[Relevant documents: Oral evidence taken before the Defence Committee on 13 October 2020, on the work of the Service Complaints Ombudsman, HC 881; Oral evidence taken before the Defence Committee on 1 December 2020 and Third Report of the Defence Committee, Pre-appointment hearing for the Service Complaints Ombudsman, HC 989; Oral evidence taken before the Defence Committee on 12 and 26 January 2021, on Armed Forces and veterans mental health, HC 1133.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It is a privilege to open this debate today on our Armed Forces Bill, not least because it carries with it such historical significance. Decades after the disaster of the English civil war, the Bill of Rights of 1688 required Parliament to pass an Act every five years to maintain a standing army. That landmark document states that
“the raising or keeping a standing army within the United Kingdom…in time of peace, unless it be with the consent of Parliament, is against the law”.
Centuries on, that pivotal constitutional function still stands, and by reviewing what has evolved into the Armed Forces Act 2006 every five years, this Bill is the mechanism for ensuring that members of our armed forces obey lawful orders. It underpins military command, discipline and justice. Without it, our military would be unable to operate as a professional body beyond the end of 2021. In other words, this legislation is essential for our forces to act effectively, and a vital bulwark of our democracy.
The legislation we are discussing today is as much about our future as about our present and our past. This is a moment of renewal, as will become clear when I move on to discuss some of the Bill’s key measures. It will have far-reaching benefits for defence and for our broader service community, and it is fitting that we are reviving our pledge to our people at this time. Over the past 12 months they have been shoulder to shoulder in the thick of the struggle against covid, performing Herculean tasks in support of our excellent NHS doctors and nurses.
Perhaps no one sums up the enduring spirit of our armed forces through the ages better than the late great Captain Sir Tom Moore. Always humble, never entitled, ever using his unique experiences to help others, he was a special man, a true patriot and the perfect veteran. When I spoke to Captain Tom, I always thanked him not only for his generation’s service, which was the perfect example for mine to follow, but for the example he gave to us all, young and old, during this pandemic. Captain Tom was one of a disproportionate number of veterans who have stood up and served again during this time, and as the UK Government’s Veterans Minister, I pay tribute to them today. This Bill is designed to deliver for them.
The Bill has three main elements, and I will deal with each in turn. First, renewal. I start with clause 1. As previously mentioned, this legislation renews the Armed Forces Act 2006. The 2006 Act covers matters such as: the powers of commanding officers to punish disciplinary or low-level criminal misconduct; the powers of the court martial system; and the powers of the service police. This Bill provides for continuation of the 2006 Act for a year from the date on which it receives Royal Assent. It provides for its further renewal for up to a year at a time until the end of 2026, ensuring that Parliament has a regular opportunity to debate our nation’s armed forces.
Secondly, the Bill makes important changes to the service justice system. This Government are committed to achieving justice in all allegations of criminal offending by or against service personnel anywhere in the world, just as we are equally committed to supporting the victims and witnesses of the most serious crimes.
I apologise for intervening so early, but I wanted to do so while the Minister was mentioning justice. In this Bill, he deals with justice to our armed services and forces, but we are still waiting for protection against vexatious allegations in cases from Northern Ireland where people have already been tried and found innocent. I served there back at that same time, and many people I know live in fear that they are going to be called for something that they thought was over, done and gone. When is that legislation going to come in front of the House?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. I think it is appropriate that I deal with this matter now, although it may come up a number of times during the debate. Let me be absolutely clear: this Prime Minister, for the first time in this country’s history, has committed to ending the vexatious nature of repeat investigations of our veterans who served in Northern Ireland; this Northern Ireland Secretary has given the same commitments; and we are closer now than we have ever been to delivering on that promise. Those veterans are not left behind. I pay tribute to them for their service. Legislation will be coming in due course from the Northern Ireland Office. The Government are working and are committed to this issue like never before. I just urge a little more patience. Colleagues will know my commitment to the issue, and I am determined to see it through.
I certainly endorse everything that the Minister has said about his own commitment and the commitment of the Government to this issue. May I just make an appeal that, when he does bring forward the legislation for Northern Ireland veterans, it focuses not only on the question of prosecutions, but on the question of investigations, the vast majority of which never lead to prosecutions but are still terribly oppressive? That is what is missing from the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill; it is good on prosecutions, but has not yet done enough about repeated reinvestigation.
My right hon. Friend is very knowledgeable and learned in this space. The issue is a lot more complicated than it is made out to be by a lot of people who contribute to this debate. There is no evidence, essentially, of vexatious prosecutions per se. It is the investigations that are the trouble. There are elements of this Bill that address how we investigate. There are elements not in this Bill that are being brought into the Department, such as a serious crime unit, to ensure that these things can never happen again.
Let me be clear that if we were to invent a system that essentially said, “We will not investigate”, that would be the equivalent of an amnesty, and this Government are not committed to going down that route either. This is a difficult area and it is a delicate balance, but the strategic objective has been set by the Prime Minister; it is one that I and many Members in the House have campaigned on for years, and we will deliver on it. It is a tough ask and a tough battle, but we will win it. I urge patience while we get to the end of this battle.
The Minister is not the problem; the problem is the Northern Ireland Office, as everyone knows. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) chairs the veterans support group in this place; he has been followed by my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), a previous Chairman of the Defence Committee and now Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee; and I am a member of the veterans support group. The Prime Minister promised 18 months ago that we would have this legislation before the next general election. Well, we have had the general election and we have had a year, so with the greatest of respect, will the Minister take back to the Northern Ireland Office the fact that our patience is now exhausted? We do not want words and we do not want to be patronised; we want a Bill. Where is it?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, and it is a fair point. However, I would just say that we have had 18 months since that election, but this challenge has existed for 40 years—for 40 years—and our predecessors have not dealt with it. It is unrealistic to expect the Northern Ireland Office and the Prime Minister to have delivered on this by now, but they have made that commitment. I would slightly push back on this idea that the Northern Ireland Secretary is the roadblock, as my right hon. Friend has put to me before. That is not my experience, and I am engaged in this every day and I think on this matter every day. That is not fact; what is fact is that this is extremely difficult, but this Government will get it over the line. I am going to make progress now.
No, I will not give way. I will make progress now.
The service justice system remains a fair and effective system, but no system, as we know, should remain static. The service justice system review underlined that we must do more to strengthen it so that our people and their families have confidence that they will receive fair treatment. That is why clauses 2 to 7, along with clause 11, implement important recommendations of the service justice system review. In the interests of time, I will focus today on only the most salient measures.
Clause 7 deals with the notion of concurrent jurisdiction. For offences committed by service personnel in the UK, justice can be delivered through the civilian criminal justice system or the service justice system. The service justice system review of 2020 found the system to be fair, robust and ECHR-compliant, but it also proposed that some of the most serious offences should not be prosecuted at court martial when they are committed by service personnel in the UK, except where the consent of the Attorney General is given. To be clear, the review was not saying that the service justice system should stop dealing with certain categories of cases that occur in the United Kingdom; it was saying that, when such cases come up, controls should be introduced if they are to be tried in the service justice system. Meanwhile, jurisdiction would remain to deal with such cases overseas.
The Government have considered this recommendation fully and carefully, but we have concluded that the concurrency of jurisdictions must remain. We are confident that the service justice system is capable of dealing with all offences, whatever their seriousness and wherever they occur, though there are important improvements that can and should be made to ensure the system is as resilient, robust and transparent as it possibly can be. However, we do agree that the current non-statutory protocols and guidance about jurisdiction must be clearer, so clause 7 of the Bill places a duty on the heads of the service and civilian prosecutors in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to agree protocols regarding the exercise of concurrent jurisdiction. We believe that such decisions on jurisdiction are best left to the independent service justice and UK civilian prosecutors, using guidance agreed between them. The Bill ensures that civilian prosecutors will have the final say should a disagreement on jurisdiction between the prosecutors remain unresolved. I want to be clear: this is not about seeking to direct more cases into the service justice system and away from the civilian criminal justice system, or vice versa; it is about guaranteeing that both systems can handle all offending and are equally equipped to deliver justice for victims.
Moving on from clause 7, clause 11 is the first step in creating an independent body to oversee complaints against the service police. To support our world-class armed forces, we need a highly skilled and capable service police, and we are always looking for improvements. Once again, the service justice system review has provided several important recommendations. These include the creation of a defence serious crime capability, something we are pursuing separately since it does not require legislation, but it is the report’s proposal for an independent service police complaints system, modelled on the system in place for civilian police in England and Wales, that we will take further today.
The rules governing oversight of the civilian constabulary are set out in part 2 of the Police Reform Act 2002, which is overseen by the director general of the Independent Office for Police Conduct. We are, in essence, replicating that system, by establishing an independent service police complaints commissioner. They will have the power to investigate serious and sensitive matters involving the service police, including those relating to conduct, serious injury and death. They will also set the standards by which the service police should handle complaints. As in the case of civilian police, provision will be made to handle both whistleblowing and super-complaints—those issues raised by designated organisations on behalf of the public about harmful patterns or trends in policing.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. May I thank Justice Lyons for his contribution in putting together the service justice review, which happened on my watch, as my hon. Friend’s predecessor? I see that the Defence Secretary is in his place. Will he use the opportunity to clarify why certain types of offences—the most serious offences—could not, as per the recommendation, be moved across to the civilian courts which, it was argued, had better experience to deal with these matters?
As I have said, the review was not saying that the service justice system should stop dealing with certain categories of cases. All it was saying was that, when cases came up, controls should be introduced if they are tried in the service justice system. The control that was recommended by the review was the Attorney General’s consent. Instead, we want something that is more transparent for both victims and those accused, that is more resilient and more robust, and that is the protocol that is agreed between civilian prosecutors and service prosecutors, which we think will lead to better outcomes for all users of the service justice system.
Clause 8 goes to the heart of the Bill. As the House is aware, the armed forces covenant was introduced a decade ago. During that time, we have seen an irreversible, strategic shift towards looking after our people. Veterans have found work, reservists have got the time off needed to deploy, and military spouses have received further help in their careers. If we analyse last year’s annual report, we will see how the scope and effectiveness of the armed forces covenant has continued to advance: 79,000 service children in the United Kingdom now benefit from £24.5 million of additional pupil funding; 22,200 service personnel have been helped on to the housing ladder by the Forces Help to Buy scheme; and 800 GP practices in England are now accredited as veteran-friendly with more joining their ranks every day.
Despite the pandemic, we have provided cash boosts for family accommodation, introduced free breakfast and after-school clubs for military children, brought in the veterans railcard and given millions to service charities. We have come far in recent times. As someone who beat a path to the door of this Parliament to force this place to honour the nation’s responsibilities to veterans, I can genuinely say that I can feel the sands shifting under my feet, but we have further to go. Today is an historic day, as we legislate to put the armed forces covenant—that promise between the nation and those who serve—into law. What is still evident is that some members of our armed forces community are still suffering disadvantage in accessing public services. Often the provision that they get is something of a postcode lottery. When disadvantage occurs, it is often because there is little understanding of the unique nature of service in the armed forces.
I am incredibly grateful to the Minister for giving way. I welcome what he says, and we on the Labour Benches indeed support the covenant. On the issue of the postcode lottery, which is really important for my constituents in Barnsley, may I push him further and ask whether he will be introducing measurable national standards in the covenant so that there is not that postcode lottery?
We bring out a report every year that attempts to pull together everybody’s different experiences of the covenant. We are clear that we will not prescribe specific outcomes. We want local authorities to adhere to the principles of the armed forces covenant and, because of the way that local authorities deliver their services, to have a due regard in law to consider the covenant but not to prescribe outcomes. That is reflected in the covenant report, which gives us a good firm idea of how the covenant is going down in communities such as Barnsley.
In this clause, we tackle those problems head-on. We are placing a duty to have due regard to the covenant principles on public bodies responsible for the delivery of key functions in housing, education and healthcare. We have chosen those three areas because they are the bedrock of a stable and secure life. Unsurprisingly, they are also raised by members of the armed forces community as areas of greatest concern.
Not at this time.
The legislation does not mandate specific delivery outcomes or advantageous treatment of the armed forces community, not least because it is important that relevant public bodies retain the flexibility required to tailor decisions on service delivery to local circumstances. But the Bill will legally oblige relevant public bodies to consider the principles of the covenant when carrying out specified functions in these three areas. To support its delivery, we are also making sure that public bodies are supported by statutory guidance explaining the principles of the covenant as well as, for example, how and why members of the armed forces may experience disadvantage as a result of their service. Some will say that we are going too far, others that we have not gone far enough, but my colleagues and I carefully weighed up a number of options before devising this response.
Critically, this is just the first step. This legislation will provide the Government with the power to widen the scope of the duty to apply to additional public bodies and include other functions should it be felt beneficial in future; in other words, we are turning the covenant into a minimum requirement—a tangible tool that our service personnel and veterans can use to hold their service providers to account, a tool that has the capacity to deliver today as well as evolve and adapt as society changes.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time, and I think the whole House agrees with him on the need to enforce the armed forces covenant. Critical in any environment, whether the private sector or local authorities, is the role of the armed forces champion, a single person that anybody can go to, and it must be clear who they are. Will the Minister consider putting into the legislation that every local authority must have a designated armed forces champion?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. We carefully considered including such a measure, but local authorities were not supportive because they deliver the principles of the armed forces covenant through a variety of mechanisms and in different ways. They specifically mentioned to the Department and to me as the Minister that they did not want us to specify that sort of outcome, which is why we have put in the “due regard” to pay duty to the principles of the covenant and to bear them in mind when delivering public services. But, as I have said, this is legislation that we will review going forward to ensure that it is working and that it genuinely feels that it works for those who need it.
This reform is also about our broader aspiration.
Not at this time.
By cementing the covenant in the minds of the public, we are not lowering the ceiling but are raising the floor of our collective expectations. For example, my own constituency of Plymouth, Moor View has undertaken many good initiatives to support the local service community. I want others to view their efforts not as exceptional, but rather as a new normal, just as I want my constituents to see their successes merely as a springboard to better and bigger things.
In conclusion, I began by saying that an Armed Forces Bill is always an historic moment, but, by augmenting service justice, by improving our service police and by finally enshrining the covenant into law a decade on, we are cementing its standing further still. Our armed forces people are our nation’s first and last line of defence. We depend on them, but they also depend on us, and that is why it is incumbent not just on those of us in Government but on everyone in this House to work in partnership with our counterparts in the devolved Administrations to ensure that this nation does right by those who serve, so that decades from now our future personnel will look back on this period and say, “This was the moment”—the moment when our nation finally awoke and delivered on its promise to the incredible men and women who serve our country without question or quibble and defend this proud nation and act on the will of this House; the moment when incremental strategic and irreversible change was delivered in law for our service personnel and veterans and their families. I commend this Bill to the House.
Before I call the shadow Secretary of State, it will be obvious to anyone who has examined the call list that a very large number of Members wish to participate this afternoon, so there will be an immediate time limit on Back-Bench speeches of four minutes.
I join the Minister in his tribute and thanks to the men and women of our armed forces—those deployed to standing commitments, from Cyprus to the Falklands; those serving as part of our NATO defences in Estonia or the UN peacekeeping in Mali; and of course those who are part of the largest ever peacetime deployment in this country, helping this country through the covid crisis. British forces are respected worldwide for their professionalism and for the values that we most admire: integrity, loyalty, discipline and service.
This Armed Forces Bill renews the legal basis for our armed forces and system of military law, and in turn also renews the nation’s commitment to our forces personnel through the covenant; and, with almost 70 speakers from all parts of the House, it is quite clear this afternoon that the House is determined, together, to do exactly that.
Labour supports this legislation. We share that aim, and we welcome the order that will follow this debate to extend the present Armed Forces Act from the end of May until the end of December, so that Parliament has the time to give the proper scrutiny to improving this Bill. As it stands, this Bill is a big missed opportunity—the opportunity to make good in full on the commitments in the armed forces covenant, so that Britain becomes the best country in the world to serve and to be a veteran; the opportunity to fix long-run problems for forces personnel, their families and veterans, which have become so clear over the last decade; and the opportunity to set a framework for the armed forces that is fit for the challenges and complex threats that Britain must face.
Let me make this point about the Armed Forces Bill, in particular to Government Members who are used to toeing the line on legislation. This Bill is different. This Bill is bipartisan and goes next to a Select Committee, not a Public Bill Committee. The Bill can be improved from all sides as it goes through Parliament. The Bill rests on the groundbreaking Armed Forces Act 2006, which consolidated half a century of service law. To stress the point, on Second Reading of that Bill, in 2005-06, a Government Back Bencher made a strong argument for a service complaints commissioner, which at first was knocked back by the Secretary of State, John Reid. However, by the time the Bill became an Act, the proposal from my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) had been incorporated fully into the legislation. He will no doubt have fresh proposals for this Bill to put to this Secretary of State.
On clause 8, we stand fully behind the armed forces covenant and the aim to give it full legal force. In fact, in 2009 Labour in government consulted on introducing legally enforceable rights for the forces, their families and veterans, and our 2010 manifesto proposed to enshrine those rights in the armed forces charter. I am therefore pleased that the Secretary of State could say on publication of the Bill at the end of last month:
“For the first time ever we are putting into law the Armed Forces Covenant.”
The Secretary of State might just want to let David Cameron know that. In fact, he might be surprised to learn it, because he boasted in 2015 that he had already done so, saying:
“We are the first Government to put the military covenant properly into law”.—[Official Report, 4 November 2015; Vol. 601, c. 961.]
I am sorry that the Minister did not want to take interventions. He said that the armed forces covenant is now 10 years old, but it is actually a lot older. It started in 2008 with the Command Paper under the last Labour Government, and the document he referred to, which came out in 2009, referred not only to putting the covenant into law but giving it teeth. The proposal in this Bill does not have teeth. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a bit strange that the weakened version that we have now has none of the proposals in the 2009 Green Paper? Let us also remember that this is the same Government who, in 2011, opposed the motion tabled by me and the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) to put the covenant into law.
My right hon. Friend is right, of course. I want to stress, to the extent that I can, the cross-party, long-term and long-run support for many of these provisions. He is right that the covenant has its roots in the previous Labour Government—we called it a charter then, rather than a covenant—but over the past two decades, I believe we have made great strides in providing better services, support and opportunities for service personnel and veterans.
That is to the credit of Ministers who have made it their personal mission, of hon. Members on both sides who have championed the cause, of councils and local agencies that have delivered services to our veterans, and of service charities such as the Royal British Legion, Cobseo, the Confederation of Service Charities, the RAF Families Federation, SSAFA, the Armed Forces Charity and Help for Heroes, which have hugely improved Government policy, advanced public understanding and developed direct support for forces and veterans. Those charities welcome the Bill, as I do, but they are disappointed by the limitations of the legislation, as I am.
I must say to hon. Members that, if they read one background briefing for this Bill, they should make it the background briefing that the Royal British Legion has sent to us today. It rightly says that a decade’s experience of the covenant confirms that,
“the range of policy issues that have a significant impact on the Armed Forces community is wide and ever-changing: including health, housing, employment, pensions, compensation, social care, education, criminal justice and immigration”.
The Bill is too narrow. It covers only aspects of health, housing and education. The Bill creates a two-tier covenant. It applies only to local councils and local agencies, not to national Governments. The Government are letting themselves off the hook entirely when, as the Legion says, many of the areas in which forces personnel and veterans have problems are the responsibility of national Governments or are based on national guidance to delivery agencies.
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the clauses relating to service justice and terms of service were ultimately requested by the armed forces. They should therefore be non-contentious, although I agree that perhaps clause 8 could be more prescriptive. However, to bring the armed forces covenant into statute, to do it equally and to make it deliverable across all local authorities, across all devolved nations and also Northern Ireland, where particular circumstances reign, will be no easy feat. My view therefore is that, far from being overly prescriptive in primary legislation, it may be better to be less prescriptive. Does he agree that we should commend the Bill for what it is, not attack it for what it cannot necessarily be?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s interest in this. I think there is potential, as he indicates, for cross- party support for doing more than is currently in the Bill on the implementation of the covenant. The problem is not that it is prescriptive, but that it is prescriptively narrow at present, directed only at local councils and local agencies and not the responsibilities or services of national Government, and that it is too narrow, in that it mentions three areas when the lived experience of armed forces and veterans quite clearly raises problems on a wide range of other fronts. That is the lesson of the experience of the past decade and more—that is the challenge we must meet. This is a once-in-five-years piece of legislation and I want to ensure that we on the Opposition side play a part in helping Parliament to meet that challenge.
I agree with my right hon. Friend, and I suggest that the hon. Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) read the Green Paper of 2009, which actually set out some real teeth there, including setting out a clear charter of what was in the covenant; the ombudsman’s role, so that people could have redress; armed forces champions, as already mentioned by the Chair of the Select Committee; and a five-yearly review to coincide with the Armed Forces Act, so that the disadvantage could be looked at. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Bill is letting Government Departments and the MOD off the hook?
My right hon. Friend is right. He mentions teeth, and I will come to that in a moment. Members on both sides of the House and the Select Committee can help the Minister with his personal mission to do best by forces personnel and veterans. We can make this stronger and better than the missed opportunity that the provision in clause 8 represents. It is too narrow. It creates a two-tier covenant, and it is too weak. It offers no definition of what “have due regard to” the covenant means, and it offers no enforcement for members of the armed forces community who feel they have been let down.
That makes the statutory guidance that the Minister promised at oral questions last week essential before the Bill’s Select Committee scrutiny stage. When only one in 10 judicial reviews succeed and the cost of unsuccessful judicial reviews is upwards of £80,000, proposals for easy, accessible redress beyond a judicial review are also essential before the Select Committee stage. I trust that all Members on the Select Committee will want to pursue those shortcomings with the Minister. Let us not allow this golden opportunity to reinforce the covenant remain a missed opportunity, as it is in the Bill.
I turn to the service justice system and clauses 1 to 7. In the five years since the last Armed Forces Act, the Government have extensively reviewed the service justice system, with his honour Shaun Lyons reporting early last year, backed by a service policing review carried out by Professor Sir Jon Murphy. Many of the recommendations from those reviews are in the Bill. Lyons rightly said:
“Independent oversight is a critical factor in bringing transparency and building confidence in policing.”
We welcome the new Service Police Complaints Commissioner, modelled on the civilian police’s Independent Office for Police Conduct. We will want to ensure in the Select Committee that the Government get important details right on matters such as time limits for bringing complaints, protections for whistleblowers, scope to consider super-complaints and respective remits for the commissioner alongside the Service Complaints Ombudsman. We also welcome the expansion of the courts martial boards, with new rules on reaching qualified majority verdicts.
However, there are two big gaps. First, Ministers are missing the opportunity to improve confidence and results in cases of murder, manslaughter and rape committed by service personnel in the UK. As the Minister has conceded, Lyons recommended that those cases should be dealt with by the civilian justice system. He pointed out that the military courts secure convictions in only one in 10 cases of rape, while Crown Prosecution Service figures show that the civilian rate is around 50%. Such a move would restore the position that Parliament intended when the principle of concurrent jurisdiction was first introduced in the Armed Forces Act 2006. The Secretary of State has so far just said no but has offered no rationale for rejecting that recommendation, and the Minister this afternoon has again offered no justification for rejecting that recommendation.
First, we cannot reject a recommendation that did not exist. That was not the recommendation of the Lyons review, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows. Secondly, I have given a justification a number of times: this decision was made because we want to see more integrity and resilience in the system and agree a protocol between prosecuting jurisdictions to ensure that the system works better for everyone. What was advised was Attorney General’s consent. We have gone for better than that, and this will achieve better outcomes for our people.
That is not an explanation of why; that is an explanation of what, and the protocol is about the what, not the why. The Government are missing the opportunity to improve the results and the confidence in how these very serious cases are dealt with. If the Minister thinks that this was not a recommendation in the Lyons report, I suggest that he re-reads it.
Secondly, and importantly, the Bill has little to say about fixing the biggest flaw in the service justice system—investigations—and it has nothing to say about investigations of overseas allegations, despite the Minister telling me on Third Reading of the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill in November:
“The right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne raises time and again the issue of the investigations, but he knows that they are for the forthcoming armed forces Bill and will be addressed there.”—[Official Report, 3 November 2020; Vol. 683, c. 258.]
They are not. He also knows that 99% of the allegations against British troops from Iraq and Afghanistan did not make it to prosecution and would not have been affected by the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill. The Government have already had three reviews in the past five years and have more than 80 recommendations on investigation, so I urge them to work with us and with a wide range of peers in the Lords on the changes needed to that Bill.
The Minister quite rightly said that this legislation is as much about our future as our past. This is indeed five-year legislation that will take our armed forces beyond the Government’s integrated review, when it is finally published, beyond its four-year funding plan and beyond the next general election. For it to function as the future framework for our armed forces to keep this country secure, the Bill must fix the flaws that have become so clear since the last Act in 2016.
On maintaining the strength of our armed forces, there is serious concern that Britain’s full-time armed forces remain 10,000 below the total strength Ministers said was needed in the 2015 strategic defence review, and an MOD report revealed over the weekend that all but one of 33 infantry battalions are seriously short of battle-ready personnel. The Minister responded on social media to that report, saying that it is not secret but a “routine update”. I want to see Parliament use the Armed Forces Bill to mandate Ministers to report to Parliament each year on the fighting strength of our armed forces.
On maintaining the pay of our armed forces, the decade of decline since 2010 has seen military pay fall behind and with it, by the way, morale and retention. For instance, last year an Army private was getting almost £2,000 a year less than they would have done if the pay had kept pace with inflation. I want to see Parliament use this Armed Forces Bill as the basis for a debate about making the recommendations of the independent Armed Forces Pay Review Body binding on Ministers.
On justice in our armed forces, more than 6,000 personnel serve in Britain’s armed forces from overseas, mainly from the Commonwealth. Their service to our country earns them the right to live in our country, yet the Government charges huge fees to apply for British citizenship, so someone leaving the forces now with a partner and two children has a bill of almost £10,000. It is unjust; it is un-British. I want to see Parliament use the Armed Forces Bill to get Ministers to scrap these unfair fees.
Finally, on the role of reservists in our armed forces, covid has made it clear that our military are essential to our national resilience, not just our national security, and that reservists will contribute more in future to our defence capabilities. While the Government’s moves to make reservist training more flexible are sensible and welcome, I want to see Parliament use the Armed Forces Bill to deal with other problems they face, especially with employers.
In conclusion, the Minister has said to the House that he is open to proposals to improve the Bill. We will take him at his word. We will at times test his word, but we will work with the Minister if he will work with us. We will work cross-party and with a range of interests beyond Parliament to build consensus so that this Bill, when it becomes an Act, really does make the most of this opportunity to strengthen the nation’s commitment to our forces, their families and veterans.
It is a pleasure to participate in this important debate. May I join the Minister in paying tribute to our armed forces and what they are doing? They watch our backs, they keep us safe at night and, as we have seen with the pandemic, they step forward when the country needs them the most. Perhaps that, if anything, is justification as to why armed forces numbers should not be cut.
The Minister also paid tribute to Captain Sir Tom Moore, quite rightly, too. Every so often, a kind, selfless character emerges who does something quite simple yet extraordinary, setting an example to us all. He left the world a better place and he was a soldier to the end. He will certainly be missed by the entire nation.
As the Minister has explained, Armed Forces Bills come around every five years, like buses, and we have put some bells and whistles on this one. I want to speak to two aspects of that, which he has mentioned: the first is to do with the armed forces covenant, and the second is the justice review itself.
The armed forces covenant is absolutely well intended, in order to make sure that our armed forces are looked after correctly. In practical terms, this means that regular personnel and their families receive the necessary support when they are moving from one part of the country to the other, whether that be education, housing or welfare. For reserve forces, it means the ability to take time off work given to them by their employers; for veterans, of course, it also means the support that we talk about on a regular basis, not least in the area of mental health. The bronze, silver and gold accolades, awarded to private companies large and small and public organisations to thank them for what they are doing and encouraging them to do more, are working well indeed. Over 4,000 companies across the nation, and every single local authority, have signed this covenant.
I therefore ask how we will actually enforce this. I appreciate that the Government have pledged that the covenant will become part of the law of the land, but there is no reference in this Bill to any enforcement mechanism for ensuring public bodies are held to account if a member of the armed forces community feels they have not been treated correctly. I made the point slightly earlier that this primary legislation is aimed at local authorities, yet the Minister is saying that we cannot create the obligation to have an armed forces champion. I would like him to show me any elected councillor in the nation who would not support such an amendment, were it to be added to the Bill in Committee. I absolutely believe that every single local authority that has signed up to the covenant will support an obligation to have an armed forces champion, making it much easier to identify who is the single point of contact in order to get that support for veterans, reservists and regular members of the armed forces, and indeed their families as well.
Turning to the issue of service justice, I have already made my points about the court martial and the serious offences, and we will endeavour to pursue those in Committee. I will end by saying that the things we will be concerned with are the things that are missing: the vexatious claims aspect has already been mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois). I know the Minister is engaged with that issue, but we need that to be realised in this legislation.
When it comes to supporting this Bill, given that its function is to confirm that we can have a standing army for another five years, there is little prospect of Britain’s standing army having to stand down because the Bill does not pass. That is absolutely the case; however, a test for the Committee is how we can advance the Bill, improve it and build on it to make sure we do the best for our armed forces, and make sure that whether a person is a reservist, a regular soldier, part of the family or a veteran, we are there to help them.
This Bill renews our commitment to our armed forces for another five years. As we signal our consent, we should reflect on the hard-won democratic freedoms that enable us to do so, and should recognise that many in the world do not have such liberties. I add my thanks to the members of the armed forces who are currently contributing to our fight against covid, and pay tribute to their service. In Scotland, our healthcare workers will receive a £500 thank you payment; it would be fitting to do likewise for members of the armed forces, and I hope the Minister will join the Scottish National party in calling for that payment.
Unlike the last Bill on the armed forces that we debated, there is nothing controversial in this Bill, and while we will be supporting its progress, that does not mean we are entirely satisfied with what has been presented. While our armed forces comprise some of our most dedicated and professional public servants, their lack of representation means they have little recourse or opportunity to raise issues of concern. The commitment to the armed forces covenant in the Bill falls far short of what it needs to be and ought to be. According to the Royal British Legion, the Bill can and should go further in strengthening the covenant in law.
The Bill is an opportunity to give power to the covenant, but too many areas fall outwith the scope of the Bill, such as visas for Commonwealth personnel. With the ongoing case of eight Fijian soldiers, it is both unfair and unjust that many of our veterans remain without legal status in the UK. The Bill does not hold the Home Office to account or, indeed, include any provisions to rectify that situation.
On housing, anyone who read last week’s National Audit Office report on improving single living accommodation cannot fail to be shocked by the litany of deliberate neglect. Will the Minister confirm whether forces’ housing is covered by the Bill? How can we expect local councils to provide veterans and their families with high-quality housing if the MOD cannot do the same for service personnel and their families? When will the Government lead by example?
Many of the veterans and families who contact me do so because of a lack of support from the DWP, but pension issues, including widow’s pensions, are out of scope of the Bill. Rectifying the situation that means payments awarded for injury or death as a result of service are treated as normal income for DWP calculations is out of scope of the Bill. In fact, the most pressing and difficult issues for veterans all seem to be out of scope.
The risk is that the Bill, according to the Legion, will create a “two-tier Covenant”, under which some matters may be pursued but others are covered only in an annual report. For local authorities, the Bill is supported by a promise of additional funding, which will be key when providing resources. Involved parties only having a duty “to give regard” to personnel and veterans means that there will be a lack of enforcement. The Bill does not put the armed forces covenant properly into law, nor does it guarantee no disadvantage in access to services. It has taken 10 years to get this far; surely we can do better.
The SNP supports a far more comprehensive way of representing the interests of the armed forces. We look to the militaries of Germany, Norway, the USA, Belgium, Australia, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands and Ireland, which all benefit from armed forces representative bodies. Such a body should be considered to ensure that our personnel can participate in services that cater for their needs. I have heard lazy arguments from the Government Benches that we could not possibly countenance such a body, as it would undermine the chain of command or could encourage strike action. However, we already have such a body in the Police Federation, which does not allow strikes and does not impact on the chain of command, but it gives voice to those it represents.
Such a federation for the armed forces could negotiate terms and conditions, including establishing a clear career progression structure, the expectation of options for flexible career paths, and guarantees on salary, conditions and pensions. It could be an advocate for personnel to have access to housing that is of a decent standard and is appropriate for their personal circumstance. Such an organisation would substantively fulfil the objectives of the covenant. Despite the lazy arguments, I believe the real reason for Government resistance is that it would give our forces and veterans a real voice.
The Scottish Government have taken their own initiatives in a number of areas. On housing, they offer funding from the affordable housing programme to deliver additional homes for disabled ex-service personnel. They have worked with stakeholders to develop a veterans homelessness prevention pathway. On recruitment and employability, the Scottish Government have sought to help personnel by encouraging skills development and putting military experience to use in the civilian world. They have offered service leavers fixed-term appointments in the Scottish Government. On education, Skills Development Scotland has established a pilot to retrain Scottish veterans and to address skills gaps in the nation’s cyber-security workforce. On health, the Scottish Government have committed to ensuring that all personnel and veterans can access the best possible care, and they have provided funding to Combat Stress and Legion Scotland for befriending and mental health first aid training.
There is always more we can do, but the UK Government should aim to mirror such examples of good practice. Although the Minister would not commit to armed forces champions in local authorities in England, it is notable that in Scotland every local authority already has a veterans champion.
Finally, getting back to the Bill, our issues lie in two areas: its lack of teeth and its lack of scope. There is no one in this place who does not want to improve our offerings to the armed forces, but without the ability to enforce, this Bill will sadly fall short. That said, we will support the Bill this evening, and we look forward to engaging with it as it progresses through Committee. I hope that this time the Minister will be open to accepting amendments.
By way of a declaration of interests of sorts, my dad is a military historian, so when I was knee-high to a grasshopper, I was talking to veterans and learning about groups of medals. My brother served in the RAF for 18 years, finishing last year. His passing-out ceremony into the ranks, then into a commission years later, continue to be some of the proudest moments of my life. Family stuff aside, thankfully I do not need to be told to be patriotic and support our armed forces, unlike some on the Opposition Benches.
The thing is that our armed forces veterans are everywhere. They are quietly getting on with their day and not shouting about the years of putting themselves in harm’s way to protect us. Across Stroud, the valleys and vale, they are serving as councillors and school governors, working with the British Legion and charities and volunteering in our communities. From covid testing to vaccinations, flooding to border controls, our serving armed forces are deployed across the country to help us in addition to their normal day jobs.
I spoke to an Army veteran earlier. He impressed on me how important this Bill is to the armed forces communities. He asked me to support the Minister, not least given that on the 10th anniversary of our armed forces covenant, we are creating a legal obligation for public bodies. It is a promise by the nation to those who serve or have served, and it is part of a well-deserved thank you, but he reminded me that we cannot rest.
The focus on armed forces personnel is not always thorough and is not always joined up. Even dedicated services do not always recognise the particular experiences of a forces veteran. Tribunals, veterans’ support and other bodies do not always function as hoped, and sometimes there are chronic delays, making matters even worse. The Minister is kindly helping me with a wonderful constituent veteran, who gave his entire adult life to the Army family, only to find that he has since spent years battling to be heard on a range of issues. That is why this Bill is so important.
If our public bodies are to ensure that the principle of special provision for service personnel in connection with housing, education and healthcare is to be effective, there must be oversight. I hear what the Minister says about local authorities, and I am pleased to say that Stroud District Council has adopted the covenant and voted to put a councillor in charge of the work. I am however informed that there is no budget behind the role. Given its importance, I would like to see that happen.
As the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for strengthening couple relationships and a former family law solicitor, I praise my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and Professor Janet Walker for the superb work that they have done with the Ministry of Defence on the report, “Living in our Shoes”. It is not rocket science to work out that couples and families who spend their lives apart due to one person being on tour abroad or move from base to base with children in different schools will struggle more than most and will need help to stop family breakdown. I urge everyone to look at the recommendations of that report.
Finally, a word for our reservists. I received a letter recently from a colonel speaking up for the Gloucestershire Reserve Forces and Cadets Association. He was extremely concerned about the suspension of training, and I share his concern that there are times when reservists should receive more attention. They cannot be turned on and off like a tap, and if they are treated as a non-serious part of the national defence effort, many volunteers will take their energy and commitment elsewhere.
I know the Government care an awful lot about reservists. This Bill amends the Reserve Forces Act 1996 to replace the full-time service commitment and seeks to put them on par with their regular counterparts. I would like to hear more from the Minister about our crucial reservist forces and how training and other aspects of their roles will be treated going forward. Most of all, I think we are getting closer to the Americans with our love for the veterans.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate as the proud aunt of a serving Royal Marine Commando. My nephew Joseph is one of thousands of north-east men and women who for generations have made our region one of the top recruitment areas for the forces. We certainly owe them a great debt of gratitude.
The north-east’s strong connection to the armed forces is brought home by a number of the excellent armed forces charities based in our region. There are several armed forces charities in North Tyneside alone, and I am honoured to be a parliamentary patron for Forward Assist, an award-winning charity that supports military veterans adjusting to civilian life. It recognised that the needs of women veterans are more often than not hidden, and it established “salute her”, the only UK gender-specific support service to offer tri-service trauma-informed mental health therapy and interventions for survivors of in-service sexual abuse. Walking With The Wounded has its regional hub in North Shields and, only last summer, Operation Veteran opened its premises in the town centre, with a coffee shop for the public and, above that, a veterans’ centre offering support services and activities for veterans and their families.
The success of those charities in North Tyneside is in no small way due to the local authority’s commitment to the armed forces covenant. The council has an armed forces champion, Councillor Gary Bell, who served in the Royal Air Force and ensures that the covenant’s aims are considered in all council policies. In 2018, North Tyneside was the first local authority to fund an armed forces officer to strengthen support for the armed forces community across the borough, with a focus on advising and signposting serving and ex-serving personnel to services such as housing, benefits and health. The council’s Labour cabinet and our elected Mayor, Norma Redfearn, also approved a scheme to guarantee service personnel, veterans and reservists an interview for vacant posts if they met the requirements. In 2019, the authority was recognised for its outstanding support for the armed forces community when it was awarded the prestigious MOD employer recognition scheme gold award.
Local authorities must do all they can to honour the covenant but, as Labour has pointed out, one of the Bill’s weaknesses is that it places a legal responsibility on councils to deliver services such as housing, healthcare and education, but that is not matched by any extra funding from Government. Despite the good work going on in North Tyneside, some very real problems still exist, according to our armed forces champion. Veterans find it hard to access their benefit entitlements and often give up at the first hurdle; there are long waiting lists for access to mental health treatment; and there are not enough decent houses to meet need.
Our armed forces have shown their worth in peace as well as in war: just look at the role they have played during the pandemic. As Councillor Gary Bell said to me, let us get the Bill right and provide those who serve with a promise in law that the state will look after them as a debt of honour. I echo Labour’s demand that the Government must go further and deliver the armed forces covenant in full.
Let me begin, as a former Armed Forces Minister, by expressing my support for the Bill and what it is trying to achieve, and for the Minister who is carrying it through. Clause 8 strengthens the legislative basis of the armed forces covenant, including its two key principles of no disadvantage for the wider armed forces family and of special treatment, where appropriate, especially for those who have given the most. Those principles were articulated the Armed Forces Act 2011, but clause 8 gives them much stronger form, especially in encouraging public sector bodies such as local councils, education institutions and the NHS to adhere to them.
Clause 20 affects the ability to claim war pensions of those from Scotland and Northern Ireland. Although that is important, it does little to address the burning injustice of the shameful treatment of those veterans of active service in Northern Ireland who bravely upheld the law against terrorists—both so-called loyalist and republican—for decades as part of Operation Banner. Without their courage and sacrifice, there undoubtedly would never have been a Good Friday agreement in the first place, and we should never forget them.
The Government, and the Prime Minister in particular, have repeatedly promised to introduce legislation to protect those Northern Ireland veterans from vexatious and politically motivated allegations, but still, even now, not even draft legislation has been published. When he stood for the leadership of the Conservative party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) published an open letter in The Sun newspaper, on 11 July 2019, that included a “veterans pledge” containing three key commitments.
The first was to
“create an Office of Veterans Affairs within the Cabinet Office”.
That has been done. The second was to
“enshrine the Military Covenant into law”,
which this Bill does. The third—I quote my right hon. Friend’s pledge directly—was:
“New legislation to end repeated and vexatious investigations into historical allegations against our servicemen and women—including in Northern Ireland—to be passed”—
“before the next General Election.”
That is completely unambiguous—it could not be clearer—and the Prime Minister very publicly signed the letter himself. However, over 18 months and a general election later, where is the Bill?
My friends and I in the Veterans’ Support Group do not doubt the Prime Minister’s sincerity on this; we simply want him to keep his promise. We want action now, not words. That is because some of these men, many of whom are now in their 70s or even their 80s, are being reinvestigated for allegations in relation to which they were previously exonerated, in some cases almost 50 years ago. Some of these men have died, and others are dying, with the sword of Damocles still hanging over them and their families. Unlike some others, our service veterans have no letters of comfort, while the Northern Ireland Office, whose Bill this is supposed to be, continues endlessly to drag its feet for fear of upsetting Sinn Féin. It makes Handforth parish council look efficient.
Tonight, a former leader of the Conservative party, the Chairman of the Defence Committee, the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, and two former Armed Forces Ministers to boot, have all made the same call: bring forward the Bill. If everything we have heard this evening about honouring the covenant is true—if we mean it—the Prime Minister urgently needs to knock heads together in Whitehall to get this critical legislation on to the statute book. All we ask is that the Prime Minister fulfils his public solemn promise and thus defends those who defended us.
Just as when I first took part in Armed Forces Bill debates, in 2016, I am afraid there is a feeling of a missed opportunity. While we will be back here tomorrow to talk about the integrated review, it always strikes me as odd that these changes either to the armed forces covenant or to the service justice system, while welcome and worthy, squander the opportunity that a Bill of this scope has to redefine what the armed forces mean for all of us in the 21st century, in the same way as the integrated review seeks to.
I am afraid we are at something of an inflection point with civil-military relations in the history of this political state. The confluence of two contemporary currents—namely, the politicisation of our armed forces by the Government of the day, and the need for armed forces to redefine their role in society—is, for my part, pushing us towards the creation of a discrete military class removed from the society it has vowed to protect, unrepresentative and poorly understood.
How can we better define what the armed forces are for and what they represent in the 21st century? I have spoken many times in the House about my military family, but it is undoubtedly the case that, with a shrinking armed forces and a move away from the overseas operations that defined the cold war, there is a diminishing number of people across these islands with first-hand knowledge of what military life means.
Let us turn to covid. The pandemic is undoubtedly a threat to the economic and health security of all who live in this political state. Those of us who read the MOD’s threat assessments and global trend papers know that the military have known that all along, so it is bit of a surprise to see such confusion, particularly among many of those sitting—virtually, at least—on the Government Benches, about what the armed forces’ role should be. Over the past year, I have felt myself to be something of a lonely voice in turning the question around: why does there always need to be a military solution to a wide-ranging public health emergency? On several occasions, Government Members have called for the military to take charge of the logistical challenge in some way or another, saying they are happy about the vital role that the military have been playing in support of the civilian uniformed services.
I recognise and am grateful, as we all are, for the service of many on the Government Benches, such as my friend the Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), but I cannot help but conclude that the lived experience of those whom I represent and those in my family are increasingly at odds with the vision of service put forward by the Government. I began this speech by talking about fears of the creation of a military class because I see such differences between the way the armed forces are talked about in the House and the experiences of the predominantly working-class people who make up the ranks. These are people for whom the rather abstract way we talk about military justice makes it an impediment to their availing themselves of it, should that be required—people who often find it difficult to make their way through the alphabet soup of the military charity sector to access the rights to which they are entitled and that they should theoretically be given when the Bill is passed.
For many, muddling through is very much part of the charm and the bonds of forces life, but my almost four years with Defence Committees have shown me that an opaque and inconsistent military justice system, and an opaque and inconsistent application of the armed forces covenant, is the logical end point of a system that is in dire need of root-and-branch reform. Ever since the first Armed Forces Bill that I saw in 2016, there has been the assumption that such reform refers to the need to adapt the civilian sphere to the needs of the military—something that continues to baffle me. Why is it that we do not seek to address this imbalance the other way as well, by allowing the members of our armed forces as many rights that they had as civilians as possible?
As I often say, members of our armed forces should have the ability to form an armed forces representative body; the right to a contract that sets out not only their responsibilities as members of the armed forces but the obligations and responsibilities of their employer, the Government, to them; and the guarantee—
I pay tribute to Captain Sir Tom Moore.
Our armed forces are, without doubt, one of this country’s foremost and most prestigious institutions. They are held in the highest regard throughout the world as a benchmark of military excellence to which other nations aspire. We should never forget the men and women of the armed forces who serve and have served us so well, wherever that is, at home or abroad. Yet again, during the coronavirus outbreak, our armed forces showed that they were able to offer support and professionalism in times of national need.
We owe so much to our armed forces. Their bravery, discipline and professionalism, and unflinching and steadfast loyalty to duty, are all too often tested in the most challenging and varied environments and circumstances. It is critical to ensure that our veterans’ healthcare needs are met, so I am delighted that the number of GP practices accredited as veteran friendly has recently more than tripled to over 800. I am also aware that the MOD has recently launched HeadFIT, an important tool to support mental health fitness among the armed forces and to promote the good management of mental health. Speaking about mental health is important, but making sure that support is there for those who need it is critical.
Ensuring that our armed forces personnel, veterans and their families are not disadvantaged by their service when accessing key public services is the very least we can do. That is why I welcome the fact that the Bill embeds the armed forces covenant into law. That was a 2019 manifesto commitment that I was delighted to make to my constituents. It introduces a legal duty for the relevant UK public bodies to ensure that our UK armed forces community is fairly treated. From housing to healthcare and from childcare to education and training, our armed forces families face unique challenges, and we must rise up to support them in the way that they support our nation. The Bill is a big step on the way to ensuring that the debt we owe our armed forces is honoured, and I am delighted to support it today.
The story of the selfless actions and incredible bravery of Corporal Sukanaivalu, who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, is but one example of the kind of sacrifices that were made and continue to be made by Commonwealth servicemen and women in our armed forces. It is therefore deeply regrettable that, despite that sacrifice, they are facing shameful treatment when gaining visas and regularising their immigration status. During their service, Commonwealth personnel are exempt from immigration controls, but within 28 days of their discharge they must either apply for some form of leave to remain or return to their country of origin. After serving four years, they are entitled to apply for indefinite leave to remain but must pay the associated costs. As the shadow Secretary of State said, that means that a service leaver with a partner and two children would get a bill just shy of £10,000 to settle in the country that they have risked their life for, right at the moment they are transitioning to civilian life. Without leave to remain, they cannot legally live and work in the UK, claim benefits or access free NHS treatment.
This issue has gained media attention recently following the unsuccessful efforts of eight Fijian British Army veterans to bring legal action against the Government. One of the claimants, Taitusi Ratucaucau, a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, was given a bill in the region of £30,000 following an emergency operation after he was deemed ineligible for free NHS care. These veterans may have lost their legal argument, but it is the Government who are now losing the moral one. These men fought for our country and are now living here in limbo, fearing destitution and deportation.
To their credit, the Government have acknowledged that there is a problem and have taken some steps to ameliorate the harm that is being done. The Home Secretary promised me that she was working to correct the situation, and the Veterans Minister has stated his intention to launch a public consultation to introduce a path to citizenship. These measures have my support, but it is time for the Government to stop tinkering and get on with making amends.
To be truly effective, any reforms must address three key areas. First, under current rules, service personnel can apply for indefinite leave to remain after four years, and naturalisation after five. These should be the benchmarks for any fee waiver scheme that is introduced. Secondly, the proposals must also incorporate dependants. Thirdly, the Government must bring forward a plan to help veterans and their families who have already been caught up in this mess. As a show of good faith, the eight veterans involved in that legal action should be granted emergency leave.
Ministers have committed to making the UK the best place in the world to be a veteran. It is a lofty ambition, but one around which I hope we can all unite. However, if the Government want to ensure that their vision is realised, they must as a matter of urgency deliver justice for all our Commonwealth service personnel. We must never forget that we owe these men and women a huge debt. Telling them to pack their bags is not the manner in which to repay them.
As a veteran and an advocate for our armed forces, I am pleased to be able to speak in the debate and to recognise this Conservative Government’s commitment to make the British military the best in the world and to make Britain the best place to be a veteran. I congratulate the Minister on the significant progress that has been made to improve the lived experiences of veterans and their families. I know that his determination to improve their support is matched by the progress he has made on the armed forces covenant.
This Bill enshrines in law the principles of the armed forces covenant. Local authorities will now need to demonstrate due regard to veterans to ensure that the principles of the covenant are upheld. It places a legal duty on councils to meet veterans’ needs, which can now be done in a locally responsive way. Some councils, including Wrexham County Borough Council, have appointed an armed forces champion and are proactive in identifying support services. However, some councils are not so focused, and a requirement in the Bill for councils to appoint a champion would be welcomed.
The scope of the Bill includes housing, health and education. For a veteran living under a devolved Administration, the ownership of these services lies with that Administration—in Wales, with the Welsh Labour Government. However, the Bill does not place a legal duty on the Welsh Government to make them accountable for what they do or do not deliver. The devolved Administrations should be involved, have ownership and be subject to scrutiny on how they support veterans, in line with the legal duty being placed on Welsh local authorities.
There are over 1,800 armed forces charities serving approximately 6.3 million personnel, veterans and families across the UK. A UK-wide charity called Blesma has supported limbless and blinded veterans since world war one. It is quietly doing excellent work. It has highlighted the trouble with veterans receiving timely service when they move between the charitable sector and NHS Wales, specifically around the issue of pain management. Some Welsh veterans find themselves with no other option than to travel from Wales to King Edward VII’s Hospital in London in order to receive adequate pain treatment. Surely this is not acceptable.
The Defence Committee currently has a sub-Committee looking at the experiences of women in the military and female veterans. Evidence sessions are running until Easter, and the Secretary of State for Defence has been supportive in allowing us to engage with serving personnel.
I would like to see more women recruited in our armed forces. Many women have a positive military career and recommend it to others, as do I. However, preliminary findings suggest that six out of 10 women who experience in-service harassment, bullying or intimidation, usually of a sexual nature, do not report their complaint because they have no faith in the service complaints system. They feel that it proves counter-productive to their careers and, in some cases, affects the rest of their civilian lives. This needs to change. The service justice system review—the Lyons review—has made a number of recommendations to improve this area, and I am pleased that they have been integrated within the Bill. However, there is still debate on the issues of murder, manslaughter and rape, and I take note of clause 7 on concurrent jurisdictions. I know that Ministers are working hard to address certain issues. I look forward to hearing that kit such as body armour will soon be designed to fit women and that the veteran ID cards are on their way, working on the back of the very successful veterans’ railcard.
I support this Bill, which, with the pending integrated review and corresponding defence White Paper, will set out a positive blueprint for our military and veterans, and defence sector, going forward.
I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
The Government have said that this Bill will help to prevent service personnel and veterans from being disadvantaged when accessing services such as healthcare, education and housing, but again the rhetoric does not match the reality, because clause 8 simply devolves the covenant’s responsibilities to local authorities and other public bodies away from the Government, it provides them with zero financial support to do so and simply states that they have a “duty” to give “due regard” to the covenant. I have been in this place long enough to know that every time “duty” and “due regard” are used as a substitute for “must”, the result is no real change at all. When services are strapped for cash, they adhere to what they have to do, not what they have to give due regard to. It will again fall to charities and local communities to support their serving personnel and veterans.
There are currently over 2,000 charities specifically aimed at supporting veterans and serving armed forces personnel. This alone is testament to the Government’s failures, because those charities are filling a very big gap left by the state. It is they, not the Government, who are providing for our armed forces and veterans, and thank God they are, because without them, the alternative does not bear thinking about.
The Government’s record has been abysmal. Just this year, the Royal British Legion highlighted how let down disabled forces felt by the Department for Work and Pensions. In my constituency pre-pandemic, veterans’ breakfast mornings were held by local charity Veterans Response on a regular basis. I remember the anger that I felt after repeated conversations with proud veterans, who told me that without this breakfast and local food banks, they would be going hungry. Some spoke about having to rely on charity for basic white goods, clothes and shoes. Veterans are yet another group of people who are not protected from the cruelty of the welfare state under this Government.
Let me turn to the mental health of our forces and veterans. The Defence Committee recently heard from Combat Stress and Help for Heroes that they have not really seen any tangible effect of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, nor an impact from any potential change in resources.
My constituent John Taylor is a nuclear veteran. Like other veterans, he has been repeatedly let down. Mr Taylor, who is now 83 years old, was sent to Maralinga in 1957 as part of Operation Antler, where he was involved in the testing of atomic bombs with no protection whatever. Along with others, he has long campaigned for proper recognition and compensation to acknowledge the effects that these atomic tests have had on his health and that of other families. Of those 20,000 nuclear veterans, less than 1,000 are believed to be alive now. Time for justice is running out for all of them.
The north-east, including South Shields, has an incredibly proud tradition of being a high recruitment area for our forces. Many families, including my own, are linked to someone who is serving or who has served. We in South Shields always have and always will take care of our forces and our veterans. We will always treat them with the utmost respect and honour that they deserve. I sincerely wish that this Government would do the same.
It is right to point out that what I am about to share is personally very hard for myself and my family, but it is also right for me to share this experience as we discuss this Bill.
As I have said before, I was only 17 when I was shot in training, during a live firing section attack. As the bullet entered my foot, it shattered and blew out the corner of my foot, taking several metatarsals and muscle with it. I was left with a clump of bone fragments and shrapnel—nothing like a working foot. Over the coming month, I had many major operations to try to fix my foot and lower leg. My foot could not be rebuilt, but it did not have to be amputated. My foot was saved, but I had no use of it and was told that my military career was over. In the Army’s infinite wisdom, after my foot had been saved they decided to send me to a military hospital to amputate it. It was not an option that I liked. My dad, who died when I was only young, had been in the SAS, so my mum contacted the SAS Regimental Association, which basically said to my regiment, “Give him to us and we’ll rehabilitate him.”
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. In the next two minutes, the House will be able to hear what I went through and how the armed forces covenant would have helped me.
The SAS said to my regiment, “Give him to us. We’ll rehabilitate him.” I spent 10 months being rehabilitated by the SAS. I then returned to my unit, the Royal Green Jackets, and went straight on to the streets of the troubles in Northern Ireland. My foot was still part-paralysed, full of shrapnel and did not function, but I could walk, run and carry out the duties of an infantry soldier—very painfully, but I could do it.
What was getting worse was my head; as my physical aspects were recovering, my mental health was really impacted. In the evenings, I used to relive the time that I got shot and would wake up screaming, covered in sweat. It was hard, but I realised that alcohol subdued the pain and I could escape it for a short period of time. Violence was also a way of releasing the anger that I had inside me. I was on a slippery slope. I enjoyed and often excelled on different operational tours. I was fearless, because I did not care if I died. By that time, I did not enjoy life and I found ways to get through each day. When back in camp, I was always in trouble because I was always drinking and fighting. Despite all this going on and everybody telling me I had a problem, nobody gave me any support or help.
I needed to change. I was now married with a child, so I left the Army, and continued to work in security and defence in different conflict zones around the world. My foot got worse, and the shrapnel started working its way out, so I went to the MOD and said, “Can you help me?” It told me, “You are not our problem any more.” In the end, I raised the money myself to pay for private treatment to have an operation, or I would have had to walk with a walking stick for the rest of my life. If the Army took this approach to my foot, there was no way it was interested in my mental health. I did not even know where to look. I could not show love to my wife or my children. It was not only my foot that did not feel anything; for everything, I was in a darkest pit, more than most people can imagine.
My hon. Friend is speaking incredibly movingly about his experience in the Army and as a veteran. Does he not agree that there must be care for those in service, but also as veterans, for as long as it is necessary to help those who have served their country?
I thank my hon. Friend. I really appreciate everything that is being done, but we have to keep doing more and more, and that is why I am really championing this.
From that pit, my marriage broke down. We separated, and life for me was hell on earth. How did I ever get to this stage? This battle went on in my mind, and for 15 years I fought that battle. I would spend the evening drinking a litre of vodka, in a garage with the light off, trying to get rid of the pain. This was night after night, and in the end I realised, of the country I had fought for, that I had been abandoned by that country and by the people who sent me to those conflicts. I knew how to fight and I was good at it, but I was tired. There was nothing left in me. I went at that stage to take my life, but I could not do it, because I did not want my children to grow up, as I did, without a father. I had to face the reality that I had to live, and I hated the idea of it.
It was in this pit of despair, after many years of fighting that battle, that I found faith in God, and for the first time I had some hope. My wife and I started again, renewed our vows and sought help. For many years, we walked through a recovery of and reconciliation with what was a horrible life. I learned to love my wife, I love my children, and every day I made progress. I thank everybody who stood alongside me during this process. My life could have ended many times. Now I live life to the full, and I really appreciate it.
I want to use that experience to help the people who are going through what I did. When I delivered something similar in my maiden speech, somebody stopped committing suicide in the middle of the night because they had seen what I had said on Facebook, and we need to reach these people. I would never want anybody to go through what we did. We have truly been on a journey from death to life, but it is from this experience that I know this Bill will make changes to people’s lives. Some will say it does not go far enough and some will say it goes too far, but it is a massive positive step, and I also welcome the campaign the Minister has had to bring this Bill to the House.
It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Stuart Anderson), with that powerful and very personal contribution to the debate.
This Bill is an opportunity to ensure basic rights, support and care for every member of the armed forces, veterans and their families. I want to address access to mental health services and, in particular, the treatment of addiction in the armed forces and veteran community, where rates are higher than in the general UK population. That should be of no surprise, because the unique demands of life in the military too often include experiences of serious trauma, violence and loss; because the Army, in particular, recruits from deprived working-class communities, where incidences of alcohol and substance misuse are higher; and because, as the charities that work with service families and veterans attest, the culture, on which no judgment is needed, is one where harmful drinking rates are considered normal, vulnerability is considered a weakness and seeking help is seen as failing to meet the demands of service. All of this has to change if we are to see an end to the shameful number of veterans ending up in mental health crisis—homeless, in prison or committing suicide—and it can change. The number using MOD treatment services is alarmingly low, and the majority of veterans enrolled in treatment programmes left service many years earlier, which prompts the question: what more can be done to improve early intervention?
Tom Harrison House in Anfield in my constituency is a residential veteran-specific addiction treatment centre, and I have got to know veterans there and heard their stories and about their struggles to get the support and understanding they need. I have not met one who was referred by, or got the support they required, from the MOD or armed forces. If we truly want to honour these men and women, we can and should use this Bill to guarantee them the mental health services they deserve.
There remains stigma and intolerance towards addiction. For too long, substance misuse has been regarded as a moral affliction—a testament to someone’s character rather than a legitimate health issue. We have to defeat that stigma in order to make progress in society and in the forces. With addiction, the substance of choice is irrelevant: it is a route to escape, the way to cope, or the way to manage mental ill health and past trauma.
Last week, in a written answer, the Minister for Defence People and Veterans stated:
“Drug and alcohol abuse is incompatible with the standards we expect of those who Serve in the Armed Forces.”
I am afraid that such opinions are outdated, ignorant and a roadblock to effective treatment. Regardless of someone’s training or dedication to their duty, mental health disorders and addiction do not discriminate.
This Bill presents a chance to end the zero-tolerance approach, as other professions have rightly done, stop the perverse situation where the act of seeking help could itself lead to dismissal, deliver addiction treatment programmes for those serving in our armed forces, and fund the military-specific addiction treatment services veterans need and deserve.
The Select Committee on the 2011 Bill considered whether the armed forces covenant should be codified and contractualised and, after taking lots of evidence, decided that would be unwise. This Bill continues in that vein but places further duties on public sector deliverers that will be of practical help to the service community, including people I have the honour and privilege to represent.
Like the 2011 Act, the Bill does not create rights, but does reaffirm society’s responsibilities. Others have said that the covenant is a contract with country not county, but local councils, schools, NHS trusts and housing associations control things that servicepeople might be disadvantaged in securing by virtue of their service. May I probe the Minister on where this new obligation to have regard to the covenant stands legally—who arbitrates on whether local bodies have discharged the duty placed upon them, and what penalties may ensue if they are judged to have fallen short?
There is increasing public scrutiny of the separateness and differentness of the armed forces. Defence reasonably points out that its distance is necessary, important and enduring by virtue of the extraordinary things its people do. Nevertheless, Defence is not the total institution of even 10 years ago; the trend is for confluence with society at large, and this Bill reflects that.
Justice is done differently in the military. Government are right to have tested that difference with a series of independent reviews, and they have reflected most of the recommendations in clauses 2 to 7 and 11. Servicepeople should not be dealt with any more or less harshly than civilians in relation to the criminal law, either as victims or perpetrators; otherwise the central “no disadvantage” plank of the covenant is merely rhetorical. That is why in the debate on the 2011 Act I said the powers of service police should not be extended unless there is demonstrable service need, and Sir Jon Murphy’s recent review appears to share my caution.
The same goes for setting up service structures that are separate from the civilian mainstream. Lyons recommended a new Service Police Complaints Commissioner, which is in the Bill, but it needs to be tested against the obvious alternative: handing the job to the Independent Office for Police Conduct.
There will likely be detailed discussion in Committee and in the other place of the main Lyons recommendation that the MOD has, up to now, declined: that the most serious offences—murder, rape and manslaughter—should go to the civilian courts. We learn that a rape victim’s assailant tried at court martial is significantly less likely to be convicted than if the case had been heard in a civilian court. At the very least, that sits uncomfortably with “no disadvantage”. Service-necessary difference has to work hard to justify such a divergence of process, outcome and confidence in criminal justice from the civilian mainstream. I know that Ministers have worked really hard on this and considered it extremely carefully. It seems to me that the position adopted in the Bill was finely balanced. We learn that it is already under threat of judicial review.
I welcome the defence serious crime unit proposed in the Bill, which may well help to approximate service justice to the civilian mainstream in very serious cases. Nevertheless, one wonders where trials for serious crime will end up, if not in 2021 then in 2026 or 2030. Finally, as an active reservist and an ex-regular, may I say how helpful the Bill’s extension of the regulars’ part-time service opportunity to reservists will be to both individuals and defence?
Today’s debate provides us with a welcome opportunity to pay tribute to our nation’s armed forces and their families for the immense sacrifices they make. I would like to echo the sentiments of previous speakers in expressing my wholehearted appreciation for everything that Britain’s soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen do to keep our country safe both at home and abroad.
During the pandemic—undoubtedly our darkest hour since the second world war—our armed forces have once again stepped up to protect our communities and keep us safe from covid-19. Service personnel have played a leading role in supporting our health service to deliver mass testing and vaccine deployment. This is the largest peacetime resilience operation in history, and without it, we would undoubtedly be in a much darker place today.
In return, we owe it to our service communities that their hard work and tireless self-sacrifice do not go unrecognised. That means going beyond lofty rhetoric and taking meaningful action to ensure that our armed forces and their families are treated with the dignity and respect they rightly deserve. The Bill provides the Government with the chance to do just that. It represents a historic opportunity to step up support for our armed forces, veterans and their families and to correct some of the profound injustices that they continue to face.
While I applaud everything that local authorities and third sector organisations are doing to support service personnel and veterans, too many are simply not getting the support they need in the critical fields of housing, employment and mental health. Just last week, the National Audit Office found that the Ministry of Defence is failing in its duty to provide service personnel with high-quality subsidised accommodation. Nearly 80,000 people are living in single person accommodation, with less than half satisfied with the quality of their housing—a significant decline on recent years. Whatever happened to homes for heroes?
That is why I am so emphatic in my support for the armed forces covenant. The covenant reflects the immense depth of gratitude that is owed by us all to our armed forces, and it is a matter of deep regret that the Bill fails to implement its promises in full. In fact, on a number of points, the Bill simply does not go far enough. While it would oblige councils and other public bodies to deliver on the principles of the covenant, it fails to address the all-important issue of underfunding. It also does nothing to establish binding national standards that would end once and for all the postcode lottery faced by many veterans and service personnel. I therefore urge the Defence Secretary to go further and ensure that the Bill makes good on the principles of the armed forces covenant and on our country’s commitments to serving members of the armed forces, veterans and their families.
Printed at the beginning of every annual report on the armed forces covenant made by the Secretary of State for Defence is the following statement:
“The first duty of Government is the defence of the realm. Our Armed Forces fulfil that responsibility on behalf of the Government, sacrificing some civilian freedoms, facing danger and, sometimes, suffering serious injury or death as a result of their duty. Families also play a vital role in supporting the operational effectiveness of our Armed Forces. In return, the whole nation has a moral obligation to the members of the Naval Service, the Army and the Royal Air Force, together with their families.”
Clause 8 places a duty on organisations throughout the UK to give what is termed “due regard” to the main principles of the armed forces covenant. The bodies affected include local authorities, health authorities, education authorities and housing authorities in particular. These principles—the unique obligations and sacrifices by the armed forces, the desirability of removing disadvantages arising from membership or former membership of the armed forces, and the special provision for servicepeople that may be justified by the effects of membership or former membership of the armed forces—already lie on the Secretary of State himself. It is interesting to see, in the short time available, what the reports that he makes every year on the armed forces covenant have said about issues such as the war-damaged, the war-widowed and the war-targeted for repeated reinvestigation.
On the question of the war widows, the issue of the 200 to 260 war widows who lost their war widow’s pension on cohabitation or remarriage has been raised many times by me. In these reports, the Government show again and again that they are well seized of the injustice and, indeed, impropriety of having been unable to restore those pensions to those widows. It is good that the reports show that the Government are persisting in this, and they should persist.
Less attention is given in the reports to the problems arising for so many veterans from having been injured by blast on active service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Something called traumatic brain injury, and in particular the blast variant, has been mentioned only once in the annual reports, yet it has been shown time and again that more attention needs to be paid to it, because the resulting symptoms can sometimes be mistaken for post-traumatic stress disorder and, as a result, gravely incorrect treatment can be given. More attention needs to be paid to that.
On the question of prosecutions, it is fascinating to see successive comments in the Secretary of State’s annual reports, starting with one in 2018 that noted, quite rightly, that
“There is a growing strength of feeling within Parliament and elsewhere that our Service Personnel and Veterans should be afforded greater legal protection from prosecutions related to historical operations than they currently receive.”
Time and again, the Secretary of State makes it perfectly clear that he totally agrees with that. The only point that needs to be expressed, and which cannot be emphasised too strongly to Ministers, who I know are determined to protect our servicemen, is that they must not only protect them from prosecution; they must protect them from vexatious reinvestigation.
It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who is always worth listening to on these matters.
In referring to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, may I start by thanking the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) and the Armed Forces Parliamentary Trust for the experience that they have given me on the armed forces parliamentary scheme, where I have seen the resilience, adaptability, dedication and expertise of our servicemen and women? I am really grateful for what has been a fantastic opportunity.
Our armed forces’ primary role is the protection of the realm and of our allies. The threats we face are constantly evolving, and now is not the time to be putting distance between ourselves and countries that share our democratic values. I also pay tribute to the services for their military assistance to civilian authorities. This week in the north-west, we saw military crews supporting the North West Ambulance Service when it was overstretched. I am grateful for that.
In Chester, we have a long history of association with the services, as a military headquarters, as home to the nearby RAF Sealand, as a garrison city and as a sponsor city for HMS Albion. Now we are also home to the University of Chester’s Westminster centre for veteran affairs, led by Professor Alan Finnegan, himself a former colonel in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Professor Finnegan reminds me of the demands that we place on our servicemen and women and how this specifically affects their pensions and the pensions of their families. During a military career, a veteran and his or her family face regular moves, including having to live overseas. In addition, service personnel spend long periods away from their home due to operational tours and training exercises. The longer the soldier serves, the greater the number of moves and the greater the level of separation. As a result, the spouse’s education and employment profile is negatively impacted on and their ability to build a career and a pension is reduced. For the service person, the longer they serve, the better their pension, but when the veteran dies, the spouse is entitled to only 50% of that figure. Service personnel are approximately 90% men, and males tend to die in the UK around four years younger than women, so women generally outlive their partner and have to try to survive on half of the pension. For a veteran on end-of-life care, the knowledge and distress that his death may lead to financial hardship for his wife or partner is clear.
The Prime Minister has said that he wants this to be the best place in the world in which to be a veteran, it should also be, as Professor Finnegan reminds me, the best place in the world in which to be a veteran’s spouse. Providing these elderly women with their husband’s full pension would go a long way to achieving that.
Finally, I would like to talk about the Army in Chester. We are a proud garrison city, but the Government’s plans to close our last remaining barracks—the Dale barracks—are still in place, even if they have been delayed. I am clear that this is based solely on the mistaken view of the land value of the barracks. In other words, it is seen as somewhere easy to sell and make money quickly. The quality of the accommodation is good at the Dale. It is popular with the servicemen and their families. When we are discussing the importance of retaining our experienced soldiers and the importance of providing them and their families with decent quarters, it seems absurd to sell off one of the best sites. The plan is to move every military site in the north-west to a new super barracks north of Preston. The plan is flawed. As I say, Chester is popular with servicemen and with their families, which is important when considering attrition rates. It also reduces the social and operational footprint of the Army in the region. Chester can serve operationally across the southern part of the north-west, the north Midlands and north-east Wales. I simply float the example that the bomb disposal team based at Chester is required for emergency call-outs. If the explosive ordinance disposal team based at Weeton in Preston had to get down the M6 on a Friday afternoon, I would have to wish them all the luck in trying to do that.
I am calling on the Government to abandon plans to close the Dale barracks, which make no sense other than perhaps the short-term financial gain. I am proud to represent a garrison city with a large ex-services contingent. May that long continue.
It is absolutely right that military personnel should get special recognition for housing, education and medical treatment. I particularly like clauses 4 to 6 of the Bill, with the powers to rectify mistakes. As an ex- commanding officer, I sometimes had to send people to district court martials when I did not want to. I would have liked to have had some influence on what happened subsequently and this Bill will help that.
In particular, I want to talk about the Service Police Complaints Commission—this is the point of my speech really. I think that is a great idea, and let me give an example of why I feel that way. Just after I left the Army, I was involved in the case of an officer grievously wronged by the service police. His name was Major Milos Stankovic of the Parachute Regiment. He was of Serbian-British background. Members might think that, with a name like that, he would be more Serbian, but, actually, his father fought against Tito in the war and his mother manned an ambulance at El Alamein. He was a liaison officer for me, then Brigadier Andrew Cumming, then General Rose, and then General Smith. For about four years, he was in Bosnia. For his service there and his gallantry, he was awarded an MBE. Then in 1997, when he was a student at the Army staff college, he was arrested by the Ministry of Defence police on what I consider to be a trumped up charge, implying that he had been spying for the Bosnian Serbs. He was isolated and not allowed to talk to any of his friends, and I was interviewed by the MOD police in my office, which was in Mayfair at the time. They tried to bribe me by saying something he had put in his diary against me. I said, “That is totally unacceptable”, and I threw them out of my office.
Stankovic was in limbo for three years. At the end of three years without any support, he resigned his commission. His career had been trashed by the MOD police. There was nobody in the system who could help him. Then the Crown Prosecution Service announced that there was absolutely no case to answer. He was innocent, but he had lost his career and the chance of advancing in the military. There was no rectification whatsoever and, indeed, to this day they have not returned his war diary, which they used to try to turn me and, I understand, other senior officers such as General Rose against him.
If the Service Police Complaints Commissioner had existed when Milos Stankovic needed help, perhaps he might not have suffered the torment that he went through for three years. I fully support this Bill.
It is an honour to follow my neighbour, the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and to hear his story of Milos Stankovic. It is also an honour to speak in this debate on a Bill that we welcome, but that we believe has limitations and could do more.
In Croydon, our armed forces play a huge part across the community, and I want to begin by thanking them. I pay tribute particularly to the role of reservists, who we all want to see play an even greater role in future. There are five reserve units in Croydon, embedded in our community and playing vital roles to keep us safe, including during these covid times.
The Royal Yeomanry are currently deployed to Operation Cabrit in Estonia and Poland, and we send them our best wishes and our thanks. We have the Corps of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and the Parachute Regiment, with its strong links between Arnhem and Croydon. The Royal Logistics Corps in my constituency has been very active during covid, moving personal protective equipment and ensuring people are safe. The Royal Corps of Signals unit in Croydon actually set up its own manufacturing to produce NHS-grade visors, which it donated to local care homes and the St John Ambulance.
Crucially, every one of our reserve locations has a cadet unit—young people who will thrive on the benefits of being part of the cadets. We only have to look at the evidence from the University of Northampton, which quantified the social value of cadets services: reducing truancy, improving health and qualifications, embedded in our community, vital for our safety and training our young people.
I will touch on the importance of supporting our veterans, who we still so often let down, through the covenant. I know the success of the covenant is a bit of a lottery and the reality does not always match the rhetoric. It is clear that, although everyone has signed up to the covenant, because there are no sanctions, the implementation of it varies. Where local authorities have strong armed forces champions, the covenant has worked best.
Croydon is lucky to have a fantastic armed forces champion in Councillor Toni Letts, an active role model. In Croydon, where the council signed the covenant in 2011, a number of our community groups also ensure that they play their part. We have a variety of local charity partners, such as the Royal British Legion, the Croydon BME forum and Croydon Commitment, which support our serving personnel veterans and their families.
Croydon Council has been recognised for its excellent work, particularly its housing allocation policy, in the Royal British Legion’s “Best Practice Guide to Community Covenants”. It has gone beyond the central Government guidance on the covenant in a number of ways, including giving serving or former members of the reserve forces the same rights as serving or former members of the armed forces, having nominated housing officers to handle inquiries from the armed forces community and allowing some discretion in ensuring eligibility on the housing register.
I am sure the Government want every part of the country to be as committed to the covenant as Croydon is. That is why we suggest that the Bill should set measurable national standards that would end the postcode lottery, why we want to see the statutory guidance now and why we agree with the service charities that are rightly concerned that the scope of the Bill is too narrow, containing nothing specific on issues such as employment. The scope of the legislation must be wide enough to ensure that all areas of potential disadvantage are addressed, and we know that the wider welfare and healthcare systems let our veterans down too often. All MPs in the House will have spoken to food banks that have provided food for veterans. Wider reform is necessary. The nation’s safety, and the safety and wellbeing of those we ask to risk harm on our behalf, should always be the Government’s first concern.
We live in an uncertain world, and given this uncertainty, it is vital that we have a strong military. That is why it was so critical that in November, the Prime Minister announced the biggest programme of investment in British defence since the cold war. So much has changed since the end of that cold war, not least the fact that the threat from our adversaries is no longer confined to the traditional battlefield, but now exists throughout our digital network too.
Just as the threat has evolved, so too must our capabilities for protecting our citizens. That is why the creation of a national cyber-force and a new space command are no longer optional, and why evolving our capability has also led to the growing importance of our reservists to our national defence. I am pleased that this Bill allows for flexible working for our more than 35,000 reserve personnel, allowing reservists—such as those who are trained at the Prince William of Gloucester barracks in Grantham, in my constituency—the opportunity to serve on a full-time or a part-time basis. Making up one sixth of our armed forces personnel, reservists bring specialist outside knowledge, expertise and experience that enriches our military capability. Whether regular or reservist, we should praise everyone who serves our country in uniform.
However, of course, praise is not enough. We must ensure that no veteran or any of their family faces unfair obstacles or discrimination as they enter civilian life after service. That is why the armed forces covenant has been so important over the past 10 years, and I look back with pride on the fact that my home county of Lincolnshire has played a prominent part in its success so far. All of our local authorities are signatories, and South Kesteven District Council has gone even further by appointing a dedicated armed forces champion in Councillor Dean Ward, who is himself a veteran. We also have a wide range of other local organisations that have signed the covenant, such as Grantham College, RecruitME, and Stamford Endowed Schools.
I am confident that with this Bill and this Government, our nation is in safe hands as we seek to protect our country, enhance our capabilities, and honour those who have served this United Kingdom.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in today’s important Armed Forces Bill debate. Currently, over 5,000 members of our armed forces are on the frontline battling the coronavirus pandemic, in what has been described as the biggest homeland operation in peacetime. The vaccination roll-out, lateral flow testing site support, and community testing are just some of the 70 different tasks undertaken across the UK by service personnel in response to this deadly virus. My Slough constituents and I are extremely grateful for our armed forces’ work during this time. Their commitment to protecting our nation continues to be proven through their invaluable service, further proving the need for the Government to fully commit to the armed forces covenant. This Bill presents a real opportunity—a chance to practise what the Ministry of Defence preaches, and ensure legislation reflects our armed forces covenant.
I support this Bill, but I encourage the Government to widen its scope to ensure that it makes a real difference for our armed forces, veterans and their families. As we know, generally, the covenant covers a pledge that service personnel will not be at any disadvantage compared with civilians with equal circumstances, and that there will be special consideration in specific circumstances—sadly, often due to injury or bereavement—as is right. I am proud to have had family members in the armed forces, and to have had the privilege of being involved in the armed forces parliamentary scheme, meeting inspirational people along the way and learning about their essential roles. Having also served as a member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and headed up the national Sikh war memorial campaign, I fully appreciate the immense dedication of and sacrifices made by our brave servicemen and women. With service to our nation must come lifelong recognition of those things, but as things stand the promises made to them are not being delivered and it is clear that the Government must do more.
Last year, the Government said that they were
“concerned that the current legislation is not enough in itself to ensure the future of the Covenant and the support it offers our Armed Forces Community.”
Yet as the Bill comes to the House today, it is clear that those concerns have not been fully addressed. It also appears as though the Government, as with many other matters, want to outsource their covenant commitments but without giving adequate resources, leaving the service community with a postcode lottery of potential support based on local authority budgets that have already been squeezed by Tory austerity and this pandemic. There are too many barriers to accessing the services people need and these must be addressed rather than allowed to proliferate.
Whether in housing, healthcare or education, there is a serious risk that setting a legal standard below the current voluntary level could mean a race to the bottom. Even the assurances that the flawed investigations process introduced in the overseas operations Bill would be remedied by this Bill have yet to be seen. These are real lives, and real consequences. I am extremely disappointed that Ministers have not taken the opportunity to go further in improving the support for service protection and access to justice for our service community.
Two and a quarter years ago, I attended the armed forces covenant debate in this House and spoke about service family accommodation. There were many warm words said then about the standard of our armed forces, the bravery that they show on a daily basis and the need for us as lawmakers to value them. However, there was very little of legal substance.
I am pleased that we now have the opportunity to speak on a Bill that will finally give the armed forces covenant a firm base in law, but like my colleagues I have deep concerns about the weight of the legislation. As others have said, the phrase “to give due regard” to the principles of the covenant is too vague and does not provide any real legal recourse to the families living in service family accommodation. We need measurable, national standards set at a higher level than the existing voluntary commitments.
In my speech two years ago, I highlighted the deep structural problems caused by the decision in 1996 to sell off 55,000 service family homes on a 999-year lease to Annington Homes. That not only left a black hole in the MOD finances but caused a huge selling off of housing stock to the private sector as well as to desperate local authorities who were under pressure to acquire low-cost social housing to tackle their ever-increasing waiting lists.
Those issues prevail, but today I want to highlight the human impact of the low standards that are common in our accommodation, particularly in respect of cheap outsourcing to Amey, formerly Carillion Amey. In preparation for the debate, my office contacted and spoke with many service families. It is beyond vital that we hear those voices. Our service families have made huge sacrifices in their commitment to our country. Military children are vulnerable to inequalities in health, education, and wellbeing because they move so regularly. The family unit is vulnerable to stresses that most of us are not. Most of us do not have to worry about one parent being absent for weeks or months or sacrifice our own career because of the transient nature of our partner’s. The least that we can provide for these families is dependable adequate housing that is subject to few faults. When problems do occur, we owe it to them to ensure they are dealt with promptly and properly.
We spoke with Rushmoor Borough Councillor Nadia Martin, herself living in an SFA. She has been working for years to highlight these issues and has herself experienced huge problems with Amey, including a poor-quality repair causing injury to her child. She produced a report from a survey she undertook with military families living in SFAs. I am grateful to her for sharing that with me. Sixty-six per cent. of respondents said that the SFA was not in full working order upon march in; 69% said that faults had to be reported at least every quarter; 60% of the contractors do not always turn up; and an astonishing 68% have to call Amey back to redo the same job. That reflects not only the national picture—three in 10 said that they were satisfied with the work done—but countless stories, a couple of which I will relate in the time remaining.
Cathryn, whose husband has been in the Royal Navy for 12 years said:
“It’s very frustrating. I’ve been told a number of times ‘well its cheap housing. should be grateful that you have somewhere to live it’s not meant to be a luxury.’ We don’t expect to live in a castle or in a life of luxury. However I would love to come home from frontline work myself and be able to enjoy relaxing in my bathroom or having a shower without wondering if my boiler works today! I’d love to have the security of coming home and…not have an indoor water feature…every time it rains! We should be entitled to the same as everyone else”.
Another SFA resident, Emma, was scathing:
“We are treated like the lowest of the low, like absolute idiots, made to wait an unreasonable time for fixes, told to live in housing I wouldn’t put my dog in let alone my family. In short there is a nationwide problem with”
service families accommodation.
If I had more time, I could read out many more stories, but I am happy to share those testimonies with the Minister. These families are losing faith in the Government, and in all of us in this House, to help them and improve their situation. They see neighbouring houses sold off to the private sector and their communities lost. They feel as though they are being forced out of SFAs and into the private sector, with all the noted problems that brings. They are seeing their already complicated lives made harder. Is it not time for us to end the scandal of poor service families accommodation and to build, repair and maintain decent service families housing?
I am pleased to be called in this debate on the Second Reading of the Armed Forces Bill.
I must declare my interests as a member of the Royal British Legion; my father was a second world war navigator in the RAF; and my most prized possession is my grandfather’s annotated Bible from his time in a prisoner of war camp in the first world war. The debt of gratitude we owe our armed forces is something I never forget.
I will focus my remarks on two aspects of the Bill: clause 8, “Armed forces covenant”; and clause 9, “Reserve forces: flexibility of commitments”. As the previous leader of a council, I always thought that we should pay more than just lip service to the armed forces covenant. We had a named councillor who was our champion. We introduced priority help for housing, and financial incentives for leisure activities. I am pleased that clause 8 strengthens the covenant by imposing a legal duty on authorities, removing the disadvantages arising from either serving or former personnel. That is particularly necessary in the matter of not just housing but education.
We have all heard stories of how the education of the children of serving personnel has been disrupted. Even when families have chosen to stay put, it is not always clear that the school has made every effort to receive the pupil premium that is allocated for children of serving personnel. The silos of the different government authorities are affected. Those authorities have a tendency not to look outside their own boundaries and proactively see how to ensure that the service provided for serving and former personnel is as wide-reaching as possible. I therefore welcome that clause.
On clause 9, like many other MPs, I have had constituents contact me to say that they would like to do more as part of the volunteer force to support the full-time services. This clause amends the Reserve Forces Act 1996, replacing the full-time service commitment with a new continuous service commitment that can be part-time. That will enable members of the reserve forces to undertake further work in a period of full-time or new part-time service, putting them on a par with their regular counterparts. The clause is an excellent and pragmatic way of enhancing the strength of the regular forces, in particular with specialists, who can do more as part-time volunteer forces.
To finish, I am always struck by the depth of loyalty felt by our volunteer reserve forces. Some have finished as permanent members of the armed services and some have joined as new volunteers. Indeed, we are blessed that so many of our colleagues in both Houses are reservists. That new clause will enable those reservists to do even more for our forces. I have no hesitation in confirming that I will vote for this Bill later and, as my father always says, “We never know when we might need them again.”
It is an enormous privilege not only to contribute to the debate but to follow the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler). As a member of the Defence Committee and, indeed, as the only Northern Ireland parliamentarian contributing to the debate, I think it is important to reflect on Northern Ireland’s role and contribution to our armed forces. Although we make up just less than 3% of the population of the United Kingdom, we contribute far greater not only to our regular forces but to the reserve forces across the United Kingdom, yet at times we have to remind colleagues in Parliament that implementation of the armed forces covenant has not been as smooth in Northern Ireland, where frustrating barriers and, at times, inappropriate political ideology have blocked the full implementation of the covenant. It is in that vein that I wish to contribute to the debate on the covenant provisions in the Armed Forces Bill.
I commend the Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence for the fortitude they have shown in recognising that we can do more for veterans who live in Northern Ireland. We should always remember that those veterans who live in Northern Ireland often live in what was their theatre of war. That brings with it added challenges and added complexities. We know—it has been referred to —that our former Health Minister and now Deputy First Minister once wrote to a colleague of mine to say that the armed forces covenant does not apply here. She was wrong, and we have the opportunity here in the Bill to bring forward a statutory duty to have due regard on public bodies throughout the United Kingdom.
I tabled a private Member’s Bill on this issue back in February 2019, and the Democratic Unionist party secured from the Government a commitment in the “New Decade, New Approach” document that we needed such a statutory duty. I am therefore delighted that tonight the Government are bringing forward this commitment and that it is UK-wide, appropriately specifying the bodies involved with the delivery operationally of health, education and housing in the Province of Northern Ireland.
At the conclusion of the debate, the Minister will have the opportunity to reflect on contributions to the debate. I ask him to respond to questions raised by the Royal British Legion on why we have confined the provisions of the Bill to health, education and housing. Is this not an opportunity to include other aspects such as pensions, employment, social care and immigration issues for those serving from Commonwealth countries? The Secretary of State retains a power in the Bill to introduce further aspects. Should there be a more comprehensive trigger mechanism for introducing such aspects to the Bill and the covenant commitments?
There is no requirement in the Armed Forces Bill for Ministers, whether in Whitehall or devolved institutions, to have due regard. I am keen to hear from the Minister why, when such a due regard clause is present in the Environment Bill, as highlighted by the House of Commons Library, it was not considered appropriate here. Finally, will we see the statutory guidance published before the conclusion of the parliamentary process? That would greatly aid our understanding of the operational impact.
Let us not forget that the Bill is a great stride forward for veterans in this country. I commend the Government for bringing it forward, and I will support them through its passage.
I am very proud to declare my interest in that my partner is currently on overseas deployment with the army, and his mother is the chief executive of the Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust. The Conservative party is the party of the armed forces and the Union, and it is with immense pride that I represent a community of both active and retired service personnel. Brecon and Radnorshire is home to the Infantry Battle School, the Sennybridge training area and, of course, the barracks in Brecon, which is the home of the army in Wales.
Since my election, I have been banging on the door of the Ministry of Defence to get the Secretary of State to change his mind on the decision to close the barracks in 2027. While I have not quite won that battle yet, I am so grateful that the Ministry of Defence last week confirmed that the headquarters of the Army will remain in Brecon, even if the closure goes ahead. That is a huge step forward, and a resounding acknowledgement of the vital work that is carried out in the barracks. I extend my heartfelt thanks to every member of the armed forces based there and all those supporting the coronavirus response.
Ten years ago, we made a promise to those who have served, through the armed forces covenant, that military personnel should never face disadvantage as a result of their military career. It is not enough to recognise serving personnel with medals and good service accommodation; we need to recognise the lifelong sacrifice that serving your country asks of you. This Bill is another step forward in that direction, but I want to highlight one area where I feel that veterans in Wales are being short-changed.
Wales is the only nation in the UK not to have a veterans commissioner—somebody who has the sole focus of supporting our veteran community. Vital public services in Wales are controlled by the Welsh Government and, without a veterans commissioner, the voice of former military personnel in Wales is not being heard. Rather than being used for a photo opportunity to boost the Labour party’s public image, veterans in my constituency want to see a comprehensive approach to veterans’ affairs, focusing on welfare, mental and physical health, education and employment.
This afternoon, I spoke to the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association, which is based in my constituency. I know the Minister is working with it as it seeks to close the gap, both in our history and in our recognition of those veterans’ service, but I encourage him to consider attending the celebration event it is holding later this year ahead of the 70th anniversary of Operation Hurricane. There are only 2,500 nuclear veterans still with us, and despite it being a little known part of our history, their immense service should be recognised.
Finally, I close with an important point: we must never forget that we would not have a military without military families. Navy wives, soldiers’ husbands and RAF children have all paid a price they themselves never incurred—something I have come to learn very keenly in the past six months. The armed forces covenant should wrap its arms around every military family and ensure that gaps in coverage are ironed out at every level. I commend the Minister for his dedication in bringing this Bill to the House, and I hope he will join me in ensuring that veterans in Wales get the same level of support from the Welsh Government that he is willing to offer their comrades in England.
The Armed Forces Bill fulfils the legal responsibility on the MOD to update the Armed Forces Act every five years, but it of course does much more. First, it honours the recommendations of the Lyons review, several of which I argued for as a serving officer. It delivers what the armed forces want, and it shows that the MOD is supportive of them. It delivers, too, on a commitment made in the 2019 manifesto to bring the armed forces covenant into statute and fulfil a long-standing promise to our service community. The Bill also shows that in this post-Brexit era, the British Government are able to pass laws that may have been more difficult under the EU. Our service justice system has long been in the sights of the EU courts, and the MOD has done well to preserve it for the good and benefit of our armed forces.
No doubt the legislation will get attacked for what it is not, but from experience the Bill is a good one. The technical term for it is “no-brainer”, and I will be supporting the Government today. At its simplest level, the legislation provides the framework for the excellent work conducted for many years by councils and health and education providers across the UK, and I pay my own tribute to the many councils and armed forces champions who have done so much. Why not legislate, too, to establish armed forces champions in law? Having reinforced the covenant myself for so many years, not least among our brilliant champions in Surrey and Berkshire, I can say that with complete confidence.
Moving on to the clauses, the Armed Forces Act operates on the basis of beyond reasonable doubt, so it is entirely correct that under clauses 4 to 7, commanding officers in courts martial are provided with a means of rectifying errors of judgment. To be worthy of their pre-eminence, the ability to admonish or even overturn outcomes, notably when new evidence comes to light, is welcome.
I thank my good friend for giving way. He was a commanding officer, as I was, and will have sent people to courts martial when he did not really want to. The Bill brings in the ability for commanding officers to give their men and women additional support when they have to send them to a court martial, and will mean they can involve themselves more in the court martial by saying, for example, “Please can this man or woman come back to my unit rather than be discharged from the service, because they are a good person?”.
I thank my good friend for his intervention and agree completely. It is really important that commanding officers have some input into the service-law process, not only by providing mitigation and character references but by influencing court outcomes. The ability for soldiers to continue to serve, on the recommendation of the commanding officer, is really important.
Clause 8, which brings the armed forces covenant into statute, is long overdue. I welcome the clarification that provisions for housing, health and education will be mandated in law. Further guidance on exactly what councils will be asked to do will be welcome. I would also welcome confirmation of when the Secretary of State might present his annual report on the covenant at the Dispatch Box.
On clause 9, I welcome the increased flexibility that will be available to our reserve forces through the provisions on the new continuous service engagement. Part-time work rightly augments full-time work.
On clauses 10 and 11, I agree that the MOD wishes to speed up the complaints process, but I urge the Minister and the Secretary of State to remain cognisant of just how busy most senior officers are. I welcome the creation of the new Service Police Complaints Commissioner, for all the reasons we heard earlier from my good and hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), as long as a mechanism is built in to ensure that clearly vexatious complaints are filtered out early. That needs to happen for all service complaints: the chain of command must have the ability to filter them amount if they are clearly vexatious.
Lastly, I really welcome the enhanced powers given to commanding officers and courts martial in clauses 13 to 17. Not only is it right that the service justice system can now preside over offences that previously could be heard only in a civil court, but as a former commanding officer I am positively salivating at the prospect of deprivation orders. The proceeds of or means of executing crime can now be confiscated from errant soldiers—what a brilliant way, perhaps, to offset the costs of the regimental Christmas party.
The Bill reflects what our armed forces have asked for. It brings them up to date with what they need and I will vote for it.
I thank the members of our armed forces for the work that they do.
The Minister for Defence People and Veterans said in the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill Committee that the Government would bring forward legislation in this Bill that would make it illegal to discriminate against servicemen and women and veterans; this Bill does nothing of the sort. It says that a limited number of public bodies, outlined by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), must have “due regard” to
“the principle that it is desirable to remove disadvantages”.
The way some people talk, we would think the covenant was invented 10 years ago. It was not: it originated in the 2008 Command Paper published by Bob Ainsworth when he was Minister of State for Defence. We then implemented measures on no disadvantage, and the welfare pathway, with pilots in Hampshire, Wigan and Kent, implemented things like the armed forces champions. I am pleased that the coalition Government took on board those things, which have then gone forward. We produced a Green Paper in 2009 to get those parts of the covenant into law, and it was sad that the Government opposed that in respect of the 2011 Bill. The proposals in this Bill are limited and we need to make sure we strengthen them in Committee.
The right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) mentioned an important omission from the Bill: Northern Ireland veterans, about whom I feel very strongly, like the right hon. Gentleman. This is the Bill in which to put that injustice right, but it is not there. Promises have been made and they need to be kept. The Bill should have done that. No doubt veterans will be pleased that their great, great-grandfathers who committed buggery 200 years ago will be given a pardon, but then they will ask the question, “Well why aren’t we being looked at in this Bill?” I therefore urge the Government to bring forward a proposal in the Bill for that.
The other area is the whole issue of investigations, which came up in the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill. Reinvestigations are clearly an issue in relation to Northern Ireland, as the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) said. On 20 October, the Minister told the Public Bill Committee:
“We will see more stuff on investigations in the Armed Forces Bill.”––[Official Report, Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Public Bill Committee, 20 October 2020; c. 220.]
However, there is nothing in this Bill about investigations and it needs to be there.
The other issue we need address is pay, which my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) raised, because the armed forces cannot go on strike and rely on the Armed Forces Pay Review Body to fight on their behalf. I was proud that the last Labour Government implemented that every year—this Government have not done that—but I would like to see that in the Bill.
There are many things in this Bill, around housing and other issues, that need to be improved. We need a co-operative approach, but I very much doubt that will happen, given the Minister’s attitude and approach to the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill. I have served on, I think, every Armed Forces Bill for the last 20 years, and I am sure he will be delighted to know that I will also be on this Bill Committee, pressing on the points in the Bill that need to be improved. However, if he takes the same attitude as he did to the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Public Bill Committee, we will not get very far. I urge the Secretary of State to take on board what my right hon. Friend for Wentworth and Dearne said: there are things in the Bill that can be improved to actually make sure that life for both servicemen and women, and veterans is improved.
I thank the Minister for all his work in introducing this Armed Forces Bill, and also thank him and my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan) for their work over many years on the armed forces covenant.
The Minister will not remember, but he and I made our maiden speeches in the same debate. His contribution was powerful, talking about his time in Afghanistan and how he was in this place to change things for veterans and the armed forces. It was impactful at the time, and I am pleased that he has had the opportunity to follow his dreams and put that into reality. This is a start, but I know there is much more to do, and I hope we will continue to improve the offer for those in the armed forces and those who have left.
During my time away from this House, I took on a public appointment role as chair of the south-east region for the Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committee, which was set up 100 years ago, in 1921. Its original aim was to help armed forces widows with their pension claims. It has branched out into helping veterans and their families in a number of areas, including informally monitoring the armed forces covenant. I was able to see that at first hand and how the covenant works on the ground.
I cover four councils: Hampshire County Council, and Winchester, East Hampshire and Havant Councils, all of which have armed forces champions and good procedures in place to support armed forces personnel and their families. We are lucky. Not every council is the same, so this Bill is much welcomed. However, I hope we can find the right way of monitoring how each council adopts and puts in place the education, housing and health requirements for their local armed forces personnel. We need to be clear on what it entitles them to and to hold each council to account when they fail to support our brave servicemen and women. The Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committee is already in place and is UK-wide. It is in a perfect position to have an important role in monitoring the armed forces covenant. I hope that the MOD will put its role on a statutory basis, as the eyes and the ears on the ground for this purpose.
My other point is that complaints have been taking far too long to settle, to the extent that many people do not think it is worth complaining. The armed forces must not be frightened of complaints. An open and transparent organisation is a much happier one. Complaints must be taken seriously and dealt with quickly. Again, my time at the Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committee has shown that this is not always the case, and it is causing mental health issues, which affect not only the person concerned, but their families too. That is why I welcome the service justice system clauses, but urge that once the complainant has put in their complaint to appeal, the service should respond equally quickly. It would be good if the same six-week limit also applied to the response time from whichever authority has received the complaint. I hope that the Minister has considered that.
I look forward to the passage of this Bill and I will be supporting it.
It is probably prudent for me to remind the Chamber that one of my children is a serving officer in the armed forces.
Like the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson), through the armed forces parliamentary scheme I have learned a great deal about the education of armed forces personnel. I also recognise the excellent contribution that our service personnel are making to fighting the pandemic and want to express my personal thanks to the Secretary of State for several exchanges we have had in recent times about armed forces personnel coming to help Scotland, which has been lagging behind in the vaccination roll-out; I am grateful to him for that.
The armed forces covenant is about making sure that no service personnel past or present are disadvantaged in society compared with those in other walks of life or other citizens. The hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) and several other Members asked why the duty is being extended only to local government and not a little further into some of the devolved institutions or, indeed, some of the ministerial functions of Her Majesty’s Government.
The Highland Council, of which I was formerly a member, has a joint armed forces champions system. It is shared between Councillor Major Carolyn Caddick, who is also honorary colonel of the 1st Battalion Highlanders Army Cadet Force, and Councillor Major Roddy Balfour, who once upon a time was my company commander. I should imagine the House would probably be quite interested in what he might have to say about the service record of Private Stone some years ago—and I suspect he might also quite enjoy telling the House about that. I have an agreement with them that I will take back to them what is proposed tonight and as the Bill progresses through Parliament in order to see how we might improve it. As armed forces champions, Councillors Caddick and Balfour know probably better than anyone where the gaps are, and I hope to relay that information back to the House and am grateful to them for agreeing to do this.
I want to make two short points before concluding. First, it has been raised with me that we are the only country in Europe, NATO and indeed among permanent membership of the UN Security Council that has this16-year-old system, and that perhaps we should be looking at a slightly different system in future, perhaps an armed forces education offer for 16 to 17-year-olds with an option to enlist at 18.
Finally, I absolutely associate myself with the remarks made about our excellent services personnel from the Commonwealth. It is wretched that after four years they can apply and that, as has been pointed out, a family of four will have to pay almost £10,000. That is deeply unfair and we owe it to them to put it right.
It gives me great pleasure to take part in this debate, and I want to pay particular tribute to the Minister for Defence People and Veterans who, along with the Secretary of State, has steered this Bill with a marvellous passion; he is a true advocate of whom all Members, especially on this side of the House, can be very proud. I also refer to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone); he alluded to the armed forces parliamentary scheme, on which I have served for two years, and I pay particular tribute to Lieutenant Colonel Longbottom MBE who I think can be personally singled out for helping to improve the quality of this debate, along with the scheme more broadly.
This is truly an historic moment; these debates have taking place every five years since 1689, after the Bill of Rights made it necessary for us to have them and a Bill every five years in order to have armed forces. I take particular pleasure in participating in the debate this year, from Montgomeryshire, with the armed forces deployed across our country supporting the effort against the pandemic.
I welcome many measures in the Bill, but I want to highlight a few of them, including the service justice system, introduced in 2006, with updates and reviews since 2017. I very much welcome the independent Service Police Complaints Commissioner established by the Bill, to ensure that there is an independent route for redress. I also welcome the clearer guidance for prosecutors on the way that service personnel are handled in the United Kingdom.
As a Government Member, I very much welcome the armed forces covenant being enshrined in law. That was in our manifesto, and we welcome it wholeheartedly. I welcome particularly the focus on healthcare, housing and education. As somebody who served on a local authority, I pay tribute to the 6,000 organisations that have signed up to the covenant since 2011. I look forward to the Secretary of State’s update on the covenant and, particularly, how the Bill will help to advance it. We have seen the strong provisions on wraparound childcare and the pilots on service family accommodation. Through the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I have, like other Members, talked to members of our armed forces about how these provisions help.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) commented on the need for the devolved Administrations to step up, particularly in Wales. I echo the call for a veterans commissioner. Many of the levers in the Bill would be improved in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. A veterans commissioner would give the power to push veterans’ causes, and I would like to work with Russell George, my Member of the Senedd for Montgomeryshire, to ensure that that happens.
I pay tribute to my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire. As she said, we have recently been told that the headquarters of the Army will remain in Brecon, in Powys—in the heart of Wales. I very much welcome that, and I will continue to champion, alongside her, that role in Brecon and Powys. I look forward to expressing my support for the Bill through the Deputy Chief Whip.
I speak today on behalf of everyone across my constituency who has served in, supported or contributed to the fantastic work of our armed forces both here at home and abroad. I pay particular tribute to the incredible work of our armed forces in supporting frontline efforts to tackle the coronavirus pandemic here in Wales and across the UK. From working with our fantastic ambulance crews to supporting the delivery of the vaccine, I know that our armed forces are playing a unique and crucial role in the fight against this virus.
Last Friday, we celebrated the 80th birthday of the Air Training Corps. As a very proud former air cadet, I would like to use this opportunity to pay tribute to the fantastic work of our cadet forces in my local authority of Rhondda Cynon Taf and that of our armed forces champion, Councillor Maureen Webber. Our city council was one of the first local authorities in Wales to sign up to the armed forces covenant, and it was also the first Welsh local authority to receive the Ministry of Defence’s prestigious gold award in recognition of the council’s approach to supporting the armed forces community locally.
Only a year ago, I attended an event in my very first weeks as a Member of the House that sought to commemorate the remarkable work of the Welsh regiments. While I am sad not to be able to speak to those serving in the Welsh Guards, the Royal Welsh and the 1st the Queen’s Dragoon Guards in person, I recognise now more than ever the vital role that they provide to the armed forces and to the Union.
With that in mind, I welcome the Bill, as it represents a real and meaningful opportunity to improve the lives of our armed forces, veterans and their families. But the Government’s focus remains too narrow, and the Bill, as currently drafted, is a missed opportunity to deliver real and meaningful improvements for our service communities. I welcome the provision in the Bill to allow flexible working for Army reservists, allowing them the opportunity to serve on a part-time basis if they so choose. That is an all-important step to enable people with a wide range of responsibilities and from a wider range of backgrounds than ever before to consider joining the reserves.
However, there are still important questions that must be answered. First, why have the Government stopped short of adopting the recommendation in the Lyons review that civilian courts should have jurisdiction in matters of murder, rape and serious sexual offences committed in the UK? Surely if justice is to be done in such serious cases, independence is crucial.
I have a number of comments to make on clause 8. The armed forces covenant represents a binding moral commitment between the Government and service communities, guaranteeing them and their families the respect and fair treatment that their service has earned. The Bill would place a legal responsibility on services such as local authorities to deliver on the covenant in areas of housing, healthcare and education, but in setting this legal standard—below existing voluntary commitments in some areas—the Minister and his Government risk creating a race to the bottom on services for our forces and their communities. This Government talk a good game about support, but are again failing to deliver the real change that service personnel and their families are crying out for.
All three principal Welsh regiments have a long and distinguished history, and retain a significant footprint across Wales, but in recent years we have sadly seen a significant decline in the number of Ministry of Defence personnel in Wales. Now, with key Welsh regiments located across the UK, our Welsh soldiers with families and partners in Wales find the cost of commuting prohibitive. We need to do all we can to encourage new recruits to join, rather than creating barriers to prevent new starters. As ever, this Government are light on details. They have promised statutory guidance to support local authorities and other bodies in meeting these responsibilities, but I have real concerns that the Government are trying to outsource their responsibility without providing the clarity and funding to local authorities to deliver these all-important services.
Beyond housing, healthcare and education, the scope of the Bill is simply too narrow. I urge the Minister to take action now to provide meaningful change to armed forces personnel, veterans and their families here in Pontypridd and across the UK by widening the scope of the Bill and providing the necessary funding to put these words directly into action.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, just a week after my family welcomed to the world my new great-niece Lyla Mae, who was born on a British military base in Cyprus.
Our armed forces, and especially our veterans, do not always get the recognition and support that they deserve. I welcome the Government reaffirming their commitment to the armed forces covenant. The armed forces and veterans community in Hartlepool forms a strong support network, and many want to see all parties in this House working together constructively to get the best from this Bill for our forces and to ensure that the covenant is delivered in full. However, as was evidenced in the review of the service justice system by Shaun Lyons, there are gaps in the system that have left some of our servicemen and women, and some of our veterans, high and dry.
Many Members will be familiar with the case of my constituent Mr Richard Lee, who is a veteran of the King’s Royal Hussars. His daughter, Katrice, went missing from the NAAFI in Paderborn, Germany in 1981. The search for Katrice is ongoing, and Richard and his family have lived with the impact of her disappearance for almost 40 years. A review of the investigation carried out by the Royal Military Police established that failures and mistakes were made in the initial investigation. Richard and his family have sought answers from the RMP to explain these failures, but no clear answers have been brought forward. At a meeting that I attended with Richard in January, the RMP told us that with no new leads, the investigation—known as Operation Bute—would essentially be mothballed.
Although Richard and I were grateful for the intervention of the Secretary of State for Education, the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), during his time at the Ministry of Defence, we are little further forward from where we were a few years ago. I therefore welcome the establishment of an independent complaints commissioner for the service police to deliver for those who have been let down or failed by the service police. This is essential. My constituent should not have had to wait 30 years for even the simplest of apologies.
In my view, Shaun Lyons’s report and recommendations should be endorsed by this House and implemented in full. That includes the handling of serious criminal proceedings in civilian criminal courts, which are, according to the review, better placed to deal with serious criminal acts. I, along with many other Members, would very much like to hear why this recommendation from Shaun Lyons’s report was omitted from the Bill when other recommendations have been accepted and endorsed. A serious crime is still a serious crime, whether it is committed in or out of uniform, and our justice system should reflect that, as other NATO and Commonwealth allied armed forces have done already. The Government must provide a credible explanation for this omission and ensure that parity and fairness for victims and defendants are at the heart of the armed forces justice system, as well as the civilian system.
It is an honour to speak in this important armed forces debate. One of the most significant changes that the Bill makes is to enshrine the armed forces covenant in law. The covenant was put in place 10 years ago to protect and support those who serve us as members of the armed forces. It is our very promise as a nation to ensure that those who serve or have served, and their families, are treated fairly.
Our armed forces defend and protect us, and we often think of them in the context of conflict overseas. However, in the past few months, we have seen at first hand the value of our servicemen and women, as they have built our field hospitals, carried out covid-19 testing and been part of the team vaccinating those at greatest risk. Only last week, a further 96 military personnel were detached to help with the vaccine roll-out here in Wales. Members of RAF Valley in my constituency of Ynys Môn have been assisting with testing across the UK.
Since its inception, over 6,000 businesses have signed up to the covenant, including Isle of Anglesey County Council and Môn Maintenance Services here in Holyhead, but once the Bill becomes legislation, the principles of the covenant will become a legal requirement. That will ensure equal treatment for our serving armed forces and for those who have left the services.
Our local poppy appeal co-ordinator, Piers Beeland, reminded me recently, “Don’t forget the veterans. We may be suffering genuine PTSD, long covid or live in substandard accommodation. Most of us were prepared not just to serve but to put our lives at risk to save others.” On behalf of all current and former servicemen and women, and particularly those in my constituency of Ynys Môn, I thank the Government for their work to create a country in which they can expect fair and equal treatment.
May I add my thanks to all our armed forces personnel for everything they do and for the sacrifices they make to keep the rest of us safe? Today, I want to touch on what we can do to keep them safe outside their jobs and when they leave service.
A King’s College London study five years ago confirmed that there were in excess of 70,000 veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Now, mid-pandemic, that number will likely be higher, and there just are not the resources to get adequate help for all those individuals. The sad statistics show the blunt reality of what our service personnel face. More Falklands veterans have committed suicide since the conflict than those who lost their lives during it. Mental health issues can affect service personnel and veterans just as much as physical injuries, leading to unemployment, homelessness, social deprivation and addiction.
Gambling addiction is on the increase in the armed forces. One of the biggest challenges that those in the military face is getting that addiction recognised, as it is often seen as a weakness. To date, it is an offence to borrow money in the forces, but we know from the volume of case studies that every single week, disordered gamblers borrow money and will steal to fund their addiction. For those leaving service, it is evident that there is a worrying lack of support. Many find the transition back to civilian life very difficult, and mental health support falls far short, resulting in veterans being up to four times more likely than any other cohort to experience gambling-related harm.
With over 10,000 veterans thought to be suffering from or at risk of gambling-related harm, more really needs to be done to address the causes. Gambling becomes a coping mechanism, blocking out the anxiety, the anger and the loneliness. With an industry ready to prey on these vulnerable individuals, we need far better regulation to provide protection, if not through this Bill, then through other forms of legislation.
In addition to this Bill, I ask the Defence Secretary to please work with his colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport as they undertake the long-awaited gambling review. That review is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ensure that gambling legislation in this country is both robust and future-proof. We have to get this right. The review needs to look not just at the industry but at its customers, and particularly at the cohorts, such as our armed forces and veterans, who are most vulnerable to harm.
Our armed forces serve to protect all of us and, in turn, it is our duty to protect them from associated public and mental health issues, of which addiction is one of the most isolating. We owe a real, huge debt of gratitude to every serving member of our armed forces and to all veterans, but thanks and accolades are not enough. There is so much more we need to be doing to help these heroes, many of whom suffer in silence after witnessing things the rest of us cannot even imagine. In truth, the scope of this Bill is too limited. Social care, pensions, compensation, employment and benefits are all excluded and, while it focuses on healthcare, mental health is, sadly, lacking. The answer to what we are doing with this Bill is, sadly, very little.
The defence of the realm is the first duty of Government, and this Bill provides the legal basis for the armed forces. In three years advising the then Defence Secretary, I had the privilege to meet many servicemen and women, at home and around the world, helping to keep Britain safe, and it is in recognition of their unique sacrifices and obligations that we have the armed forces covenant. This pledge from the nation commits to remove disadvantages arising from being a serving or former member of the armed forces, and to consider whether special provision is justified for those who have given the most.
I warmly welcome the new duty on public bodies to have due regard to the covenant’s principles when providing housing, education and healthcare. This is a very good start, and reflects the areas the Secretary of State is required to report on. However, the annual report typically covers a broader range of issues where personnel face disadvantage, including family life, criminal justice and employment, so I encourage the Government to broaden the scope in due course. I hope the Minister will reassure the Royal British Legion and others that the case for adding further areas is under active review.
While I support public bodies being subject to this duty, the Bill would be improved by including Government Departments, which determine policy, allocate resource or provide national guidance to other delivery bodies. I know how committed Ministers are to the armed forces covenant, and a legal duty would help ensure that it is properly adhered to. Clearly, it also needs to be enforceable, and judicial review is expensive and slow, so it would be helpful to clarify that the local government and social care ombudsman and other bodies will have responsibilities for enforcement.
During my time at the Ministry of Defence, I helped instigate the service justice review in 2017. I did so because I was concerned about the transparency, fairness and efficiency of the system and the impact on service personnel who have been let down. The Government have rightly accepted many of Shaun Lyons’s proposals to improve the system. However, I am concerned that they have not accepted his first recommendation that court martial jurisdiction should no longer include murder, manslaughter and rape when offences are committed in the UK, except with the consent of the Attorney General. That is the approach that other countries have adopted, including Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence People and Veterans for the discussion we have had on this issue, and I do think it would be helpful to send a clear message from the House that, as a general principle, civilian authority should take precedence for investigating and prosecuting those offences in the UK. This is about giving victims confidence to come forward, and also about public confidence. Another important step to improve confidence are the changes to bring the court martial system into line with the Crown court by introducing qualified majority voting where there are six lay members.
Finally, I was pleased to work on measures to enable part-time working for our armed forces. This Bill will allow reservists to benefit from the same flexible working provisions that regulars have to undertake full-time or part-time service. Churchill called reservists “twice the citizen”, and this is very much a welcome move. Our armed forces represent the best of us, and I am pleased to support the Bill, which will strengthen our commitment to their service.
I want to tell the story of my constituent Maurillia Simpson, who has served in the Royal Logistic Corps for 13 years. Maurillia grew up in Trinidad. Becoming a British soldier was a dream of hers from the age of seven after she saw Her Majesty the Queen on a state visit.
During her third tour in Iraq, Maurillia was a corporal and a section leader on the frontline. Her position was hit by a mortar, everything went black and silent, and she did not know if she was dead or alive, buried under deep rubble. During the hours in that darkness, a song her mother used to sing to her as a child came to her, and she started to sing it as a form of comfort and as a way of trying to tell her family that she loved them.
It took 20 hours to get Maurillia out from under that rubble and into hospital. She survived, but it was not the end of her troubles. In 2010, while preparing for a tour in Afghanistan, Maurillia was in a traffic accident that ruptured her left leg, and it had to be completely rebuilt. She was left with a disability and still needs surgery to improve her mobility and reduce the pain.
In 2013, despite being on a waiting list for surgery and having no other home to go to, Maurillia was invalided out of the Army, ending her 13 years of service against her will. She was told she would be looked after; told to wait. She is a soldier; she followed instructions. She waited alone, not knowing who to turn to—and it got worse. After a year spent sleeping on her cousin’s sofa or in her car, Maurillia had a visit, out of the blue, from a sergeant major, not to offer the support she clearly needed but to demote her. There were two weeks to appeal but she was just about to go finally into hospital for surgery and she did not understand the system. Losing her rank had a huge impact on Maurillia: on her mental health and on her financial security. If the covenant means anything, it should mean a guarantee that no one is abandoned like she was.
The duties in this Bill for health, education, housing and local government could help to ensure that more support is available, but the reality of the story, it seems to me, is that the MOD failed Maurillia, even though the covenant has been in force since 2012. How many more veterans has the Ministry failed in this way? How can we improve the Bill to ensure that no one else is failed? At the moment, the covenant offer sometimes allows an outsourcing of responsibility from the MOD to our underfunded councils and our public services. But the Ministry passes the buck without passing the bucks, and that has to change, because the covenant must become a true guarantee of support for veterans. We owe that to Maurillia; we owe it to so many others.
Hull and the East Riding have always been popular recruitment areas for the armed forces, so the whole of the UK owes our local veterans and armed forces community a huge debt. Labour’s Hull City Council takes this debt and these obligations very seriously. Hull Labour understands the need to increase local knowledge and awareness of how the armed forces community’s requirements may differ from those of civilians, how service can affect access to public services, and the benefits of creating greater consideration of their specific needs in the provision of those services.
Because of this, Labour’s Hull City Council has already embedded much of the covenant into its systems and practices, and its efforts have been recognised with the award of gold employer standard, as it has demonstrated due regard through its initiatives. For example, reference to the covenant is linked into existing equality protected characteristics, and veteran status is included in all questionnaires circulated through the council’s people power surveys. Reference to valuing our armed forces community is included as a social cause in the council’s commissioning process, and dedicated reference to the covenant is included in a section of the schools admission guidance.
To help to ensure awareness among council staff when dealing with veterans, Hull Labour has designated armed forces champions in the council’s customer service centres. Hull City Council has made training available for all members of staff, and this training is mandatory for housing staff. To ensure oversight and accountability, the council has in place an elected armed forces champion and a senior office lead for the authority. An armed forces covenant officer is already employed to further ensure that the council adheres to its duty.
Labour’s Hull City Council supports and maintains strong links with the veterans community hub, which I am proud to have situated in my own constituency of Hull West and Hessle. The hub provides specialist support for veterans, including money and employment advice. The council’s relationship with the service has been recognised as an example of best practice. We are also very fortunate to have active local charities and breakfast groups such as Hull 4 Heroes and the Hull Veterans Support Centre. The council also leads the armed forces forum, which is well attended by charities and statutory services, including the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise Health and Wellbeing Alliance, which, as one of its core outcomes, is improving outcomes for veterans.
Labour’s Hull City Council’s commitment to the veterans of Hull cannot be doubted. Despite the huge cuts to its budgets imposed by successive Conservative Administrations since 2010—now standing at £120 million a year less—it continues to put veterans’ welfare front and centre. However, the impact on resources of embedding the new statutory covenant legislation cannot be ignored by the Government, who are creating that legislation and requirement. Veterans are facing increasingly complex issues, and the services they need are in high demand from all quarters of society. I know that Labour will play its full part in improving this legislation by pushing to include measurable national standards for the covenant, equality of treatment for all British armed forces veterans, regardless of country of birth, and Lyons’ recommendation that civilian courts have jurisdiction in the matters of murder, rape and serious sexual offences. I look forward to seeing this Bill proceed through Parliament.
Veterans deserve the support that this legislation is intended to provide, but the fact is that there is no additional funding to allow local authorities to deliver on its expectation. Like many councils up and down the country, Hull City Council is actively engaged in providing that support our veterans need. It must now be given the means to continue to do so.
Let me declare my own family interests, not least those going back multiple generations: my father and uncles who served with the Royal Corps of Signals and Royal Navy; cousins who bravely served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and more; my grandfather in the 1st Airborne Division taken prisoner of war at Arnhem; and my great-grandparents who served in the artillery and the King’s Own Scottish Borderers on the Western Front.
I am hugely proud of the strong constituency connections with our armed forces in Cardiff South and Penarth, not least our Welsh family of regiments: the Welsh Guards; the Royal Welsh and the Queen’s Dragoon Guards. We also have the brand new HMS Cambria training facility, MOD St Athan, which was previously RAF St Athan, and our amazing veterans organisations locally, including the Welsh Veterans Partnership, Woody’s Lodge and many others.
I am proud to have witnessed at first hand our incredible forces worldwide from Afghanistan to Canada, and from Norway to Cyprus, and I thank the Armed Forces Parliamentary Trust for the incredible insights that it has offered.
There have been some excellent speeches today. In particular, I want to commend my hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) and for West Ham (Ms Brown), and the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Stuart Anderson) for his brave and rightly challenging speech. I am pleased by the cross-party and constructive approach taken by most Members today, many of whom I have been proud to work with through the all-party group for the armed forces. It is vital that those who serve us know that they have support from all corners of this House. I therefore take some issue with a small minority today who have tried to imply otherwise. That does our serving forces and veterans no good. There should never be a monopoly on patriotism or pride in our armed forces. We all, regardless of political party, owe them so much. Critical is the example shown by the remarkable work in response to covid-19, including in Wales, where our armed forces, working with Governments of all political colours across the UK, are showing the strength of working together across this Union. Our Welsh First Minister, Mark Drakeford, spoke proudly this week of the work of our UK armed forces in supporting the vaccine efforts, our NHS, and logistics among so much else.
There have been powerful links between Wales and the armed forces over hundreds of years. One of my most recent visits before these difficult times was with the Royal Welsh on Salisbury Plain, where I was driven around in a Warrior by a fantastic Royal Welsh soldier, who also happened to be a Fijian. As we have heard today, there is a proud tradition of Commonwealth soldiers serving in our armed forces, especially the Army. There are particularly strong links with some countries such as Fiji in Wales. On many visits, I have met personnel from the Caribbean, Africa, the South Pacific, Canada, and Australia. Then, of course, there are the remarkable Gurkhas, who I was holed up with under simulated attack at the infantry training centre in Catterick. They serve alongside us and for us, as have so many for so many generations, with the same bravery, determination and professionalism as anyone else. They serve alongside us and for us, as have so many for so many generations, with the same bravery, determination and professionalism as anyone else. With recent issues in recruitment, they have become even more critical to our forces, in some cases comprising well over 10% of an individual unit.
Yet we are letting them down. I have been appalled to hear of Fijian veterans who have been left destitute, homeless and without adequate food, relying on veterans’ organisations and regimental associations. What on earth is happening on discharge, and where are the support and resettlement processes? The issues around visas for settlement of family, travel for compassionate leave, other administrative issues, separated families and so many others have rightly been exposed. The Ministry of Defence needs to get a grip on the issue, undertake a root and branch reform, do the right thing by those who serve us from across the Commonwealth and ensure that we treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve for the service they have given us.
Lastly, I refer to clause 18 of the Bill, regarding historical injustices against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender service personnel of the past—people who, simply because of their sexual orientation, were prosecuted and punished. I praise Lord Cashman, Lord Lexden and all those involved, but there is still a series of historical injustices, including to lesbians who served and who were often discharged under provisions such as “services no longer required”. We need to do the right thing by all those people who were wrongly persecuted for their sexuality or gender identity, and judge them on their bravery and professionalism, not on those characteristics.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty).
We owe our armed forces personnel and veterans and their families an enormous debt of gratitude for their selfless actions to help keep our country safe. Our armed forces are exceptional people who work in unique circumstances, and they deserve our very best in terms of support. It is only this Conservative Government that will give our troops the full support they need. It was not so long ago that some on the Opposition Benches were toying with abolishing the Army; I am so very pleased that that has been abandoned and now we are all working together.
I would like to take the opportunity to thank our servicemen and women personally. I have seen first-hand their commitment and hard work during the covid pandemic. I have seen just how efficiently they assisted the delivery of the roll-out of testing for covid in Matlock in my constituency, and how important they have been in assisting with the vaccination programme. Quite literally, we owe many lives to them, and I thank them.
I thank my former unit, the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (Princess Royal’s Volunteer Corps), who have also been assisting ably in the covid pandemic. I would also like, in some small way this evening, to convey the heartfelt values of support for our servicemen and women and the understated, proud patriotism that has been held by so many ordinary people in the United Kingdom since the second world war—many of whom have now sadly died, some indeed having passed away in this recent pandemic.
Moving on to the armed forces covenant, I am so very pleased that this Bill delivers the manifesto commitment to our service people and veterans by, for the first time ever, creating a legal obligation for certain public bodies to have due regard to the armed forces covenant. No matter where our armed forces and their families are in the Union, they will receive the same level of consideration for their specific needs from local public bodies in relation to housing, healthcare and education. Those issues are of prime importance to our serving and former members of the armed forces and their families.
This Bill represents a significant milestone in that journey. The duty it will place on public bodies is really important. From my work at the Bar and within the care system I have seen many tragic cases where veterans have not had their needs met in housing, education and mental health provision, and I see how that affects not only the serviceman or woman, but the wider family, including through suicide and domestic violence.
Since my election, I have raised at ministerial level the issue of suicide, and I will continue to do so. I want to continue this work, and I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Stuart Anderson) for his moving contribution. I have witnessed in my legal work families facing the difficulties he faced. This Bill will help such families, and I thank the Government for that.
Since my election in 2019, I have been hugely impressed by the support of the British people for service personnel. Locally, in Derbyshire Dales, I have had the pleasure of seeing the hard work undertaken by the Ashbourne Ex-Servicemen’s Club, and I wish to extend my heartfelt thanks to them.
I would like to start by paying tribute to Captain Sir Tom Moore on behalf of the people of Stockport. Sir Tom sadly passed away last week, but he represented the best of Britain and gave joy to millions of us during the lowest points of the crisis. He served with distinction during the second world war, and as we debate the Bill, I would like to thank Captain Sir Tom and all the armed forces for their service, not least during this covid pandemic when their efforts have further helped to keep our country safe.
As well as keeping our citizens safe, the armed forces also help to pull our communities together. For example, in my constituency, I would also like to give a special mention to Army veteran Peter Millns of the Stockport branch of the Armed Forces and Veterans Breakfast Clubs. I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the club in March last year and meet the incredible people such as Peter who give their time to help run the club and provide such a worthy service. Peter is an inspirational individual. He is the driving force behind my local branch, helping to create a close-knit community for Stockport veterans. Peter is not unique, though. Liz Murray from the Stockport branch of the Royal British Legion also does so much to support our veteran community in the town. The help that the likes of Liz and Peter give to armed forces personnel past and present is vital, and it is never more important than at times like these, which are particularly challenging and can place an even greater burden on our veterans.
Voluntary organisations are amazing, but it should not be left to them to make up the shortfall in Government support. Too often, the armed forces covenant is not upheld and the promises made do not match the reality experienced by our service communities, from substandard housing to veterans’ mental health and social care. Just last week, a scathing report by the National Audit Office revealed that tens of thousands of troops live in “substandard accommodation” while the Ministry of Defence refuses to pay for £1.5 billion pounds worth of repairs and half the rooms in MOD barracks would fail to meet current building regulations. That is no way to treat those who have put their lives on the line to keep our country safe.
The Armed Forces Bill places a legal responsibility on councils to deliver on the covenant in the areas of housing, healthcare and education, but without providing any extra funding to do so. That commitment is even harder to keep when the likes of my local authority, Stockport Council, have not only faced repeated cuts and austerity for more than a decade but now face a shortfall of millions after the Government failed to deliver on their promise to fully fund local authorities for the cost of covid-19 and keeping the people of Stockport safe. A fair financial settlement for our local authorities is the only way that the likes of our serving and veteran armed forces personnel can continue to receive the support they deserve.
Indeed, it is only right that our armed forces, veterans and their families do not continue to experience any disadvantage when accessing services, as we have seen most recently on the housing issue. The sad reality, though, is that too many still face barriers to accessing the support they need. That is why this Government must go further and deliver the armed forces covenant in full. To ensure that that happens, this Bill should set measurable, national standards that would once and for all end the postcode lottery on the armed forces covenant.
Before I call Anthony Mangnall, I must inform the House that the wind-ups will start at 9.40 with Stephen Morgan, followed by Ben Wallace at 9.50. The question will then be put at 10 o’clock, and I apologise in advance to those Members who may not get in.
It is a pleasure to be able to speak on this Bill, and I would like to start by congratulating the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer). He has been assiduous in helping my constituents—veterans and those who are currently serving—with mental health issues and with housing issues, and I thank him for everything that he has done. Today should be a moment for us all to reflect on the hard work that he has put in to the Bill, and into the armed forces covenant to get it where it is. He should rightly be proud.
I am proud to have in my constituency the Britannia Royal Naval College, and I cannot talk enough about it. Last year, I was proud to attend the passing-out parade as ratings and officers were, for the first time ever, able to graduate as they went off into the Royal Navy. I thought then, as I think now, about the future that they will have in the armed forces and what they will have when they retire, become veterans and serve in other occupations, and about what we must do to support those who so bravely put their lives on the line to protect our borders and to push our interests overseas. I hope that today is an opportunity for us to reflect on the fact that we are matching action with words, that we are delivering on our promise to our armed forces and that this will be the start of the many promising steps that we can deliver to those who serve our country.
This is a historic moment, as the Minister has already said, and I welcome the fact that the Bill updates the Armed Forces Act 2006 and that it provides an update to the service justice system, ensuring a fair and effective route to justice. However, I would specifically like to pay attention to the armed forces covenant, which, as I have already said, has been championed so well by the Minister. It is covered in clause 8. We are doing this not just because we have a duty to those servicemen and not just because a focus group tells us to be patriotic, but because this is the right thing for us to do. I come from a military family. My uncle served in the Welsh Guards, and my father was a Green Jacket for his entire career, so I understand what it is like to be in a military family: the requirement to move at the last minute, the onerous stresses of the job that go with it, and the impact that they can place on a family. As such, the fact that this Bill focuses and delivers on the defence transition services that help people move from the military into the private sector, provides flexibility for reservists, and recognises the need to support our veterans and servicemen through education, healthcare and employment are all steps that we should rightly be proud of.
However, we must also recognise that this is a job that will never be finished. It will always require this House, and Members from across this House, to work together to find ways in which we can improve housing and address the mental health issues that are so likely to arise from conflict and crises. These are all welcome steps, but what we must learn for now is that we must improve access to mental health care. With a rural constituency, I know how hard it often is for veterans to access mental health services, so it is particularly welcome to see that the Government’s HeadFIT scheme, launched in April last year, has had such a positive impact, and that 800 GP practices are now recognised as veteran-friendly. I hope that is something we are going to see delivered again and again and improved upon, and that the Minister will come back to the House to provide an update on the progress of these steps.
This is not just about our determination to create the best armed forces in the world; it is about providing support that lasts from when a person joins the service, through their service, and during their careers afterwards. We have that duty. I welcome the steps that the Minister has taken through this Bill, and I welcome this Bill overall.
I would like to start by paying tribute to our armed forces for everything their personnel have done and continue to do, including in our ongoing battle against coronavirus. I would also like to pay tribute to Labour-led South Tyneside Council in my constituency of Jarrow, where earlier this month, a motion was passed unanimously outlining the council’s support for Commonwealth veterans.
I support the aims of this Bill. However, in its current form, it does not put the armed forces covenant properly into law, to ensure that the long-term failings in the military justice system are put right. As evidenced by the Government’s annual reports, 10 years of the covenant’s operation have shown that the issues the armed forces community face are far-reaching, including health, housing, employment, pensions, compensation, social care, education, criminal justice and immigration. This legislation should include all those broader issues, so it is disappointing that the Bill as introduced covers only certain aspects of health, housing and education.
There is nothing in the Bill to address the long-standing issues around criminal and civil justice for our veterans. How can the Ministry of Defence provide duty of care oversight for service personnel in the service discipline system when it is responsible for investigating, charging and prosecuting them? One of my constituents, Gavin Brearley, has a complaint against the Royal Navy that goes back many years. During his last year of service with the Royal Navy, Gavin was in a hit and run that left him with long-term injuries. He received no rehabilitation and was not medically discharged. His service complaints have never received a satisfactory outcome, and his main concern is that an independent complaints procedure has never been available to him. Various service charities are concerned that the scope of the Bill is too narrow, containing nothing specific on issues such as compensation. The scope of the legislation must be wide enough to ensure that all areas of potential disadvantage for veterans such as Gavin are addressed.
Additionally, the Armed Forces Bill does not address what many regard as the injustice of the income requirement that can prevent Commonwealth veterans who have served in our armed forces from living here with their families. A change to the immigration rules for veterans and their immediate families would have been a tangible gesture of gratitude to the brave Commonwealth nations men and women who served in our armed forces. This is a huge missed opportunity in the Bill, and being granted citizenship should not come with having to pay extortionate fees. The Government must treat all veterans with the respect they deserve. Leaving them in a state of bureaucratic limbo for years is both shameful and immoral.
I welcome the Bill and especially the way in which it further incorporates the armed forces covenant into law. I am proud to have two RAF bases in my constituency: RAF Halton, which is primarily a training base; and RAF High Wycombe, which is the home of Air Command and will soon be the home of space command. I pay tribute to all service personnel at Halton and Wycombe and, indeed, those serving everywhere in the UK and worldwide. It is absolutely right that they and their families should be treated fairly and with respect, wherever they are asked to live and work.
Given my experience in the civilian criminal justice system prior to my election—specifically 12 years as a magistrate and a time on the Sentencing Council—I shall concentrate my remarks on changes to the service justice system. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my interest centres on concurrence between the two systems. I take the view that if an offence is committed by a member of the armed forces in the UK, and that offence is not directly linked to military conduct or the maintenance of good order and discipline, the defendant, witnesses and victims should be afforded the same broad principles and rights of justice as if the offence had been committed by a civilian. I am pleased to see that there are several clauses in the Bill that aim to achieve exactly that, as a result of the implementation of recommendations from the review by His Honour Judge Lyons. Notably, these include allowing more junior ranks to sit on a court martial board and permitting only one dissenting voice majority decisions at courts martial rather than the current system, which requires just a simple majority. I am also very pleased to see the introduction of a power to rectify mistakes, which reflects the system in the civilian criminal justice system.
One area that gives me cause for concern, however, is the rejection of Judge Lyons’s first recommendation, which was that unless the Attorney General decides otherwise, the offences of murder, manslaughter and rape should be investigated and prosecuted in the civilian system, not investigated by the service police and prosecuted at court martial. These, after all, represent the most serious offences, and it is imperative that they should be handled in a way that will ensure confidence from all participants in the justice process, especially victims as well as the general public.
Those offences were not subject to the service justice system prior to 2006, so following the Lyons recommendation would not undermine a long-standing precedent. Indeed, Judge Lyons’s report states that in many other countries, such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada, offences that are so serious in nature are dealt with in the civilian system unless an exemption is granted by the Director of Public Prosecutions in the case of Australia or the Attorney-General in the case of New Zealand. The intention in the Bill is instead to require the Director of Service Prosecutions and the Director of Public Prosecutions to agree a protocol to determine whether civilian or service jurisdiction apply in cases of murder, manslaughter and rape. I would therefore be grateful if the Minister expanded on the principles that will guide this protocol.
I am absolutely sure that, like me, the Minister wishes justice to be done and to be seen to be done when serious offences are committed, on those rare occasions, by service personnel in the UK. I feel confident that the added information I seek will provide crucial reassurance that will further strengthen this excellent Bill.
I am rightly proud of the UK’s armed forces, which are respected around the world for their professionalism and their expertise. Although my own experience is limited to being a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I am proud to say that my nephew is a serving soldier.
That professionalism has been seen once again in this past year, from battling floods across the UK and collapsing dams in Yorkshire to the health pandemic, bringing the forces’ expertise in logistics and capacity to support the Government. With the evidence of the value of those forces so fresh in our minds, it seems obvious for the Government to use this moment to make a clear and meaningful statement to improve the day-to-day lives of our forces personnel, our veterans and their families. That is what Labour believes, and what I believe.
Something is clearly not working. Having met several veterans in my constituency of Warwick and Leamington, I can vouch for the challenges that they face. For example, soldier C came to me in 2018, in a surgery visit. His eyes betrayed his traumatic situation. I want to focus on some of the issues that came to light in that conversation with soldier C and in others. Although the covenant will provide some focus on healthcare, housing and education, it could go much further.
As charities such as the Royal British Legion have highlighted—and as we in the Labour party believe—the fact that the covenant contains little to address important issues such as employment demonstrates that the Bill is too narrow. If the Government are serious about improving the level of service for members of the armed forces community, they need to address substandard housing, veterans’ mental health and social care. The promises made in the covenant often do not match the reality experienced by our service communities.
Let me start with housing. I have seen with my own eyes, and heard about at first hand, the dreadful state of accommodation on visits to MOD sites with the armed forces parliamentary scheme. Of course, there is little choice for most personnel on our bases; it is not like they can head off and lodge somewhere else if it is not up to scratch.
Just last week, the National Audit Office released a report concluding that thousands of armed forces personnel are living in substandard accommodation. Some 80,000 people are occupying single living accommodation blocks —that is half the armed forces—and, of those, the National Audit Office found that more than a third, or 36%, were living in poorer-grade accommodation, while almost 2,400 were in housing considered to be of such bad quality that they were not even charged any rent.
The report said that the Ministry of Defence was failing in its commitment to provide high-quality subsidised housing, with a £1.5 billion backlog of repairs, following decades of underinvestment. The failure of the Government to provide sufficient housing for veterans—as we saw in the case of soldier C—is underlined by the Royal British Legion statistics showing that between 3% and 6% of homeless people have an armed forces background. This Government talk the talk, but do not walk the walk.
When it comes to mental health, recent King’s College London and Forces in Mind Trust research found that veterans are at greater risk of mental health disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol misuse when compared with the general population. Yet a Defence Committee report reveals that less than 0.007% of the annual NHS budget is spent on mental health services specifically for veterans, despite the traumatic experiences they have suffered. Among the difficulties reported by veterans to the Royal British Legion’s survey was the failure of benefits officials to understand post-traumatic stress disorder when carrying out and scoring health assessments for disability benefits. Also, of course, it is so hard for veterans to find work in civvy street.
The Bill goes some way to address the issues facing our forces through the covenant, but so much more could have been done. Let us not forget that the armed forces are there to defend the realm and to keep us secure, and that many—as we commemorate every November—have made the ultimate sacrifice. We should safeguard them and provide for them as we would wish to be provided for.
I am delighted to have been called to speak in this debate. Approving the continuation of the armed forces is one of our solemn duties in this House. They allow us as a country to sleep soundly at night, in the knowledge that a world-class organisation stands ready to defend us and our allies 24/7. In the past 12 months, we have seen the incredible reliance we have on the armed forces here in the UK, too. Without their expertise and manpower, we would not be where we are today in the fight against covid-19 and in the roll-out of the vaccine.
This legislation does not only renew our armed forces for another five years; it goes much further. It delivers on another manifesto promise to back our veterans and our active personnel properly. We have already established the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, ably led by the Minister. We introduced the railcard for veterans. We introduced legislation to end vexatious claims against our serving and former personnel. Through this legislation, we will enshrine the military covenant further into law. I thank Ministers and the Secretary of State for all their work to protect our armed forces.
The reason we need this legislation is that the support provided to veterans by local authorities is inconsistent at best. Although it might be excellent in some towns and cities, particularly those with long and deep histories of armed forces garrisons, in other areas it is lacking. The Bill will help to fix that gap by finally putting into law the obligation that authorities have to ensure that, on housing, education and healthcare, we stand by those who served our country. In doing this, let us encourage local authorities and public bodies to think about how the ecosystem of support that exists can be better integrated. Hundreds of charities and community groups do incredible work in all these areas. The Bill should be the catalyst we need to bring all that together and, rather than replacing activity, co-ordinate and enhance it, with the public, private and third sectors all working together for our former and current members of the armed forces. There are still too many instances of public bodies, local authorities and charities competing for funding, which means that they do not always work together even where that is in the best interests of veterans.
I believe that every area should have an armed forces champion, but if we cannot mandate that, let us give guidance on it and best practice, because even in those areas where that role exists, it is not always what we need it to be. It can be someone who shows the leadership needed to pull all the services together and act as a central point of contact. We should all be incredibly proud of this legislation, which demonstrates our enduring commitment to the armed forces and the whole family.
It is an honour to speak in the debate. Many in the House will know that I have a great deal of respect for our armed services personnel, who have put themselves in harm’s way and made the ultimate sacrifice to protect all of us here the UK. We owe them so much. As the Member for Coventry North West, I am proud to have several army reserve centres in my constituency including at Westfield House on Radford Road with the Signal Regiment and the Corps of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers to name a few. I am here because I stand behind our armed forces in totality. I recognise their ongoing efforts to make our country safe, and today I want to pay tribute to them in particular for the frontline work they have undertaken to help us during the pandemic.
The Bill is a good start, and I welcome it, but the work is far from over. To truly honour our service personnel, we must build on it. Not to do so would be a disservice to our armed forces personnel, veterans and their families. The armed forces covenant presents a binding moral commitment between the Government and the service community to ensure that men and women and their families get the respect and fair treatment they have earned through their service to our country. It is imperative that the Government deliver on the covenant in full, but the Bill as it stands is a bark without a bite. The Government cannot talk up commitments to our service personnel and not provide concrete action to match it. As it stands, we are already letting them down with substandard housing and a lack of service provision for mental health and social care. The Bill provides the perfect opportunity for us to do more.
The Government state in the Bill that public bodies should give “due regard” to the principles of the covenant, but that is too ambiguous. If the Bill is passed with such ambiguous language, there is a real threat that our service personnel will not see positive change in their day-to-day life. It will be business as usual, and we will continue to see things such as a high homelessness rate among our veterans.
The Bill places a legal responsibility on local authorities to deliver on the covenant in housing, healthcare and education without providing them with any additional funding to do so. If the Government intend to outsource responsibility for delivering on the covenant for our armed forces, I hope they will provide local authorities with the funding needed to make that a reality.
Our servicemen and women—those currently serving—and veterans deserve better, and so do their families. I want to see our armed forces, veterans and their families fully supported, but there are still too many barriers that stop them from accessing key service and support. The Government need to do more by our service personnel, and the one way they can do so is by going further in the Bill and delivering the armed forces covenant in full.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. First, may I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Stuart Anderson) for his incredibly brave speech?
This Bill enables our exceptional armed forces to exist and delivers our manifesto commitment and the vision of my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence People and Veterans. It is a testament to his commitment to the armed forces and veterans, using this as an opportunity to enshrine the armed forces covenant in law.
While our brave men and women are supported in their service around the globe, that has not always been the case back at home. They have often had to join the back of the queue. Thankfully, that wrong will, in part, be righted by the Bill. Sadly, in recent days I have heard from a number of veterans in Darlington who have in the past failed to receive adequate access to local services upon their discharge. They have felt forgotten, their needs not understood. One of my constituents, who left the services in 2007, having served in Iraq and Northern Ireland, put it to me:
“The armed forces spend months and thousands of pounds turning civilians into soldiers. However, once leaving, it’s a quick handshake and off you pop.”
In preparing for tonight’s debate, I took the opportunity to discuss the Bill with my former colleague in legal practice, Michael Menzies-Baird, or Mingus to his pals. Mingus served as a soldier in Northern Ireland, defusing bombs, before retraining to become a litigation solicitor. He now gives up his free time to serve SSAFA, the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association. Mingus said to me:
“Enshrining the armed forces covenant in law is solely about fairness. The armed forces are sent worldwide whenever the nation requires us to serve, to give everything, putting our lives on the line to protect the UK. I was very lucky, but many of my colleagues have either not returned, done so with disabilities or suffer with PTSD having witnessed the horrors of war. They just want to be treated fairly and to have their efforts recognised—a little helping hand, rather than being ignored, which it has felt they have been for many, many years.”
I have also met Councillor Brian Jones, Darlington’s armed forces ambassador. He warmly welcomes the obligations that will be placed on local authorities. As he said, it is to do the right thing.
The Bill is welcomed by the armed forces community in Darlington precisely because it enshrines the armed forces covenant in law, ensuring protection and fair treatment for our armed forces community and imposing a legal duty on UK public bodies and local authorities to have due regard to the principles of the covenant, ensuring that armed forces personnel, veterans and their families are not disadvantaged because of or by their service when accessing key public services.
This Bill builds on the Government’s investment in the welfare of our armed forces and honours our manifesto pledge. I look forward to supporting the Bill this evening and continuing our commitment to those who serve as we work to protect those who have put their lives on the line to protect us.
Thank you, Peter. You took less than four minutes. Everybody remaining on the call list is a Government Member. While we will keep the time limit at four minutes, if Members are able to speak for less than four minutes, they will be helping those lower down the call list. I call Andrew Bowie.
There is a challenge I hope to meet, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is not often that the professionalism and adaptability of our men and women of the armed forces are witnessed up close by the British people. Occasionally we see our armed forces step in to support communities suffering natural disasters. For example, I remember from my youth the Green Goddesses being deployed during the 2002 fire service strike. Thankfully, however, in our country the occasions when we see armed service personnel deployed on our streets are few and far between. Far more often, the skills and determination of our soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen are seen overseas.
This year has been very different. Since this awful pandemic hit Britain, we have seen the very best of the Royal Navy, the British Army and the Royal Air Force here at home. The enemy may not be the traditional kind; we are not asking our troops to face foreign combatants. Nevertheless, it is an enemy that we must defeat, and that is why it is right that the skills of our armed forces are at the forefront of this battle.
As of 5 February 2021, some 5,000 military personnel were committed to assist with 69 open requests for covid-19 military aid to civilian authorities. Around 14,000 personnel are on standby as part of the winter preparedness package. Here in Scotland, we have seen 115 military personnel, including soldiers from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, help to set up and operate vaccination centres, including just down the road from where I am speaking, where they have worked with the amazing people at NHS Grampian to deliver a vaccination centre at the P&J Live arena in Aberdeen. From assisting in planning with the devolved Administrations to supporting our NHS on the ground and running testing centres, our armed forces are the tip of the spear of our attack on coronavirus. When we beat it, as we will, it will be in no small part due to the professionalism and dedication of our men and women in uniform.
Our armed forces have done all that while continuing to defend and protect the British interest and that of our allies in Afghanistan, the Baltics, Belize, Brunei, Canada, Cyprus, the Falklands, Iceland, Germany, Gibraltar, Iraq, Mali, Somalia, the Red sea, the Gulf, the south Atlantic and the Antarctic, and across the north Atlantic and Mediterranean, while maintaining our continuous at-sea deterrent for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, every year since 1965, with the RAF now monitoring space. That is why it is apt that the debate on this Bill is scheduled for today and in this year. The Bill’s primary purpose is to renew the Armed Forces Act 2006, update and improve the service justice system and, importantly, deliver the Government’s commitment to enshrine the armed forces covenant in law.
I am proud to represent Aberdeenshire: last year, my local authority, Aberdeenshire Council, was awarded the Ministry of Defence employer recognition scheme gold award. Much of the work was driven by Aberdeenshire veterans champion, Conservative councillor and deputy provost Ron McKail, himself a veteran.
On reserves, briefly, I welcome the new continuous service commitment, which will enable members of the reserve forces to volunteer to undertake a period of full-time or part-time service. That is a positive step, but in welcoming this Government support for our reserve forces I must raise the concerns of those in my constituency who currently serve in the Royal Naval Reserve, who saw the service suspended at the tail end of last year. Drill nights, training weekends and two-week training has been paused and those serving feel let down, with some in my constituency describing the decision as a real kick in the teeth. We must support our reserves properly and ensure that those serving know that they are full, valued members of our armed forces family and are not easily pushed aside, as many feel they have been at this time. I look forward to April, when the pause will end, and hope it never happens again.
The debate on the issues covered in the Bill will go on in Committee and beyond, but it is right that tonight the House seems to be coming together and that we acknowledge and understand that, as the covenant says, those who serve or have served in the armed forces, and their families, should be treated with fairness and respect in the communities, economy and society that they serve with their lives.
I speak on this important Bill as the daughter of a veteran, the founder of a charity that supports vulnerable veterans, and an early signatory of the armed forces covenant. I want to concentrate on the covenant element.
My late father Eric served in the Royal Artillery in world war two. When war broke out he was 17, a young man from Birmingham who had never travelled beyond the midlands. He saw active service in Iraq and Sicily before landing on Gold beach on D-day, crossing northern France and being part of the liberation of Brussels. My father was only 23 when the war ended, yet it defined him for the rest of his life.
Nowadays, we recognise the mental health challenges of those who have experienced trauma on the frontline and understand the difficulties faced by some in making the transition to civvy street. The armed forces covenant recognises that those who serve in the armed forces, whether regular or reserve, and those who have served in the past, and their families, should face no disadvantage compared with other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services. Such core principles go to the very heart of our values in Stoke-on-Trent: our recognition of, gratitude for and respect for our veterans runs through our veins.
I am sure the Minister will want to join me in congratulating Stoke City football club on its outstanding achievement as the first English football club to be awarded gold in the employer recognition scheme. In 2019, the club hosted a regional employer conference to promote the covenant and encourage small businesses to sign up. Many businesses in Stoke-on-Trent have stepped up to support our veterans, and 15 have been awarded the gold, silver or bronze award in the national employer recognition scheme.
The Bill will ensure that local authorities such as Stoke-on-Trent City Council now have a statutory responsibility to underpin their voluntary covenant commitment, but a big problem remains: we simply do not know how many veterans there are in our area. As a result, many may be unintentionally disadvantaged. Of the 1,900 people currently on the housing register in Stoke-on-Trent, just eight are known to be veterans, yet SSAFA estimates that approximately 47,000 veterans live in Staffordshire. The absence of this information might mean that access to funding from veterans charities for adaptations to properties for veterans with disabilities is denied. I therefore welcome the commitment from the Minister for Defence People and Veterans to improving the data available on veterans, as well as the Government’s £300-million investment in the development of an enhanced veterans portal. However, in the meantime we must encourage veterans to identify themselves to local authorities, particularly during next year’s national census.
In conclusion, for my father’s generation, the shared experience of a world war meant a shared understanding of service to our country. Now, a new understanding is vital to support those who are struggling. That is why I welcome the covenant commitment in this legislation and the ongoing work to strengthen the support network for our military family.
In many countries, across four continents, I have had the rare privilege of living and working alongside United Kingdom servicemen and women, who serve not only Queen and country, and our hard interests, but British values and humanity. Our forces, and the men and women who compose them, are our nation’s finest asset.
Ever since the Bill of Rights in 1688, Acts of Parliament have provided the necessary provisions for the armed forces to exist as a disciplined force. The Armed Forces Bill in 2021 provides a continuation of the Armed Forces Act 2006, establishing the legal basis for the armed forces to operate as a disciplined body. Not only does the Bill guarantee a legal basis for the armed forces, but it introduces vital reform to strengthen the basis of the armed forces covenant. By doing so, we can ensure that those who currently serve or have served and their families are treated with the respect and fairness they deserve.
By implementing some of the key recommendations of the service justice system review conducted by His Honour Judge Lyons, the Bill strengthens the armed forces covenant. Such provisions include providing the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales with the power to nominate a circuit judge to sit as a judge advocate, following a request by the Judge Advocate General, and creating a new regime for complaints against the service police, through the creation of the Service Police Complaints Commissioner, ensuring oversight of the service police forces. Changes to the service complaints appeals system are also included. Personnel are provided with a clear route to justice wherever they are operating, whether that is through reducing the minimum time for complainants to lodge appeals or applying to the service police complaints ombudsman.
Putting into law the armed forces covenant will ensure that all armed forces personnel and veterans are treated with the fairness and respect that they deserve by other public bodies, whether for healthcare, housing or education. Enshrining the covenant in law bolsters the initiatives that have already been introduced to support veterans. For the 4,200 veterans who live in Wakefield, this Bill will help to eliminate any disadvantages or discrimination they may face in accessing public services.
Labour’s post-war track record on the armed forces is evidence that it cannot be trusted to champion our veterans, defend our national security and safeguard UK interests. This Bill proves yet again that the Conservatives prioritise the rights of our veterans and service personnel. I want to thank the Secretary of State for Defence and his entire team for all the work they have undertaken and to recognise the great efforts that they continue to take in promoting the rights of our veteran community. It is a record to be proud of and one that, through this Government’s actions, demonstrates the Conservatives’ entirely authentic, truly genuine affection and gratitude for all our service personnel, past, present and future.
I am very glad of this opportunity to acknowledge my gratitude and respect for our armed forces for all they do for peace and democracy and British interests abroad and our security and wellbeing at home, particularly during the past year, when they have played such a vital role, often behind the scenes, in the fight against covid. I particularly honour the troops stationed at Tidworth, Bulford and the other bases in my constituency. Despite what it says on the gates of Aldershot, Salisbury plain is the true home of the British Army, and I am proud to represent it.
Listening to the debate this evening, it has been good to see the House so united, and that is right. The Minister referred at the outset to the foundation of our modern parliamentary democracy in 1688, which is also the foundation of the British Army, which only exists because this House votes for it every five years. The subjection of the armed forces to Parliament is the foundation of a free society. It is what makes the Army a force for good. If we consider recent events in Myanmar, we appreciate the value of that.
If through these Acts every five years Parliament gives the Army its life, we also owe it our duty, so I am proud to support the quinquennial Armed Forces Bill, which, uniquely among its many predecessors, brings the armed forces covenant not just into statute, but into the operations of the British state at the most local level, because the personnel of our armed forces live, like everyone else, in local communities.
Here I acknowledge the work of Wiltshire Council in recent years. The county council was one of the first councils, if not the first, to sign the armed forces covenant. That was not just because of the historic presence of the British Army on Salisbury plain, but because 4,000 soldiers and their families have come home to the UK from Germany over the past 10 years, all needing housing and healthcare, education for their children, civilian jobs for partners and communities for everyone. The military’s civilian integration programme, led by the MOD and Wiltshire Council, has been a great success. I particularly welcome the work that Councillor Chris Williams, our armed forces champion in Wiltshire, has done and the wonderful new civic centre that is opening in Tidworth.
Everyone I have spoken to on both sides of the civilian-military divide has confirmed that the programme has been a great success. Perhaps the best indicator of that is that the divide between the military and the civilian is not so huge as in former days. The famous phrase “behind the wire”, and the fact that soldiers lived literally fenced off from the community they were situated in, has less and less meaning in Wiltshire.
I welcome this Bill and hope it continues the excellent work I see locally, but I echo the point that my neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), made about the enforcement of the covenant under the new rules. I do not believe we need extra enforcement in Wiltshire, but there may be places that do. It would be good to understand how the covenant will be enforced.
I end with a word on the justice elements of the Bill. I believe our Army is the best in the world, but as many soldiers have told me, being the best means behaving the best. No one wants soldiers to have carte blanche in foreign conflicts, and no one wants the Army to be a law unto itself at home. I welcome the strengthening of the Army justice system. The Bill will ensure that our armed forces remain morally as well as operationally secure—secure in our constitution and subject to Parliament, but also secure in the higher jurisdiction of right and wrong—and that we can continue to have an armed forces of which we can be proud.
Bury is the proud home of the Lancashire Fusiliers. We are a military town, but in recent years, there has been an acceptance that our responsibilities to local armed forces personnel under the Bury armed forces covenant—signed in 2014 by our local council—have waned, and that is simply not acceptable. A review of the Bury covenant was announced in June last year and is now taking place for that very reason. I therefore welcome clause 8 and will confine my remarks to that important provision.
Clause 8 creates a duty on principles that specified persons or bodies must have regard to when exercising certain housing, education or healthcare provision. It is a welcome attempt by the Government to ensure positive support and outcomes for our veterans. We all agree that they must never be disadvantaged, but if local councils and service providers do not live up to these duties and principles, I am concerned about the action that can be taken at a local level to guarantee that veterans receive the support that clause 8 envisages.
We must also be ambitious in how we are to deliver improved and better services for our armed forces personnel. Words are not enough. We must ensure joint partnership working between veterans associations, volunteers, all those who provide support for veterans—including through breakfast clubs, veterans cafés and many other forms of support—local councils and clinical commissioning groups.
In Lancashire and Greater Manchester, where I am an MP, I have had the opportunity to see how good practice works, and how the delivery of services to multi-purpose armed forces hubs has fantastic outcomes for veterans from all backgrounds. I point briefly to two examples: the Wigan Borough Armed Forces Community HQ hub and Healthier Heroes CIC in Burnley. Both facilities provide a wide range of support services and social activities for veterans. Wigan has even started building its own housing stock for local veterans.
Having visited both facilities, I know that full-time mental health support is fundamental to the wellbeing of many veterans. We must find innovative ways of delivering these services and funding such fantastic provision. I have spoken many times to the Minister for Defence People and Veterans and I welcome the funding that he champions, including through the armed forces covenant fund, to support local authorities and groups that are ambitious to deliver the best outcomes for their local armed forces personnel.
This is a fantastic Bill that builds not only on our manifesto commitment, but on the deep affection that we all have for those who give so much for our country. I will work tirelessly with others in my constituency to deliver the armed forces hub that will benefit all veterans who have given so much to our country and who are proud to live in Bury, Ramsbottom and Tottington. We are truly an area which values our armed forces personnel. I will work with everyone to ensure that we have the services, outcomes and facilities that they deserve.
I have often spoken—both in and out of the Chamber—of the patriotic nature of my constituents in Dudley North. Their gratitude, and mine, was particularly evident in November last year during our fundraising drive for the poppy appeal. Our armed forces do so much, not just to keep us safe in, and from, conflict, but by delivering vital community support in peacetime. I thank them. I pay tribute to the veterans and those who are still in active service from my constituency here in Dudley North. In times of crisis, those who step forward to risk their lives to protect others are heroes, but in their heroism they often sacrifice the most suffering, bereavement and injury.
I am very pleased that the armed forces covenant is being enshrined in law. It is essential that we ensure that all armed forces personnel, veterans and their families are treated fairly. Despite the great respect and admiration that so many of us have for our armed forces, there is too often a lack of understanding of the intricacies of the unique obligations and sacrifices made by service personnel and their families. Whether it is the struggle to find housing, to access healthcare or to ensure that their children receive consistent and continuous education when they may face disruption from moving between bases, veterans need and deserve all the support that we can give them.
I am a very outcome-focused person. When I chaired an armed forces covenant committee in recent times, I could see many good intentions from local councils, health trusts, housing providers and so many more, but translating those good intentions into the practical differences they could make to that veteran sleeping under a bridge because he or she could not face what we regard as normal life is a very different thing. We have heard very movingly tonight from my colleague and near neighbour, my hon. and brave Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Stuart Anderson). Support needs to be over-arching and proactive. Typically, our traumatised veterans do not ask for help and, if they wanted to, it would not be that obvious to them where they could find it, so we need to do more; we must do more.
The Bill increases awareness among public bodies of the unique nature of military service, improving the level of service for members of the armed forces community no matter where in the UK they live. I look forward to seeing it implemented in every possible practical way and as soon as possible.
May I start by paying tribute to Members of this House who have contributed to this debate this evening who have served in Her Majesty’s armed forces? I am extremely grateful to every single one of them, and I extend those thanks to every citizen of this nation who has given their service to Queen and country.
I welcome this Bill very much, and I would particularly like to commend the Secretary of State and the Minister for the hard work they have put in to make this happen. How pleased I am that this is a Bill that is unifying across this House in support of our armed forces.
As the Member for West Dorset, it is important for me to note in this Chamber tonight that one in seven people in Dorset has a connection to the armed forces. The progress, therefore, with the armed forces covenant is very important to me and it is very important to the constituents in West Dorset. I am very grateful to the Minister for the progress he is making in that area.
Dorset has a considerable military presence. We have 6,500 serving members in the surrounding military bases: whether that is Blandford Camp, Bovington Camp, RNAS Yeovilton or the Royal Marines base in Poole, Dorset is particularly well served by forces. But it is also important to note that, while West Dorset is the home to many serving and retired members of the armed forces, we play a very important role as well for those who are looking to progress their career in the Army, the Navy, the Air Force or the Marines. At Kingston Maurward College on the outskirts of Dorchester, our county town, there are many students who are preparing for their career in the armed forces with military preparation diplomas.
In Dorset County Hospital in the county town of Dorchester, we have 30 Royal Marines coming to support our doctors, nurses, our support staff, our porters and so on to make sure we can really make progress in this coronavirus pandemic at this time.
It is also very proud for me to be able to articulate, briefly, the very proud history that we have in Dorset with the Dorsetshire Regiment, dating all the way back to 1751, and its successor regiments: the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment and, indeed, today The Rifles; we celebrated its 14th anniversary of inauguration just a week or so ago.
But it is important for me tonight to make very clear that this debate and this Bill are about actions rather than words. For far too long, we have heard warm words rather than actions. I see it. I even see it this last week, when a priest from the Church of England, in the diocese of London, the Rev. Jarel Robinson-Brown, said that the celebration of Sir Tom Moore’s life is an act of white cult nationalism. That is fundamentally shocking and it should be called out, and each and every one of us in this place has a role to make sure that happens. Indeed, when we see action such as Extinction Rebellion’s act on Armistice Day this year to put a protest on the Cenotaph, it is absolutely shocking. I hope I can call on every single Member of this House to ensure that those actions do speak louder than words.
To conclude, I feel it is my duty and it is the duty of all of us in this House to represent our constituents in supporting Her Majesty’s armed forces. I, indeed all of us, have sworn an oath of allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen, alongside members of the armed forces, and it is with great pleasure and pride tonight that I support this Bill.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder). I was down at Bovington not that long ago with the armed forces parliamentary scheme and my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Antony Higginbotham). My hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset and I share a separate connection too: both Dorset and County Durham are Rifles recruiting grounds. I associate myself with his comments regarding the sad death of Captain Sir Tom Moore.
I am delighted to speak today. It is so important that we recognise what an important role our armed forces play in our country. As a former special adviser in the Ministry of Defence, I witnessed the actions that they take—overt and sometimes covert—on our behalf across the globe, and at home in their support to the civil authorities in dealing with coronavirus and various other issues.
I am particularly delighted that the Bill delivers on our manifesto pledge, ensuring protection for our armed forces and putting responsibility on public bodies at the heart of what we are doing. It is great to see the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), on the Front Bench. I know that he has campaigned for this for so long. Other hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Bracknell (James Sunderland) and for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), spoke very well today, but I think the whole House recognises the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Stuart Anderson), who made a superb speech.
Turning to the contents of the Bill, I am particularly glad to see clause 8, which moves towards enshrining the armed forces covenant in law. It is also superb to see clause 9, with the flexibility around commitments for our reserve personnel. More broadly, schedule 1 and clauses 2, 3, 5 and 6 help to deliver better justice in the armed forces for our serving personnel.
My constituents in North West Durham are more than patriotic, but it is not a jingoistic patriotism. It is much deeper than that; it is much more personal. As I mentioned, my constituency is a major recruiting ground for the Rifles, formerly the Durham Light Infantry, and for the Royal Marines.
I was delighted on the 14th anniversary of the Rifles to speak to Major General Charlie Collins, who is currently the commander of 1st Division and commanded British forces abroad not long ago. He emphasised to me the importance of our armed forces’ regional connections. In County Durham, we have seen in recent years the sad loss of the DLI museum. I really hope that we can get it a new home as soon as possible, because it is such a key part of recognising the deep personal relationship that so many people across County Durham have with our armed forces.
Finally, I would like to speak up on behalf of the professionalism and dedication of those who put their lives on the line for us. I have met several families with young people going through basic training at the moment. It really is amazing to see how those young people develop so quickly in our armed forces. I want to put on record the thanks of all my constituents to them for what they do. They are there for us. They are the hard edge of Britain’s global power. They deserve our respect, they deserve our support, and they deserve a Government behind them every step of the way. I am glad to hear that the Bill goes some way further to delivering on that.
In Wantage and Didcot, I represent a constituency with a strong tradition of admiration for our armed services but also of service in them, including by some of my predecessors, one of whom was Airey Neave, who had a proud record of service in world war two. His immediate predecessor was Ralph Glyn, who fought in the first world war and was given a Military Cross. We have the Defence Academy at Shrivenham, and we have the 11 EOD & Search Regiment in Didcot. However, my admiration for the services came long before I became an MP. My dad served in the British Army for 18 years, and that left me with a close interest in what we do and how we treat our armed men and women.
The Bill has a lot in it to welcome. I have spoken to quite a number of people from the veteran community in my constituency, as well as to some serving personnel, and there is a lot that they welcome too, from the new Service Police Complaints Commissioner to allowing reserve forces to serve flexibly in the way that regular forces do. I heard particular praise for allowing the rescinding of judgments made in error; one person made the point to me that, particularly where judgments are done very quickly, mistakes can be made, and they thought that was a very welcome provision of the Bill. The extension of the posthumous pardons, often for crimes that should never have been crimes, provides at least some small relief to the family members who are still alive.
The armed forces covenant runs throughout the Bill, of course, and I welcome the “due regard” that will be paid in the areas of housing, health and education. The people I talked to suggested that those were the three areas where they most commonly saw complaints—either their own or those of colleagues. I hope that in time we will be able to extend it to other areas, and perhaps employment is one of the areas that has the strongest case.
I also think it would be good for us to extend this to national Government Departments in time. What we are doing with local authorities is very welcome, and I recognise that health, education and housing are in keeping with the Armed Forces Act 2011, but my general view on a lot of things that go on in the UK is that national Government Departments could and should lead by example. I recognise that there are challenges with that at this time, but I hope we can aspire to that in due course.
Overall, this is a very welcome Bill that builds on everything this Government have been doing, from the guaranteed interview scheme to the veteran’s railcard to the Office for Veterans’ Affairs. None of us, unless they are a gallant Member of this House, has made the sacrifices that our armed forces do. Many of those sacrifices are out of sight of most of us, but they should not be out of mind, and with this Bill today we take an important step towards recognising that and giving them the respect and care they deserve.
It is an honour to speak in this debate and to follow so many distinguished contributions from so many hon. Members who have known service, either themselves or through their families, and in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Stuart Anderson), who gave us a speech that was brave, honest and full of integrity. He did not spare himself and he did not spare this House, and the whole House is much richer for his presence in it and his contribution here today.
This is a very good Bill that will be welcomed by my constituents in Newcastle-under-Lyme, and I am glad it has cross-party support. It renews the mandate for our armed forces, and I cannot be the only hon. Member somewhat awed by the fact that we are here today with a Bill that is necessary because of an Act that was passed in this place one third of a millennium ago, in 1689. The Bill of Rights is fundamental to our constitution and that of so many countries around the world, and this is a useful reminder of the supremacy of Parliament and where we have come from.
This Bill makes improvements to the service justice system, with a new independent mode of redress, and offers more support for reservists. However, like many colleagues, I want to focus on the armed forces covenant in this, its 10th anniversary year, and on clause 8 in particular. Members of the armed forces and their families simply must not be disadvantaged, particularly in the areas we are talking about today: healthcare, education and housing.
I recall that every time I went to visit my cousins when I was growing up, they seemed to be living somewhere else, all over the country, because their father was in the RAF. Now my sister and her husband are both serving in the senior service—they are both commanders in the Navy. There is a real burden for service families. Servicemen and women put their lives on the line, but I know how difficult service life is for their families too—having to re-establish themselves frequently, maybe every couple of years, in a new place, with a new school and new friends. We owe it to them to get this sort of thing right.
I also welcome the fact that the covenant covers veterans. We have many veterans’ organisations in Newcastle-under-Lyme, and I highlight 58 Signal Squadron Association and the Tri Services and Veterans Support Centre, which works with SSAFA to support veterans who may have fallen on harder times. I have met them, and they have been doing great work throughout covid.
As I come towards the end of my shortened speech, speaking about veterans brings me nicely on to Captain Sir Tom Moore. Over 75 years ago, he served our nation with his service in India and Burma during the second world war, as part of that greatest generation, and then he served our nation again last year. Veterans such as him are truly the very best of British; I am proud to support them, to support servicemen and women and their families, to support the Government and to support this Bill.
I want to start by echoing the contributions from across the House that have recognised and honoured the commitment and service of our armed forces, and it has been a really good-spirited debate this evening.
Labour stands firmly behind our service personnel. We are immensely proud of the role our world-renowned servicemen and women continue to play in making our country and our world safer, and we pay tribute to the local authorities, public bodies, service charities and voluntary organisations that support our forces across the United Kingdom; they are working hard to make the covenant a reality, as my hon. Friends the Members for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) and for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) said.
From peacekeeping missions in Mali to helping frontline services tackle the pandemic and vaccinating Britain, our forces continue to embody the values that British people most admire: courage, integrity, loyalty, discipline and service. While our forces will continue to evolve and modernise, they will always have our brave servicemen and women at their core.
My grandfather left Portsmouth—the constituency I now have the privilege to represent—turning just 17 on D-day, to take part in the Normandy landings. He is one of the reasons I am standing at this Dispatch Box today. He fought for peace and fairness, and he would later establish the Portsmouth Normandy Veterans Association, which provided support as he and others left service. For him and for all others who have served, we have a duty to make sure that this legislation provides the very best.
The Armed Forces Bill presents a real opportunity to make meaningful improvements in the day-to-day lives of our armed forces personnel and veterans and their families. There are welcome efforts to provide new flexibility for reservists, who continue to balance work and military training as the hidden heroes among us. But the central part of this legislation is an effort to enshrine the armed forces covenant into law. Labour welcomes those efforts and the intentions of the Bill, but while the Government like to talk up their commitment to our service communities, the Bill misses a crucial opportunity to deliver on the laudable promises made in the armed forces covenant. From substandard housing to veterans’ mental health and social care, the promises made in the covenant often do not match the reality experienced by our service communities.
I want to acknowledge the personal and passionate contribution of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Stuart Anderson) and the sense of abandonment he described. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) spoke about the need to guarantee services for those who have served, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) addressed ending the injustice faced by war widows, a point also raised by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson), and my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) rightly recognised the work of our personnel during the pandemic, yet the Government want to outsource responsibility for their support. I also want to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), a thorn in the Minister’s side, for reminding us of the great record of the last Labour Government in standing up for service people and veterans, and I look forward to his sharing his expertise and insight on the Select Committee. Finally, we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), who spoke passionately about support for Commonwealth veterans. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for his tireless campaigning on this important issue.
The covenant guarantees priority healthcare for those who have served, but service charities continue to point out the uneven nature of its application. We know that waiting times for mental health treatment have skyrocketed, and we know that service housing is in an appalling state and those transitioning out of the forces are increasingly struggling to find jobs, but the Bill does little to tackle these issues head-on. The proposals requiring public bodies to have due regard to the covenant are unlikely to make any real impact on the day-to-day lives of forces personnel.
Ministers have already let the cat out of the bag that they are not serious about delivering for our armed forces. Last week at Defence questions, the Minister for Defence People and Veterans said that
“the legislation is very clear that it does not specify outcomes, but simply ensures that a set of principles is adhered to.”—[Official Report, 1 February 2021; Vol. 688, c. 668.]
I invite the Minister to explain exactly how these principles and the ambiguous legalese of due regard would deliver practical action for our service personnel: the squaddie in poor-quality, single-living accommodation who is without the basics such as heating and hot water; the veteran struggling with their mental health who has to endure waiting times for treatment more than twice as long as Government targets; or the dispersed service family who struggle with the cost of childcare and getting into work. Instead of lumping extra responsibilities on cash-strapped local authorities and other stretched public bodies, the Bill should set measurable, enforceable national standards for which central Government are accountable. Only then can we truly end the postcode lottery on the armed forces covenant.
Ministers say that they will be producing statutory guidance on how the new responsibilities should be delivered by public bodies. Given the importance that this guidance will have on the impact and delivery of this legislation, I urge Ministers to publish it during the passage of the Bill to allow for proper scrutiny.
Service charities such as the Royal British Legion have also expressed disappointment that the scope of the Bill is narrow. While the focus on housing, healthcare and education is welcome, this legislation should ensure that all areas of potential disadvantage are addressed. The Bill is silent on employment, for instance. We are all seeing joblessness among veterans rising above the national average, particularly among black, Asian and minority ethnic service personnel and those medically discharged. There are no specific commitments on forces’ pay, which has been below inflation for seven years running, leading to real terms cuts for our servicemen and women. It fails to seize the opportunities to make a long-overdue step change in the way that we approach the welfare of veterans and particularly the transition back into civilian life. It could finally take steps to improve coroners’ data collection, so that we can better understand and combat the tragedy of veteran suicide. It could tackle the ongoing challenges of access to benefits, but here as well it falls short. By setting a legal standard that is below the existing voluntary offers in some areas, the Government risk creating a two-tier covenant and a race to the bottom on services for our forces’ communities.
The threats of poor pay and conditions posed to recruitment and retention, and our overall defence capability were made clear this weekend, with leaked reports, suggesting that 32 of 33 infantry battalions are dangerously short of battle-ready personnel. The Government cannot simply outsource responsibility for delivering on the covenant with this performative show of support for our armed forces.
Let me now turn to proposals on the service justice system, because here again we find that this legislation fall short of what was promised. Labour welcomes the efforts to implement key recommendations in the Lyons review. We particularly welcome the creation of an independent Service Police Complaints Commissioner, which will ensure greater oversight and fairness in service justice cases, but it must urgently clarify why it has not adopted the Lyons’ recommendation of civilian courts having full jurisdiction over murder, rape and serious sexual offences committed in the UK. Civilian courts have a much better record of trying these cases.
Labour believes that the armed forces covenant represents a binding moral commitment between Government and service communities. The last Labour Government delivered the first cross-government strategy on welfare of armed forces personnel. That introduced the armed forces compensation scheme, doubled the welfare grant for families of those on operations, gave better access to housing schemes and healthcare, offered free access to further education for service leavers, and extended travel concessions for veterans and those seriously injured. The Tories have not only stalled this progress, but reversed it. Every time a member of service personnel is deployed overseas, every time a reservist signs up, and every time they deliver a covid test or vaccine, the promises in the covenant are renewed, but when I speak to service personnel, they often do not know what the covenant promises or how it can help them in their day-to-day lives. The Government’s ambition in this Bill should match the high standards our armed forces display in their service and demand of themselves. While we welcome the principle of this legislation in its current form, it is a missed opportunity to deliver on the laudable promises set out in the covenant. The Government must deliver on the covenant in full for every member of our armed forces, veterans and their families. Our country expects it and our troops deserve it.
Let me declare at the outset that I am president of the Scots Guards Association for veterans and have been for nearly 20 years.
I pay tribute to all Members who have spoken in this debate. Looking after our veterans and our armed forces does not belong to any one political party, nor to any one Member of Parliament. Reflecting on the contribution from the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan), one would easily be forgiven for thinking that serving personnel’s experience of the armed forces is that they all live in substandard accommodation, have an awful time and want to leave. One would also think that the veterans in this country are not enjoying successful careers, becoming incredibly employable, working hard, contributing to society and using their skills. Up and down this country, tens of thousands—nay, even hundreds of thousands—of people who have enjoyed service to this country, whether short or long, show those skills to all and sundry. They show their loyalty to their country, they show their patriotism, they show their ability to work, and they are incredibly employable.
For many people, the system works and they have a great time in the services. For many people, the best part of their lives—probably the best part of my life—was as a serving soldier in the armed forces. Was it perfect? No. Did I lose 30% of my sight? Yes. Did I find myself rushed to hospital being told that they would not save my sight? Yes. Did I feel slightly abandoned when afterwards, with a one-inch gash in my eyeball, I woke up alone in a hospital in west Belfast, and did not really know how to transition? Yes. But do I regret a minute of my service? No. Do I regret the skills it gave me? No. Do the hundreds of thousands of veterans in this country regret it? No.
It is true, however, that for a proportion of veterans and serving personnel, all is not well, and we all recognise in this House that we could always do more and do better. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) made the very important point that the journey never ends. The reason the journey never ends is that conflict never ends, and the nature of conflict never ends. The distance between society and the people who serve in the armed forces—fewer and fewer people—never ends. The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), who is a very thoughtful Member of this House who seeks the best for the armed forces, and, as a member of the Scottish National party, is always open to listening, understanding and exploring ideas, made the very real point that there are fewer and fewer serving personnel in society and the gap between the understanding of what they do and what others do is growing greater. We must address that.
This Bill is a good step in the right direction. It improves many of the things that in my day were not even really in existence. I served as a member of the armed forces under both a Conservative Government and a Labour Government. If we just consider the treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder—the transition and liaison service, the complex treatment service and the high-intensity service now delivered by the NHS for the mental welfare of our veterans—we can see that all that is much, much better; a step change from what it was.
This Bill takes another step forward—it goes further—because clause 8 puts the armed forces covenant into law. As the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) said, this has been a long journey. It started off with a charter, then a Green Paper, then it became a duty to report, and now this is a step forward whereby we will put a duty on a number of services to pay regard to the covenant.
The Bill is also a step forward in improving the assurances around investigations, which many Opposition Members said during the passage of the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill was something that is missing. It is about improving the quality and the independence of those investigations, alongside that of the prosecutions and the judiciary. It is about improving the training so that our soldiers—men and women of our armed forces—are never again in the position they were in in the early years of the Iraq war, where they were accused of war crimes when they thought they were simply doing what they were trained to do. That happened because the training had fallen far behind the development of the law and human rights legislation.
Many Members called for the Bill to go wider and deeper, and I will do my best to respond, given that nearly 60 colleagues spoke during the debate. The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) suggested a £500 thank you payment to our troops in the same way as was provided for NHS workers in Scotland. She also said that we could do more in health and education. The Scottish Parliament has those devolved powers, and there is nothing to stop the Government of Scotland tomorrow morning doing even more on a whole range of issues to support the covenant.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) pointed out the excellent report produced by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), “Living in our Shoes”—an extremely good piece of work. As Secretary of State for Defence, I have not only listened to and read the reports from my colleagues and from Select Committees on issues such as protecting veterans and legacy, but have made sure that the Department does not put those reports on the shelf and ignore them. I believe that many of our colleagues have some of the best ideas, and throughout the conduct of this Bill, I assure the House that the Government will be open to suggestions about how to improve it. Everyone in the Government will be interested in doing that, because we all have that interest at heart.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) and many others raised the issue of Northern Ireland veterans. I refer him to the written ministerial statement on 18 March by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and add that we are all keen to get the legacy over the line as well. My hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) gave us an insight into what it means to be a commanding officer, having to discipline soldiers and balance military discipline with the needs of the unit, sometimes on operations—that experience is unique. My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) referred to his experiences as a magistrate in the civilian world. I have sat on a court martial in the military world—before the reforms—but the military world and the civil world are different, so that is a unique experience.
The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire talked about why it is always the military that is called upon to do the resilience. The fundamental reason is how we are trained: it is the pressure, the different discipline and structure, and often the difference between life and death in operations. There is no need to always replicate that across society. It is a unique experience—a unique set of circumstances—because only we in the armed forces are called upon to kill or be killed. It is a unique thing, one that we often take with us for the rest of our lives, and that is why we provide resilience at pace in anything from a pandemic to flooding and snowstorms. That will always continue, because that is the very nature of why our armed forces are special, and we must make sure we protect that special nature. At the same time, we must modernise welfare and aftercare for our troops, but the military is different, and will always be different.
That is why when it comes to co-jurisdiction, there is the obvious difficulty around murder, manslaughter, rape and other offences, but there are many serious offences. There is attempted murder; there is grievous bodily harm; there is armed robbery. Why is it okay for those offences to remain in a service system, but it is recommended that three other offences be potentially removed into a civil system? It is perfectly legitimate to argue against the concept of service justice, although I would disagree, but if we accept that there is such a concept, where we draw the line has to balance the needs of the victim with those of the accused. That is why I think the solution we came up with, which was not the Lyons recommendation of Attorney General consent—which can happen behind closed doors—but consent based on an open and transparent protocol that will be decided between the Crown Prosecution Service and the service justice fraternity, was the right one.
I will just make one other point on this topic, because a number of colleagues make this mistake: the service justice system is independent. I do not appoint the judge advocate; I do not appoint the judges; I do not interfere with the police and the justice system, in the same way that the Home Secretary or the Lord Chancellor do. It is independent. People seem to think that it is all cosy because we are in the armed forces, and that we sit around and choose who to prosecute and who not to prosecute. We do not. Yes, the service justice system and the quality of investigations have been found wanting over many years. That is why we commissioned the Lyons report, and it is why Sir Richard Henriques has been commissioned to increase the assurance, because that is the best way to make sure we do not constantly get taken to court under article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and to ensure that people are not dragged through the courts. We will continue to do that.
The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) talked about the need for the 16-year-olds. In response to his question, I urge him to visit the Army Foundation College in Harrogate—I will happily make that possible.
All I will say in conclusion is that at their heart, our armed forces are about the people. Over the next few months, we will have debates about equipment, integrated reviews, and which service wins over which—which regiments do and do not—but in the end, if we do not invest in our people, we will not have anything for the future of our armed forces.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Armed Forces Bill (Programme)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Armed Forces Bill:
(1) The Bill shall be committed to a Select Committee.
(2) The Select Committee shall report the Bill to the House on or before 29 April 2021.
Committee of the whole House, Consideration and Third Reading
(3) On report from the Select Committee, the Bill shall be re-committed to a Committee of the whole House.
(4) Proceedings in Committee of the whole House on recommittal, any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings on Third Reading shall be taken in one day in accordance with the following provisions of this Order.
(5) Proceedings in Committee of the whole House and any proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which proceedings in Committee of the whole House are commenced.
(6) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.
(7) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings in Committee of the whole House, to any proceedings on Consideration or to proceedings on Third Reading.
(8) Any other proceedings on the Bill may be programmed.—(Rebecca Harris.)
Question agreed to.
Armed Forces Bill (Money)
Queen’s recommendation signified.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)),
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Armed Forces Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable under any other Act out of money so provided.—(Rebecca Harris.)
Question agreed to.
Armed Forces Bill (Carry-Over)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 80A(1)(a)),
That if, at the conclusion of this Session of Parliament, proceedings on the Armed Forces Bill have not been completed, they shall be resumed in the next Session.—(Rebecca Harris.)
Question agreed to.
Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 9(6)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill:
(1) The Committee shall have 16 members, to be nominated by the Committee of Selection.
(2) The Committee shall have power—
(a) to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, to adjourn from place to place and to report from day to day the minutes of evidence taken before it;
(b) to admit the public during the examination of witnesses and during consideration of the Bill (but not otherwise); and
(c) to appoint specialist advisers either to supply information not readily available or to elucidate matters of complexity relating to the provisions of the Bill.
(3) The Order of the House of 24 March 2020 (Select Committees (Participation and Reporting) (Temporary Order)) shall apply to the Committee as if it had the power to report from time to time.—(Rebecca Harris.)
Question agreed to.