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Armed Forces Bill: Special Report

Volume 692: debated on Thursday 22 April 2021

Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill

Select Committee statement

We now come to the Select Committee statement. James Sunderland will speak for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement and will call James Sunderland to respond to them in turn. I call the Chair of the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill.

Today, the Armed Forces Bill Select Committee publishes its special report on the new Armed Forces Bill. It is my privilege to present it to the House. Getting to this point has taken significant effort right across Westminster, so it is my duty to express my gratitude to several key stakeholders. I thank first the Backbench Business Committee for the opportunity to make this statement, and the Speaker’s Office and the Ministry of Defence for all their staff support and advice, notably on the content and scope of the Bill. I also thank the 16 right hon. and hon. Members of the Committee for their contribution, humour and hard work. We broke new ground as the first Committee of the House to conduct line-by-line scrutiny of a Bill by virtual means and worked intensively in the build-up to that before Easter and during recess to hear from many witnesses. I humbly thank them for putting their trust in me by electing a new MP as Chair. I am proud to represent the 2019 intake at this statement.

I know that I speak for all Members by expressing my gratitude to those who contributed to our inquiry. Their depth of knowledge and professionalism was inspiring. Last but not least, I thank the Committee staff and wider technical teams for their support in the past few months, which has proved invaluable through both virtual and hybrid working. I make no apology for mentioning Ms Yohanna Sallberg and in particular, the presiding Clerk, Mr Matthew Congreve, whose contribution and guidance at the age of 24 have been truly outstanding.

The report, published earlier today, is the key output of the ad hoc Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill. For those interested in the history, the requirement is a procedural anomaly harking back to the 1689 Bill of Rights. Every five years, a Bill must pass through Parliament thereby renewing the Armed Forces Act in statute and enabling the maintenance of standing forces in peacetime. Since 1961, the Bill has led to the creation of a unique hybrid Committee: technically a Select Committee with the power to summon witnesses and hear evidence, but also acting as a Public Bill Committee by scrutinising the legislation line by line. The Bill is not only essential to retaining and resourcing our armed forces but has come to serve as a checkpoint for what works and what is needed in statute.

The Committee was therefore appointed to scrutinise this important legislation. It has done so throughout the past few weeks, and it reported the Bill, unamended, back to the House last week. We inquired into specific areas of the Bill, focusing on the armed forces covenant, the service justice system and the service complaints system. We also explored additional areas, including diversity in the armed forces, healthcare and housing.

From the outset, the Committee welcomed the requirement to incorporate the armed forces covenant into law and noted that this change is important for service personnel, veterans and their families. We recognised some concerns on how the duty to have due regard to the covenant will work in practice, the current lack of prescribed outcomes for those entrusted with delivering it, and how the visions in the Bill apply to some areas of the covenant but not others. We also heard concerns about it only applying to some public bodies but not others. We therefore look forward to seeing the statutory guidance, which will be essential for informing public bodies of what is expected of them in applying the duty of due regard. We recommended that the Government conduct a review after two years on how this duty is operating in practice and that the annual report for the armed forces covenant should review its effectiveness and comment on future scope. We also recommended that the Defence Committee, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), should conduct post-legislative scrutiny.

On the service justice system, the Committee found that the Bill demonstrates a commitment to improving the system. This, combined with non-statutory measures being implemented following the Lyons review, should ensure that it has the confidence of those who are subject to it, and also the wider public. We therefore welcome the efforts to reform the service justice system but recognise that some concerns linger on concurrent jurisdiction. We recommended that the Ministry of Defence work quickly to introduce the defence serious crime capability and ensure that clear protocols are in place to allow effective co-operation with civilian police forces and to agree jurisdiction.

Turning to the service complaints system, we welcome the efforts to speed up the process provided that the necessary safeguards remain in place to ensure fair and equal access to all. We found that the current processes do attract criticism, particularly in tackling delays to resolve cases, and we remain cognisant of the heavy workload being placed on individual officers and staff. We also supported the findings of the Wigston review and advised that the Ministry of Defence implement all of its policy recommendations.

On our additional areas of scrutiny, the Committee heard encouraging evidence that the experience of armed forces personnel with protected characteristics has vastly improved, but recognise that there is still more to be done. We welcomed the former Minister for Defence People and Veterans, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), committing to

“find a mechanism of restorative justice” ––[Official Report, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, 31 March 2021; c. 94.]

for veterans dismissed due to their actual or perceived sexuality during the years of the ban on homosexuality in the armed forces. We asked that he report back to the House on progress within three months. We also support the important work of the Defence Sub-Committee on women in the armed forces, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton).

Furthermore, the Committee inquired into the provision of healthcare for veterans, particularly in mental health, and found it encouraging that the provision is getting better but recommended improvements in a number of areas and services. We sought to build on the important work of the Public Accounts Committee on service accommodation and found that the level of satisfaction for personnel and families living in service housing is still low. While work has been undertaken to improve this, we argued that better accommodation is an area that still needs prioritisation within the Ministry of Defence.

On the appointment and remit of our Committee, we found that the convention of committing the Armed Forces Bill to a Select Committee in addition to its usual Committee stage grants the Bill additional scrutiny. Our inquiry was, however, rather rushed due to compressed timelines, and we recommended that future Select Committees on armed forces Bills be given more time to complete their work. Overall, it was a real pleasure to work with hon. and right hon. Members from both sides of the House to deliver this important report. Consensus was achieved in most areas—no easy feat—and we recommended that the appointment of a Select Committee continues to be the convention for future armed forces Bills. I am grateful, again, to all my colleagues from all parties. Consensus is always persuasive and politics is far better for it.

Before I finish, I wish to remind Members of the underlying purpose of all this hard work. This House’s aspiration should be for Britain to maintain the best armed forces in the world and for this to be the best place in the world to be a veteran. Although there is much more to do, I believe we are getting there. We therefore pay tribute to our armed forces for their work, service and sacrifice, and this Bill is a vital part in our meeting our obligations to them. I look forward to working with all Members during later consideration of the Bill in this Chamber, and I commend this special report to the House.

May I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland), who, although he said he is new, chaired this Committee excellently? Like him, I pay tribute to the staff who supported the Committee, and I also pay tribute to the witnesses who came before us. He said that this is a unique Committee. It meets every five years, and I think I have served on every one of these Bills for the past 20 years. This was a difficult one because of covid, but it also was not helped by the attitude of the Ministry of Defence on the statutory guidance. Likewise, and I will put this on the record, it was not helped by the attitude of the then Minister, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer). Does the hon. Member for Bracknell agree that what needs to change is that in future—the report mentions the length of time the Committee sits—a set period, for example, six months, should be provided for, in order to ensure that detailed scrutiny, which I do not think we did this time, can be guaranteed?

For me, achieving this outcome was about consensus; it was about all members of the Committee coming together. I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman, because I know that in the Command Paper of 2008 the covenant was first mooted; it is a combination of Conservative, Labour, Scottish National party and other MPs who have made it happen today, although of course a Conservative Government have brought it in. I am happy that the report, as it stands, provides some solid recommendations for the future. I agree that a more consensual approach to a Bill such as this in the future might pay dividends.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland), a good friend of mine, on the way he chaired this Committee, which was a difficult one to chair. May I ask him why the Committee did not feel it fit to look at health problems and care problems with regard to Northern Ireland, and at vexatious claims made against Northern Ireland veterans?

I thank my very good right hon. Friend for his question. The simple answer relating to Northern Ireland is that the legacy issues, very much in the news at the moment, are subject to separate work being led by the Northern Ireland Office, and the Ministry of Defence made it clear to me and the other members of the Committee that that would not be within the scope of this Bill. We divided on that at the beginning of the session. For me personally, the wider issues relating to Northern Ireland and care, and the provisions of the covenant, are catered for in this Bill. I am pleased that the implementation of the armed forces covenant in statute is very much the core feature of this Bill and will happen, for the benefit of all those in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.

The Armed Forces Bill is something of a whirlwind, and all on the ad-hoc Bill Committee will have learned so much over the past couple of months, as the Chair—the hon. Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland)—the Clerks and the digital support staff, to whom we owe a debt of gratitude for enabling the hybrid Committee to function, will know. It would be remiss of me not to congratulate the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) on his appointment to the Front Bench—Dochertys seem to get everywhere.

It should not come as a surprise to me, I suppose, after a good few years on the Defence Committee, but the armed forces have come on in so many ways in recent years in how they seek to recruit and retain personnel, for which they should be commended. It should also be said that all who were on the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill were resolved to ensure the process continues.

However, while there was much for us to be positive about and agree on, as the Chair of the Committee has stated, I cannot help but feel that we are at a crucial inflexion point in the way the armed forces are perceived. The more I think about those of us in the Opposition who sought to make amendments to bring the armed forces closer to the society they seek to protect, the more I feel the Government favoured measures that keep them remote, discrete and unempowered. I and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) tabled common-sense amendments on a representative body, gender-neutral language and bringing the age of recruitment in line with that of our NATO allies. We supported other amendments on housing and on terms and conditions, and never really understood why the Government could not.

We use the language of heroes so often to describe those in the armed forces that sometimes we forget that almost all of them just want the simple pleasures of good pay, conditions and terms of service, or at least certainty, and certainly nothing worse than those of their fellow public servants in the NHS or a police force. Let me thank my fellow Committee members for their work, and the Chair and the Clerks for, over the last couple of months, writing this report—and here’s to more scrutiny of the work of the MOD on Third Reading.

Just a quick reminder that the idea here is to ask fairly brief questions, rather than to make speeches. I do not know whether James Sunderland needs to respond.

I thank the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) for his kind words, and also for the very positive way in which he and the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) have engaged in the whole process. My simple response to his observation is that, in a very objective way, the Armed Forces Bill is notable for what is not in it. I say that because the report we submit today makes it absolutely clear where we feel—the Committee feels—further work is needed. I would refer him back to the report. I think I am with him on many of the areas he describes, and no doubt over the next five years the MOD will do its best to implement those issues.

May I start by saying, on behalf of the 2019 intake, that we are all very proud that our hon. Friend was selected as the Chair of the Select Committee and of his making this statement to the House today, as he is the first of our intake to do this?

Across Hyndburn and Haslingden, we have tremendous respect and support for our armed forces both past and present, not least because we are the home of the famous Accrington Pals, so can my hon. Friend explain in what way the Bill makes life fairer and better for our armed forces?

I thank my really good friend from Hyndburn for her very generous words. The simple answer is that the Bill does two things. First, it increases and improves the offer to all service personnel and veterans through the armed forces covenant. It provides a statutory requirement on local councils, health authorities and education providers to improve those three areas to make sure there is no disadvantage by virtue of being in the armed forces and, of course, that special regard to disadvantage, injury, death or bereavement may be necessary for families. Secondly, the less well known part of the Bill is the fact that it improves the offer to service personnel in respect of the service justice system and courts martial. I believe that the Bill makes life in the armed forces a lot fairer and a lot better in many ways, and again, I would urge her to read the report.

I too congratulate the hon. Gentleman on setting the scene so well, and I thank him for all the hard work that he and his Committee did. I know the Armed Forces Bill contains the usual provision to deal with posthumous pardons, and I am looking to see if there is the possibility of providing for posthumous awards, such as for the legendary father of the SAS from my constituency of Strangford, Newtownards’s own Blair Mayne, whose courage, ability and leadership saw the award of the DSO on four separate occasions, yet the Victoria Cross was withheld. Is there scope in this Bill for the MOD, the Defence Committee or indeed the Minister for Defence People and Veterans himself to revisit this travesty, which should be rectified?

I thank my good friend from Strangford for his question, which is a good one with no ready answer. My simple view is that the honours and awards committee within the MOD provides that particular function. There is definitely a case for looking at what we can do on posthumous awards. There may be a time limit for some awards. Of course, Rorke’s Drift was famous many years ago for the fact that awards were given posthumously in many cases, due to public demand. I am sure that my good friend the Minister will take this forward, and no doubt we may see something in five years’ time with the next Armed Forces Bill or before.

I commend my hon. and gallant Friend for his statement and congratulate him on chairing the 10 meetings of the Select Committee and on the publication of its 102-page report. I was pleased to note that the Committee says on page 48:

“The level of satisfaction for personnel and families living in Service housing is still too low.”

I congratulate him on including that as one of the main recommendations.

I was very disturbed to read on page 10 that the Committee wanted to have a virtual visit with tri-service personnel to discuss single living and service family accommodation on 18 March, but that was cancelled the evening before because

“the Secretary of State had refused authority for Service personnel to speak to the Committee.”

My hon. and gallant Friend wrote to the Secretary of State the next day, but according to the report, he has yet to receive a satisfactory explanation. Could he update the House on whether he has received any further correspondence about this matter from the Secretary of State?

I thank my good friend from Kettering for his question. It is recognised from continuous attitude surveys that members of the armed forces are not fully satisfied with service accommodation. As a former commanding officer, I was very fortunate with what we had in Aldershot—that is an exemplar—but there are other parts of the estate that need work and money, and I know that the Ministry of Defence has got that.

In respect of the request for a visit, I cannot comment on behalf of the Secretary of State as to why permission was refused. I can surmise that it was not a good time because of covid-19 and because it was just before the Easter recess, so units may have been on leave. We wrote to the Minister. We have had a response saying that he would look at it again, and my indications are that the opportunity of visiting service accommodation for members of the Committee who want to will be made available in due course.

I thank the Chair of the Committee and its members for their work. The Armed Forces Bill does not directly reference enforcement mechanisms for ensuring that public bodies are held to account if a member of the armed forces community feels that they have not been treated correctly. What thought did he and the Committee give, if any, to setting it out in the legislation that existing ombudsmen or commissioners should have such a responsibility?

Without giving a glib answer, I urge the hon. Member to look at the special report. I believe that there is an obligation on the ombudsman to keep the pressure on the Ministry of Defence. We discussed in great detail the need for independent, impartial pressure being brought to bear on the Ministry of Defence. We discounted the need for a union of troops and other such measures, but no doubt in time the spotlight will fall even more on this area. We also had some expert witnesses appear before the Committee who made similar suggestions, and I have no doubt at all that the MOD has got it.

May I take this opportunity to thank the Chair, the Clerks and fellow members of the Committee for their dedication and hard work, as well as those who gave evidence to the Committee or responded to the survey? It was vital that the armed forces community had their say, to make this Bill better.

Service charities have pointed out that the narrow focus of the Bill on healthcare, housing and education could create a two-tier armed forces covenant that reduces provision in those areas outside the scope of the Bill. Does the Chair agree with Labour that the Bill must cover all areas of the covenant if it is truly to bring it into law and eliminate the postcode lottery that many veterans face in accessing services?

I thank my good friend from Portsmouth South for his question and for the very positive way in which he and his party—and, indeed, the SNP—engaged throughout the process. He raises a valid point. The implementation of the covenant in law is restricted at this point in time to the three areas that I mentioned earlier: health, education and accommodation. The report lists those areas in which we feel that more work is needed.

My sense is that the Ministry of Defence, over the next year or so and beyond, will be required to report on the effectiveness of implementation in those three areas. It will also be under increasing pressure to broaden the scope of the covenant in due course. Indeed, why should not social care and other aspects of public service provision be included? As a humble Back Bencher, I am sympathetic to the arguments that have been put forward, and I am sure the future rests with the Ministry of Defence as it take them forward.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Thank you for taking this point of order. You will be aware that yesterday the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office issued notice of a written statement, confusingly entitled “FCDO Update”, which quite frankly could refer to anything. It was not released until 5 o’clock yesterday and its nature was not clear, but it turned out to be an announcement on some of the detail, but far from all, of the huge cuts in official development assistance, leaving a range of international bodies, partner countries and humanitarian organisations in a totally confusing and unacceptable situation. This was done at the end of the day, beyond the deadline for submitting an urgent question, which of course is 1 pm.

Madam Deputy Speaker, you will be aware of the deep disquiet in all corners of the House about the nature of the announcement, the way it was made, and the breach of the manifesto promise on 0.7% and the cross-party consensus at a time when we face a global pandemic, millions on the brink of famine, conflict and instability from the Sahel to Yemen, including in regions where our armed forces are stationed, and a climate crisis—it is Earth Day today. The UK is about to host the G7 summit and is, of course, seeking new trading and partnership opportunities around the world. The announcement has been resoundingly criticised today by the former national security adviser, the United Nations humanitarian chief and 200 of our leading humanitarian organisations.

Is it in order to put out an announcement of such magnitude at the end of the day without the ability to scrutinise it in this Chamber? How might Members from across the House—many senior Members from across the House want to ask questions on it—secure the presence of the Foreign Secretary in this Chamber to answer questions at the earliest possible opportunity?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and his courtesy in giving me notice of it. It is for Ministers to decide whether to provide information to the House in person or via a written ministerial statement, as he set out, so that is not strictly a matter for the Chair. However, the hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member of the House and has set out some of the ways in which he might seek to find further information. He has also put on the record his disquiet about this matter, and I know those on the Treasury Bench will have heard his comments and will, I am sure, feed them back. I also note that the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs appeared before the International Development Committee this morning, and I suspect the issue may have been raised there.

We will now have a short suspension for cleaning before the next debate.

Sitting suspended.