Consideration of Lords amendments
I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 1.
This Bill delivers for our armed forces, renews the Armed Forces Act 2006, improves the service justice system and delivers on the Government’s commitment to further enshrine the armed forces covenant into law. We therefore resist Lords amendment 1, principally because we have faith in the service justice system and the protocol that this Bill creates to ensure that serious cases involving murder, manslaughter and rape are heard in the jurisdiction—civilian or military—to which they are best suited.
The amendment seeks to introduce a presumption that these serious offences are heard in the civilian courts. Such a presumption is unnecessary. The service justice system is fair, robust and capable of dealing with all offending. Indeed, that was the conclusion of the retired High Court judge Sir Richard Henriques QC in his recent review, which came before the House in October 2021. On page 199 of his report, he fully agreed with the Government’s decision to retain unqualified concurrent jurisdiction for murder, manslaughter and rape.
The Minister rightly refers to Sir Richard Henriques’ report. Sir Richard is someone for whom I have great regard. My hon. Friend will also know that, prior to that, there was a report by His Honour Judge Shaun Lyons, who had served as an officer and as a senior circuit judge. It was Judge Lyons’ recommendation to do away with concurrent jurisdiction that led to the amendment in the Lords. Why does the Minister feel that it would be appropriate to take on board the rest of the Lyons report recommendations but to leave out this particular one? That seems a little strange, given that it was accepted that, overall, the Lyons review was a very constructive piece of work.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, which brings me to my next point. Sir Richard’s endorsement of the service justice system capability echoes the conclusion of the process audit that was conducted as part of the Lyons review of March 2019 to which my hon. Friend referred. It had previously found that the service police do indeed have the necessary training, skills and experience to investigate allegations of domestic abuse and sexual assault. However, to answer his point, we continually seek to improve our capability, which is why the creation of a new defence serious crimes unit—which this Bill delivers in clause 12 —headed by a new provost marshal for serious crime demonstrates the Government’s commitment to achieving the highest investigative capabilities for the service justice system. In simple terms, this is a good thing for all defence people.
The evidential base that seems to have been in the news this last while shows a rise in the incidence of sexual abuse and harassment in the Army. Will this legislation be retrospective? In other words, will those cases that have happened in the last few years be investigated, and will there be a reduction in cases in the future?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Given the reports of increased allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment, which have been movingly pointed out through the work of the House of Commons Defence Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton), the Ministry of Defence’s response will be to ensure that all those categories of alleged crime or misconduct are considered outwith the chain of command. I look forward to talking more about this when my hon. Friend brings forward her debate in Westminster Hall on Thursday.
The Minister rightly refers to the improvements in the service justice system, which we all recognise. However, as I understand it, the service justice system does not have some of the safeguards that are available under the criminal procedure rules on the treatment of vulnerable witnesses, in relation to special measures being taken in the same way. In particular, in the criminal justice system we are now rolling out pre-recorded evidence under section 28 for the alleged victims of crime. Would he at least undertake that, if we have concurrent jurisdiction, the same safeguards and protections will apply equally, for witnesses and defendants, under a service jurisdiction arrangement as they will now under the civilian procedure? It would be unfair if witnesses or defendants had a lesser standard of service and lesser protection, particularly in the case of vulnerable complainants.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. In addition to the formation of the defence serious crimes unit, we are making non-legislative changes and enhancements in procedure so that the experience of the victim in the civil or military system has parity. We look forward to keeping the House updated on that.
I welcome the setting up of the serious crimes unit, but it is a matter of fact, as we heard in evidence in Committee, that the number of incidents that will be investigated is quite small compared with those investigated by the civilian police. The serious crimes unit will therefore always be at a disadvantage in terms of not having the knowledge and the breadth of experience that is available to civilian police forces.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. That is why we are trying to consolidate experience across all three services and have a much closer working relationship with the civilian police. We look forward to seeing how the new format rolls out, but we have confidence in the structure.
With these improvements, the MOD will be in a stronger position to respond to serious crime. However, if things do go wrong, the independent service police complaints commissioner—a body also created by the Bill, in clause 11—will be able to determine the appropriate course of action in response to a complaint. These measures will ensure that the service justice system is more effective and efficient in the round and that it provides a better service to those who use it, which will in turn increase public confidence in the system.
Would the Minister care to comment on something that the hon. Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton), who chairs the sub- Committee, said? She said:
“Military women are being denied justice. It is clear to us that serious sexual offences should not be tried in the court martial system.”
I would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on that.
In simple terms, there are circumstances —normally involving the welfare of the alleged victim—in which it would be advantageous for a case to be heard in the military context. Those cases might be small in number, but it is important for the sake of the victim that agility and choice are retained in terms of our approach.
Furthermore, while the Government accept the need to improve decision making in relation to concurrent jurisdiction, we do not agree with the Lords amendment that an Attorney General consent function is the best way to achieve that. That is because, for the Attorney General to make an informed, meaningful and final decision, the request for consent must come at the end of the investigatory process when key decisions on jurisdiction have already been made. The Government instead believe that a better approach is to strengthen the prosecutors’ protocol. Clause 7 ensures that decisions on jurisdiction are left to the independent service justice and civilian prosecutors, using guidance they have agreed between them. In simple terms, where there is disagreement on jurisdiction, the Director of Public Prosecutions always has the final say. For this reason and others, I urge hon. Members to reject Lords amendment 1.
This Bill has so much to recommend it, and it is so good. I also want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton), who has done incredible work on this. However, I am struggling to understand what extenuating circumstances there might be where a military court would be better placed to opine on rape than a civilian court. In cases of torture, I completely understand this, given the concept of civilians and military individuals understanding how torture might manifest itself, but in cases of rape involving soldier on soldier or man versus woman on the street, I cannot understand what extenuating circumstances would require a different type of court.
I thank my hon. Friend for her question and for her comments about my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham. The advantage of having a choice between civil or military jurisdiction relates to the possibility of a serving person being involved in a case of rape in which their welfare would be undermined by it being heard in a civilian court because of the slower process of the case and the fact that its being heard in the civilian jurisdiction might impede any postings or normal career progression. My principal point relates to the welfare interest of alleged victims, where having agility and choice is advantageous.
The civilian prosecutor always has the final say.
It is clear that Lords amendment 2 fails to recognise the purpose of this legislation. The new covenant duty works by requiring listed public bodies to have due regard for the principles of the armed forces covenant when exercising a relevant housing, education or healthcare function. This amendment seeks to add the Secretary of State to the list of public bodies but, of course, none of the housing, education or healthcare functions is a function of the Secretary of State. This amendment would therefore not serve any meaningful purpose.
Of course the Secretary of State, like other Defence Ministers, is entirely accountable for delivering the armed forces covenant and reports annually to Parliament to that effect, and he answers Defence questions and attends other parliamentary events. In designing the covenant duty, we carefully considered which functions and policy areas the new duty should encompass, including those that are the responsibility of central Government. We were mindful that central Government are responsible for the overall strategic direction of national policy, whereas responsibility for the actual delivery of nuts-and-bolts frontline services and their impact generally rests at local level. The inclusion of central Government, by naming the Secretary of State in the scope of the duty, is simply not necessary.
The other vital element of our approach rests with the new powers granted to the Government to add to the scope of the duty, if need be. The new covenant duty is evergreen and can effectively adapt to the changing needs and concerns of the armed forces community. We continue to engage with the Covenant Reference Group, which is made up of independent representatives from service charities, such as the Royal British Legion, and officials from local, devolved and central Government. This will feed into our existing commitment to formally review the overall performance of the covenant duty following this legislation. The review will be submitted to the Select Committee on Defence and will also be covered in the covenant annual report.
Furthermore, the Bill requires that the statutory guidance in support of the covenant duty is laid before Parliament in draft so colleagues can inspect and scrutinise it before it is brought into force. Ministers and the Ministry of Defence will continually be held to account on the delivery of the armed forces covenant.
The Minister is being most generous with his time, for which I thank him profoundly. He will know that the author of this amendment is the noble Lord Mackay of Clashfern, Margaret Thatcher’s Lord Chancellor and the current president of the Society of Conservative Lawyers, of which I have the honour to be the deputy chairman. He does not exactly have a record of being antagonistic towards our armed forces, but he is concerned that there does not appear to be a legal commitment in the Bill to the armed forces covenant. If this be the means, or if there be some other means, will the Minister at least give us an assurance that the Government will look to introduce a legal commitment to the armed forces covenant, to go alongside the moral and political commitments that we already have? If that could be achieved, we will be happy.
It is truly an honour to be standing in front of you, Mr Deputy Speaker, in my new role as shadow Minister for the armed forces.
I pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan), who recognised the essential contribution made by our armed forces to the safety and security of our country and who played such an important role in scrutinising this legislation.
In my previous role as shadow Minister with responsibility for Afghanistan, I recently stood at the Dispatch Box to commend the courage, dedication and professionalism shown by our armed forces in the most challenging of circumstances. Two weeks ago I was pleased to pay tribute to those who served in Operation Pitting when they visited Parliament. This House, our country and the free world owe a huge debt of gratitude to those service personnel who, for 20 years, prevented terrorist attacks from being launched from Afghanistan and who secured opportunities for women and girls that would never have been possible otherwise. I thank them for their heroic service.
I look forward to engaging with the Minister. I assure him that I will support him when his Department is doing the right thing, but I will also hold him robustly to account when the Government fail to stand up for our armed forces or to act in the national interest.
As the Opposition have noted throughout its passage, this Bill is a once-in-a-Parliament opportunity to tangibly improve the lives of our armed forces personnel, veterans and their families. I know they are held in the highest regard by Labour and by all on both sides of the House. For them and for all others who have served, we have a duty to make this legislation provide the very best.
Labour supports this Bill in principle, but we have consistently pressed the Government to ensure they match their lofty rhetoric with tangible action. As it stands, the Bill is a missed opportunity to deliver the laudable promises made in the armed forces covenant for all personnel, veterans and their families. That is why I am pleased that the amendments passed in the other place so closely mirror those that Labour pressed during the Bill’s Commons stages. I therefore hope the Government will take this opportunity to think again.
Lords amendment 1 would ensure that the most serious crimes, including murder, manslaughter, domestic violence, child abuse, rape and sexual assault with penetration are tried in the civilian courts when committed in the UK, except when the Attorney General has given consent. For too long, it has been clear that the investigation and prosecution of these crimes within the service justice system simply does not work. The latest Ministry of Defence figures show that, from 2015 to 2020, the conviction rate for rape cases tried under courts martial was just 9%, whereas the latest data available suggest that the conviction rate was 59% for cases that reached civilian courts, with considerably more cases being tried each year. More than three quarters of victims were women, and seven in 10 victims held the rank of private.
Lords amendment 1 directly addresses the treatment of women in our armed forces, which is rightly receiving public attention, and it is an issue that disproportionately affects women in the lower ranks. Until there is fairness, transparency and justice in these cases, the actions of a tiny minority will be allowed to tarnish the reputation of our world-class armed forces.
Those statistics bear out a significant concern that also exists in the civilian jurisdiction. There is a disparity in parallel authorities between victims and perpetrators. Does the hon. Gentleman think we should be particularly anxious to ensure that the same protection, the same support and the same procedural devices to protect witnesses—screens, special measures and so on—are available were any of these cases to be heard in a court martial setting as opposed to a civilian setting, where they would automatically be available? The position of the private soldier is not dissimilar from the position of the employee who is taken advantage of by her boss, for example, or something similar. There is a strong case for seeking to ensure equity, in whichever court a case is tried.
The hon. Gentleman’s expertise in this area is clear for all in this House to see. He is absolutely right that, given the chain of command, ensuring protection for witnesses and victims is essential. We clearly have more confidence in the civilian system to guarantee those. He asks whether the service system could provide those protections, but that seems a very odd way to go about it when the capacity and capability already exist in the civilian system. Why reinvent the wheel?
Will Ministers take this final opportunity to listen to the recommendations of a Government-commissioned, judge-led review, which expressed surprise that these cases were still being handled by courts martial? Will they listen to the expertise on their own Back Benches, as we have just heard, including the proposals made by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) in her Defence Sub-Committee report, “Protecting Those Who Protect Us: Women in the Armed Forces from Recruitment to Civilian Life”? Most importantly, will they listen to service personnel and veterans themselves?
More than 4,000 actively serving women and veterans contributed to that report and its recommendations. Today, a serving member of the Royal Navy whose court martial rape case collapsed due to a number of basic errors made by a service prosecutor called on the Government to back this amendment. She was one of three women who launched a judicial review of the Defence Secretary’s decision not to adopt the recommendations of the Lyons review. She says:
“The value of this amendment for women like me cannot be overstated… This amendment will make the process independent. It will encourage more service personnel to report crimes. It will mean we have some protection from the appalling consequences we suffer when we report rape within our units.
“I am urging the government to accept this amendment. As service personnel we are citizens of this country and we deserve justice just like everyone else.”
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that perhaps a sensible compromise might be to have this matter come back before the House in a year’s time, if the Bill does pass, to see whether cases are being properly prosecuted, whether we are getting the prosecution rates we need and whether women are being supported to get the justice they deserve when those senior to them commit the most abysmal and horrific of acts—acts that would be considered war crimes if they were done against a civilian but, because they are done by someone in the chain of command, somehow are considered a completely different situation?
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady’s experience and expertise, particularly in the field of foreign affairs. However, I think her proposal does not really make sense for where we are right now in this Chamber. We need to see a Government showing leadership. Those brave ladies who have come forward are showing that leadership, and I hope this Government will pay heed to it. The moment of truth is upon us, and we need to see that vote and that leadership now. These women have courage beyond their service to our country. They are showing this Government the way. I urge colleagues across the House to support the amendment.
I turn now to Lords amendment 2, which places the same legal responsibility to have “due regard” to the armed forces covenant on central Government as the current drafting requires of local authorities and other public bodies. This Bill piles new and often vague statutory responsibilities to deliver the covenant on a wide range of public bodies, but, mysteriously, those do not apply to central Government. In practice, this would create a farcical situation whereby the chair of school governors has a statutory responsibility to have due regard to the armed forces covenant, but Government Departments—including the Ministry of Defence—do not.
As the Royal British Legion has pointed out,
“many of the policy areas in which members of the Armed Forces community experience difficulty are the responsibility of national government or based on national guidance.”
Help for Heroes, Cobseo and other service charities know this too, as do Conservative Members, both in this House and in the other place. Ministers must not be allowed to offload responsibility for delivery.
How can it be that social care, pensions, employment and immigration are among the long list of areas we know will not be covered by this legislation? The exclusion of the Ministry of Defence from the responsible public bodies also means the Bill offers little to actively serving personnel. Our armed forces have gone above and beyond both to support our frontline response to the pandemic in the past year and, as I have mentioned, in Afghanistan. What a contrast between the selfless service of our military personnel and a Government who are missing this crucial opportunity to make long-overdue improvements to the standard of service accommodation, while at the same time handing most of them another real-terms pay cut this year.
I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. My hon. Friend mentions immigration, health and a whole range of central Government Departments responsible for delivering the covenant for our armed forces personnel. Does he agree that there is a missed opportunity in this Bill to deal with the situation facing many foreign and Commonwealth veterans who have bravely served—alongside our Welsh regiments, for example? We know the contribution of Fijians in that regard. There is a missed opportunity here, but there are other opportunities coming up where these issues may be resolved; does he urge the Government to support them?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s personal and political expertise in this area. He is absolutely right that this was an opportunity to right the wrong he has so eloquently set out. There will be an opportunity tomorrow—our Front Bench has tabled an amendment—and there will be other opportunities, but it is a moral point of principle, and I hope the Government will listen and do the right thing in the vote tomorrow.
Without this amendment, the Bill’s principles will not deliver practical action for the squaddie in dilapidated single living accommodation who is without 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 in to work. Ministers must not be allowed to offload responsibility for the delivery of the covenant to cash-strapped local authorities and other overstretched public bodies. Central Government must be held to the same measurable, enforceable, national standards as local authorities and agencies. Only then can we truly end the postcode lottery on the armed forces covenant.
The Government are set to reject these amendments. Their majority means they may well win the votes, but in so doing the Conservatives will lose any credible claim to be the party of the armed forces. Service personnel will be asking why this Government’s manifesto pledge to put the covenant further into law delivers no improvements to their day-to-day lives. Veterans will be asking why they still face uneven access to services. Women will be wondering whether a career in the services is for them. These arguments will come back to the Government again and again—from this House, including from Government Back Benchers, from service charities, from armed forces communities and from the Opposition Benches, because Labour will always stand up for our armed forces.
As I rise to speak in this debate, I first pay tribute to the officials in the Department. I know this is a complex Bill and that with legislation such as this we must operate within the art of the possible. There are clearly areas where everybody would like to go further, but I understand the constraints and the dynamics at play, particularly around legislating for the armed forces covenant and so on.
However, there is one thing I am afraid I will not let pass without shining a spotlight on it: the issue of violence and sexual offences staying in the military justice system. I rise to speak with one purpose, and that is to resolutely support my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) in the work that she has done in this space. She has worked tirelessly, initially against the current but then with some support, to highlight the totally unacceptable experience of females in the military.
Today is a really difficult day for my hon. Friend, and unnecessarily so. I understand differences of opinion, particularly in this space, but where the evidence does not point to the decisions being made by those on the Front Bench, I am afraid I will speak up time and again.
Unfortunately, I was in the room when this decision was made. The evidence did not support the Secretary of State at the time and the evidence does not support the Secretary of State today. I cannot vote against the Lords amendment; it is not the right thing to do. Let me be clear: when the Secretary of State made that decision it was against the advice of the officials in the Department and against the advice of his Ministers.
Conviction rates for rape are lower in military courts than they are in civilian courts. That is a fact. We can pull up the facts at different times and during different processes on the journey to a sexual conviction, but the reality is that the conviction rates for rape are lower. Over the past five years, the average conviction rate for rape in civilian courts, when using Ministry of Justice data, is 34%; over the same five years, using the same data—the MOD’s data—the average conviction rate for rape is just 16% in military courts. Using Crown Prosecution Service data, the figures are even worse. In practice, this means that a military woman is far less likely to get justice than she would in civilian life. We cannot accept that. We cannot accept that on the Government Benches.
The MOD accepts that the contested conviction rate at court martial is significantly lower than it is in the Crown court. The Department suggests that, because the numbers involved in the service justice system are relatively so much smaller, the comparison is of little value. That does not make sense—it is ridiculous and illogical. We have to be honest: there is no point coming to this place and railroading through legislation that we all know to be the wrong decision simply because one individual has his course set and refuses to back out of that alley.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it takes enormous courage for anyone to go to court in cases of child abuse, domestic abuse or rape—the issues we are talking about? I worked in the victims department at the Ministry of Justice, supporting people to go forward and get prosecutions, and one in seven Rutland residents is a veteran. Does my hon. Friend also agree that an insidious silence is forced on victims, gagging them and preventing them from going out to get justice in the first place, let alone once they get to a court?
I do agree with those observations. To be honest, when I came into my role as the Veterans Minister, I knew that the experience of females in the military was totally unacceptable. When my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham published her report, a lot of what she wrote was not a surprise to me. I have daughters who want to join the military. It is something that we absolutely have to sort out.
I wish the Secretary of State was in his place. He has clearly laid his position on the line on this issue. Last week, he said that in 2020 1.6% of rapes reported to the civilian police made it to court, compared with 50% of those reported to military police. I cannot see how that can possibly be true, unless the numbers are so incomparably small as to be totally misleading. The trouble is that our lack of honesty in this place tonight—
The hon. Gentleman was the Minister who took the Bill through Committee; if he felt so strongly about this, what did he do about it? He is saying that since he is no longer a Minister he is now passionate about these issues, but he did nothing when he was a Minister.
The right hon. Gentleman is more than welcome to make a freedom of information request to the Ministry of Defence and go and look at all the ministerial submissions on this issue, but that would require his dealing in the realms of fact rather than his rather pointless rhetoric. I am more than happy to have a conversation with him outside this place but this is a serious issue that frankly deserves better contributions than that—
I am not going to give way. I am absolutely not going to give way for another interlude like that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham has done her work on this issue. It is a serious point. She has found the evidence and that evidence has been backed up by professionals, but in the Department there is one individual who is refusing to back down from the alleyway he has found himself in. My hon. Friend’s is a really valuable voice: she is the first female from the ranks to make it to this place. She has an extraordinarily valuable and powerful voice. For her to lose her position tonight because she has that integrity is not what we do. It is not teamwork and it is not the way this Government should operate. I support her wholeheartedly.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument and I certainly think that these issues are best dealt with in the civilian courts, but where I have a problem with the Lords amendment is in respect of the power invested in the Attorney General. I am not sure that the Attorney General, as a Law Officer, should have that power. I would welcome my hon. Friend’s comments on that.
That is a really fair point. Such provision has not existed before and it is always dangerous when we start going down that route of bringing in new protocols specifically to deal with the challenges of sexual assault that we have here.
I plead with those on the Front Bench: the issue of the female experience in the military defines what we do. I note that the response, last week, was to double the number of females in the military. The only problem is that we have already missed our target for doing that in the first place. It is pointless to give strongly worded statements to the chiefs or to say that we are going to double the numbers if so many people—the young women we saw in the work from my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham—simply do not come forward because they do not think they are going to have any fairness, any rigour or any real prospect of a conviction for their horrendous experience.
Members will find no one prouder of the military in this place than me but there is a singular problem. I do not buy this stuff about a culture problem—I am afraid I am on the other side of the fence on that: the military is the most wonderful life-chances machine this country has—but there is a problem with holding our people to account, whether in respect of lawfare or other issues. It is exactly the same here. If we do that and hold our people to account, we will get on top of this problem without losing good people like my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham, whose work I commend. I am incredibly proud of her; the Government should be as well and should implement all her recommendations.
It was certainly interesting to listen to the contribution from the former Minister, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer).
Over the past year, personnel have supported the vaccine roll-out, transported petrol to petrol stations and, most recently, aided those impacted by Storm Arwen. Overseas, members of our armed forces have put their lives on the line to evacuate those at risk in Afghanistan and are actively engaged in operations ranging from peacekeeping to combatting the international drugs trade. Our personnel are our greatest armed forces asset and we must do our best to ensure that any legislation that impacts the lives of serving personnel is evidence based, carefully considered and ultimately beneficial.
This Bill has presented a once-in-a-decade chance to improve treatment and conditions for serving personnel and their loved ones while also implementing desperately needed reforms to the service justice system, which is currently failing to deliver for many victims. Sadly, despite the efforts of those in the other place, the Bill is lacking in ambition and many of its provisions are tokenistic.
Lords amendment 1, which we will be supporting, removes the military from the handling of the most serious of crimes. Very recently, the Defence Secretary held a meeting with senior members of the Army to discuss allegations of sexual violence by members of the armed forces. This came after the Defence Committee report on women in the armed forces, which exposed the culture of sexism, intimidation and secrecy within the armed forces and the flawed systems that allow serious acts of misconduct to go unchallenged. Some 64% of the more than 4,000 servicewomen who submitted evidence to the report stated that they had experienced sexual harassment, rape, bullying or discrimination. That figure should cause all of us great discomfort.
Last week, the MOD’s response to the women in the armed forces report announced the introduction of new measures, including sexual consent training and the doubling of the number of female personnel. However, it is hard to see, with the current laddish culture that is being promoted, how women will be encouraged or attracted to join. More ambitious and swifter action is required.
Lords amendment 1 to clause 7 requires a protocol between the Director of Service Prosecutions and the Director of Public Prosecutions. It would create a presumption that serious charges against serving personnel would be heard in civilian courts. There is good reason for this. In the five years until 2019, rape conviction rates in civilian courts were approximately 59% compared with the shockingly low 9% of those heard in military courts. The chances of seeing justice are “shockingly low”, according to the Victims’ Commissioner. We heard this evening from the Minister that the reason why these would continue to be held in military courts is that they could be held swiftly; it was for the welfare of the victims.
I would like to hear from those victims whether they think that their welfare is being looked after by the current system. The majority of these cases are currently prosecuted through court martial, where the boards have a largely, if not entirely, male majority who cannot possibly understand the lived experience of women. The Government have stated that female representation must be on the court martial board, but no quotas have been specified, so it is questionable whether this will make any difference.
Within the military, there is evidence of poor victim care and poor investigations, as military police have little experience of complex sexual violence cases. The evidence backing the amendment is clear: for justice to be delivered, these offences must be tried in civilian courts, as these courts have experience of dealing with complex cases, particularly in relation to rape and sexual assault.
The provisions within Lords amendment 1 are also recommended by the Lyons review and the Defence Committee report, which contended that
“service personnel remain citizens and in these serious cases when the civil courts are available to them, they should be tried in that forum.”
This move also has the backing of the Victims’ Commissioner, a former chief constable and, most importantly, many serving personnel and veterans.
Lords amendment 2, which we support, would require the Secretary of State to have due regard to the covenant. The Bill, as introduced, largely applies to local government. The UK Government should be subject to the same legal standard on the covenant that they are seeking to apply in the devolved context and to local councils. We know that many areas of policy in which serving personnel, veterans and their families face disadvantage—forces’ housing, pensions and employment to name but a few—are the direct responsibility of the UK Government. Disappointingly, many live issues are entirely ignored by the Bill, including: Commonwealth veteran immigration; justice for LGBT veterans; and forces’ housing, which continues to cause major issues for personnel.
We will continue to work with the Minister to ensure that we get the best possible outcome for serving personnel and veterans, but, sadly, I do not think that this Bill is a vehicle through which we will do it.
May I make a few very short points to amplify those things that I mentioned in the course of interventions?
Overall, this is a very good Bill. I respect and entirely accept the good intentions of Ministers in that regard, which is why I am saddened that, in relation to Lords amendment 1 in particular, we are in danger of undoing some of the good. We are in danger of damaging the reputation of a good Bill by what appears to be a degree of stubbornness. I do not blame the Minister personally for that; he has been most generous in his interventions. None the less, taking on board the evidence of the Lyons review and also of Sir Richard Henriques, lawyers whom I respect very greatly indeed, I cannot help but feel that the Government have failed to achieve a compromise that ought more readily to be available. I urge them to consider that in the time between the Bill’s leaving this House, if they have a majority tonight, and its going back to the other place.
For example, let us look at Lords amendment 1 in particular. It is pretty clear that, with the best will in the world, the service prosecution system, precisely because of the small numbers that go through it, will struggle ever to have the level of expertise required to deal with what in the civilian world would be regarded as RASSO—rape and serious sexual offences—cases. The CPS has specialist Crown prosecutors and specialist counsel. Cases are tried by ticketed circuit or High Court judges, who are specifically authorised to try cases of such gravity, where particular sensitivity is required with witnesses. The criminal procedure rules have a host of safeguards—both before and in the course of a trial—to ensure that complainants in the system are treated with the sensitivity that the nature of such a case should involve.
It might have been easier to sustain the position on Lords amendment 1 if we were simply talking in terms of murder and manslaughter, but even that would be stretching it. The inclusion of the rape and serious sexual offences element seems needless and not really supported by the evidence. The Henriques argument will be stronger on the murder/manslaughter point, if there be any. I hope that Ministers will think about that again before the Bill goes back to the other place.
As we update criminal procedure—reference has already been made to section 28 and pre-recorded cross-examination —all those things require advocates on the prosecution side, investigators on the prosecution side, advocates on the defence side and tribunals highly experienced in these matters, and swift and prompt listing. I take the Minister’s point about concerns with delay, postings and so on, but in truth those issues apply in the civil courts as well. The answer is to have those cases expedited, rather than to take them out of the system; I hope that he will think about that.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) made an interesting observation about the jurisdictional position in relation to the Attorney General. I accept that that is a novel point, and perhaps it has some force that we have not debated enough. The answer, surely, rather than reject this amendment out of hand, is to seek a compromise, perhaps beefing up the protocol, in which the Director of Public Prosecutions has, in effect, a determinative role. Perhaps we could look at that as a model, rather than putting a Law Officer of the Crown into that unusual jurisdictional position. That ought to be done between now and the Bill’s return to the other place. I urge Ministers to think again on those important issues.
Let me turn to Lords amendment 2. I would hope that we could at least have a commitment that if the noble Lord Mackay’s amendment is not the vehicle through which to do it, the Government have a means of putting into law—either through this Bill or elsewhere—a commitment in law, as well as morally and ethically, towards the covenant. We all know that we all do have that commitment, but it would be a shame again to spoil the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar. I hope that Ministers will reflect on that.
I have had no involvement with the Bill before. I look at it simply as someone who has spent the whole of his life in the criminal justice system, both prosecuting and defending, including in courts martial as well as in civilian courts. I hope that those suggestions are constructive and might help us to find a way forward that can make an excellent Bill—one that leaves both Houses with a greater degree of consensus than we currently have on two difficult points.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill).
We have covered a wide range of welfare issues tonight. I want to highlight one in particular, which has great resonance in my constituency of Reading East and, I believe, in the Minister’s constituency of Aldershot: the case of Gurkha soldiers who retired before 1997. As many Members will know, the Gurkhas have served our country with distinction over more than 200 years. However, soldiers who retired before 1997 receive very modest pensions—far smaller than those of other British soldiers. Many veterans live in my constituency and manage to exist on a very small income in a high-cost part of the country, and that experience is common across parts of west London, Hampshire and other areas close to their regimental base in north Hampshire.
This unfair treatment has led to a determined campaign by both Gurkha veterans and other former British soldiers to make good this wrong. Sadly, in the last few months this led to a number of Gurkhas going on hunger strike. I visited the hunger strikers as they took their action outside No. 10, which was a very moving experience. I pay tribute to them, and to the others who have supported their campaign. I appreciate that the Minister, and indeed the Secretary of State, have now intervened and responded to the Gurkhas’ concerns and that they are about to have discussions with the Government of Nepal. I welcome that. I support the Minister’s work on this and look forward to a better outcome. However, I remind him that this issue has been dragging on for some time—some years, indeed—and for many of the families involved this is a very difficult time. Prices are rising. Many families are living on very modest incomes, as I said, often in relatively high-cost-of-living parts of the country, and we should be doing so much more for them. They are a wonderful part of our armed forces and have given such great and noble service to this country.
I urge the Minister to do everything he can to look into this case and to speed up the discussions with Nepal. I appreciate that the Nepalese have appointed a new ambassador and that has led to some further delays, but I urge the Minister to try to expedite this important matter. I realise that it is difficult and will take time, but we would very much appreciate his full attention on it. Will he update the House when he comes to the Dispatch Box and also write to me with an update? There is a great deal resting on this for many local people in my constituency, and they would very much appreciate a word of reassurance from him.
I will speak to Lords amendments 2 to 13.
In principle, I welcome the Bill, which will strengthen the legal basis for the armed forces covenant. The covenant represents a series of promises to the armed forces community—servicemen and women, reservists, veterans, and their families. The covenant covers a number of areas the community might need support in, such as housing, education and, vitally, healthcare. Most are devolved policy issues in Scotland and held at local level by councils and health boards. I have personally turned to the covenant when dealing with casework; I am sure many of us have. It is not necessarily easy to navigate, because responsibility for the things it covers is held in so many different places.
Lords amendment 2 to clause 8 would go some way to addressing that. It includes the Secretary of State in the list of specified persons within the scope of the covenant’s duty of due regard. Without this amendment, due regard will largely sit at local authority level, with no overarching duty placed on national Government. The amendment has been called for and supported by charities such as the Royal British Legion and Poppyscotland, which work with the very people the covenant seeks to support. They are perhaps best placed to tell us what is needed to make the covenant work in the way it should. The Royal British Legion and Poppyscotland say that in their experience the responsibility for the most prevalent issues faced by the armed forces community does sit at a national level.
I know from personal experience of helping veterans in my constituency that while healthcare definitely sits right at the top of the list of concerns, there are others that are just as important but reserved to the UK Government—for example, pensions. In one case, it took months of chasing, and my constituent had spent a year on it before reaching out to me, before satisfactory progress was made. I thank the Minister for the help that he gave in that case.
In summary, the covenant is an important tool if it is given the legal basis it needs in order to work in the way it should. The amendment moves us closer in the right direction by ensuring that responsibility for national issues is held at a national level. Consistency is key.
I rise as a supporter of the military justice system. The problem here is the idea that anyone seen to be supporting amendment 1 is somehow against the military justice system. Well, I am not. I have served on every single Armed Forces Bill Committee, as a Minister or Back Bencher, for the last 20 years, and I firmly recognise its importance.
However, the important thing is that we need to put the victim at the heart of the system, as Professor Sir Jon Murphy said in his evidence to the Select Committee, and that is not necessarily always the case in the military system. We had evidence from the Victims Commissioner and from retired Lieutenant Colonel Diane Allen, who also raised the role of the chain of command and the complaints system in stopping the number of complaints coming forward. This has got to take place, and I support Lords amendment 1, because we need to send a signal to young men and women in our armed forces that if they are a victim of serious sexual assault, for example, it will be taken seriously and be dealt with on par with what would be done in the civilian world.
I welcome the setting up of the serious crime unit, but I agree with the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill). I am not sure it will have the volume of work to get the expertise that is needed. Reference has been made to the hon. Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) and her report, which I worked on as a member of the Select Committee. It is loud and clear: people are not coming forward with complaints, because they do not feel that the system is fair. If we back Lords amendment 1, it will send a clear signal.
As for the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), he is a bit like a lead actor in a play who seems to have been sat in the audience for the entire time during the play, because when he was in Committee, all he did was parrot the lines that were in front of him—if he could find the right page to turn to. I am sorry, but some of us will not take this nonsense, trying to rewrite history about his ineffective role as a Minister.
I also support Lords amendment 2. When I was Veterans Minister, I produced the Green Paper, which was the forerunner for how we got the welfare pathway into law. One thing was clear: Departments should be part of welfare, which surrounds the covenant, because increasingly the services are directly influenced by Departments. Housing in the armed forces is an obvious one, but health and others are increasingly involved. I therefore support amendment 2. The other thing about amendment 2 is that with this Bill we are putting the onus again on local government without any extra resources to carry those functions out.
Finally, I make one point to the Minister. One of the issues around speedy outcomes for justice in our military system has to be speedy investigations. It is an issue that I raised, and I know that Lord Thomas of Gresford raised it in the other place. I raised it in Committee. The Minister made some commitments to look at it, and I would be interested to hear what he has to say.
One hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments, the debate was interrupted (Programme Order, this day).
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83F), That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 1.
Lords amendment 1 disagreed to.
More than one hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments, the proceedings were interrupted (Programme Order, this day).
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83F).
Armed Forces Covenant
Motion made, and Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 2.—(Leo Docherty.)
Lords amendment 2 disagreed to.
Lords amendments 3 to 50 agreed to.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83H), That a Committee be appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their amendments 1 and 2.
That Leo Docherty, Alan Mak, James Sunderland, Suzanne Webb, Stephen Morgan, Liz Twist and Carol Monaghan be members of the Committee;
That Leo Docherty be the Chair of the Committee;
That three be the quorum of the Committee;
That the Committee do withdraw immediately.—(Steve Double.)
Question agreed to.
Committee to withdraw immediately; reasons to be reported and communicated to the Lords.