that homosexual members of the armed forces should be seen differently from heterosexual members of the armed forces who might be having sexual relations. Strangely enough, that seems to be a human element of sexual relations: they happen to people, whether they be homosexual or heterosexual, and no law is going to prohibit that. I want to ensure that the hon. Gentleman recognises that those on the SNP Benches fully support the new clause. We hope that the Minister will again reflect on what has been said and seek a way to take this forward.

I agree entirely with the comments of my hon. Friend. It was positive in the Select Committee to hear the universal support for the repeal of this archaic and discriminatory provision. I understand that the current law has not actually been enforced for many years, and I realise that repealing the provision is out of scope for us today. However, I join my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) in urging the Government to find a way to deal with the issue, and to do so with some urgency. It is unacceptable that, albeit unused, this provision remains. In 2015, we are better than that as a society, and our armed forces deserve the framework they operate within to reflect that and the fact that the provision is unacceptable and derogatory.

I have much sympathy with the basis for this new clause. Sections 146(4) and 147(3) of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 are clearly redundant. They have no practical effect and their existence is inconsistent with the Department’s policy on homosexuality within Her Majesty’s armed forces and the Government’s equality and discrimination policies more generally. We are very proud in the MOD of the significant progress that has been made over a comparatively short time in respect of support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender staff. Since changes were made to the law in 2000 to allow homosexual men, lesbians and transgender personnel to serve openly in the armed forces, we have taken many positive steps. All three services now feature in Stonewall’s top 100 employers list.

We continue to engage widely to benchmark our activities in support of our LGBT staff, to ensure that we are doing as much as we can. In celebration of this year’s London Pride, the rainbow flag was flown over the MOD main building for the first time, while over 200 service personnel and MOD civil servants marched together.

It is clear, therefore, that this redundant piece of legislation in no way reflects the position of today’s armed forces, or indeed the position of the merchant navy, which is also included in those provisions. We would wish to repeal the legislation for both groups, but that is not possible in this Bill as the merchant navy falls under the auspices of the Department for Transport.

I am keen to repeal this legislation as soon as possible, and will undertake to update the House on this matter on Report. I have also discussed this with my colleagues in the Department for Transport, who echo the intent to review this legislation with regard to the merchant navy as soon as possible. On that basis, I urge the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) to withdraw his new clause.

What we have had today is what we had in the Select Committee: universal agreement that this is not only redundant legislation, but is discriminatory and should not be on the statute book. I welcome the Minister’s commitment to look at finding a way to remove this. He has said he will report back on Report, and that will stop people pushing it off into a siding. I look forward to the Minister coming back with a way of changing this not only for the armed forces but, through the Department for Transport, for members of the merchant navy. With those comments, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule agreed to.


Amendment made: 2, line 2, after “discipline;” insert

“to make provision about war pensions committees established under section 25 of the Social Security Act 1989;”.—(Mark Lancaster.)

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.

Bill, as amended, reported.

Bill to be considered tomorrow.