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Armed Forces Bill

Volume 730: debated on Tuesday 6 September 2011

Committee (1st Day)

My Lords, if there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, the Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells ring and will resume after 10 minutes.

Clause 1 agreed.

Clause 2 : Armed forces covenant report

Amendment 1

Moved by

1: Clause 2, page 2, line 3, leave out from “section” to “Armed” in line 4 and insert “339 of AFA 2006 insert—

“Armed forces covenant339A””

My Lords, at Second Reading I drew attention to the Government’s positioning of this important clause in the existing Armed Forces Act 2006. Clause 2 is entitled in bold type, “Armed forces covenant report”, and the wording is to be inserted after Section 359 into the 2006 Act as new Section 359A. Section 359 is one of a number of sections towards the back of the 2006 Act, listed as “Miscellaneous”. I pointed out that Section 359 concerns “Pardons for servicemen executed for disciplinary offences: recognition as victims of First World War”. This is an unfortunate juxtaposition for the requirement to report on the covenant, a covenant to which the Prime Minister and many members of the Government have given their strong support. I invited the Government to think again about the placing of this provision because appearances can be important. In winding up, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, accepted that this could be reconsidered.

At Second Reading I criticised not only the placement of Clause 2 but made what I hope was a sensible suggestion for it to be inserted immediately after Section 339 rather than Section 359 and numbering it Section 339A. This would place it in Part 14 of the 2006 Act, headed “Enlistment, Terms of Service etc”. During the Recess I had a letter from the Minister which indicated that, following inquiries with parliamentary counsel and the House authorities, it should be possible to arrange for the position of the Armed Forces covenant section to be changed so as to insert it in the 2006 Act as new Section 353A in Part 17, entitled “Miscellaneous”. I responded saying that I would not challenge the Minister’s intention that the new section should be placed in Part 17 rather than in Part 14 as I had proposed, even though I think that the covenant is rather more important than a miscellaneous adjunct to the Act.

Noble Lords will also have spotted that my amendment inserts the words “Armed forces covenant” as an italic centre heading to the new section, while the Minister proposes to use the words “Armed forces covenant report” as his italicised centre heading. These words are also in bold font at the start of the new section. My service writing directing staff would, I am sure, have red-inked the same phrase appearing in a centre heading and an immediately following side heading. Omitting the word “report” from the italicised centre heading would also allow any further new sections about the covenant to be added at a future time if that were required, without a change to the centre heading. I should be grateful if the Minister would consider this, and explain why, as his letter claimed, it might be possible to achieve the positioning of this new section by a “printing change”, which is a new concept for me. If this is not achievable, can the Committee expect the Minister to table an amendment on Report to reposition this important clause?

As I am on my feet, and with the leave of the Committee—I have already spoken to the right reverend Prelate—may I speak to Amendment 3, which is also in my name? It is, of course, a probing amendment. To save space and complexity in the Marshalled List, I have amended only the first reference to “Secretary of State” in the new section. He is repeatedly referred to, and my proposal should be read to apply to the words “Secretary of State” throughout it.

Why do I think that the Secretary of State is not the right person to report on veterans affairs? I made some comments on that on Second Reading and do not wish to go over all that now. I think that the Committee shares the feeling that someone other than the Secretary of State is the person who should make the annual reports. The Minister will be able to judge for himself the strength of that feeling as we debate the issue.

What should be done instead? On Second Reading, I drew attention to the arrangement made when the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, was made the first Minister for the Disabled over 40 years ago. He specifically did not wish to be embedded in the department for health or any of the other departments that would have an interest in and responsibilities for the disabled. He wished to be able to operate across departments and to bring together their specific involvements with the disabled, which of course cover many issues of interest to veterans too—health, education, local community support and so on. Indeed, there is a good list of appropriate fields in Amendment 5. A Minister for Veterans would be well placed in the Cabinet Office. The Prime Minister of the day accepted the arguments and reasoning of the noble Lord, Lord Morris, and we all know how successful the noble Lord was and has been ever since in his support and advocacy for the disabled. The arrangements made by Command Paper 7424 in July 2008 for the external reference group, now the covenant reference group, to operate within the Cabinet Office seem an excellent start on which to build and establish a Minister with responsibility for veterans policy in the Cabinet Office. If this idea were taken up, it would also give a far greater indication of the Government’s commitment to veterans and their interests.

In the United States, there is of course a separate Department of Veterans Affairs. Our veteran numbers are no match for the United States, but the principle of separating defence policy and policy for overseeing veterans affairs is a sound one. We should adopt it too. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, who added his name to my two amendments, is unfortunately away from London at this time. I beg to move.

My Lords, my Amendment 12 is also in the name of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce. It refers specifically to the Minister for Veterans Affairs being in the Cabinet Office rather than the Ministry of Defence. Like the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, I have raised the matter on a number of occasions. The comparison with the success of the Minister for Disabilities, which he mentioned, is mirrored by another appointment by the previous Government—the Minister for the Third Sector, who was able to speak from the Cabinet Office and unite the activities of the voluntary sector across the whole spectrum of ministries. It seemed to work extremely well.

I have always gone further. To my mind, the Government have created the ideal post in the Minister for Civil Society, who already has to pull together all the people responsible for the support of veterans in the community as a whole. Rather than necessarily appoint another separate Minister for Veterans Affairs, it would seem logical that that could be added to the portfolio of the Minister for Civil Society, who is already there with a role that precisely mirrors what is required for veterans.

As we have seen, the Minister for Veterans Affairs actually covers every other ministry, including the Ministry of Defence, but has no real rights to interfere with their activities from where he currently is. In addition, the Minister who has the responsibility for veterans affairs now has a very large number of responsibilities, which may in fact inhibit his ability to speak with all the ministries—those of health, transport, work and pensions, communities and local government and so on—that are so vital in veterans affairs. He is responsible for the approach to service personnel and civil servants, reserves, cadets, the Defence Vetting Agency, the MoD Police and Guarding Agency, the People, Pay and Pensions Agency, service children’s education, the Met Office and the Hydrographic Office, in addition to the Service Personnel Veterans Agency. He is already a very busy man. If he has all those responsibilities I do not see how he can carry out all the responsibilities for veterans, particularly as foreseen in the report that is going to have to be made by this covenant. If he were in the Cabinet Office, to which everyone had to report, then you could establish a mechanism to make certain that all the right ingredients were in the report when it was presented to Parliament.

My Lords, if I might interrupt, it might help the Committee. There are a large number of amendments in this group under different noble Lords’ names and I do not know whether they are aware that they should be speaking to them now—they will not get a chance later on.

My Lords, I wish to speak to Amendment 9. This is a cross-party amendment and I respectfully point out that three of the four signatories are in fact former Defence Ministers, and the fourth—the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup—is of course the former Chief of the Defence Staff.

My understanding is that, in preparation of the covenant report, the Secretary of State will consult and liaise with the Secretaries of State covering the areas of health, education and housing. However, we believe that to actually change the Bill so that there must be specific statements from the Secretary of State for Health, the Secretary of State for Education and—covering housing—the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government would considerably enhance the Bill. It would also give those respective departments much greater ownership of the covenant and would certainly add to it. This relatively simple amendment would considerably strengthen the covenant. Of course, it also touches on Amendments 5, 11 and 13. Therefore, I commend it to the Committee.

My Lords, I speak in support of Amendment 9, to which my name is appended. As I said at Second Reading, it seems to me that many of the most intractable issues with regard to the Armed Forces covenant are not within the remit of the Ministry of Defence to attend to: health, education, social services and so on. If the only provision in the Bill for bringing people to account is for them to answer to Parliament for their performance that year, Parliament must be able to probe the Secretaries of State of the relevant ministries, otherwise there is no effective enforcement mechanism and the whole purpose of this part of the Bill will fail. Having the relevant Secretaries of State append their signatures to the relevant parts of the annual report is the very minimum that we should be doing. Indeed, I would go further and seek to ensure that the relevant Secretaries of State are answerable to, and do answer to, Parliament on the anniversary of the Bill and on the annual performance report. This seems at the very least a starting point and will give Parliament the opportunity to probe Ministers on the statements they have made and to which they have appended their signatures in the annual report.

My Lords, I wish to reinforce what has just been said and emphasise the all-party nature of this amendment. As the noble Lord, Lord Lee, has said, people with significant experience in the Ministry of Defence have attached their names to it and it has been tabled it in an attempt to be helpful to Ministers in that department. Several of us have stood at the government Dispatch Box and have had to refuse amendments even though they were helpful, and defend the Government’s position in so doing. We are considering a wide group of amendments and I can well understand that the Minister might feel that he has to resist an inclination to respond favourably in all cases. However, this amendment is different from all the others and constitutes probably the minimum that the Government should seek to do, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, said. It would protect Ministers in the MoD. If Secretaries of State are not responsible for their input into the report, we will have second-hand information. Although I am sure that there is no lack of trust between Ministers, it ought to be clear where responsibility lies. This mechanism would enable a better buy-in from other government departments. We have made significant progress in that regard in recent years but we need to consolidate and work on it. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will look favourably on this amendment.

My Lords, as someone from the ranks, as it were, not having been a Defence Minister, I add my voice to those of former Defence Ministers and speak to Amendment 10 standing in my name. Other amendments in the group concern important matters such as who should prepare reports. My amendment concerns the more mundane but nevertheless important matter of a covenant with our Armed Forces which must note what improvement has been made to the dire condition of too many of the 44,000 forces family homes in the UK.

As noble Lords will remember, the housing was sold off but the MoD is responsible for repairs and maintenance. That is not necessarily a good deal. The MoD has not had the will or the funds to keep many of these properties in a good state of repair. It is clear to me from the inquiries I have made that the coalition Government accept that this problem goes back many years and recognise that something needs to be done. I also accept that in these times of cuts and reductions in expenditure there are unlikely to be sufficient funds radically to improve the existing housing stock. I hope that the purpose of my amendment is simple; namely, to think outside the box. If the MoD does not have the funds to carry out this work—I am told that it does not—and if the freeholder will not do the work because the properties were sold off to a housing association, we should look at other funding streams, as is the case with social housing in the public sector. The amendment is meant to be helpful in terms of directing thought towards other methods.

The amendment asks for a report on the progress being made between the Ministry of Defence and housing associations to improve the accommodation for servicepeople. I am sure that this is not an original thought, but I envisage a round table of housing associations active in garrison towns to build new homes for service personnel or to renovate existing stock to a high standard. A few minutes ago, at Oral Questions in the Chamber, people were reminiscing about World War II. For people of my age who were born during that war, the saying was “homes for heroes”, but I am afraid that we do not nowadays have “a fair deal for squaddies”.

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 2, which is in my name and co-sponsored by the noble Lords, Lord Ramsbotham and Lord Touhig. Perhaps I should begin with a mild apology for being slightly overdressed for this Room but, with the warning that there might be a Division, there would not be time to get backstage to get sorted out in time for that.

I begin by thanking the Minister for making so much time available earlier today in his “open house” at which this amendment was given the chance of some airing. It was a most constructive lead into this debate and confirms the willingness of Her Majesty’s Government to engage in dialogue over the Bill. At Second Reading, the introduction of Clause 2 was welcomed generally by this House. However, there remains a concern from a wide compass of people as to whether the reporting mechanisms envisaged in Clause 2 are sufficiently robust and adequately objective. In earlier debates and in the very helpful briefings arranged by the Minister, I have raised this issue.

Perhaps a key to our discussions is the covenantal relationship between the nation, the Government and the Armed Forces. Covenant is a concept with clear foundations within the Jewish and Christian religious traditions. Essentially, it is rooted in trust between various parties. Such trust is made secure only by setting the covenant within properly defined parameters.

This amendment seeks to address two issues. It is notoriously difficult for any institution or organisation to stand outside itself in an objective critical fashion. This is to expect more than is reasonable from either the Ministry of Defence or the Secretary of State. But a second issue is of equal importance. Vital in all our discussions is the proper, just and generous treatment of veterans, which has been referred to already today. The media have had a field day in the past couple of years in focusing on untreated post-traumatic stress disorder. This is of course a crucial matter to address but, as we have heard, the range of concern facing veterans runs far more widely than this alone. Included here will be issues relating to education, welfare and social security, and to areas relating to social services—family breakdown or even homelessness.

It is unrealistic to expect the Ministry of Defence and thus, by virtue of that, the Secretary of State, to have the ability to respond in each of these areas, including health and notably post-traumatic distress. The MoD has neither the competence nor the facilities to cover this enormous range of challenging concerns. There must be one integrative reviewer who can bring together the resources of the various government ministries. This person will need to respond to individual cases effectively and to engage with local authority provision where necessary. These are matters which each of us will have seen testing the resources in all the localities in which we live.

This amendment aims to provide flexibility in response through the presence of the independent reviewer of armed services welfare. It would allow for such findings to be reported to Parliament annually. It may be that Her Majesty’s Government, in framing Clause 2, took some of these issues and proposals into account. If so, it would be good to know why such a reviewer was not included in the proposed legislation.

Once again I want to emphasise how encouraged I have been by the willingness of Her Majesty’s Government to take the military covenant so seriously and their being prepared to move things on. None the less, at present I am clear that further strengthening is essential if the numbers of our Armed Forces, both serving and retired, are to receive what they undoubtedly deserve. I do not intend to press the amendment at this stage—certainly from how I feel things are going so far this afternoon—but I shall bring the amendment back should that seem necessary at a later stage in the proceedings.

I am most grateful to my two co-sponsors, and indeed to the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, for their encouragement and advice on this.

My Lords, I have no doubt that the approach outlined in Amendment 2, spoken to by the right reverend Prelate, is one to which we should give careful consideration, which is why I put my name to it. For any report to Parliament on the operation of the military covenant to have credibility, it should be underpinned by an independent review of the welfare needs of both existing service men and women and our 5.5 million veterans. In that way the operation of the military covenant will be properly audited.

On Second Reading I was not alone, I think, in expressing concern that there are just three areas listed in the Bill on which the Secretary of State should report—healthcare, education and housing. The Secretary of State alone would decide whether to report on anything else. If Parliament enacts this Bill as it stands, there would be precious little opportunity for future Parliaments to do anything about the issues to be reported. It would be entirely a matter for the Secretary of State. In the coming years there might be many other areas of concern about the welfare of service men and women—and veterans—that should be included in a report to Parliament. The amendment tabled by the right reverend Prelate, if accepted, would afford that flexibility. In my experience, all too often Governments as a rule, Ministers in some instances, and the civil servants always like to have things buttoned down in legislation, leaving little room for manoeuvre or interpretation. I was a strong advocate for that when I sat on the other side.

The scope of this amendment would, I believe, better fit the need of implementing the covenant without being overprescriptive. Under the broad heading of “welfare”, it would be possible to widen the areas to be examined and reported on from the three specified in the Bill without the need to resort to further primary legislation.

I was also concerned on Second Reading to understand how the Secretary of State for Defence would, without being given some special powers, be able to examine and report on healthcare, education and housing for veterans when these responsibilities were held by other Ministers in the devolved Administrations and other bodies that are not answerable to him. I suggested at that time that the National Audit Office, for which I have a high regard, could carry out an independent audit. It has a fine track record and an international reputation for thoroughness. I took the view that such an audit could be presented to Parliament at the same time that the Secretary of State makes his annual report. I think that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, and the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk of Douglas, also supported the idea of an independent audit when they spoke on Second Reading. My experience of serving on the Public Accounts Committee in the other place taught me that there is very much merit in monitoring and auditing new systems of service delivery, and the military covenant is certainly that, which is, of course, at the heart of this Bill.

I believe that appointing an independent Armed Forces reviewer, which this amendment proposes, dedicated to looking at matters concerning the welfare of service men and women and veterans alone, is even better than my suggestion of bringing in the National Audit Office.

The whole purpose of the independent review would be to look at the operation of the covenant under the broad heading of service men and women and veterans welfare. As a former Veterans Minister, I have long held the view that we should do more for those who served our country so bravely and so well and I believe we should have a separate veterans department. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, listed the litany of responsibilities that the Veterans Minister has in addition to being responsible for veterans. As someone who did that job, I can tell you that it was very difficult indeed to focus on the key aspects and the priorities that one would want to pursue.

If the Minister could be persuaded to accept the general thrust of this amendment, he and the Government would be responsible for a significant step forward. When I was a Defence Minister, I posted my own mission statement for veterans and it was simply this: that we will honour and value our veterans, their widows and their families and do everything in our power to demonstrate this. The amendment tabled by the right reverend Prelate would be a great step forward so far as that is concerned. I believe it is a sound basis for demonstrating to the 5.5 million veterans in this country and their families that we care and value them. It would also send out a very positive message to existing service men and women that they will not be forgotten when they leave the Armed Forces.

These Armed Forces Bills come forward only once every five years. Let us take the opportunity to make this a most significant one for our veterans and the brave men and women of our Armed Forces who will be our future veterans. The Minister is highly regarded by all in the House, and when he speaks in the House about the loss of life or injury to our service men and women he always demonstrates the true depth and passion that he feels for our Armed Forces. I hope that he will be with us in this fight and that when he replies he will indicate that the Government are prepared to take away this amendment, work with its supporters and perhaps others, and bring forward an amendment at Report which will be of great significance and importance to the veterans to whom we owe such a great debt.

I speak to Amendment 11 in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Patel. The matters I wish to cover in this amendment were dealt with at Second Reading in my own contribution, and relate to the obligation as part of the covenant to make an annual report with regard to matters of healthcare that attend former or current membership of the Armed Forces.

The amendment proposes that that report be properly informed through the collection of objective evidence that will allow us to ensure that the conclusions reached with regard to the impact of service on health status and the requirement to access healthcare facilities are properly recorded, and that conclusions derived from that report can be used to inform the provision of services in the future.

The health consequences of membership of the Armed Forces receive coverage regularly in the media, but much of that is anecdotal reporting. It does not provide the opportunity to constructively understand the implications of service, or how health services should best be provided to ensure that those who have served our country in such an important way have available primary and more acute hospital services that meet their needs. A report to Parliament dealing with the healthcare consequences of membership of the Armed Forces is very welcome. If it is not properly informed by prospective research, however, it will be meaningless and provide little opportunity to report anything other than anecdote.

These two amendments are not onerous. They just ensure, in moving forward a report on the question of healthcare and health status, that questions are posed at the beginning of any reporting cycle; that objective evidence is collected using established public health methods to answer those questions; and that those questions are reported in a systematic fashion to inform future development of policy, and to ensure that we are not in any way denying services or the best possible health outcomes for those who have served our country.

My Lords, I say, first, that the Bill is extremely welcome. It is clear that Clause 2 is very well intended by the Government, but also that there has been a consensus among the contributions in Committee so far this afternoon that it does not go far enough and is inadequate. I congratulate all four supporters and proposers of the amendments who spoke; their contributions were extremely helpful. I will make one or two comments on each, starting with Amendment 11, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar.

I totally agree with him that it is important that we should have professional analysis of the problems in the medical field before we start reporting on how adequate the medical facilities are, either for those who are serving or for those who have served. Clearly, we need to know what the problem is before we can assess the effectiveness of any solution that is proposed or implemented. However, with great respect to the noble Lord, I say that his amendment has it the wrong way round. It is wrong to wait for the stage after the reviewer has produced the review, at the point where the Secretary of State is going to publish the report, to have that specialist professional work done. We should start with that; it should be the evidential basis on which the reviewer works. He should compare the facilities in place with the professional advice on what the facilities ought to be. That work should be done at the outset, and I hope that if the reviewer is doing his job he will commission such work.

Under the proposals tabled by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield, my noble friend Lord Touhig and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, as well as in the original draft of the clause, there is provision for the reviewer to receive remuneration. Therefore, I do not see a problem in that. Perhaps we should not tell the reviewer exactly how to do his job, but we should express the hope, here and in other contexts, that he will commission professional work of the kind that has been suggested—or else there should be an obligation on him to commission the work. We should not leave it to the second stage of the Secretary of State.

I find myself entirely in agreement with Amendment 10, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Palmer of Childs Hill. I do not know why anybody would disagree with it. The issue is one of making sure that the report covers what progress has been made in the provision of housing. This is not in any way a prescriptive obligation placed on anybody; it is purely descriptive and sets out the facts. I do not see why Parliament should resist a proposal, which is not unreasonably costly, that we should be given the facts when we ask the reviewer to review the state of housing. We need to know the facts relating to the portion of housing that is in the hands of housing associations. I am very much drawn to the proposal.

I turn to Amendment 9, put forward by the noble Lords, Lord Lee of Trafford and Lord Glenarthur, the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup. At first sight I thought that it was a splendid proposal, but it is a little ambiguous. It states that the covenant report must include a statement that,

“the provisions of the report are compatible with subsection (2)(a)”.

I am not sure what that is intended to mean. Is it that the statements of fact in the reviewer's report are a correct description of the facts in the respective areas of health, education and local government? Or does it mean that any shortcomings that have been identified, and any recommendations that have been made, have been resolved and implemented by the time that the three Secretaries of State signed the statement? It is slightly unclear what is intended. If it is the latter, that has cost implications of a potentially unlimited kind, so the Treasury may see some difficulty in that. If it is merely a matter of the three Secretaries of State explicitly endorsing a description of the facts that the reviewer has uncovered, I see no objection at all: indeed, that would be extremely helpful.

Amendment 2, the key amendment in this group, is in the names of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield, and the noble Lords, Lord Ramsbotham and Lord Touhig. It is designed to address an obvious inadequacy in Clause 2 as produced by the Government; namely, first, the reviewer has to report only on “healthcare, education and housing” and, secondly,

“such other fields as the Secretary of State may determine”.

We know that “healthcare, education and housing” are not the full picture as far as the covenant is concerned. Several issues have been raised, notably veterans, which is terribly important. But there are also such issues as, for example, coroners’ inquests—this is a big issue which we will need to discuss during these proceedings and has been left out—and many other things.

Another aspect which concerns me is any potential discrimination which may exist against members of the Armed Forces. I am sorry to say that when I chaired the National Recognition of the Armed Forces report some years ago, we uncovered and documented in that report a number of cases of serious discrimination against members of the Armed Forces in this country. Luckily, we have not had incidents of that kind—at least not that I am aware of—in the past few years. But should such a situation arise again, the issue very much should be the target of a report by the reviewer on how the covenant is being implemented. I think that all sides of this Committee are agreed that there are many issues other than those three provided for in Clause 2.

Surely, the idea of the,

“other fields as the Secretary of State may determine”,

is ludicrous. This Bill would be a laughing stock if it went forward in that way. That someone should decide what aspects of fulfilment, responsibilities or behaviour should be reported on would be regarded as ludicrous in any other context and is, indeed, ludicrous in this context. That certainly should not stand.

Therefore, the proposals put forward by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield are very much to be welcomed. I see no obvious difficulties with any of the text of this provision and no reason why I should not support it if it comes to that point. It is again not a provision that places significant financial obligations on the Government. Of course, the reviewer has to be paid and he is allowed to run up some expenses and to pay his staff, which must be reasonable. We have already gone through one aspect of where he may legitimately incur expenses—for example, on professional medical advice. But these are small sums and very small beer. It could hardly be considered to be a serious financial liability.

I hope that the amendment commends itself to the Government. If they were to accept this, I believe that they would find immediately that there was a qualitative enhancement in the credibility and impact of the Bill as it becomes an Act of Parliament. It would make a real, historic change in the way in which this country regards the covenant, to which we all feel an obligation for the men and women who serve in our armed services.

My Lords, I shall speak briefly about Amendment 2. First, I pay tribute to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield for raising this whole issue and for speaking so clearly and comprehensively about his amendment. I speak with some trepidation because I spot five former Defence Ministers in Committee and three very distinguished former senior officers in the Armed Forces. But I believe that we need a moment of caution before we separate responsibility for looking at and making sure that the covenant is properly observed and pointing out difficulties and failure to achieve objectives from ministerial responsibility.

Like many of my colleagues of all parties, I speak as having served twice in the Ministry of Defence. I believe strongly that the responsibility of the Secretary of State, through his junior Ministers—Ministers of State and Parliamentary Under-Secretaries—should not be in any way compromised by attempting to shuffle it off to an independent reviewer. This is a bureaucratic point, not one of principle. It is a point about how the Ministry of Defence works.

I strongly recommend to your Lordships that there be some reflection before the next stage of the Bill about how we separate or connect responsibility for the independent reviewer, or a reviewer, who inevitably will be a civil servant, from ministerial responsibility. Looking back over the past 20 or 30 years in Parliament, I think that some issues, particularly in relation to the covenant, have been not shuffled off but forgotten by the politicians. We have to return to the central responsibility of the politicians—Ministers—to Parliament for honouring the covenant. It is a matter of attention by Ministers and of accountability—accountability directly to your Lordships’ House and to the House of Commons. We have to find the right balance to make sure that this is not seen just as another bureaucratic invention that looks after the problem and reports, without making sure that we pin down political and ministerial responsibility.

I hope that between now and Report we can reflect on this, but I congratulate the right reverend Prelate on tabling Amendment 2 and speaking so eloquently and sensibly about the issue.

My Lords, I rise principally to support Amendment 2, tabled by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield. I also support Amendments 3, 5, 9, 12 and 13. It seems to me that those amendments get to the person, position and authority required to fully deliver on the Armed Forces covenant.

Despite the best efforts of the Secretary of State for Defence and his predecessors—and of their junior Ministers—who have been charged over the years to deliver what we now know as the Armed Forces covenant, we have not been able to do enough to bring it into balance. On the one hand, the so-called covenant recognises the legitimate work given by the elected Government of the day to those members of the Armed Forces and their predecessors to do what they are required to do in the best interests of the nation, while on the other hand providing for the legitimate needs of individual servicemen and their families—and of their forebears, the veterans. That is why we are at a balance.

Amendment 2 is about a reviewer. That has much to commend it. The others that I referred to are about the ministerial responsibility. The idea articulated particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham—that the Minister should be not in the Ministry of Defence but in the Cabinet Office, and therefore with pan-Whitehall observation and ministerial responsibility for veterans affairs—has a lot of merit. This once-in-five-years opportunity should be seized. There is a mood in the country at present that we must do better for our veterans, and indeed for our current service men and women and their families. Therefore, I ask the Minister to pick up that mood and reflect with other members of the Government on whether this is an opportunity to improve things in the best interests of those who lay their lives on the line for the nation, those who have done so in the past, and their families.

My Lords, I have my name down to support Amendment 11 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar. The comments that the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, made about the amendment in no way diminish the important point that it tries to make. It is about collecting information relating to healthcare needs “affecting service people”—that is specified by the amendment, and includes families—

“including issues related to access to healthcare”.

There was a clear deficit in access to healthcare by service personnel and their families.

In my time, I have had the privilege to serve on the peer review board, ably and effectively chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, and as a member of the Armed Forces equality and diversity advisory group, and I have come across many service personnel and their families. Being the only doctor on the board it was inevitable that they spoke to me about health issues. There was a clear deficit in access to healthcare by service personnel and their families, and in the kind of care offered to those who suffered injuries and whose surgical repair required long-term care, particularly physiotherapy, to make them fit again. That was absent. To have a covenant that requires the authorities to produce a report that tracks the healthcare needs of service personnel and their families is extremely important. We need a commitment to look after them as they move about. Their usual comments were that they had to join the end of the queue again on the waiting list as they moved from one place to another. The amendment makes a commitment to collect that information. Although the amendment refers to “research” it is not research in the true sense, but collecting information. I do not believe that the amendment would add an extra burden in any way.

My Lords, I hope that the Minister will take seriously the arguments that have been put forward this afternoon. With the tremendous demands that we make on our armed services and the way in which they discharge their responsibilities, our responsibility is redoubled to make absolutely certain that whatever the good intention of the new legislation—the proposals are impressive in many respects—it is not allowed to become a formality in which the real application of its spirit becomes minimalist rather than maximised. We need to be clear that effective muscle is in place.

It is a long time since I had the privilege of being a Minister at the Ministry of Defence. In those days we had Ministers responsible for the services and I had responsibility for the Navy. I can remember clearly that issues were raised about the welfare of personnel in the Navy even back then in the early 1970s. The Seebohm report was produced by the distinguished man of that name, who wanted to put in place effective arrangements to ensure that there was proper provision for the welfare of naval personnel. In those days it was regarded as a very hostile concept. There was a lot of defensive reaction within the service for which I was responsible because it was felt that it was undermining the responsibility of leadership in the services. There were well informed and courageous officers at that time who were saying quite the reverse and that the responsibility of leadership is to make sure that things happen and are well done. If we know that we do not have professional insights or experience that is relevant to proper provision, we have a responsibility as leaders to ensure that it is available. The report prevailed.

I make that point because it seems that our attitude has come on by leaps and bounds, and I can do nothing but welcome how those with a great deal of highly relevant and recent senior service experience are seeing all this as part of discharging our responsibilities to the personnel who serve us so well.

My Lords, I wish briefly to add a comment to Amendment 11, which is in the names of my noble friends Lord Kakkar and Lord Patel. We have a changing system of healthcare delivery for those coming back from active service, with an increasing number now being looked after in primary care and in hospitals nearer their own homes wherever those are. It is important that we monitor the quality of care. In meeting service personnel who have been severely injured, I have been struck that one of the problems that they are now hitting relates to limb fitting and rehabilitation services that go along with that. That is from the perspective of the recipients, and maybe we need to think of more cost-effective ways of meeting the very specific needs of those who have become multiple amputees through an incident on the battlefield, for example.

There is another aspect to this, however. If we do not collate this information we will not get the information on the best way to deal with the trauma when it occurs in the battlefield. The way that trauma is inflicted on our troops is changing very rapidly as enemies use different methods and different types of improvised devices to cause injury. The speed of response of our services and medical services at the front line, and indeed the other members of the forces who are with them at the time, makes the difference between survival and death.

Survival figures from battlefield trauma are a credit to those medical services. They are astounding and I have had the privilege of having discussions with some of the medics who have been in the front line doing the trauma. They also need the information, however, in the longer term of whatever they do out in the field. There are very clear clinical indications for the management of trauma on the battlefield, wherever it happens, to make sure we save more lives and that we maximise the chance of recovery. All those lessons spill over into civilian life as well, where there are multiple accidents, explosions and other forms of trauma. The way that our ordinary civilian paramedical services deal with trauma is often based on lessons learned in the battlefield.

I commend Amendment 11, which might seem as if it sits a little outside the others in this group but actually will have some very important long-term implications. It is an opportunity lost if we do not collect the data.

My Lords, I hope the Committee will forgive me for arriving late for the sitting this afternoon and I apologise for that. I will say a few words on Amendment 2 and then a few words on Amendment 9. I agree with my noble friend Lord Freeman when he says that the thrust of Amendment 2 tends to derogate from ministerial responsibility. It is also bureaucratic and likely to be expensive. It is after all the privilege and honour we have in this House and in the other place that we continually monitor these matters.

Amendment 9 is in the name of my noble friend Lord Lee and others. As I said on Second Reading, I hope the Government will think hard about this amendment or something in similar terms. It is the duty of the Secretary of State to liaise with these departments of state and these other Secretaries of State. The comments of these Secretaries of State should be confirmed and validated by written assertions in the terms outlined in Amendment 9 and I hope that great consideration will be given to those matters.

My Lords, I wish to speak to Amendments 4, 5, 16, 18 and 19. Most of the comment on and interest in the Bill has centred on the Armed Forces covenant and the Secretary of State’s report. It is therefore not surprising that by far the largest single group of amendments should relate to this issue.

The Bill places a duty on the Secretary of State for Defence to produce an annual report to Parliament on the effects of membership or former membership of the Armed Forces on servicepeople. In preparing the report, the Secretary of State must have regard in particular to the unique obligations of and sacrifices made by the Armed Forces, the principle that it is desirable to remove disadvantages arising for servicepeople from membership or former membership of the Armed Forces, and the principle that special provision for servicepeople may be justified by the effects on such people of membership or former membership of the Armed Forces.

However, it would appear that these principles apply to issues within the Armed Forces covenant report, but which will include only those issues that the Secretary of State decides to include. These principles should be applicable to government policy, and my amendments include provision for the principles to apply to all public policy by stating that, in preparing policy, public bodies and Ministers must have regard to those matters to which the Secretary of State is to have regard in preparing an Armed Forces covenant report, and must also consider whether the making of special provision for servicepeople or particular descriptions of servicepeople would be justified. There should surely be an obligation on all public servants to take heed of the principles of the covenant if we are to be confident that the covenant is to be fully applied. Further, there is provision in my amendments for the Parliamentary and Local Government Ombudsmen to investigate complaints from service personnel that a public body or local authority has failed to meet the commitments outlined in the Armed Forces covenant and The Armed Forces Covenant: Today and Tomorrow.

The Bill provides for the Secretary of State’s report to cover healthcare, education and housing, but anything else is left to the Secretary of State to determine. As the Minister put it in his opening speech at Second Reading:

“Other issues will only emerge at the time, so the Bill leaves this flexible”.

The difficulty is that leaving out everything apart from healthcare, education and housing provides an opportunity for any Secretary of State to seek to sideline other important issues, perhaps because they are difficult or awkward. Indeed, the Secretary of State would appear to be reporting on what other departments or devolved Administrations are doing in respect of healthcare, education and housing, for which he is not directly responsible, but not reporting on the work of his own department for which he is directly responsible. My amendments propose a much longer list in order to overcome this potential problem and limit the extent of any Secretary of State to decide which issues are relevant to current or former servicepeople. After all, if in the opinion of a Secretary of State any of the headings listed in my amendment are not worthy of reporting on in the Armed Forces covenant report in any one year, that is all the Secretary of State need say in his report, and then see if Parliament and others are of the same opinion.

At Second Reading the Minister said that,

“the process of preparing reports will evolve over time. We are breaking new ground. We will learn from experience, listen to comments, and move forward in a positive way. I am clear that that is the right way to do it, rather than making the legislation excessively prescriptive.—[Official Report, 6/7/11; col. 272.]

I am not as convinced as the Minister that the Government intend to listen if they have already decided that a specific reference to anything more than healthcare, education and housing as set out in the Bill is being “excessively prescriptive”. Bearing in mind that we normally have an Armed Forces Bill only every five years, and that the Ministry of Defence adopts the approach of keeping proposals requiring primary legislation until the next Bill is due, we need to get the wording in this Bill right on the extent of the issues which must be addressed in a Secretary of State’s Armed Forces covenant report.

My amendments, unlike the Bill, mention specifically the external reference group. At Second Reading the Minister accepted that concerns had been raised about the independence of the annual report, concerns that will relate to any Secretary of State and any Government of whatever political colour. The Minister said that the Government have undertaken to publish alongside the annual report whatever observations the external members of the covenant reference group choose to make on it. Since the issue of the independence of the report is not directed at any one Secretary of State or any particular Government, a requirement to publish any observations from the external reference group—apparently now called the covenant reference group by the Government, and confirmed by the Government as a permanent body—should be on the face of the Bill, as should the results of any additional consultation with service charities and groups and other interested parties both inside and outside government.

At Second Reading, the Minister said:

“In preparing annual reports, the Ministry of Defence would consult widely with interested parties inside and outside Government”.—[Official Report, 6/7/11; col. 272.]

My amendments extend the list of issues to be addressed in the Secretary of State’s annual report to 10 headings, including accommodation, healthcare and education. Six of the additional headings cover,

“mental healthcare … pensions and benefits … employment and training … support for reservists and their employers … the running of the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme, and progress on Armed Forces rehabilitation schemes”.

I would hardly have thought that any of these headings made the legislation “excessively prescriptive”, since they are all issues of considerable importance to serving and former service personnel, of whom, with their families, there are around 10 million, or one in six of the population.

The last heading in my amendment is,

“such other fields as the External Reference Group may determine”,

instead of as in the Bill,

“such other fields as the Secretary of State may determine”

Since all of the rest of the report will be under the auspices of the Secretary of State, the independence of the report will be enhanced by the ability of the external reference group to determine what, if any other fields should be addressed apart from those specifically provided for in the Bill, and to make their own observations on the content—or lack of content—of the report, as the Government intend. We do not want a process that is simply Ministers reporting on what Ministers deem fit to report on. My amendment also sets out the broad composition and role of the external reference group and provides for it to be independently chaired.

On this point, it would also be helpful if the Minister could clarify what is meant by the wording in the Explanatory Notes to this Bill, in paragraph 18. One sentence says:

“If the Secretary of State considers that any of the fields of healthcare, education and housing is not relevant to a particular description of people covered in a report, the requirement to report on each of those fields is relaxed to that extent”.

Can the Minister confirm that that means the Secretary of State is the sole arbiter on whether there is a need to report on anything in the covenant report, including healthcare, education and housing? I hope that he will make a positive response to my amendments, which strengthen the covenant and accountability for its implementation across public life. I also look forward with interest to his response to the other amendments which have been so thoughtfully and powerfully moved.

My Lords, this first group of amendments to Clause 2 consists of some 12 items, and deals with many aspects of the Armed Forces covenant and the proposed annual report. I am very grateful for the Committee’s patience, especially as, in order to draw out some common themes, I will not keep to the strict numerical order of amendments.

Amendment 1, in the name of the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Craig and Lord Boyce, would change the position of the provision for the Armed Forces covenant report in the Armed Forces Act. At Second Reading, the noble and gallant Lord referred to an “unfortunate juxtaposition” if the new provision were inserted directly after Section 359, which deals with pardons for servicemen executed during the First World War. I am most grateful to the noble and gallant Lord for the helpful and constructive way in which he has approached this issue. In their amendment, the noble and gallant Lords propose that the new provision should be moved to follow Section 339. This would place it in Part 14, which covers topics such as enlistment and terms of service. We do not favour that, because we see the annual report and the Armed Forces covenant itself going far beyond enlistment and terms of service.

I had hoped that we could arrange a printing change, such that the new provision was inserted into the 2006 Act at new Section 353A, under its own italic “Armed forces covenant report” cross-heading. As the noble and gallant Lord said, I wrote to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, in these terms. I thought that we had a deal.

Regrettably, I have now been advised that the Public Bill Office has declined to make the proposed change in printing points, having originally said that it was acceptable. Nevertheless, I reassure the noble and gallant Lords that there is no significance in the current proposed location next to Section 359. The two provisions are unrelated but are both properly categorised as “miscellaneous”. No relationship is implied by their positioning. Therefore, I do not consider that there is a major issue about the correctness or appropriateness of the new section.

Three other amendments in the group deal with the annual report of the covenant. Amendment 10, tabled by my noble friend Lord Palmer, concerns housing. The noble Lords, Lord Kakkar and Lord Patel, focus in Amendment 11 on healthcare research. The noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Tunnicliffe, propose a longer list of additions in Amendment 5. The amendments draw attention to very important subjects. Amendment 10, tabled by my noble friend Lord Palmer, requires the report to provide an update on progress with housing associations towards improving service accommodation. In practice, housing associations may contribute more to helping service leavers and veterans to find suitable housing than helping those in service. Our successful pilot shared-equity scheme is managed by a housing association. Housing is one of the core topics mentioned in Clause 2 and the Government regard it as one of the most important elements of the Armed Forces covenant. We have been very active in exploring the scope to do more for our people, for example through the housing summit organised by the Housing Minister in May this year. Some housing associations are already doing excellent work in this field, and we will always be interested in good ideas from the housing sector.

Similarly, in response to Amendment 11, proposed by the noble Lords, Lord Kakkar and Lord Patel, we recognise the importance of commissioning and reporting on research designed to underpin healthcare for servicepeople. Very valuable research has already been commissioned by my department, such as the work of Professor Simon Wessely and the King’s Centre for Military Health Research, comparing the health of those who deploy on operations with a control group. We will continue to support research into healthcare issues affecting servicepeople, both in-house and, where appropriate, through external funding. Other bodies inside and outside government will also commission relevant research. This is a hugely important subject and we take it very seriously.

The noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Tunnicliffe, tabled a much longer list of subjects to be covered in the report, which I suspect is designed to cover everything relating to the covenant. The assumption that the amendments have in common is that the best way to ensure that the annual report covers issues that matter is to name them in legislation. We disagree. Any attempt to write a comprehensive list is unlikely to be successful. Even if it captures everything today, it will be out of date tomorrow. Topics which became less important over time would still have to be covered every year. The annual report could become a box-ticking exercise.

We feel that it would be much better to have a short list of three enduring topics, as the Bill proposes. There are certain to be issues relating to healthcare, education and housing, and to at least one section of the Armed Forces community, in every year of the report. That is why we believe that they should be included as indicative of the coverage of the report. Beyond that, we should allow the Secretary of State to exercise his discretion on what to cover and for Ministers to defend their decisions.

I now turn to Amendments 3 and 12, which consider the position of government departments. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, have suggested that responsibility should be taken away from the Secretary of State for Defence. In one case it would be given to the Minister for Veterans Policy, wherever he sits in the Government; in the other it would be given specifically to the Cabinet Office. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has made it clear in the past that he believes that it would be more effective for the Minister with responsibility for veterans issues to sit outside the Ministry of Defence. The Government’s view remains that the current arrangements work.

The Government fully support veterans and I meet a great many, which is always a huge privilege. We have announced a number of major steps to support veterans, including improved access to higher and further education, improvements to Armed Forces compensation, extra help for those with mental health problems and the institution of a veterans card next year. Our tradition and our expectation is that all arms of government will play their part in supporting veterans, rather than moving towards a centralised American model. We see no reason to change that.

However, the most significant disadvantage of these amendments is the implication that the report is focused on the veterans community. The Armed Forces covenant also covers serving personnel and their families, and an annual report must in its turn address the issues which face those groups. There is no suggestion that responsibility for serving personnel will lie outside the Ministry of Defence in the future. To place this duty on a Minister who may not be at the MoD would put us in a somewhat strange position. I am conscious that I owe the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, an answer to his question on the earlier amendment and I hope that I will have that before I end my speech.

Amendment 9, tabled by my noble friend Lord Lee and his colleagues, highlights the contribution of other government departments to the annual report. The report which the Secretary of State lays before Parliament will be his own and he must be responsible for it. But it will reflect the views of the Government as a whole—that is very important—and it will have been approved by the Government as a whole. For example, there is no danger of the Ministry of Defence somehow working in a passage on healthcare which runs counter to the position of the Department of Health. It will be fairly clear to the reader which sections of the report are based on the contribution of which government department. I do not believe that it is necessary or appropriate to create a statutory duty to set this out. Indeed, if the Secretary of State decides to cover other issues beyond healthcare, education and housing, there would be no matching reference in the legislation.

I turn to the other amendments tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Tunnicliffe. Amendments 4 and 16 require the Secretary of State to publish the observations of the external reference group and other consulted parties, and seek to define the external reference group. The external reference group, now renamed the covenant reference group, is an important part of the machinery that underpins the Armed Forces covenant. It monitors the performance of the Government in meeting their commitments and discusses with key stakeholders issues relating to the covenant. I am sure that when the noble and gallant Lords look at the membership of the covenant reference group, they will understand that it will keep Ministers on their toes.

The service personnel command paper that the previous Administration published in July 2008—I compliment them on the work that they did on this very important issue—represents a significant step forward in this area. I put on record the Government's endorsement of that initiative. The external reference group was one of the legacies of that work. The coalition Government want the group to continue. Earlier this year, we moved quickly to dispel any ambiguity on that point. We are very grateful for the work done by all its members, inside and outside government.

The Government are committed to consulting widely in drafting the annual report. My right honourable friend the Defence Secretary said in another place on 16 May this year that we would publish the observations of non-government members of the external reference group alongside the report. Given that clear commitment, there is no need to include it in legislation. The covenant reference group is perfectly able to carry out its functions without these being enshrined in statute.

Amendment 19, again tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Tunnicliffe, refers to the role of the ombudsman. I pay tribute to the work of both the Parliamentary and Local Government Ombudsmen. They and their colleagues around the United Kingdom can do much to help members of the Armed Forces community. They are keen to understand more about the circumstances of service men and women and their families, and have welcomed the familiarisation events that my officials have organised. In turn, we can do more to make service personnel aware of how the ombudsmen can help them. It is much less clear what this amendment would add to their role. Its scope seems to be limited to service personnel, excluding family members and veterans. It also refers to two documents that, whatever their merits, will in time be supplemented by further steps to meet new circumstances. In short, the ombudsmen have a vital role to play, but it will not be enhanced by the amendment.

My response to that earlier question of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, is “no”. The clause makes it clear that certain matters must be covered, but it will not necessarily be right to report on every possible subgroup within the very broad scope of servicepeople. The Secretary of State, with the advice of the covenant reference group, will decide what the key issues are, and the report will deal with those groups of servicepeople to whom the issues relate. This is what the Explanatory Notes refer to. I hope that what I have read out makes sense. I will follow it up with a letter to the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, and copy in all noble Lords present, to make sure that the point is fully understood.

I come to the two amendments that imply the most radical change. The noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Tunnicliffe, propose in Amendment 5 that a statutory duty should be imposed on all public bodies and government departments to have regard to the principles set out in Clause 2(3)—the covenant principles— when formulating policy. The Government do not agree with this proposition. We have no quarrel—quite the opposite—with the idea that public bodies should take into account the principles of the covenant in their work. However, that does not mean that a statutory duty as proposed would be either helpful or appropriate. The progress we have made on the covenant has been achieved through detailed co-operation with public bodies across Whitehall and builds on their own desire to do what is best for servicepeople. The Government strongly oppose the idea that this should be accompanied by the creation of new rights and legal duties.

A new duty would lead to an increase in bureaucracy as public bodies and Ministers sought to demonstrate that they had complied. It would add little by way of practical benefits, given the difficulty of proving that a public body or Minister had failed to have regard to relevant matters, yet it would create a very real risk of litigation that no one wants. That is not what the Government want and, more importantly, it is not what members of the Armed Forces want. The covenant is a statement of moral obligation, not of legally enforceable rights, and it should remain that way.

Finally, I turn to Amendment 2 in the name of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield who has taken a very close interest in the Armed Forces covenant. I remember the excellent debate on the subject which he prompted in July. I was heartened to hear the right reverend Prelate say that he believes that the Government are taking the covenant seriously. This amendment would remove the requirement for an Armed Forces covenant report altogether as a principal route by which Parliament is kept informed. In its place, the Secretary of State would lay before Parliament independent reports on welfare and there would be a new reviewer of Armed Forces welfare with an office of his own.

It is worth recording the origin of Clause 2 of the Bill—the Government’s desire to write the Armed Forces covenant into the law of the land. The right reverend Prelate’s proposal would relegate the covenant to a very minor role, no longer at centre stage. The role of the reviewer of Armed Forces welfare, as set out in the amendment, does not appear to cover the families of service personnel, though I do not suppose the right reverend Prelate intended to exclude them.

The noble Lord, Lord Davies, mentioned a concern about costs. A reviewer would have to have staff and everything that would go with it. We recognise that the independence of the annual report is an important issue for many noble Lords. There is a view that the Government should not be left to mark their own homework and that there should be an element of external audit. I can, however, offer the Committee reassurance on this point. The Government have stated that they will consult widely in preparing an annual report. That is where we will get the evidence of what is happening. We will publish the observations of the covenant reference group, who are not slow to come forward. Beyond that, we know that any report which failed to give a proper account of the situation on the ground would get short-shrift in Parliament and rightly so.

We want the annual report to be accurate and we want it to be informative so that we can debate the issues properly. Fundamentally, in matters of Armed Forces welfare, we believe that the Government should report to Parliament and account for their actions. This amendment not only creates an unnecessary new body, it serves to draw responsibility away from Ministers.

The noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, asked Ministers to pick up the “mood of the nation”, a mood which he and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, did so much to change. The Government have listened carefully and for the first time have recognised the covenant in law and put the key principles on the face of the Bill. Many important points have been made during this session. I hope I have persuaded the Committee that the amendments in this group should be withdrawn.

I thank the Minister very much for that comprehensive Answer. As regards my Amendment 1, I would like to be clear that if the printing change is not acceptable the Government intend to move their own amendment to correct the present position as regards Section 359. If that is not the case, I shall certainly want to return to that. However, in the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 1 withdrawn.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

Amendments 2 to 5 not moved.

Amendment 6

Moved by

6: Clause 2, page 2, line 10, at end insert “, including minors under the age of 18 years”

My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 8. These amendments have been tabled in the name of my noble friend Lady Drake, who is sorry not to be here; she is involved in the work of a Select Committee this afternoon. We will all remember her particularly telling speech at Second Reading on the matters covered by these amendments. At the outset I should also like to pay tribute to my noble friends Lord Rosser and Lord Tunnicliffe on their Amendment 22, which underlines some of the objectives of these amendments.

I will argue that the MoD has a legal duty of care to all service personnel. In the case of personnel aged below 18 years, additional legal and moral obligations arise due to the fact that they are minors and recognised as children in national law. The MoD has to ensure and demonstrate that it is meeting these specific obligations, including through the regular and transparent publication of relevant data for public and parliamentary review. The purpose of the amendment is to ensure such a review by requiring the Secretary of State, in preparing the Armed Forces covenant report, to include a report on the position of minors under the age of 18 with regard to their physical and mental welfare, education and employment.

The need for constant vigilance regarding the welfare of minors in the Armed Forces is a particular priority given that they constitute a very high percentage of new recruits each year. In the financial year 2010-11, minors alone constituted 29.8 per cent of new Army recruits: some 2,400 individuals. Averaged across the three services, minors constituted 24.1 per cent of the intake in the same period. As far as I am aware, no other ministry or department directly employs such a significant proportion of minors, making the MoD’s duty of care obligations quite unique.

The British Armed Forces offer new recruits of all ages a unique lifestyle and unique career opportunities. Many individuals thrive on the excitement, challenge and personal reward which this entails. At the same time, an Armed Forces career is extremely demanding, and the risk of serious physical harm and psychological pressure faced by service personnel both in training and on active service should never be underestimated. To ensure that the MoD is adequately discharging its duty of care, evidence is needed to demonstrate that recruiting minors does not place them at excessive, unnecessary or disproportionate risk of such harm as a result of their age and reduced maturity.

These concerns arise in particular in relation to evidence that the youngest Armed Forces recruits are more susceptible to serious mental health problems than older colleagues. The MoD itself has published interesting research demonstrating that the suicide rate among soldiers aged 19 and below is 50 per cent higher than the rate among equivalent males in the general UK population. Conversely, older Armed Forces personnel have significantly lower suicide rates than their civilian peers. Analysis has also indicated a link between vulnerability to post-traumatic stress disorder and youth in soldiers. If it is the case that younger personnel are at risk of such difficulties, proper measures obviously need to be taken to redress the problem. The gathering and review of comprehensive data on this matter is an essential preliminary step.

While recognising the potential opportunities offered, the recruitment of minors into the Armed Forces is nevertheless in stark contrast to the age limits imposed on other dangerous work, for example in the police, fire or ambulance services. The recruitment of minors is also the exception rather than the rule among armed forces internationally. Fewer than 60 countries still recruit minors, and fewer than 20 recruit 16 year-olds. To justify these exceptions and demonstrate that current policy reflects the best interests of the child—a key principle in national and international law—continual evidence-based review is surely required.

One of the Government’s primary duties to young people is to ensure their education, both as a means of personal development and as an essential prerequisite for a life of gainful employment. The Armed Forces offer recruits a variety of training and educational opportunities. However, as the number of teenagers staying on in education to at least the age of 18 in the country as a whole increases each year, along with the quantity and quality of qualifications they gain, it is necessary to ensure that recruits who join the Armed Forces while still of school age are not placed at any long-term disadvantage.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

My Lords, I have a dilemma. Some colleagues have suggested that I should go back to the beginning and start again. That would be a bit onerous. On the other hand, I have a note from Hansard asking for my speaking notes, which is a bit premature because I have more to say.

The education and training provided to minors in the Armed Forces not only must be adequate for their immediate situation but should ensure that they have the necessary qualifications to succeed at work within and outside the Armed Forces for the rest of their lives. If young recruits do not gain recognised transferable qualifications while in the Armed Forces, they are likely to encounter far greater difficulties finding employment if and when they return to civilian life. Despite the vital importance of education, the MoD has stated that it does not keep any comprehensive record of the qualifications achieved by minors in service. The amendment seeks to redress this absence and to ensure that adequate standards are met.

While the Armed Forces have always been proud of the educational opportunities that they provide for young recruits, recent evidence indicates that the basic educational provision for minors may now be falling behind the levels expected in mainstream education. Minors training at the specialised Army Foundation College in Harrogate study a very limited academic curriculum, covering English, maths and IT only, at a level equivalent to a low-grade GCSE pass. They do not study for GCSEs, A-levels, BTECs or similar qualifications. It should be noted that this is in contrast to the excellent academic results achieved at the Welbeck Defence Sixth Form College, where students who are not Armed Forces personnel but who wish to pursue a career in the forces study a range of A-level subjects alongside military-style training to prepare them for a future military career.

Would it not be more beneficial for both recruits and the Armed Forces if the career entrance path for minors was focused on education until recruits reach 18? Vocational training leading to recognised transferable qualifications could form the basis of education for recruits who are less academically inclined. Once again, I suggest a comprehensive assessment of data on this issue is necessary in order to ensure that the MoD is fully discharging its obligations towards minors in its care and employment. The need to ensure that recruits enlisting as minors do not suffer disadvantage as a result is made more acute by the fact that the majority of those enlisting below the age of 18 come from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. These young people seek an opportunity to improve their prospects and make something of their lives. The Armed Forces have the potential to make this happen, but, I would argue, only if adequate attention is given to the recruits’ long-term needs. Minors who leave mainstream education early in order to enlist must be guaranteed adequate training and qualifications. Education has long been recognised as the path out of poverty and social deprivation. Failure to ensure that young recruits complete a thorough education will condemn them to long-term disadvantage.

While the majority of minors joining the Armed Forces each year enjoy the experience and wish to stay, we have to recognise that a significant minority do not. Last year alone 27 per cent of recruits enlisting as minors dropped out of initial training. This is significantly higher than drop-out rates for older recruits, which it seems average at 15 per cent. In the financial year 2009-10, one in three minors left within a year of enlisting. The high drop-out rate is important in this context for two reasons. First, it demonstrates the importance of ensuring that young recruits gain adequate qualifications to pursue a career outside the armed services. Secondly, it places an obligation on the MoD to ensure that minors leaving its care make a successful all-round transition to civilian life. Evidence shows that early service leavers—service personnel who leave without completing their minimum period of service—are at greater risk of experiencing difficulties making the transition successfully to civilian life. This includes greater susceptibility to homelessness and criminality. Despite their greater vulnerability, early service leavers are entitled only to reduced resettlement support compared with longer-serving personnel. The high and rapid drop-out rate of minors means that they constitute a high percentage of early service leavers. Therefore, I argue that the MoD should pay particular attention to ensuring that they make a successful return to civilian life both in the short and longer term. Once again, specific data are needed to demonstrate that this duty of care is being fulfilled.

In the present economic climate the high drop-out and discharge rate of minors in the Armed Forces also places an obligation on the MoD to demonstrate that the expenditure on recruiting and training recruits at high risk of dropping out is a financially sound policy. Adequate data are required to demonstrate that these resources are well spent both on those recruits who leave the armed services as well as those who remain.

Finally, recognising that under UK law minors cannot have a contract enforced against them, it is important that recruits who enlist below the age of 18 should be required to re-enlist upon attaining legal majority. This is why my noble friends’ Amendment 22 is so important. Indeed, the British Armed Forces Federation stated in its evidence to the Armed Forces Bill Select Committee that the current system,

“does not adequately provide informed consent as an adult”,

and suggested that minors should reaffirm their enlistment at, or shortly after, their 18th birthday. Such a system would ensure that all Armed Forces personnel are serving on the basis of free, informed adult consent. It would also relieve parents of the moral burden of responsibility for their child’s service—a particularly poignant issue in the case of those who are killed or gravely injured. I beg to move.

My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendments 6, 8 and 22, the latter of which stands in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Rosser. The Committee will be relieved to hear that I intend to speak briefly as it seems to me that the burden is very much on the Government to explain their position on these matters and give appropriate assurance.

The noble Lord, Lord Judd, has raised some extremely serious issues on Amendments 6 and 8. I look forward to the Minister’s response to those issues. We will consider his response and judge whether to support those amendments on Report. However, I put down a marker to the Government that we will be looking to hear a very good response, otherwise we will probably support the amendments on Report.

I would like to make clear that the Opposition are not against people under 18 serving in the Armed Forces. We think it can be good for those young people and for the Armed Forces. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, has just so eloquently set out, there must be the right safeguards. There are obvious safeguards to do with combat and other issues that we believe are in place—and of course we will be constantly seeking assurances that they are in place—but we think Amendments 6 and 8, as a basis for reporting, and our Amendment 22, tie the whole thing together.

We have been assured privately that there are mechanisms in place whereby all young people under the age of 18 are able to leave the Armed Forces at any point up to their 18th birthday if they wish to. That is an absolutely key safeguard but it is a safeguard with which we are uncomfortable. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, has hit the nail on the head: there is no process for informed consent. There is no clear process of audit. We believe that the proper way forward is an affirmative, signed statement by that young person that they wish to continue their service in the Armed Forces, and we will be pressing this point on Report unless we can be convinced by the Minister between now and then that such a clause is not required in the Bill.

My Lords, I would like to speak to these amendments but this also gives me the opportunity of giving my sincere apologies to the Committee for not attending Second Reading. It was for family reasons and I did notify the Minister.

The accountability of any employer, including the Armed Forces, to young people is essential. In the Armed Forces I think it is even more essential. I do not know if the noble Lord, Lord Judd, has been to Harrogate. I have been on a number of occasions and I was extremely encouraged by the work being done there with young people. For the first time in their lives, for many of them, someone was taking an interest in them, investing time and money in them. In fact, if they left the services at 18 they would have been in a far better position to get employment than they would have been if they had been left in the streets where they were—and many of them told me that. When I met them, many of them told me that they would go on leave at weekends and they were quite often glad to get back because they realised what a cul-de-sac their life had been before they joined the Armed Forces.

There is a responsibility and I welcome this discussion, but I would not like to see attached to that any kind of assertion that the Armed Forces have been irresponsible with young people—because they have not. Indeed, I would also refer to A-levels. Many of these kids, boys and girls, go into the services because they have no chance of getting any further education; it is not within their sights. Their parents do not encourage them, the community they live in does not encourage them, and if you said, “You’re coming in here and you’re going to go away with A-levels”, they would run a mile; they would not join up. It is very important that we handle this sensitively. We have an accountability and maybe including a reference to it in the covenant report is the way to deal with it. I would certainly welcome that, and would welcome not tying youngsters in so they feel they cannot get out if they find it is not for them.

However, it would be wrong in Committee for it not to go on the record that the training that the young people get in Harrogate is good and gives them confidence in life they would not have got elsewhere. One of the bugbears I remember having as chair of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body some years ago was that the services did very good training but they did not keep a record of it; they did not have accreditation that could be used outside in employment. That has changed considerably—a lot of progress has been made—but if we could make sure that the investment that goes into the youngsters and what they give back was recorded and was available, it would help broaden their lives but would also recognise more fully the good work that the Armed Forces do with young people.

I would like to make a short contribution to this debate and declare an interest as a former member of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body. I echo the comments of my noble friend Lady Dean because my experience was very similar. I met lots of young people whose lives were going nowhere and whose education was little or nothing. They owe a debt of gratitude to the Armed Forces for turning their lives around, giving them some education, giving them a sense of purpose in life, enabling them to work as part of a team and so on. There are therefore a lot of positive things that the Armed Forces do that we ought to pay tribute to.

I am not one of those who feel we have to apologise for recruiting people at the age of 16. Along with that right there is a responsibility and we need to make sure we get the balance right in terms of vocational training. If we tried to propel all these people down the A-level route, it would not fill them with glee. Getting the right balance of practical vocational training along with accredited educational achievements is something they would aspire to. Some of them will go on and a lot of latent talent will emerge.

Along with the right to recruit people at that age, there is also a responsibility. The question of informed consent exercises a number of us. When they reach the age of 18, or just before, as suggested under my noble friend Lord Rosser’s Amendment 22, there ought to be a proactive process within the Armed Forces whereby they contact the young person concerned, make them aware of what stage they are at, and help them to make an informed decision.

My last point is that the Armed Forces do great things. My noble friend Lady Dean pointed out that when young people are part of the Armed Forces, they have a sense of direction and know where they are. Unfortunately, we know that when people leave the Armed Forces they no longer have the comfort of being part of the organisation, so the point about getting resettlement right for those who decide they do not want to stay in the Armed Forces any longer is an important one.

My Lords, before I respond to these amendments, I should declare two interests—one as President of the Council of Reserve Forces’ and Cadets’ Associations and the other as Colonel Commandant of the Yeomanry.

The amendments in this group all deal with the matter of under-18s serving in the Armed Forces. I welcome the efforts of noble Lords in reminding us that the welfare of those who join under the age of 18 is very important indeed and I thank all those who have moved amendments and spoken today. I can assure your Lordships that the Ministry of Defence is well aware of the need to ensure that these young people live and work in an environment which safeguards their interests and wellbeing, and I thank in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, and the noble Lord, Lord Young, for their helpful and positive comments to this effect. I welcome the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Dean. Things have been improving and will continue to improve, but we can always do better.

A great deal of close attention has been focused on this whole area in recent years, especially after the tragic deaths at Deepcut. We now have robust and effective safeguards in place to ensure that under-18s are cared for properly. Moreover, as the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, suggested and I can confirm, no service person under the age of 18 is to be deployed on any operation which will result in them becoming engaged in or exposed to hostilities. And recently we announced a change to the right of discharge for those under the age of 18. I shall come back to this in a moment.

Through Amendment 6, the noble Lord, Lord Judd, seeks to include service personnel under the age of 18 as being within the group covered by the Armed Forces covenant report, which is a laudable objective. However, the guidance accompanying the Armed Forces covenant, which we published on 16 May, is quite explicit. It states that:

“Special account must be taken of the needs of those under 18 years of age”.

I can assure noble Lords that we will not forget this aspect of our responsibilities for service personnel. The Armed Forces covenant report is to be a report about the effects of service on servicepeople, so as regards Amendment 6, minors under the age of 18 are already within the definition of servicepeople in the clause. I hope that the noble Lord will accept that.

As regards Amendment 8, I have some difficulty with the wording proposed. Not only would the amendment require the Secretary of State to give particular consideration every year to the effects of service on those under 18 years of age, it would also require him to have particular regard to those effects right through until the individuals in question became veterans. It would oblige us to treat those who joined under the age of 18 as a separate category throughout their service, and perhaps even throughout their lives. I hope it will be apparent to noble Lords that that is not an appropriate distinction to build into legislation.

I turn now to Amendment 22, spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe. This provides that service personnel under the age of 18 will be required to confirm in writing that they wish to continue serving in the Armed Forces after their 18th birthday. This must be done at least three months before their birthday. As noble Lords will know, it has long been our policy to enable service personnel under the age of 18 to reconsider their choice of a career in the Armed Forces up until their 18th birthday, and indeed for three months afterwards if they have already declared their unhappiness. To that effect, we are travelling in the same direction as the noble Lord. In fact, these informal arrangements have provided our under-18s with six months more to think about whether they have made the right choice of career than would the amendment. But following a review of our discharge policy for the under-18s, this has been converted into a legal right. A regulation was introduced on 12 July this year for each of the Armed Forces to provide a new statutory right for all service personnel to claim discharge up to their 18th birthday. This new regulation is separate from and additional to the long-standing legal right of all new recruits, regardless of age, to discharge within their first three to six months of service, depending on their service, if they decide that serving in the Armed Forces is not a career for them.

Under the new regulation, everyone under the age of 18 serving in the Armed Forces already has a right to claim discharge up to their 18th birthday. For the first six months of service this is achieved by giving not less than 14 days’ notice in writing to their commanding officer after an initial period of 28 days’ service. At any other time after six months’ service, those under the age of 18 who wish to leave their service must give notice in writing to their commanding officer, who must then discharge the under-18 within the next three months. For those who give notice just prior to their 18th birthday, this means that the latest they will be discharged is at 18 years and three months of age.

The new right of discharge includes a cooling-off period to avoid the unintended consequence of a decision made in the heat of the moment. A shorter period may be agreed with the commanding officer, but three months provides the serviceperson under 18 with a period of due reflection, with appropriate guidance and the right to rescind their request for discharge. The amendment proposed by the noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Tunnicliffe, adds no protection for those under 18 who are serving, and would put a staffing burden on the chain of command that I hope they will accept is unnecessary. The right of discharge is made clear to all service personnel on joining the Armed Forces. We wish to continue to ensure that those young men and women who wish to serve in the Armed Forces are able to do so, while those who realise that a service career is not for them can leave as a right. On this basis, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Judd, will withdraw his amendment.

My Lords, will the noble Lord be kind enough to send me and interested Members of the Committee a copy of that regulation, and deposit a copy in the Library?

My Lords, I hope that it will not embarrass the Minister if I say that in his peroration there was no difference between us. As somebody who joined the cadet force at 14, I am very much in favour of those who are considering an armed services career being able to prepare for it while enjoying the opportunities that this presents. I have no difficulties with that. However, we want to be certain that before people get into a situation that will take them into conflict zones, they can make an informed choice. We need to make sure that we have belt and braces on that, so that they will not feel in any way pressurised or expected to stay on and are able to make a balanced judgment. I hope that the Minister will be reassured by me that there is no difference between us on this, except that I want to see a really convincing arrangement.

I will dwell for a moment on the remarks by my noble friends. I have great admiration for the consistent work that they have done for the armed services, and for the great knowledge that they bring to these matters. I make the point again that while of course very imaginative work is done at Harrogate—nobody would question that—the issue is about how far what is done at Harrogate helps young recruits to keep up with what is happening in society as a whole. I find a paradox here. My noble friend is second to nobody in arguing for improving secondary education, and for making sure that, where secondary education is failing youngsters who are not getting qualifications and do not feel that education is relevant, a lot of imagination on both sides of the House goes into how this can be tackled. Should we not take the opportunity in the armed services to be leaders in this respect rather than just saying that this has worked in the past? We should be determined that none of our youngsters will be at a disadvantage when they come out and make sure that the new opportunities becoming available to the wider community in vocational and other education are also available to them.

Finally, I drew attention in an intervention on an earlier amendment to the fact that things have moved on by light years from the time when I was a Minister in defence. Again, I have nothing but admiration for those who have made this possible. However, we have to measure it against what is happening in society as a whole, and make sure that while there is an improvement in the armed services, the improvement measures up to the changes in society. When we read of the problems of suicide and so on among young people, there is a tremendously significant issue to be faced. If one is to do research into the mental problems of some youngsters that result from being in the armed services—obviously not the majority, but a significant number—it is no good just looking at the immediate effects; one must look at the longer span and at what damage may have been done to people in later life by experiences earlier on.

Having said that, of course I will listen very carefully to what the Minister and his colleagues have to say. I hope that equally they will listen to the voice of concern. It is a voice of concern that some of us are expressing, not hostility, and I hope similarly that it will be understood that I have no option in the convention of how Committees in this Room take place but to beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 6 withdrawn.

Amendment 7

Moved by

7: Clause 2, page 2, line 11, after “housing” insert—

“( ) in the operation of inquests;”

My Lords, the purpose of the amendment is to ensure that included in the issues that should be covered in the Armed Forces covenant report is the operation of inquests. This matter was raised on Second Reading, and in his closing speech the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, said that the Government’s plan was to transfer several of the functions of the office of Chief Coroner either to the Lord Chief Justice or to the Lord Chancellor rather than to abolish them.

Bearing in mind that the introduction of the office of Chief Coroner was supported on all sides in your Lordships’ House during the discussions on the Coroners and Justice Bill 2009, it is not clear how the operation of inquests will be improved by the abolition of the office of Chief Coroner and the implementation of the Government’s new plan, with a government ministerial board focusing on matters of policy, standards of service and other administrative aspects of the delivery of the coroner service, and the dropping of the new appeals system.

It was widely agreed that the introduction of the office of Chief Coroner would help to address these issues by ensuring that military inquests were dealt with by coroners with appropriate experience and knowledge of the Armed Forces; reducing the sometimes excessive length of time taken to hold inquests; ensuring that coroners and the coroner service have the confidence of the public, including the bereaved, by being, and being seen to be, independent of government; providing the required oversight training, consistency and, most importantly, accountability and leadership, including leadership for reform for the coronial system; and providing for the Chief Coroner to be at the head of an appeals framework for those affected by the decisions that coroners make and whose redress at the moment appears to be to seek a potentially costly judicial review.

In view of the concerns widely held about the present system as it affects Armed Forces personnel and their families, the change of approach by the Government to a ministerial board covering key areas, the end of the cross-party supported independent office of Chief Coroner and the end of the new appeals system, it seems only appropriate that the troubled issue of the operation of inquests is one on which the Secretary of State should report in his Armed Forces covenant report, as well as the issues of healthcare, education and housing.

My Lords, this is a very important amendment because of what has happened to the Public Bodies Bill. As has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, the new Chief Coroner would have had a role in monitoring investigations into deaths of service personnel and in ensuring that coroners were suitably trained to conduct such investigations. However, that is not the situation at the moment.

The requirement in the Bill is that the Armed Forces covenant report includes information on the effects of membership or former membership of the Armed Forces on servicepeople, or descriptions of such people. It is really important to be aware in our deliberations that, while there are quarterly reports on those who die on active service overseas, a large number of serving personnel die on active service but not overseas. I have the data from 2000 to 2009. In 2009 there were 59 deaths during hostile action and 47 other deaths: four violent, four suicides, 22 accidents and 19 that were disease-related. The important point is that these deaths are not being catalogued anywhere. I am glad that the Government are continuing to produce quarterly reports on the inquests of service personnel who died overseas. The latest report was on 19 July 2011. A total of 476 inquests had been held into the deaths of service personnel who had lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, including 12 service personnel who died of their injuries in the UK.

However, the way in which those inquests were handled raises some questions. There were 75 open inquests to be concluded into the deaths of service personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan: 21 involved deaths in the previous six months. The Wiltshire and Swindon coroner had retained 28 of the remaining open inquests, but there were 54 outstanding inquests, which meant that relatives had waited for more than six months. Thirty-five inquests were being conducted by coroners closer to the next of kin. That group becomes really important because, when one looks through the list of inquests from 2002 to August 2009, some were held by coroners who did more than five inquests a year but, in 2009, half of them were conducted by coroners who did fewer than five military inquests in their whole working lifetime. Sometimes the list may include one inquest done by one coroner over the whole period of the list being available. The problem is that those coroners may have no training in military inquests. The questions they ask may not collate the important and relevant information. That is because the role of the coroner’s inquest is to determine the cause of death and potentially make recommendations, but a lot more information needs to be gained.

The other concern is the experience of the bereaved families. I will quote one bereaved relative who said that when her sister died outside the military the police advised that they should get legal representation. She said that such advice was small comfort to the family at the time. That was in 2009. When a young man in the family lost his life on active service, the family went into the inquest blind and totally unadvised about the process.

In 2009, the Royal British Legion facilitated a meeting of bereaved families. The comments from that meeting are horrific. One woman said:

“Listening to your husband’s final words or viewing images on screen of his partial burial site is a very personal, emotional and private time. One should not have to see this for the first time in a court room”.

Another bereaved person said:

“Had we known before we went to the inquest, the agenda and the proceedings would have been entirely different and we could have provided more assistance to the coroner”.

The way that these inquests are currently being handled is excellent in some cases, but I am afraid that in others it is not good at all, but lamentable. That is despite the Ministry of Defence having published in 2008 the Boards of Inquiry and Coroners’ Inquests Information for Bereaved Families booklet. That booklet is not providing any support to these bereaved families.

The proposed Chief Coroner would have provided leadership over the way in which the inquests are conducted, the information to be collated from them and central information about all other military deaths which do not occur overseas. The problem is that when a body is repatriated to the UK, if only one person has died in that incident, the coroner—it has been the coroner from Swindon and Wiltshire—can allocate the inquest to the local coroner wherever that person is to be buried or cremated and have their final resting place. It is because of that that we have this lack of expertise across the whole country.

The other reason that it is important carefully to collect information from military inquests relates to a previous amendment that we discussed in the names of my noble friends Lord Kakkar and Lord Patel. It is important to do this because battlefield tactics change rapidly and therefore a coroner with relevant experience will have conducted inquests into contemporary military fatalities and will ask more pertinent questions and collect more appropriate data. The other problem is that when a coroner gives a narrative verdict, others with a legitimate interest may never see it. A coroner’s verdict will represent a summary of the evidence and ought to be a matter of written record but is currently not collated. Unless we include a requirement to report on the operation of inquests and not merely to collate their outcome, we will do a major disservice to those who have lost their lives while on active service for this country and to troops currently serving whose lives remain at risk because we are not collating information and learning lessons from deaths that have occurred, quite apart from not doing the right and best thing by those who are bereaved and left behind.

My Lords, I will add one thing to what the noble Baroness has said. One of the bodies taking most action against the Government as regards the Chief Coroner is the Royal British Legion. It has worked with the charity Inquest, which looks after bereaved families, and has presented a powerful case. That case would be a great deal more powerful if the Ministry of Defence took as strong a line on behalf of serving people affected by this matter as the Royal British Legion is taking on behalf of veterans.

My Lords, inquests are a crucial part of how we now support those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country. Previous generations had to make do with a letter which said little about what happened. Over the past 30 years military inquests have evolved. It is fair to say that they are still evolving. A decision has been taken not to go down the road towards separate military inquests but to allow inquests on deaths in the Armed Forces abroad to be conducted by the civilian coroner service.

It is fair to say that the majority of inquests have been very well conducted and have been very helpful to the families concerned; those families have made that clear. Inquests, of course, bring very mixed emotions. On the one hand, it is right and proper that families have the opportunity to learn in detail how their loved ones died, hear witnesses and ask hard questions. On the other hand, each inquest brings home to the family and to everyone else the tragedy of loss and the human cost of the operations on which we have embarked. As noble Lords have remarked, the change in the character of warfare means that the technical details that inquests now have to go into are also evolving. Ensuring that the inquest system is fit for purpose in meeting the needs and expectations of bereaved service families is an important responsibility for any Government. The Joint Ministerial Statement on military inquests made to Parliament each quarter—the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, referred to this—bears this out and provides valuable information.

We recognise this topic as an important element of the Armed Forces covenant, particularly in the current sad circumstances where in recent years we have suffered a substantial number of casualties in Afghanistan. In current circumstances, we therefore fully expect it to be covered in the annual report. However, noble Lords can also imagine a happier time when the operation of the inquest system will be of less concern to the Armed Forces community because we might not then be involved in deployed operations or suffering fatalities. It is not a perennial issue like healthcare or education. The amendment would, however, force the Secretary of State to examine it in those circumstances as well as those of today. We would lose the flexibility to focus the report on the key issues of the day. Our concern with key issues changes over time, so our argument for flexibility in the report is precisely not to enshrine in statutory form today’s definition of what the most important issues are.

I therefore suggest that our own approach, giving the Secretary of State the discretion to decide which topics should be covered, is a better one. However, in no way does this fail to recognise the importance of the good conduct of inquests for the families of those who have died on active service abroad. It is an extremely important topic which the Ministry of Defence recognises and which will, under the current circumstances, clearly form an important part of any report. Having said this, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, will not press his amendment.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, for her major contribution to the debate on this amendment. I thank also the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and the Minister for his response. I note the gist of his reply, which is a feeling that the issue of the operation of inquests is not one that will be permanent or regular in the way that, for example, healthcare, education and housing are perceived to be. The only comment I would make at this stage is that the operation of inquests will certainly remain an issue until at least the next Armed Forces Bill, which is when we tend to review what the legislation states. I will withdraw my amendment, but I will reflect on the Minister’s response—as I imagine will other noble Lords—before deciding whether to pursue the issue on Report.

Amendment 7 withdrawn.

Amendments 8 to 12 not moved.

Amendment 13

Moved by

13: Clause 2, page 2, line 39, at end insert—

“( ) An armed forces covenant report must state what contribution to the preparation of the report was made by each government department with primary responsibility for each field covered by the report.

( ) Where an armed forces covenant report states that special provision for former service people or particular descriptions of former service people is justified, it must also state in respect of each field covered by the report what particular duties are imposed on each government department with primary responsibility for each field.”

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 13, but if I had seen them before, I would have spoken also to Amendments 14 and 15 because they say very much the same thing. They are an amplification of some of the points that have already been discussed in relation to this clause. I tabled this amendment because I had supposed that after the Grand Committee, the Minister would want to reflect before the Report stage on many of the things that had been put forward. Indeed, those of us who have tabled amendments have done so in order to make certain that what comes before the House on Report is a consideration of all that has been said related to the aim of the covenant and what it is trying to do.

My reason for tabling Amendment 13 is that I am uneasy about two subsections in their implications for veterans. I refer particularly to subsections (2)(b) and (c) which talk about the report looking at,

“the fields of healthcare, education and housing; and … in other such fields as the Secretary of State may determine”.

Presumably that is a reference to the Secretary of State for Defence. My other concern is about subsection (6)(a) which states that,

“the Secretary of State must consider whether the making of special provision … would be justified”.

I do not think that it is up to the Secretary of State for Defence to decide what it is appropriate for Parliament to be told about veteran affairs. As has already been said, veteran affairs are the responsibility of many other ministries which presumably will decide how they implement the responsibilities that are laid on them by the Government and the nation. It is not up to the Secretary of State for Defence to implement that. He is responsible for the application of the covenant to those people who are serving.

That is where I disagree slightly with the Minister because I think that there are two parts to this covenant. One is to do with the serving, which can be dealt with by the Ministry of Defence, and the other is to do with the veterans, which is dealt with by others. That is why I suggested that the Minister for veteran affairs should be somewhere else where he can co-ordinate that activity. Therefore, based on the suggestion that the covenant should be in two parts, it is important that, while I agree that you cannot list everything that should be there, there should be a very clear indication given by the Government to the ministries that have a responsibility for veteran affairs as to what those responsibilities cover. The Cabinet Office is well able to do this. For example, there is mention in the covenant book published by the Ministry of Defence that there is going to be a mental health well-being website, which it is the responsibility of the Department of Health to establish. Presumably, that department will report on that.

On prosthetics provision, I await with interest the report by Dr Murrison because, as I have mentioned in the House before, I had once to accept a cheque on behalf of a voluntary organisation, accompanied by a young Royal Marine who had lost two legs and one arm in Afghanistan. He had just returned from America where he had had his prosthetic legs serviced because the NHS was unable to provide technicians to service them. That is utterly unacceptable. The NHS must make provision for having artificial limbs serviced wherever the person happens to be. That is for the NHS to do and to report on, and not for the Secretary of State for Defence.

Changes to service pensions are for the Department for Work and Pensions. As regards social housing, I think that it is interesting that a number of counties have already come forward with their own version of the covenant as it applies in their county. I mention Hampshire in particular because I happen to have seen that version, which is very interesting. I suggest that this is a matter for the Department for Communities and Local Government to take an interest in to make certain that what is provided is consistent throughout the United Kingdom, and that it is not a postcode lottery as to where you happen to live as a veteran because one county is doing something and another is doing something else.

I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Young, mentioned those who get into the hands of the criminal justice system. I should also like to see an obligation for a report, for example, from the Ministry of Justice about how the problems faced by people ex-service getting into the hands of the criminal justice system are being catered for and how they are being helped to rehabilitate into civilian life after custody. The Ministry of Justice has not being doing that very well. Recently, the Howard League produced a report which covers some aspects but not as many of the practicalities as I would like. We want to see the practicalities in the covenant and the Ministry of Justice held to account for making certain that those things happen.

I put my name to Amendment 2 in the name of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield because its value is that it lists a whole lot of subjects that need to be covered. It is not specific in detail but it covers the aspects. It is very important to have somebody independent responsible to the Veterans Minister for co-ordinating the activities of the public, private and voluntary sectors in support of veterans. I am very glad to see that acknowledgement has been given to the role of the Confederation of British Service and Ex-Service Organisations, COBSEO, which is now seen as a representative of service charities, pulling them all together. The more one looks at this, it is a very fragmented area. The covenant provides a priceless opportunity to pull everything together in a more comprehensive and national way. Therefore, it is very important that those who have responsibilities in this area should be told the general areas for which they are responsible, and that should not be up to the Secretary of State for Defence to determine but for the Government, on behalf of the nation.

My Lords, I wish to speak to Amendments 14 and 15 in my name and that of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley. First, we welcome the fact that we have a military covenant in this Bill. I would also like to thank the Minister for being so accessible to colleagues by way of explanation of what is happening and the availability of his officials for consultation.

As I see it, the big issue, basically, is this. I would like a situation where all servicepeople, irrespective of postcode, can expect that they and their families will, as far as is practicable, be able to command and receive the services that we believe are necessary in the event of them getting into difficulties on the battlefield or, in the event of a fatality, back-up for their families, which is broadly the same throughout the United Kingdom. In other words, a serviceperson from a particular part of the United Kingdom should not go on to the battlefield with the thought hanging over his or her head that if anything went wrong they or their families would receive less help and service in some parts of the United Kingdom.

I think that it was the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, who is not in her place, who said at Second Reading that we had some loose ends to tidy up, and I believe we have loose ends here. As has been stated by other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, the issue is simply that the Secretary of State is not in charge of the delivery mechanisms that are required to ensure that the covenant means something to the people for whom it is designed. Not only does he not control other Whitehall departments, but it is perfectly obvious that in the age of devolution he does not control what the devolved Administrations do. As we know, they receive block grants and, as it so happens, are in charge of the three issues that have been highlighted in the Bill—health, education and housing. Therefore, we are trying to ensure that when the Secretary of State makes his or her report to Parliament, Parliament knows who is feeding input into that report so that it can judge whether or not it is comprehensive. I do not wish to unpick or interfere with devolution settlements. That is not what this amendment is about. This amendment is allowing Parliament to be informed as to who precisely is contributing to the report.

Turning to the Explanatory Notes, the end of paragraph 19 says:

“Under new section 359A(6) the Secretary of State must also consider whether effects covered by the report would justify making special provision for servicepeople, or a category of them. If the Secretary of State does consider that to be the case, the report must say so.”

If the Secretary of State subsequently decided that something under that heading would have to be done, they could not deliver—at least not in all parts of the United Kingdom. That is perfectly obvious, because the Secretary of State is no longer in control. Therefore, we have the pieces on the board that are necessary to deliver a covenant, but we have not put them together in the most effective way.

Let us look ahead. It has been said that so much has changed in five years. For instance, people are coming off the battlefield with injuries that would in previous circumstances have caused them to perish. There are multiple amputees and people with horrific injuries. I have seen them in my own city. Many are in their early 20s. They may live for 60 or 70 years. They will need enormous amounts of help. In fact, we cannot at this stage fully appreciate the help that they will need, both physically and mentally. That will cost money. The noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, has tried to identify precisely what will be required. Devolution provides block grants and it is up to the devolved Administrations to decide how the grants are distributed. Unless there is a clear framework within which to operate, how are we to prevent a divergence between services that are provided in different parts of the United Kingdom over time? One way would be at the beginning to connect every part of the UK to the report process, so that everybody knows that the very least they have to do is report.

I will give a cast-iron example. If we run into difficulties with this issue, at least Parliament will know and will be in a position to take decisions. Defence has always been an excepted matter when it comes to devolution; it was never envisaged that defence matters would ever be part of the remit of the devolved Administrations. Last year, a colleague of mine in Stormont introduced an armed forces and veterans Bill, designed to do much the same as the covenant. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said that this sort of thing happens at county level; this was an attempt to make it happen at regional level. It went through its processes—Committee, Second Reading and so on—but when push came to shove under the system that exists in Northern Ireland, it was vetoed in February and could not be taken further. One knows—one does not have to imagine—the potential for difficulties to arise. Given that our primary objective in the amendment is to ensure that there is no postcode lottery, and given the fact that, devolution or not, defence is clearly a national issue—servicepeople defend all of this country, not part of it—it is necessary that the treatment they receive is broadly similar.

I want to avoid a difficulty. We know that if we in Northern Ireland force a nationalist to put his or her hand up to support the British Armed Forces, we will get a negative response: so why do we run the risk of putting people in a difficult position? Let us tidy things up to a very modest extent by requiring the Secretary of State to tell Parliament what input has been made by departments in Whitehall and the devolved Administrations. I do not want this to be a Northern Ireland only issue: it is a national issue. I believe that that is the way forward.

I have some experience of doing Bills at regional level and I have to say that the Minister looks at you and feels your pain. It is rare for someone to say no with such generosity and compassion, but nevertheless he seems to do so. He knows how strongly many of us feel about this. We are delighted that the covenant is here and believe that many parts of it can be tweaked and adjusted, which is exactly the process that we are going through in this Committee. I sincerely hope that between now and Report the Minister, if unable to give us a positive response today, will reflect on what has been said by a whole series of noble Lords, including the right reverend Prelate. Many of these themes are very similar. We are all trying to achieve the same objective. We will be looking carefully at it and we are prepared to return to the matter on Report should it prove necessary.

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has covered this topic extremely well so I do not wish to add much to it. The only point to stress is that the issue of a postcode lottery might affect not only those who are getting help from the various devolutions, and so on, but will affect everybody in the sense that they may fear that it might affect them. It is worth giving a lot of consideration to what can be done about it. I sense that there is an acceptance that it is bound to happen; there is not much we can do, so let it happen. But by the time the media get a hold of one or two cases that attitude will prove not to have been the best one to adopt. I hope that a real effort will be made to try to bring it together as far as is humanly possible, or to be seen to be trying to do so, to ensure that we do not have problems with that particular issue.

My Lords, I rise to speak in support of Amendments 14 and 15. I recognise clearly the difficulties that come with devolution but it is an issue with which the Government now have to grapple, and do so successfully. I do not believe that we can accept a postcode lottery associated with devolved Administrations.

As the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said, our Armed Forces exist to defend the people and interests of the whole United Kingdom, not parts of it. The corollary is that the Armed Forces covenant and the consequences and implications of that covenant should cover the whole of the United Kingdom and not parts of it. When base closures are up for discussion, many devolved Administrations are only too keen to ensure that they retain military installations on their territory. The corollary of that is that they should accept all the consequences and implications of those bases, including with regard to the Armed Forces covenant. If they cannot or will not do this, the obvious alternatives are either to relocate those installations to England or to treat them as overseas postings, with all that that might imply in terms of the provision of service schools, access to hospitals and all the cost that goes with that.

It is not acceptable to say to our Armed Forces personnel, “You are posted to a base in an area of devolved Administration. You and your family will be disadvantaged as a consequence. Bad luck”. That would send a very clear signal that the Government are in favour of delivering on the military covenant only when it is easy to do so, not when it is hard.

My Lords, I rise to support the amendments in general and to support adding more regulations and putting legislation behind them. The covenant is a very old understanding and we are talking about it because it is not working. It could be said that it is operated under voluntary support by the different agencies and the different people involved. It has not operated very well and that is why we are discussing it now. We must legislate. When talking of the covenant in this Bill, there is far too much “in the opinion of” and somebody should pay “due regard to”.

We have to be sure that the covenant means something. When people have an obligation to provide specialist help in housing, health or anything else, we have to know whether they have or have not done it. It must not be swept to the back of the annual report for a particular region, unread and ignored. We are very well aware of that, especially in Northern Ireland. I do not wish to go back into aftercare services and that sort of thing, but we go outside medical care. We go into people’s lives to find out whether they need retraining. We go into helping them thereafter.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, said that there was a certain amount of linking-up and connection that did not always work. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, mentioned the covenant to serving people. I hope that our covenant to them is absolute from within the service because we know who they are and where they are. We know where we are sending them and everything about them. The covenant is equally important to veterans. We also have to do something about tying the Ministry of Defence into having a proper record of where those people are and of noting when they leave the service. The covenant relies on two parts: providing a service and a commitment that is honour-bound to those people. It must also have a way of making sure that they are connected with it. It is no good pretending that they leave the armed services with no injuries and bad effects from serving in Afghanistan, housing, or whatever. It is no good expecting those proud people to come crawling back to us for help.

Today in the Telegraph, I think, which I do not have with me, there is a small article saying that Combat Stress has done a survey—the same people that do the parliamentary one that we get, so they are perfectly well founded. The survey shows that a colossal percentage—70 per cent—of GPs are unaware of any links or effects between combat stress and the stressful conditions for ex-servicemen. I have said before that I can sell a bullock here that can go all the way round Europe and you can walk into any agricultural office to find out where it has been, what was wrong with it, and where it can go. Why is it that it is only recently that records have become available in civilian life on leaving the service? Unless you begged for them, they were incarcerated in Glasgow. Why is it that we have freedom of information about everything in our lives but have no freedom of information to find out whether a homeless person lying in the underpass at Knightsbridge is an ex-serviceperson? Something is clearly wrong. It cannot be an infringement of someone’s human rights that when you see a doctor about a member of your family who is too proud to say that something is wrong there is a red dot or something on the record so that the doctor can say, “Ah. I am aware that he is an ex-serviceperson. We have special ways and means of dealing with them”.

The covenant is very important but it needs legislation behind it. I think that we should demand that reports are made every year about how it is getting on. I also think that the MoD should be a lot more aware of who and where its veterans are.

My Lords, I, too, rise to support these two amendments, and indeed the spirit of what the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said in his amendment. I wish to make a more general point and try to respond in part to the debate on my earlier amendment which got lost slightly in the excitement of all those votes. So many of the contributions seem to be saying things that resonate with each other, but most of them, if not all, celebrate the fact that the Government have taken action in establishing the covenant legally. At the same time it seems to me that there is a fairly clear sense of not quite consensus but a fairly considerable majority opinion from different people around this Room that things still need to be looked at further if the covenant is to be as effective as we wish it to be.

I do not want to repeat the points I or others have made, but between now and the Report stage, I hope very much that the Government will take these comments away. Clearly, if all these amendments were passed, they would duplicate or even collide with each other, but quite a lot of material has been offered throughout our debates today which suggests that there are ways in which the covenant could be more effective than it is as the Bill presently sets out. I hope that the Government will consider these comments before the Report stage so that we can see that we have moved on and do not have to come back with another set of amendments that try to address those areas where we feel that there are still vacuums.

My Lords, in the spirit of not wanting to be guilty of repetition, I want to speak in favour of these three amendments. They highlight a number of the aspects that this debate is touching on. The amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, looks at the distinctions being made between England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. We have heard that distinctions quite rightly exist between the needs of serving service personnel and veterans. There are distinctions between that part of the welfare that can be dealt with by the Ministry of Defence and that which is dealt with by other government departments. Further, there are the things in the defence area that are properly dealt with by the Ministry of Defence and others which are dealt with by the service charities. Whichever way you look, there are lots of distinctions, and we have to agree that the situation is complex.

Complexity does not equate with saying, “This is too difficult so we are not going to address it”, but that there is no simple solution to governmental responsibilities. Ministers in various departments must retain responsibility for those things that are their responsibility, so the issue is finding a solution to the lack of co-ordination and dealing with complexity.

Currently, the Bill provides that, in effect, the Government are being asked to mark their own exam paper. I do not think that is right. We put a question to the previous Government, who chose not to go down the track, which I shall repeat. Would they consider putting in place a reviewer? The right reverend Prelate mentioned this, while earlier in his career the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, was HM Chief Inspector of Prisons. If we had a commissioner looking into all aspects of this, he could bring together the Government, the public, private and the charitable sectors. That would not take away the challenge to the Government of Parliament, but someone would have the responsibility for drawing the threads together and holding all the bodies to account, which would give a comprehensive picture of the myriad dimensions I have described. Perhaps the Government would give this some consideration, and if it cannot be done, perhaps they will give us a cogent explanation of why it cannot be done.

My Lords, I rise briefly to speak to this group of amendments. The right reverend prelate the Bishop of Wakefield made a nice point when he said that there is a resonance in so much of what we have been talking about today. There is a consensus around the Committee that the Bill as it stands does not firm up the covenant provisions enough. I share the aspiration that the Government should come forward with proposals, and I have to tell them that we will be looking at the points which have been made in this debate. If the Government do not come up with proposals today, it is extremely likely that we will seek consensus on an amendment to be tabled at the Report stage to try to capture the way this debate has gone.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for explaining his amendment, and we will look at it in the light of the Minister’s reply. It is a complex and subtle area, and we shall take a view on how it might form part of our general approach. Turning to the two amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, this is an absolutely crucial area which the Government have to sort out. I do not agree that the covenant is in such a dire state. I think that we have made progress, both this Government and the previous Government. I commend the way that this Government have carried it forward, but it would be a disaster if we were to actually achieve it and end up with an England-only covenant. Amendments 14 and 15 may not be the right mechanisms but the Government must come up with a satisfactory mechanism to make sure that this is an all-GB covenant.

My Lords, I want to start by assuring all noble Lords, noble and gallant Lords and the right reverend Prelate that we are listening very carefully and we will reflect very seriously on everything that has been said today before Report.

Amendment 13, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and Amendment 15, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, take up a similar theme. The first half of each amendment requires the annual report to state what contribution has been made by other departments across Whitehall and in the devolved Administrations.

With regard to the contribution made by Whitehall departments, I believe that the point has already been answered in my response to my noble friend Lord Lee when we discussed Amendment 9. Although the report will be that of the Secretary of State, it will reflect the views of the Government as a whole and it will have been approved by the Government as a whole. There is no need to make that a statutory requirement.

The role played by the devolved Administrations is clearly different. We have always recognised that all the devolved Administrations should be engaged in the preparation of the report. We will invite their contributions and comments. We will make sure that we fully understand and take into account their reactions to anything we propose, and in particular whether they will support and implement what we propose. They have a place on the covenant reference group, which will be closely involved with the report. For example, if the annual report says something about healthcare in Scotland it must do so with the full involvement of the Scottish Government. The published report would naturally make this clear. Again, I do not believe that should be a matter of statute.

The second part of the two amendments requires the Secretary of State to declare what duties have been laid upon government departments and the devolved Administrations in cases where special provision is justified. I can envisage circumstances in which the annual report might do exactly that. But it will not always be possible to do so. It may take time to work out the right approach, or the solution may not be affordable for the moment. In some cases, implementation will not be a case of the Westminster Government laying duties on other bodies. It would be wrong to impose on the Secretary of State a statutory duty which, quite legitimately, he may be unable to fulfil.

I recognise the concern of noble Lords and noble and gallant Lords that the annual report may state conclusions, but have no teeth. They may see a risk of it being ignored due to resource or other considerations. I also recognise that it will be more difficult to produce the report if we do not have the co-operation of all the responsible authorities across the United Kingdom. Naturally, I very much hope that such a situation will not arise. Commitment to the Armed Forces covenant is strong across government and the United Kingdom. The record shows that we can work effectively with all the departments concerned. I believe we should proceed on the basis that those productive relationships will continue.

Amendment 14 highlights an important aspect of the Armed Forces covenant and the way it interacts with our constitution. In many cases special provision, in response to the effects of service in the Armed Forces, will not be a simple matter of issuing an edict from Whitehall. Responsibility may fall within the discretionary powers of local authorities or other local delivery bodies. More particularly, in terms of this amendment, it may fall to the devolved authorities in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Special provision for veterans in the areas of health or housing, for example, as has been mentioned, could fall into this category.

The key to success will, of course, be the quality of dialogue. The devolution settlement requires us to work closely together with devolved bodies. Whitehall officials are in regular contact with their opposite numbers and working relations are good. I repeat: working relations are good. Ministers in Edinburgh and Cardiff have underlined their commitment to the Armed Forces covenant. The situation in Northern Ireland is more complex but we are confident that we can maintain a fruitful dialogue to achieve our aims. We have, for example, succeeded in introducing the new arrangements for scholarships for bereaved service children across all the countries of the UK. The new transition protocol for injured personnel, designed to improve the handover of care from the military to civilian services, will be applied in all four countries. These cases show that the system operates effectively.

I welcome the reference in the amendment to special provision being “broadly the same” in the different countries of the United Kingdom. It is important to recognise that there is no virtue in complete uniformity here. Special provision clearly implies a divergence from the normal regime. Since the normal regime may differ in different countries of the United Kingdom, the nature of special provision may also have to differ. It is the outcome which matters; that is, making sure that we are doing the right thing for our people and honouring the Armed Forces covenant right across the UK.

The Government are sympathetic to the idea of consistency. However, the amendment takes the annual report several stages further than we envisage. It may not be possible, at the time of the publication, to set out detailed proposals for implementing the special provision that the Secretary of State considers to be justified in England or elsewhere. I can, nevertheless, give noble Lords, and the noble and gallant Lord, two assurances which I hope will respond to the points that they made. First, the annual report will contain references to the contributions which have been received in its preparation. Secondly, where the Secretary of State reaches the conclusion that special provision is justified, the annual report will seek to take into account the position across the United Kingdom. I hope on the basis of these assurances that the noble Lord will not press his amendment.

My Lords, I thank the Minister. I am sure that all Members of the Committee respect him when he says that he will listen and reflect. That is the style that we have come to admire in his approach to everything placed in his way. I am very grateful for that attitude. I make no apology for raising my concern about a postcode lottery and for including the phrase,

“what particular duties are imposed on each government department with primary responsibility for each field”

for consideration. My noble friend Lord Empey widened that to include parts of the United Kingdom other than England. I am glad that that point was picked up by the Minister because it is very important. I am sure that he will also reflect on the contributions made in this interesting debate. My noble and gallant friend Lord Stirrup raised some spectres that are worth considering; I hope they do not arise. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield pulled a lot of points together, as he did earlier. I hope that the Minister will reflect that throughout all we have been saying today there is very genuine good will towards the idea of a covenant. All of us, not least those who have had the privilege of serving in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, want to see the best possible outcome for all the constituents of the covenant. In that spirit, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 13 withdrawn.

Amendment 14

Tabled by

14: Clause 2, page 2, line 39, at end insert—

“( ) Where an armed forces covenant report states that special provision for service people or particular descriptions of service people is justified, it must also state how the Secretary of State will seek to ensure that the special provision made is broadly the same in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.”

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, that the Minister and his colleagues will wish to reflect on the debate, and we will wish to reflect on what he has said. As the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, said, the phraseology that we have used in these amendments may not be ideal. Nevertheless, I think there is a consensus in the Committee that there needs to be some way—I do not wish this to clash with the devolution settlement in any way—of allowing Parliament to ensure that the various component parts of the UK are co-operating in this regard. If that is not done, they may diverge over time. That is something none of us would wish to see. As I say, we will wish to reflect on the Minister’s response.

Amendment 14 not moved.

Amendments 15 and 16 not moved.

Clause 2 agreed.

Amendment 17

Moved by

17: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—

“Armed forces advocates

After section 359 of AFA 2006 insert—

“359B Armed forces advocates

(1) The existing network of armed forces advocates will be extended through the nomination of supporting advocates at regional and local level to ensure that local authorities work together to identify and resolve issues in local policy or the delivery of services that may affect service people.

(2) In this section “armed forces advocate” means a public servant nominated to monitor and resolve policy or legislative issues that arise for service people.””

This amendment deals with Armed Forces advocates, which were raised at Second Reading by my noble friend Lady Taylor of Bolton. The amendment provides for the existing network of Armed Forces advocates to be extended at the regional and local level to ensure that local authorities work together to identify and resolve issues in local policy or the delivery of services which may affect servicepeople.

My noble friend Lady Taylor referred to the action of the previous Government in piloting an Armed Forces welfare pathway under which some local authorities appointed Armed Forces advocates to ensure that, as part of policy development, steps were taken to ensure that services provided at the local level appropriately recognised the specific needs of Armed Forces personnel, veterans and their families. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, said in response that the Government supported the idea of Armed Forces advocates at the local level if that was the approach chosen by the local authority concerned. That was a rather disappointing response as it suggested that, despite the warm words, the Government intended to do nothing to promote Armed Forces advocates. As my noble friend Lady Taylor said, there are considerable pressures on local authorities at the moment. She asked what mechanisms the Minister thought should be put in place to ensure that local communities are protected and that real progress is made, along with effective monitoring at both the local and national level. It is important that we have Armed Forces advocates at the point of service delivery, where the test will come of whether the state’s commitments, on which there is a political consensus, are being realised.

I hope that the Minister, on behalf of the Government, will accept this amendment. If he is not able to do so, I trust that he will respond to the questions asked at Second Reading by my noble friend Lady Taylor of Bolton and spell out, bearing in mind the Government's support for the idea of Armed Forces advocates, what action they intend to take to encourage more local authorities to go down this road.

My Lords, I support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Rosser. I will make two points. First, the system that he proposes, as he is well aware, has existed for some time in France; I take it that the Government, too, have seen that. I believe it works extremely well. It is always sensible not to reinvent the wheel. If one finds a mechanism in a compatible country which is working well, that is evidence in favour of a proposal—or if it is not working well, it is evidence against. The French are very satisfied with the way in which this works.

Secondly, the position taken up to now by the Government—who have been very good at listening open-mindedly to these debates, so I trust that it was a provisional view—is that all we need to do is to facilitate local authorities to appoint Armed Forces advocates where they wish to do so, and that we do not need to intervene where they do not. This is a most illogical approach to the problem. Local authorities with the will to create the post of Armed Forces advocate have, by that fact, already demonstrated that they are alert and sensitive to this need. The problems arise with local authorities that are not inclined to set up Armed Forces advocates. Authorities which, either through mistrust of the military or sheer ignorance, have not focused on this and are not inclined to accept the proposal, are those where problems are likely to arise and where an advocate is most necessary. The more logical solution is the one proposed by my noble friend. I hope that it will find favour with noble Lords and with the Government.

My Lords, I say at the outset that I regard Armed Forces advocates as an excellent idea. In UK government departments and in the devolved Administrations, they carry out two highly important roles. They ensure that their department’s policies take account of the special needs of the Armed Forces community, and they communicate their department’s perspective to others, including my officials and external stakeholders such as family federations or ex-service charities. Elsewhere, in local authorities or in NHS bodies, Armed Forces advocates or individuals with similar titles act as champions for service personnel, families or veterans. In some cases they are responsible for improving communications with the Armed Forces community to ensure that entitlements to services are properly understood. The exact role depends on the job to be done. There is no single model and neither should there be.

In answer to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, about the Second Reading speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, we want to ensure that best practice is promoted around the country, for example through the community covenant. We will be able to draw attention to successful uses of the advocate system, but it will be for them to decide what is best in their circumstances. I hope that that answers the question.

My difficulty with the amendment does not concern the merits of Armed Forces advocates at the local level; that is not in doubt. The case for them at the regional level is perhaps less obvious, but there is no need to legislate for their existence. The previous Government set up advocates without requiring any legislation and I commend them for doing so. I suggest to the Committee that the same logic applies and that we should not support the amendment. Therefore, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw it.

Before the noble Lord sits down, I would be grateful for his reaction to my point that surely it is those local authorities least inclined to establish the post of Armed Forces advocate where it is most likely the Armed Forces will need such an advocate, and vice versa.

I would like to thank my noble friend Lord Davies of Stamford for his support for the amendment and also the Minister for his response. I will reflect on it, but in the mean time, I withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 17 withdrawn.

Amendments 18 and 19 not moved.

Amendment 20

Moved by

20: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—

“Powers of the Service Complaints Commissioner

In section 339 of AFA 2006 after subsection (1) insert— “(1A) The report of the Service Complaints Commissioner (“the Commissioner”) made under subsection (1) may include the results of any investigation by the Commissioner into potential defects in the service complaints system, and any recommendations flowing from such investigations.””

Amendments 20 and 21 relate to the powers of the Service Complaints Commissioner. In her 2010 annual report, the commissioner said that while real progress had been made over the past three years in the new system for handling service complaints, delay remained the key area of weakness in the system, with delays particularly problematic in cases of bullying, harassment and discrimination. The commissioner said that many complainants simply give up and choose to drop their unresolved complaints after lengthy delays, which can and do lead to service personnel leaving prematurely. Justice delayed is justice denied.

The commissioner concluded her report by saying that her priority was to ensure that the Armed Forces had a complaints system that they deserved; namely, one that is fair, efficient and effective. However, she went on,

“For the third year running I have not been able to give Ministers and Parliament the assurance that the service complaints system is working efficiently, effectively or fairly”.

The commissioner called for a fundamental review of the service complaints system and for the powers of the Service Complaints Commissioner to be included in that review. Currently the SCC has no powers to ensure that complaints are dealt with properly and without delay, and in her report she states that the lack of a power to make recommendations in individual cases under the Service Complaints Commissioner’s oversight has led to inefficiencies and injustice in a number of cases.

The purpose of these amendments is to address key issues raised in the commissioner’s 2010 report. The first amendment makes it clear that the report of the commissioner can include the results of any investigation made by the SCC into potential defects in the service complaints system and any recommendations flowing from such investigations. The second amendment seeks to address the issue of the time taken to respond to issues raised in the Service Complaints Commissioner’s report by providing for the Defence Council to respond within six months of it being laid, and within three months if the report makes recommendations on an individual case.

The 2010 report does not paint a happy picture of the present system, albeit that it does say that real progress has been made in the last three years in the new system for handling service complaints. I hope that the Minister will be able to indicate in his response what action the Government are taking to address the concerns that have been raised as well as respond to these two amendments. I beg to move.

My Lords, noble Lords may be aware that the post of the Service Complaints Commissioner was established under the Armed Forces Act 2006 in December 2007 to provide independent oversight of the service complaints system, with one of the statutory functions of the role being to report each year to the Secretary of State on how fairly, effectively and efficiently the service complaints system is working. Three annual reports so far have detailed the work of the commissioner’s office. They have been thorough and critical in their assessment of all aspects of the complaints system.

The commissioner has commented and reported in detail on specific areas where progress has been made or where further improvement is required. Indeed, where the commissioner has investigated and identified areas for improvement, recommendations as to remedy have been made in her reports. A total of 27 recommendations were made in her first two reports, and this year she has made a further 20 recommendations, as well as four three-year goals setting out her vision of how the complaints system should be operating by 2014. This is therefore a new system, one that is still developing but, we would suggest, making good progress in changing the culture of the complaints process within the armed services.

The services have worked closely with the commissioner over the last three years to take practical steps to implement her recommendations and continually improve the way in which service complaints are handled. This is not to say that life is yet perfect. It is, however, to suggest that improvements are being made. The MoD and the services value the independent oversight that the SCC brings and acknowledge the improvements made to the complaints system as a result of her scrutiny.

As I have said, the commissioner has produced three annual reports to date, which were laid before Parliament by the Secretary of State. Each of these reports was published in March and reported on performance in the preceding calendar year. On receipt of the commissioner’s reports, the MoD and the services review and fully consider the findings and recommendations made before a formal response is delivered to the commissioner and a copy placed in the Library of the House. It is our aim to respond to the reports in the July following publication in March and that was successfully achieved for the commissioner’s 2008 and 2010 reports. The response to the 2009 report was not delivered until September, although this was due to the unavailability of the commissioner at the time, and is unlikely to happen again. On the question of the commissioner publishing reports that contain recommendations in relation to individual cases, this would involve an important and, I must say, delicate and not entirely straightforward extension of the commissioner’s role.

The commissioner recommended in her last annual report that her role should become that of an ombudsman. That recommendation includes the suggestion that the ombudsman should be able to report on individual cases to the Defence Council, with all necessary protections for individuals. The merits of the recommendation and any benefits it might offer for the complaints process are now being fully considered as part of a review. Since this review is currently under way, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to accept my assurance that we are still very actively considering how well this new process is working, and that he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

I thank the Minister for his reply and for what he has said about the review of the complaints system. I do not think he said when he expected the review to be completed but I hope it will be dealt with fairly quickly rather than dragging on and on. I will obviously reflect on the Minister’s response, but in the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment 20 withdrawn.

Amendments 21 and 22 not moved.

Clauses 3 to 8 agreed.

Clause 9 : Unfitness through alcohol or drugs

Amendment 23

Moved by

23: Clause 9, page 7, line 36, at end insert—

“( ) The Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003 is amended as follows—

(a) in Part 4 (shipping: alcohol and drugs), omit section 90 (crown application, &c);(b) in Part 5 (aviation: alcohol and drugs), omit section 101 (military application).”

My Lords, I want to make one or two general points about the approach to the Bill. We have a role as the Official Opposition to scrutinise the Bill thoroughly clause by clause. This is a particularly important role for the House of Lords and one we feel we need to discharge. In the event, Members of the Committee will note that only two amendments relate to clauses beyond Clause 2. I want the Committee to be in no doubt that this has nothing to do with the sloth of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition or other Members of the Committee, but is a commendation to the Minister and his officials on the very extensive consultation we have had, and the fact that many of the concerns we raised about the Bill have now been handled. We have been given assurances, so there is no need to bring forward amendments. I also particularly want to thank Mr Morrison for a long and complicated telephone conversation with me. I am not a member of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, a lawyer or a former Minister in the Ministry of Defence, so frankly I did not understand how service law sits alongside normal criminal law. I thank him for taking me through it so painstakingly. It was particularly in pursuit of this clause that I sought his advice.

The basic rule is that service law and the criminal law of the land sit side by side. In round terms, a serviceman is answerable to the law of the land, and Clause 24 extends it to overseas, which seems complicated but is really very simple. A serviceman has to obey the criminal law and, broadly speaking, must obey service law on top of that. This part of the Bill is unique in that service personnel are excepted from a piece of the law which applies to civilians, and that is the Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003. Certain sections of that Act specifically except the military. The Explanatory Notes at paragraphs 36 and 37 highlight the fact that there is an exception. My first question is: why was this exception necessary? The Act itself is beautifully straightforward. I will not go into the railway area because it forms so small a part of military activity that it is not worth mentioning. How it relates to shipping is also extremely straightforward. Basically, the Act applies to,

“(a) a professional master of a ship,

(b) a professional pilot of a ship, and

(c) a professional seaman in a ship while on duty”.

The aviation part of the Act states that an offence is committed if,

“(a) he performs an aviation function at a time when his ability to perform that function is impaired because of drink or drugs”.

An aviation function is defined simply as,

“acting as a pilot of an aircraft during flight”.

Various other categories are mentioned, including members of cabin crew and air traffic controllers. It is difficult to understand why it was necessary to except the Armed Forces from this Act. I would have thought that, as a generality, one would not want the pilot of an aircraft, whether it be a military or civil craft, to have his performance impaired by alcohol. My basic proposal is to delete these two exceptions and to ask why they were necessary in the first place.

It seems that the Ministry of Defence has had second thoughts and sees the necessity of bringing a similar law into effect, which will be the effect of the various clauses set out in the Bill that relate to alcohol. However, a rather difficult idea is introduced. Instead of prescribing the roles and acts along the lines of the civilian law, the Bill states that a duty may only be prescribed if its performance while the ability to do so is impaired through alcohol and carries the risk of,

“(a) death;

“(b) serious injury to any person;

“(c) serious damage to property; or

“(d) serious environmental harm”.

The beauty of the Act is that it is extremely clear about what activities it applies to. The service law should be equally clear.

The issue of drink and safety-critical activities is close to my heart. I had an early career in aviation and then one in the railway industry. When I joined the railway industry, there were serious problems with drink and safety-critical activities. It is now a leader in the country in having a very strong campaign that has driven drink out of the industry in safety-critical areas. To do that, it uses not only the 2003 Act but also random testing. My second concern that I put to the Minister is this. In seeking to bridge the gap—obviously the department has felt it necessary to move into testing—why do the Government not produce a simpler piece of law by essentially adopting the Act and removing the exceptional clauses? Secondly, why do they not write into the Act—if they feel the need to do this by an Act—the capability of random testing, which has proved so effective in the railway industry and has contributed so significantly to the improvement in safety? I beg to move.

My Lords, on behalf of the Bill team, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, for his very generous words at the start of his speech. In putting forward Amendment 23, the noble Lords, Lord Tunnicliffe and Lord Rosser, bring personal experience of the operation of the Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003 in the civilian environment, which is helpful to the Committee in considering the provisions for the Armed Forces set out in the Bill.

First, I will say something about our general approach when looking at whether to apply to the Armed Forces legislation that is aimed primarily at civilians and civilian institutions. In some areas of law, we follow closely—and in some cases apply directly—the general law that applies to civilians. As the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, said, this is most notable in the application of the criminal law and many aspects of criminal procedure and evidence. However, noble Lords will accept that the circumstances of Armed Forces life, and the need to ensure the highest standards of operational effectiveness, mean that we have to look very carefully at whether we need different provisions and solutions for the Armed Forces.

The Railways and Transport Safety Act applied the sensible principle of giving powers to test on the basis of a reasonable ground to suspect that someone carrying out navigational and other transport-related activities has taken drugs or alcohol. The Bill adopts this basic approach. However, in deciding what to put in place, we have also considered two special aspects of service life and defence needs. First, members of the Regular Forces, and members of the reserves when they are with the Armed Forces, are on duty or on call for duty 24 hours a day. Secondly, the range of their safety-critical duties is extremely wide. On operations and in training, members of the Armed Forces are constantly dealing with danger and with dangerous equipment and activity.

The approach we decided on includes a number of special aspects in response to these factors. It allows a commanding officer, with reasonable cause, to consider the testing of anyone under his command to establish whether they are unfit through drink or drugs to carry out any duty which they may be expected to carry out and which the commanding officer considers is safety-critical. In addition, it allows specific limits to be set by regulations for any safety-critical duty. This will allow us to develop a comprehensive regime for drugs and alcohol safety over the whole range of military functions.

There is another important difference from the civilian provisions. As I have mentioned, members of the Armed Forces are always subject to be called on to carry out duties. Many of them are living permanently on base and there is no easy way of saying whether, at any one moment, they are on duty or off duty. Moreover, the likelihood of their being called on to carry out dangerous tasks varies greatly in practice between locations—between Afghanistan and places of rest and recreation. We considered carefully how to avoid a necessarily wide power to test from becoming oppressive.

To deal with this, we have provided that it is the commanding officer who will decide, for example, when and whether those under his command are likely to be called on to carry out dangerous tasks. This will allow the chain of command to apply reasonably flexible policies on testing between different theatres and locations. By taking this approach we have tailored the scope and application of drug and alcohol testing to fit service life and needs. I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

My Lords, I note what the Minister has said and will read his words with care. I am less than convinced by the argument about always being on duty. The words that have been put forward are about specific tasks and it is entirely possible to bring this more in line with the 2003 Act. However, for the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 23 withdrawn.

Clause 9 agreed.

Clauses 10 and 11 agreed.

Amendment 24

Moved by

24: After Clause 11, insert the following new Clause—

“Procedure on arrest for substance abuse, violence against the person or damage to property

After section 74 of AFA 2006 insert—

“Procedure on arrest for substance abuse, violence against the person or damage to property

(1) If a person subject to service law—

(a) has been arrested on suspicion of committing an offence,(b) would be the person’s first offence, and(c) the offence is related to substance abuse, violence against a person or damage to property,prior to any decision as to charge, the prosecuting authority shall consider diverting the person for specialist services to assist with substance abuse and mental health treatment either in the community or through existing services in Her Majesty’s armed forces.(2) The prosecuting authority shall also commission and obtain a psychiatric assessment of the arrested person in order to assess that person’s needs and manage that person safely.

(3) No decision to charge the arrested person shall be made at the time of arrest and such a decision shall take place only when the prosecuting authority has consulted the specialist services involved and reviewed the psychiatric assessment.

(4) The above conditions do not apply unless, at the time of arrest, the arrested person was serving in Her Majesty’s armed forces.””

My Lords, I know that the hour is late and I am grateful to the Committee for allowing me to move this amendment at this time. The basis of the amendment is to identify people serving in the Armed Forces who commit offences while fuelled by drugs or alcohol, and who therefore have related underlying mental health problems. There is a duty of care on the Ministry of Defence to afford special consideration to those people whose alcohol abuse or drug treatment has come as a result of their experience and to put them into appropriate programmes as soon as possible, preferably before any charging decision is made.

In civilian life, at the discretion of the police or the Crown Prosecution Service, there is the opportunity to permit a defendant to go into a treatment programme in the community rather than go before the magistrate and get a criminal record. The idea behind this amendment is that the Armed Forces covenant, which is the basis behind much of what we have been addressing today and is so important, in no way could inadvertently disadvantage someone in the forces.

The way in which military court services operate means that in-depth access to the defendant’s circumstances sometimes may not come to light. Therefore, mental health and substance misuse issues can be missed and could even be exacerbated, with disastrous consequences in the long term. Sadly, there are stories of really frenzied attacks and incidents that have been fuelled particularly by alcohol. An SAS veteran, Chris Ryan, pointed out that it is often 10 or 15 years after people have left the Armed Forces that they reach their lowest point.

The underlying premise of the amendment is that if you can pick people up early and treat the root cause when they are exhibiting the early symptoms of drug and alcohol misuse, you would prevent a long-term problem later. The Armed Forces operate a parallel structure of community mental health teams, so the infrastructure is in place. In his report of 2010, Fighting Fit, Dr Andrew Murrison MP noted that the linked issue of alcohol abuse is significantly associated with service in the Armed Forces and there is evidence that it is more common among combat veterans. This is not a small problem—it is one that needs to be addressed. It has been estimated that up to four out of five cases where military personnel have been involved with criminal activity may be fuelled by alcohol and drugs, and that they would not have committed the offences if it had not been for the excessive use of these substances.

There is an emerging problem in Afghanistan where heroin misuse is becoming particularly linked to criminal activity among serving personnel. There are community psychiatric nurses and consultant psychiatrists on hand in Afghanistan to deal with this, and there are very good outcomes when they deal with the problems immediately, in contrast to them becoming chronic problems. The US has learned lessons from its experience in Vietnam with drug abuse in particular and has realised that punishment does not actually work because you put these people into civilian life, but that early intervention is particularly helpful. One of the problems is that if people are discharged out into civilian life and do not have the infrastructure support they need, the outbursts and consequent violence often associated with them can injure and traumatise or even possibly kill people who are closest to the person themselves.

It has also been estimated that 25 per cent of all home repossessions are from people with a service background, and there is a suggestion that that may be linked to higher alcohol consumption and spending a lot of money on alcohol, because alcohol consumption is extremely expensive.

The idea behind this amendment is to reflect the reality that we are asking a lot from our troops—we are asking them to risk life and limb—and that some of them will find that the way they cope with the trauma they have experienced is to try to numb themselves using drugs or alcohol, and that when they are really fuelled up like that they then go and commit offences. Unless we intervene rapidly and pick them up we may be creating a lifetime of dependency and problems rather than intervening early. I beg to move.

My Lords, Amendment 24, moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, would apply whenever a member of the Armed Forces was arrested for a first offence related to alcohol or unlawful drugs, violence or damage to property. Before it could charge the accused, the service prosecuting authority would have to consult specialist substance abuse and mental health services, and to obtain and take into account a psychiatric report on the accused. The importance of the psychological state of an offender and the appropriateness in some cases of a specialist social or mental health approach instead of prosecution is well understood in both the civilian and service justice systems.

When a case is serious enough to go to the service prosecuting authority, it must consider the evidence available as to whether the suspect had the necessary intent to commit the offence under consideration. It must also consider whether the public and service interests—the interests of justice—make a prosecution appropriate. It is also the responsibility of the service prosecuting authority to keep these issues under review during the proceedings. The defence routinely provide submissions to the service prosecuting authority about the accused’s state of mind and whether continued proceedings are appropriate. The service prosecuting authority is therefore able to review in context its assessment of what the interests of justice require.

It is also the service prosecuting authority's duty to disclose to the defence any facts it becomes aware of which go to mitigate the seriousness of the alleged offence. Where it seems to the service prosecuting authority that the interests of justice are not best served by prosecution, it can, and often does, go back to the chain of command to discuss how the chain of command can help to bring the suspect into contact with specialist services. This often forms part of a discussion on whether administrative action might be more appropriate than prosecution.

In court, in an extreme case, the defence may seek a decision that the accused is unfit to plead. There are special statutory provisions under which the judge advocate will consider and decide such applications. Where an accused is convicted, there are statutory provisions under the Criminal Justice Act 2003 for medical reports and pre-sentence reports. The court must generally obtain and consider a medical report before passing a custodial sentence where the offender appears to be mentally disordered. This is a report on the offender’s mental condition made by a specialist medical practitioner. A pre-sentence report must generally be obtained by a court whenever it is considering a custodial sentence for an offender. The aim of such reports is to assist the court in deciding the most suitable method of dealing with the offender. It is made by the probation service and must, of course, be disclosed to the offender. The same requirements apply in both the service and civilian justice systems.

I believe that the current role of the service prosecuting authority in deciding whether to charge is the right one. It should, and does, consider what the interests of justice require, and in particular whether prosecution is appropriate. It does so by taking into account the evidence before it. However, I hope the noble Baroness will accept that it would be going too far to require the service prosecution authority to consult specialist services and obtain a psychiatric report in every case covered by the amendment. To do so would confuse the role of prosecutor and the court. It is right for the prosecutor to have some discretion in whether to prosecute and to respond to what the interests of justice plainly require. However, there is an important boundary to be maintained between that role and the proposed role requiring the prosecution to obtain and weigh expert evidence in every case before it can bring a charge.

Furthermore, the requirement for a psychiatric assessment in all the cases covered by the amendment would be excessive, and even unfair to the suspect. It would involve a delay before a decision was made on bringing a charge even in the simplest case. It would appear to expect, or perhaps require, the suspect to submit to psychiatric assessment even where he or she was not raising any psychological issue and there was no reason to suppose that there was such an issue. In some cases it would be impossible to complete this process within the very tight statutory limits that apply in the service and civilian justice systems to keeping a person in custody before charge. In other words, it would go well beyond what the needs of a fair and efficient system of justice require.

Lastly, it would mean that the procedures before charge, and the role of the service prosecuting authority, were very substantially different from those in the civilian system. We recognise the importance of the psychological and social background of an offender, but I do not consider that there are grounds for such different approaches between the service and civilian justice systems. Therefore, I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.

I am most grateful to the Minister for his detailed response to my amendment. I had hoped that the words “shall consider” in the first part of the amendment did not create an obligation. However, in the light of what he has said, I can see that I do not have the right wording. I wish to read what he has said, possibly discuss the matter with him outside the Committee and then consider what to do. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 24 withdrawn.

Clauses 12 to 14 agreed.

Schedule 1 agreed.

Clauses 15 to 23 agreed.

Committee adjourned at 7.44 pm.