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Armed Forces Bill

Volume 730: debated on Tuesday 4 October 2011


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 “340 of AFA 2006 insert—

“PART 14AArmed Forces Covenant340A”

My Lords, I know that the House is interested in hearing from the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, on an important amendment, and I invite noble Lords to leave the Chamber quietly so that he may begin to move his amendment.

My Lords, I thank the government Chief Whip. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, winding up the Second Reading debate on this Bill and the noble Lord, Lord Astor, in a letter to me during the Summer Recess both agreed that it was inappropriate to insert the new section that appears in Clause 2 of this Bill after Section 359 in the 2006 Act because Section 359 dealt with pardons for servicemen executed for disciplinary offences in World War I. I had suggested at Second Reading that the new section in Clause 2 would be better placed in Part 14, which has the collective title “Enlistment, Terms of service etc”, relying on the “etc” to accommodate the new section. Part 14 heads the second group of parts in the 2006 Act.

However, in Committee the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, retracted his acceptance and averred that no relationship is implied by that positioning in the Act. I sensed, and in a letter to me the Minister has confirmed, that government business managers are anxious to avoid returning the Bill to another place. It—or at least Clause 1—has to be given Royal Assent by 8 November, otherwise all three Armed Forces will have to be declared redundant. That will not happen, I am certain.

Bringing the Report and Third Reading dates forward is tacit admission by government business managers that improvements to the Bill, and particularly the issues addressed in the next and other amendments, are called for, and so more time is now available to get the Bill right.

I would hope to avoid further time and argument in favour of my new amendment if the Minister would indicate agreement for tabling the changes that I propose for Third Reading. Need I do more than remind him and the House of the strength of support for incorporating the covenant into legislation expressed by Mr Cameron? For example, quoting from the No. 10 website, he said:

“Our service personnel make an extraordinary contribution to British life … So all of us—the Government, the private sector, and the voluntary organisations—need to go the extra mile for them”.

He also said:

“The high esteem we all have for our armed forces will soon be given the recognition it deserves—as part of the law of the land”.

That is but one of the many supporting statements made by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence about incorporating the covenant into statute. Surely the covenant must be given greater prominence in the revised 2006 Act, as my amendment proposes. It seems both mean and hypocritical to speak so strongly of support for the covenant and then to park the single statutory reference to it at the tail end of the 2006 Act and a group of miscellaneous sections that wind up the end of Part 17 of the second group of parts also entitled “Miscellaneous”.

Is not the covenant worthy of more than that, worthy of its own part in the revised 2006 Act? I hope that on reflection, and given the need to improve the wording and thrust of Clause 2, the Minister will agree to table an amendment at Third Reading. If not, I fear that all the Minister’s briefs are headed, “Resist” as the Government seek to steamroller this Bill through without having to return it to the Commons. Surely on a Bill of this non-partisan nature, and with the opportunity to review and revise the Armed Forces Act only once every five years, the Government must take note and accept the need for some revision of the Bill as it now stands. To resist every amendment negates all the praise and support that they say they have for the Armed Forces. Are the Government so insensitive to the needs of the forces, whose morale is reputedly shaken thanks to recent cutbacks, enforced redundancies and insensitive handling of personnel issues? The Armed Forces have performed their role with great valour and commitment on long-duration operations. Surely business managers can be less po-faced and will find the very limited time necessary to revise some details of the Bill, and get it right for the next five years. I beg to move.

My Lords, much has been said on Second Reading and in Committee about the matters which should be included in the Secretary of State’s annual report on the covenant. We have also looked at the question of auditing the operation of the covenant. Amendment 2, in my name, seeks to address these matters.

A great deal has been said about the role of the covenant reference group and I want to build on the responsibilities of the group by ensuring that it is given ample notice of the matters that the Secretary of State wishes to include in his annual report. I believe that that can be best done by the Secretary of State publishing the list of matters to be included in plenty of time. The covenant reference group should then be given time to consider the list and add to it if it thinks it right to do so. The Secretary of State should then be obliged to report on the additional matters referred to him by the group.

I have no doubt about the good intentions of the Secretary of State in coming forward with a proposal for an annual report but for that report to be credible, there must be an opportunity for matters other than those that the Secretary of State thinks should be included to be put into the report. My proposal is modest and there is a precedent for it. As a former member of the Public Accounts Committee in the other place, I recall that each year the Comptroller and Auditor-General, on behalf of the National Audit Office, would draw up a list of investigations that he intended to carry out in the year. That would then be submitted to the Public Accounts Committee, which would have the opportunity to comment, amend or add to the list of inquiries that the Comptroller and Auditor-General would wish to investigate.

My amendment does not represent a major change to the Bill and I feel sure that if the Government reflect on it, they will see it is a step forward to greater participation and involvement of those most interested and concerned about the welfare of our serving men and women and our veterans.

We also hear a great deal these days about transparency in public life and my amendment underpins that. Involving the covenant reference group in the way that I am suggesting will act as a form of audit for the Government which would benefit us all and certainly answer a number of the concerns that several noble Lords have expressed during Second Reading and in Committee.

My Lords, I have two amendments in this group, Amendments 4 and 11. I thank the Minister for his letter of 15 September 2011 following the last discussion we had on the Armed Forces Bill. However, I would also like to express my concern about the last paragraph on the first page of that letter. It says:

“There is however a significant question over the best way of meeting these objectives. It is, of course, our practice in the House to table amendments in order to ensure that issues are properly debated and addressed. That does not mean that it is always appropriate to resolve those issues through changes to legislation. In this case, in order to avoid legislation which is overly prescriptive and to ensure that the Bill completes its Parliamentary stages in a timely fashion, I think we must look very carefully at whether we can achieve our aims by other means.”

This Bill has not been delayed by anyone other than the Government, who were forced to rethink their stance in relation to the Armed Forces covenant and the report in the Bill. The desire of a Government to ensure that a Bill completes its parliamentary stages in accordance with their own hoped-for timetable can hardly be regarded as a good reason for not accepting constructive and appropriate amendments, which is what the Minister’s letter, to which I have referred, appears to be seeking to say.

In Committee, I put forward an amendment providing for a more comprehensive list of subjects to be addressed in the annual report than is provided for in the Bill, which refers only to healthcare, education and housing. Whether any other issues are covered in the report is ultimately entirely a matter for the Secretary of State to determine—not just the current Secretary of State, but any future Secretary of State of whatever political colour. Thus an opportunity is provided, which one hopes would not be taken, but could be taken, for any Secretary of State to sideline some other important issues which were proving awkward or contentious. In rejecting the amendment in Committee, the Minister said that even if a longer list captured everything today, it would be out of date tomorrow and that it would be better to stick with the short list of three headings in the Bill, leaving it to the Secretary of State to exercise his discretion on what else to cover.

The Minister also rejected a further amendment I put forward in Committee which would have required the Secretary of State to publish the observations of the reference group. In doing so, he repeated what the Secretary of State had said earlier this year—that he would publish the observations of non-government members of the external reference group alongside the report. The Minister went on to say that given that clear commitment, there was no need to include it in the legislation.

My Amendment 4, which is not dissimilar in its objectives from Amendment 2 in the name of my noble friend Lord Touhig, to which he has just spoken, provides for any comments which the covenant reference group may wish to make on the Armed Forces covenant report to be included in that report. With the Secretary of State being able to decide whether anything else apart from healthcare, accommodation and housing should be included in the report, and the Minister declining to extend that list, a safeguard needs to be written in to the Bill. The matter should not depend on the word of one Secretary of State. The comments, in full and without any editing or summarising, of the covenant reference group on the Secretary of State's report should be made public and thus open to debate and discussion in the same way as the Secretary of State's report. To say that on a matter of this importance, and on an issue that the Government did not initially want to be in the Bill, that an undertaking from one Secretary of State is sufficient is not adequate or appropriate, particularly since the covenant reference group will provide the only form of independent audit of issues relating to the covenant.

The Minister rejected my amendment for a longer list of issues to be covered in the Secretary of State's report on the basis that my additional items, unlike healthcare, education and housing, which the Government are including in the Bill to be covered in the report, would not be “enduring topics”. I assume that the Government's intention is that the work of the covenant reference group, including its comments on the annual Armed Forces covenant report, will also be “enduring” and thus ought to be regarded in the same way as healthcare, education and housing, and included in the Bill.

Amendment 11 provides that the parliamentary and local government ombudsmen should have a duty to investigate complaints from service personnel, veterans and their families that a public body or local authority has failed to meet commitments outlined in the Armed Forces Covenant and in the other document, the Armed Forces Covenant: Today and Tomorrow. In his letter of 15 September, the Minister said that the Secretary of State would have regard to the full range of topics identified in the Armed Forces Covenant, published in May this year.

I moved an amendment in Committee that was slightly different from the one we are debating today. In rejecting it, the Minister paid tribute to the work of both the parliamentary and local government ombudsmen, acknowledged that they could do much to help members of the Armed Forces community, and said that we should do more to make service personnel aware of how the ombudsmen can help them. I agree. One clear way of making service personnel aware of this is by including in the Bill this aspect of their role in respect of complaints that a public body or local authority has failed to meet its commitments in relation to the covenant. In Committee, the Minister commented that the scope of the amendment was limited to service personnel and excluded family members and veterans. This amendment includes veterans and families and I hope that it will receive a more favourable response from the Minister.

The amendments in this group cover a number of issues that no doubt will be addressed later in the debate, including a requirement for the Secretary of State, when preparing the Armed Forces covenant report, to have regard to the responsibilities that the Armed Forces have towards minors, and also for the Secretary of State to commission research into healthcare issues affecting servicepeople. I understand that it has been agreed through the usual channels that any vote should take place at Third Reading rather than on Report today because of the clash with the Conservative Party conference. However, I hope that that fact will not prevent the Minister giving helpful and supportive responses on the issues raised in my amendments and in the others that are part of the group.

My noble friend has made the extraordinary statement that it has been agreed between the usual channels that votes should be taken not on Report but at Third Reading. There is clear guidance in the Companion to the Standing Orders that matters that are decided or fully debated on Report or earlier should not be raised at Third Reading. Perhaps the government Chief Whip, or whoever is in charge of government business, will illuminate us on this extraordinary procedure.

My Lords, I have put my name to Amendment 1, tabled by my noble and gallant friend Lord Craig, because it has underneath it the word “trust”, which I have mentioned on more than one occasion in connection with this Bill, in particular with what is called the Armed Forces covenant.

When I was serving, the Armed Forces covenant did not exist. The regiment that I joined had an ethos, as I have mentioned before, that was laid down by my ancestor Sir John Moore of Corunna, that there should be a mutual bond of trust and affection between all ranks, which the officers had to earn. That mutual bond of trust was not unique to my regiment or indeed to the Army, but was very much a key element of every single military organisation, because without that trust, from top to bottom and from bottom to top, organisations that are called upon to go to war simply cannot exist. Therefore, whenever the word “trust” comes up in connection with trust having been broken in the military connection, one must be very concerned.

Like many other noble Lords, I am sure, I was extremely concerned when I saw the headline in the Daily Telegraph last week,

“Fox blames Forces chiefs for black hole”,

in which it was quoted that he had said that there had been,

“a ‘complete breakdown of trust’ between them—

the forces chiefs—

“and Whitehall, worsening the already fractious relationship between defence chiefs and politicians”,

on which a senior military source commented:

“To say that we are speechless after these comments is a mild understatement. It is quite staggering. What this Government fails to understand is that the military has been running very, very hot fighting the politicians’ campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya. If there was no breakdown in trust before, there is now”.

He was referring to the Secretary of State’s earlier failure to overturn the disgraceful traduction of two senior officers, General Sir Sam Cowan and Air Chief Marshal Sir Malcolm Pledger, for allegedly introducing defence cuts that contributed to the loss of a Nimrod over Afghanistan, whereas the noble Lord, Lord Browne, the previous Defence Secretary, said in this House that it was Ministers who laid down such cuts. Then there was the discussion over the defence review. Then only last week the noble Lord, Lord Lee, raised the question of the sudden cancellation by the Secretary of State of money being spent on housing for both single servicemen and families. Therefore, if the Armed Forces covenant is an expression of the public response to the services putting their lives on the line, it is desperately important that one should have trust that the covenant will be observed.

Therefore, it seems very important that the position of the covenant is enshrined in this Bill and it is very disappointing to find, with regard to Clause 2, that it is not actually the Government or the Ministry of Defence but business managers, allegedly in this House, who are preventing a very small amendment being made to the Bill that could easily be made if there was a will to do it. I suggest, therefore, that on behalf of the people who have to work in defence, the business managers in this House think again when they say that they cannot get this amendment through before 7 November. There is no connection between this and any other clauses, and it would not interrupt the Bill or cause any problems. It is clarification, and would separate the Armed Forces covenant, on which so much stock should be put, from a clause that is to do with those who were executed for cowardice in the Great War. I hope that the Government will accept that it is desperately important that they do all they can to increase trust in the covenant. This is one way of showing that they regard it as being very important.

My Lords, I can hardly claim to be an aficionado of this legislation or an expert on military matters, so I had better confess that I am performing my now familiar role as a free radical on the government Benches. I pricked up my ears at the reference made by the noble Lord who spoke to Amendment 11 to the possible role of ombudsmen in relation to servicemen’s grievances and the fact that housing is one of the issues which everyone accepts should be in the Bill.

Not only is the Parliamentary Ombudsman subject to a filter—an MP filter; so is the Local Government Ombudsman, who at the moment is subject to a local councillor filter. However, no mention was made of the Housing Ombudsman. There is a proposal in the Localism Bill that the Housing Ombudsman, for which at present there is no filter, should be subject to a combined or joint filter of MPs, councillors and tenants’ panels, not a direct right of access. That proposal has been the subject of some protest from us, me included, and is currently under review. I am hopeful that there may be change. However, at the moment, that is the situation. Will the Minister explain the relationship between what is proposed in this Bill, what is proposed in the noble Lord’s amendment, and what is proposed in the Localism Bill? Is there any coherence, and does the Localism Bill as it stands affect servicemen’s rights in respect of housing complaints?

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 5 to put the case that the Secretary of State, in preparing the military covenant report, should have regard to the responsibilities the Armed Forces carry towards those who enlist as minors,

“including ensuring their adequate education”.

This amendment acknowledges some of the points made by the Minister in response to my noble friend Lord Judd, who made such a persuasive contribution in Committee, but holds to the case for a statement on minors in the covenant report. When nearly 30 per cent of Army recruits are minors, this places on the Armed Forces a duty of care towards those young people and makes a compelling case for the position of minors to be addressed in the covenant report. Thirty per cent is a sizeable figure and reflects a sizeable dependence on young recruits.

The armed services can give young people a tremendous opportunity to make a success of their lives, but adequate attention must be given to their long-term needs. These young people, many of whom are drawn from disadvantaged backgrounds with few prospects, seek an opportunity to improve their lives. It is young people of precisely this profile whom the Government are targeting in their strategies to improve social mobility and educational achievement. The Government’s response to the Wolf report on vocational education and the Cabinet report on social mobility, Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers, recognise the crucial importance of ensuring that all young people achieve minimum standards of education and training. These goals are shared across government and are not controversial, and I am sure that the Ministry of Defence aspires to meet these standards for its young recruits.

The Army Foundation College at Harrogate accounts for 55 per cent of minors enlisting in the armed services. Many knowledgeable noble Lords have confirmed in debate that much good work with young people takes place there, and I hope one day I may get the opportunity to visit. However, the Ministry of Defence has stated quite clearly that it does not at present keep any comprehensive record of the qualifications achieved by minors while in service. The Minister, Andrew Robathan, has confirmed in the other place that that college is non-academic and teenage recruits training at Harrogate do not study for GCSEs or, as I understand it, any accredited trade. Recruits at Harrogate do not study vocational apprenticeships or gain vocational qualifications in, for example, plumbing, mechanics, electronics, carpentry, construction or similar trades.

The young recruits undertake vocational training designed to enable them to prepare for military training and their Armed Forces role. They have the opportunity to attain qualifications in English, numeracy and the European Computer Driving Licence—a skill certificate that, I accept, is intended to be transferable. Numeracy and literacy training is essential for those with very low levels of educational attainment, a position which many recruits may be in. However, it is important to raise the aspirations and increase the skill levels of all recruits. Many disadvantaged young recruits will not make the successful transition back to civilian employment without accredited vocational or educational qualifications. Specialised military training is of course very important. If I may state the obvious, an army has to be trained, but such training alone is not sufficient to prepare a young person for a lifetime of continued employment. The average length of service for infantry soldiers who enlist as minors is just 10 years, so by the age of 26 or 27, these young men and women will be looking for jobs elsewhere, with some 40 years of working life ahead of them.

While their Armed Forces training will undoubtedly have instilled in them discipline, determination, teamworking and all manner of positive personal attributes, these alone are not enough. Jobseekers need training and qualifications, and ex-soldiers are no exception. This is particularly so when studies reveal that the unemployment rate in the ex-service community can be significantly above national unemployment rates. To be a route to social mobility for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, in the future the Armed Forces need to keep pace with the accredited educational or vocational standards aspired to for all young people, which they will need when they return to the civilian workforce. A true route for social mobility allows these young people to overcome their disadvantage both while in the Army and in subsequent employment. If they are prepared to fight for us, we owe them that.

While there is a focus on military training, it would benefit both young recruits and the Armed Forces if the career entrance path for minors had an accredited vocational training and educational emphasis until they reach 18. I take the point made by my noble friend Lady Dean in Committee that there is a need to be sensitive with young recruits who have little or no experience of someone encouraging them and who have few positive experiences of education. They will not want to feel that they are going back to school, and the noble Baroness is clearly right. However, they, too, should have the opportunity to achieve vocational qualifications.

Most infantry recruits come from areas of high unemployment and inner cities, and when they leave they may well go back to the same environment that they tried to escape by joining the Army. The Ministry of Defence has a responsibility to progress these young people, to train and educate them to an accredited standard and to raise their aspirations and change their horizons for when they leave the Armed Forces.

However, it is not sufficient to make these points in debate. This Bill gives us the opportunity to place on the Minister a responsibility to have regard to meeting responsibilities to minors and to their adequate training when producing the covenant report. In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, referred to the guidance accompanying the Armed Forces covenant, published on 16 May, which states:

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

But that is guidance. There should be an explicit provision in the Bill to the effect that the Secretary of State must have regard to this matter in preparing the report. It should not be subject to discretion.

In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, when responding to the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Judd, which covered similar ground, commented on the complexity of the amendment in that it would oblige the MoD to treat those who joined under the age of 18 as a separate category throughout their service and perhaps even throughout their lives.

This amendment is much simpler. It gives greater discretion to the Secretary of State and refers more succinctly to the Secretary of State having regard to the Armed Forces’ additional responsibilities towards those who enlist as minors in producing the covenant report.

The Bill as drafted already provides for the Secretary of State’s report to cover education. This amendment would extend that provision to require that part of the report explicitly to cover the delivery of adequate training and education to minors. A covenant report on these matters can provide confidence that additional responsibilities towards young recruits are being met. It is easy to forget that young recruits are none the less children.

My father spent his life working for the MoD on safety systems on fighting ships. I grew up in a home that respected the Armed Forces. Conflicts such as the Falklands were only too real an experience for him, which I saw and could understand.

This amendment supports, not undermines, our Armed Forces. It makes sense to nurture and monitor continuously all our young recruits, both in their interest and in the national interest.

My Lords, I support most warmly my noble friend Lady Drake. I am delighted that there is so much agreement on all sides of the House about the importance of the covenant. It seems to me—and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, underlined it very well—that if we have a covenant, it must be a meaningful one, with muscle. If it comes to be seen over history as simply a formal position with a formal annual report, it will be insulting to our military services.

Our amendment is about minors and the young. I think that all of us must feel very concerned about the implications of entering the services under the age of 18 and what it means for the young person concerned. Therefore, the specific reassurance from the Minister that every youngster would have a serious opportunity at the age of 18 to reconsider their commitment to the services and make quite sure that they wanted to go forward with that service was good to have, and I am sure that he means it. If we could find some way of putting that into black and white so that everybody understood it as a requirement and not just as something that is there, it would be important.

In Committee, concern was expressed by noble Lords on all sides of the House—noble Lords for whom I have great respect—that we should acknowledge the superb work being done by dedicated staff at Harrogate with youngsters under the age of 18. I want to make it perfectly clear that I have nothing but admiration for what is done with the youngsters who are at Harrogate. I have great respect for the sincerity and commitment of those working with them.

Our amendment is therefore not in any way to criticise that work but to say that we must build on it. What motivates both my noble friend Lady Drake and me is that it serves the young extremely badly if they are encouraged to take a career in the services and then find when they leave them that they are at a growing disadvantage compared to other young people in seeking employment and following a career.

There is now great concern on all sides of the House about the vocational educational opportunities with recognised qualifications that should be available for all young people. All young people should be encouraged to get some sort of vocational qualification. What is wrong with the present system at Harrogate is no fault of the dedicated staff, but the provision is not there. We have no such arrangements to ensure that young people who join the services under 18 will be able to leave holding their heads high, with professional qualifications—vocational or whatever—every bit as good as those of anybody who has not undertaken service in the Army.

Specialised educational training alone is not sufficient to prepare a young person for a lifetime of continued employment. This lack of transferable qualifications would not matter if young soldiers never left the armed services, but that is not the case. Every young recruit will eventually retire from the Armed Forces, and most will be of an age when they need to seek further civilian employment. In fact, the average length of service for infantry soldiers who enlisted as minors is just 10 years. For many, it is significantly less. This means that by the age of 26 or 27 these young men and women will be looking for jobs with some 40 years of working life ahead of them. While their Armed Forces training will usually have instilled in them discipline, determination and all manner of personal and positive attributes, these on their own are not enough.

All jobseekers need education and qualifications, and ex-soldiers are no exception. Indeed, in 2008 the Committee of Public Accounts found that 11 per cent of service personnel left the Armed Forces with no qualifications at all. Exactly the same number, 11 per cent, had joined with no qualifications. Some 18 per cent of service leavers have stated that their military service had not helped them in gaining substitute employment. Indeed, an investigation by the British Legion found that the unemployment rate in 18 to 49 year-olds in the ex-service community was twice the national unemployment rate for the same age group. This demonstrates a serious failing to consider the long-term needs of service personnel and to prepare them adequately for life after discharge.

Many have argued that the Armed Forces are a vehicle for social mobility for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. This will palpably not be the case if in future the Armed Forces fail to keep pace with the rising educational standards expected of all young people. The Armed Forces should surely be leaders in the fields of education and training. If this does not happen, young Armed Forces recruits could increasingly become an educational underclass. This is not what our soldiers deserve.

To conclude, the educational standards for minors in the Armed Forces are essential, but this is not the only concern. As I said in Committee on 6 September, there are also serious and long-standing concerns regarding the general welfare and mental health of soldiers who enlist while still very young. Over the past decade, male soldiers aged 19 and below had a suicide rate almost 50 per cent higher than among equivalent males in the general population. That should not be brushed under the carpet and ignored. If the Ministry of Defence is serious about the welfare of Armed Forces personnel—I believe that it is—then it must examine such issues directly and take all necessary steps to rectify them. To do so, it is essential that minors are examined as a specific category in the Armed Forces covenant report.

Joining the Armed Forces may well provide potential benefits and opportunities to young people. However, that does not change the fact that young people have different psychological, emotional and educational needs from adults, and government has different obligations towards them. For as long as the British Armed Forces continue to recruit minors, we need to ensure that they are treated with the highest possible standards of care. Although for the purposes of reporting on the Armed Forces covenant the definition of service personnel will naturally include recruits who enlisted as minors, do we really believe that this is enough?

The specific needs of minors and the Ministry’s specific responsibilities towards them must not be subsumed within an undifferentiated overall category of service personnel. The needs and obligations are not the same, and the reporting requirements cannot be the same. In other areas of public policy, would we expect to find the needs of minors considered alongside those of adults without differentiation? This amendment would ensure that the needs and welfare of recruits enlisting as minors are given the specific attention that they deserve under the Armed Forces covenant, which is altogether to be welcomed.

My Lords, I rise to move Amendment 8, which is in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Patel. This amendment deals with the question of the covenant but it relates to the covenant report, which will be the obligation of the Secretary of State for Defence with regard to matters of health and healthcare. First, as I think all noble Lords do, I very much welcome the fact that the covenant is to be included in this Bill because it provides so many important opportunities—none more so than when considering the important question of the consequences of current or former membership of the Armed Forces on an individual's health. Equally well, it provides the important opportunity for us as a society to understand the ongoing requirements for access to specific and specialist healthcare facilities for those who have served our nation.

In Committee, I moved two amendments and I was very grateful for the response of Her Majesty's Government to them. They relate to the same issues: the need to enshrine in the legislation an obligation for the Secretary of State for Defence to commission prospective research to inform that part of the covenant report relating to questions of healthcare, health and the utilisation of health resources. If I understood it correctly, the response recognised the importance of this prospective research in providing authoritative evidence to answer specific questions around healthcare and the future need to dedicate specific healthcare resources, particularly to those who have served our country and who have been discharged from the services. The simple reason for this is that once a veteran has been discharged from the services, responsibility for their healthcare is transferred from Defence Medical Services to their own general practitioner. Under those circumstances, it is difficult to track health outcomes or the utilisation of and appropriate access to healthcare resources, because those individuals are no longer under the direct supervision of the service in which they served for matters of their health.

The need to commission prospective research is therefore to ensure that the objective of reporting on the question of health and healthcare in the covenant is met, because if there is not prospective research we will not be in a position to understand what the consequences of membership of the services are in terms of long-term healthcare needs. What we read is that those consequences may present many years or decades after active service. Often, those individuals are lost in terms of understanding what their healthcare needs are and, as a result, the provision of services is inadequate until they present with very serious illness. If they had been tracked prospectively—in cohorts informing a proper, authoritative report as part of the covenant report made to Parliament annually—then if there were detrimental issues and features associated with former membership of the Armed Forces, those would be picked up early. Appropriate action might then be taken either to assist those individuals prospectively identified or, indeed, to ensure that we designed healthcare services which could meet their needs more appropriately. Without an obligation to commission on a prospective basis this type of evaluation to inform a covenant report, we run the risk that the very purpose of a proper evaluation and reporting of health outcomes, access to healthcare facilities, and the health consequences of current or former membership of the Armed Forces is going to be lost, along with the tremendous benefits that would attend it.

In Committee the noble Lord, Lord Patel, and I proposed two amendments. The first was very similar in nature to Amendment 8, which your Lordships are considering now. The second was more prescriptive, and concerned an obligation to collect the NHS numbers of all those who were being discharged from the armed services so that we would have a database to use for prospective research. I accept that the answer provided in the Committee debate means that that second amendment was unnecessary. However, with regard to the obligation to commission prospective research, my fear is that in the years to come the quality of information that will be provided with specific reference to matters of healthcare and provision of facilities will be eroded. As a result, it will be impossible to use this important opportunity to drive the provision of resources, and so we will be neglecting those who have served our country so well. For the many decades henceforth, when they will potentially be patients suffering the consequences of having served their country, we will not be in a position to use the important opportunities provided by the inclusion of the covenant in this Bill and in the annual reporting mechanisms to Parliament to ensure we achieve the very best for them in healthcare.

Our amendment would ensure that, when directing resources and our national effort to the healthcare of active members of the armed services and veterans, we do so on the basis of appropriate, well-informed prospective research, using the high standards and methodology both of public health research and more specific medical research, to answer questions, identify opportunities and direct our funding accordingly.

My Lords, on a procedural matter, I remind noble Lords that with grouped amendments it is only the first speaker who moves his amendment; the remaining Members speak to their amendments and then move them when they are called by the Lord Speaker.

My Lords, this grouping contains a large number of amendments relating to the Armed Forces covenant. I shall respond to each in turn, but I should first like to make some general comments which have a bearing on several of the amendments, so I ask for your Lordships’ patience.

In the light of points made by noble Lords during this and previous debates on Clause 2, I should like to place on record the Government’s commitment to taking a number of specific actions in preparing the annual report on the Armed Forces covenant. We recognise the concern that the Bill that does not include a provision that will oblige the Secretary of State to cover any matters relating to the Armed Forces covenant beyond the fields of healthcare, education and housing, and that it does not oblige him or her to engage with any other parties in exercising his or her judgment in what issues to cover. Our intention is for the report to be wide ranging, based on consultation and drawing on the input of an objective and expert group, the covenant reference group. However, noble Lords have sought strong guarantees that key issues of interest to the Armed Forces community will indeed be covered.

I can inform your Lordships’ House today that the Government will commit themselves to going beyond the specific provisions of the Bill in two ways. The first relates to covering the effects of service beyond the fields of healthcare, education and housing. The Secretary of State must remain responsible for the final decision on what the report should address, although he or she will draw on the results of consultation in this respect. Nevertheless, I confirm that the Secretary of State, when considering what will be covered, will have regard to the full range of topics that were identified as being within the scope of the Armed Forces covenant when we published it on 16 May.

Secondly, the Secretary of State has already stated in another place that he will publish alongside the annual report any observations that external members of the external reference group—now the covenant reference group—wish to make on that report. I can confirm today that, in addition, we undertake to consult the external members of the covenant reference group at an earlier stage on the issues that the Secretary of State should address. The Secretary of State will confirm in the annual report that he or she has done this.

The external members of the covenant reference group will accordingly play a vital role in the preparation of the annual report, and the chairman must ensure that these processes work effectively. This is a pivotal role. I am aware that several noble Lords hold the view that the chairman should be independent of government, rather than a senior Cabinet Office official. However, the chairman has other tasks as well. Membership of the covenant reference group includes advocates from government departments with a major role in delivering services. The authority that Cabinet Office leadership can bring in pressing departments to make progress helps to get things done. That ability to focus the work of other government departments and bring them together with external stakeholders is one of the keys to the success of the covenant reference group. It was set up by the previous Government as part of the service personnel Command Paper, which was a valuable precursor to our work on the covenant. We believe that the previous Government got the balance of the covenant reference group right.

However, the Government do not wish to impose arrangements on the covenant reference group. Following this debate, I will ensure that the members of that group are made aware of the exchanges in your Lordships’ House. The Government will then consult them on what they believe is the most effective way to deliver their new responsibilities for the annual report, including the chairmanship. Whatever the outcome, I am confident that the major service and ex-service charities and the service families’ federations will continue to use their membership of the covenant reference group effectively to draw matters to Ministers’ attention.

I should like to add a third commitment. Several noble Lords have argued that because the Defence Secretary is not directly responsible for delivering many of the services that are likely to be discussed in the annual report, there is a danger of accountability becoming confused. Your Lordships wish to be absolutely clear as to which parts of the Government have participated in the process of preparing the report and what position they have taken. My ministerial colleagues and I have already indicated that the Secretary of State will consult widely and will identify the source of the evidence and opinions that we include in the report.

We have also noted that the annual report will be laid before Parliament on behalf of and with the approval of the whole of government. I can nevertheless go further by giving an undertaking that the Secretary of State will consult all UK government departments with a significant role in the delivery of services to serving personnel, veterans and their families, and the three devolved Administrations. In the annual report he or she will confirm that they have consulted other government departments and the devolved Administrations and will identify the contributions which they have made in the published report. This Government cannot commit their successors but I have described the processes which will be followed during the period in which we expect the annual report on the Armed Forces covenant to establish itself as a key instrument for holding the Government to account.

I would now like to respond to the individual amendments. Amendment 1, tabled by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, seeks to address a concern that he first raised during the Bill’s Second Reading in July. He referred to an “unfortunate juxtaposition” that would result from the Armed Forces covenant report clause being inserted into the Armed Forces Act 2006 directly after Section 359, which deals with pardons for soldiers executed during the First World War. His amendment would move the clause away from Section 359 and create a new Part 14A in the Act as the future location of the covenant clause. I have listened carefully and I am aware of the very strong feelings on this matter on the part of many noble Lords. Indeed, we are not trying to steamroller anything through. I can tell the noble and gallant Lord that our current thinking is that we will reflect over the next day or two with ministerial colleagues. Further, I have asked my officials to do the same right across government. I can also assure the noble and gallant Lord that we will again return to the Public Bill Office. In the mean time, I am most grateful to the noble and gallant Lord for his helpful and constructive approach and I hope that he will withdraw his amendment.

In Amendment 2 the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, has outlined a mechanism which a Secretary of State would be obliged to follow in deciding what issues to cover in the annual report on the Armed Forces covenant. I believe your Lordships will recognise that the mechanism proposed by the noble Lord has much in common with the one I have just outlined. The Government will, indeed, consult the external members of the covenant reference group on the issues which the Secretary of State should address at a very early stage in the preparation of the annual report. It has always been our intention to consult widely and the new commitment I have made today converts that intention into something on which your Lordships can rely. The amendment would, however, turn this into a rather inflexible process. It requires the Secretary of State to publish the list of headings and then present it to the group. This could lead to considerable confusion. We want to consult the covenant reference group but we will be open to other contributions as well; for example, through the chain of command. Further issues may emerge as the report is prepared. Too much emphasis on a list published at the start of the process may therefore not be helpful. The wording of the amendment suggests that the annual report may have to include all comments on that list, even though discussions on the report may have moved on. There is also a danger that a process designed to get the valuable input of independent experts and ensure that we cover the right subjects will be portrayed as the covenant reference group forcing the Government to address subjects they were hoping to avoid. That would be very far from the truth. A further difficulty with the amendment is that it gives an existence in statute to the covenant reference group.

I next come to Amendment 4, proposed by the noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Tunnicliffe. I am sure that the amendment is intended to be helpful, because it reflects what the Government already propose to do. As my right honourable friend the Defence Secretary said in another place, and as I have confirmed to your Lordships, we are committed to publishing, alongside the annual report, the observations which external members of the covenant reference group choose to make on the report. There is no doubt that that will happen; the issue before us is whether it is appropriate to reflect the commitment in Clause 2. I recognise the concern of some noble Lords that a future Government might place less importance than we do on the contribution which the covenant reference group can make to the report, but I do not believe that the best way to address that concern is to be prescriptive and tie down the procedure in statute. A number of amendments before us today refer directly to the covenant reference group. Such references, if incorporated in statute, would oblige us to be specific and prescriptive about the functions, membership and powers of the group. They could therefore prevent it evolving over time to meet new circumstances.

The next amendment in the group is Amendment 5, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, and the noble Lord, Lord Judd, which concerns the position of minors. The Armed Forces are mindful of the responsibilities they have towards the care, welfare and support of young people who enlist. That awareness underpins our commitment to support young people so that they can continue to participate and gain recognised skills and qualifications through work-based learning and training both now and in future. That is very much part of the Armed Forces covenant.

All those who join the Armed Forces, irrespective of their age, have to undertake both general military training and trade or specialist training. During training, attention is paid to supporting recruits and trainees to undertake apprenticeships and other nationally recognised qualifications. During 2009 and last year, more than 2,000 recruits and trainees aged under 18 were registered for an apprenticeship. More than 11,000 apprenticeships were completed by members of the Armed Forces. That is a striking record. The Armed Forces are acknowledged as a major contributor to the national skills agenda and are the largest public sector deliverer of apprenticeships.

As noble Lords will recall from my Statement on 12 September, Ofsted, which is entirely independent of the Armed Forces, recently published its annual report on welfare and care in Armed Forces initial training, with particular regard to the provision in place to support young people aged under 18. The report was positive. All the establishments inspected were judged by Ofsted to be satisfactory or better. On this occasion, Ofsted inspections routinely support the continued improvement and development of care and welfare provision in initial training.

The amendment requires that the Armed Forces covenant report should be prepared with regard to the additional responsibilities that the Armed Forces have towards those who enlist as minors, including their adequate education. I should point out that the field of education is already mentioned in the Bill as one of the three enduring topics to be addressed in every report. The amendment proposed by the noble Baroness is already taken into account in the reporting arrangements as they stand in the Bill. In addition, I hope that I have reassured noble Lords that we are fully seized of our responsibilities towards all who joined the Armed Forces, whether they are over or under the age of 18. Ofsted’s findings provide a valuable source of information in that respect.

The noble Lord, Lord Judd, asked about under-18s being adequately made aware of their right to resign. There is a rigorous regime of interviewing recruits under training by responsible training staff, who are obliged, if a recruit is unhappy, to point out the right to resign up to the age of 18.

Amendment 8 brings us back to the question of healthcare. In proposing this amendment again, the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, has correctly identified the key role that research needs to play in ensuring that the healthcare needs of the Armed Forces community are properly met. Your Lordships may recall that the Government’s position is that healthcare research is of paramount importance. A firm evidence base must underpin our efforts to ensure the best healthcare of our service personnel. It is important that we have proper evidence of what is happening on the ground and what interventions work best. We therefore continue to support research into healthcare issues both in-house and through external funding. In Grand Committee, I pointed out that much valuable research has already been commissioned and I referred to the excellent work undertaken by Professor Simon Wessely and the King’s Centre for Military Health Research over the past 15 years.

Noble Lords may be familiar with the plans for the National Institute for Health Research Centre for Surgical Reconstruction and Microbiology currently being established in Birmingham. The Ministry of Defence together with University Hospitals Birmingham Foundation Trust and the University of Birmingham will spend £20 million over the next 10 years, with the Ministry of Defence contributing £10 million. This research will initially focus on the most urgent challenges in trauma including effective resuscitation techniques and surgical care after multiple injuries. It will further medical and surgical practice both within the Defence Medical Services and in the wider National Health Service. The MoD is spending more than £5 million this financial year on medical research. We have work under way with Imperial College on blast injury as well as the large cohort study with King’s College to monitor the health of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan over the long term.

The question today is not whether research will be required but whether it will be helpful to impose a statutory requirement to inform the annual covenant report. We believe that would not be helpful. In the Government’s view, how the Secretary of State assembles the data to produce his or her report is best left as a matter for his or her discretion—needs will vary from year to year as the effects of service covered in the report vary. Furthermore, the main driver of our research should not be the requirement for an annual report but the direct healthcare needs of the Armed Forces. Where details of research undertaken are relevant to the annual report they will be included in it, but the production of the report should retain its flexibility so that it can react to the important issues of the day.

The final amendment in this group—again tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Tunnicliffe—concerns the duties of ombudsmen. In Grand Committee we debated a very similar amendment and I paid tribute then to the work of the Parliamentary Ombudsman and Local Government Ombudsman and the important role they can play in helping members of the Armed Forces community. The amendment we are considering today is an improvement on its predecessor—it now refers to family members and to veterans rather than solely to serving personnel. It is right that we recognise that former members of the Armed Forces and their families are included within the Armed Forces covenant and the measures taken to support it. However, the amendment remains unclear about what it wants the ombudsmen to do, about what exactly they would investigate and about whether it is intended to represent an extension of their powers. It still takes as its point of reference documents which will eventually be replaced by new steps to meet new circumstances. I do not believe that this amendment offers anything to the ombudsmen in carrying out their vital role, nor to serving personnel, families and veterans.

In response to my noble friend Lord Newton, I say that the Localism Bill does not affect the rights of service men or women. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, is of course right regarding the Companion’s rules on the admissibility of amendments at Third Reading. The usual channels have however agreed that, on this occasion only, Divisions at Third Reading will be facilitated where appropriate. I assure the noble Lord that this is not intended to set a general precedent.

Would the Minister consider a very brief question as being in order at this stage? I note what he says about the Localism Bill and will reflect on it. However, is he aware that the Parliamentary Ombudsman cannot consider complaints from servicemen or families because the ombudsman is subject to what is called the MP filter? He or she will take references only from an MP.

My Lords, I was not aware of that. I think that the best way for me to handle my noble friend’s question is to write to him on this issue, and I will make sure that all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate are copied in on it.

I am sorry to intervene on the Bill and thank the noble Lord for giving way. He made a statement in reply to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel. He said that the usual channels had come to an agreement that there should be voting at Third Reading but that that would not set a precedent. If there is voting at Third Reading, surely that must set a precedent. How will he and other people prevent reference being made to what will be a precedent?

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I want to follow up on the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Newton, a couple of moments ago. When the Minister confirms that representations to the Parliamentary Ombudsman must come via an MP, will he recognise that, although it would create a special category for the Armed Forces, members of those forces already give up their right to lobby and to act politically in a public fashion pursuing such a case, as is the natural right of all British citizens? That does not necessarily disengage them from party-political membership but it does disengage them from party-political or public-political activity. They are therefore caught between a demand that they go via a route that could be interpreted as lobbying an MP and, on the other hand, the necessity for representations to the Parliamentary Ombudsman to be via that very route. Will the Minister bear that in mind and keep an open mind on it so that, if he finds that they are thus disadvantaged, a special category can be made available for members of the Armed Forces to go directly to the Parliamentary Ombudsman?

The noble Lord, and indeed my noble friend, raise a very important point. I assure the noble Lord that the letter that my noble friend receives will be a very thorough and well thought-out response.

I have spoken at length both to set out the Government’s new commitments and to respond carefully to a wide variety of amendments. I hope that I have indicated our determination that the annual report on the Armed Forces covenant should be comprehensive yet flexible, based on consultation but with ultimate responsibility left where it belongs with Ministers. On this basis, I ask the noble and gallant Lord to withdraw the amendment.

I am sorry to persist in this but the Companion to the Standing Orders, as I understand it, states that there should be no votes on matters that have been discussed at Report. I cannot understand why the usual channels can be allowed to override what is already in the Companion. It is the Companion and it does not matter what the usual channels say about what they want or see as convenient. They cannot be allowed to override the Companion to the Standing Orders. We are progressing along a dangerous road. If it can be done in this instance, surely it can be done in any instance as the precedent will be set. The Government ought to take the advice of the Clerks and others before they pursue this.

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord is familiar with the often-used phrase, “It may be for the convenience of the House”. This was an arrangement agreed for the convenience of the House as we were meeting in a week in which one of the parties is holding its conference. This was of course discussed not just by the usual channels but with the Clerks.

My Lords, I thank all those who spoke to my amendment. I note that the Minister has moved from the heading “Resist” to that of “Consider further”. I hope that the consideration will prove amicable to us both. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 1 withdrawn.

Amendment 2 not moved.

Amendment 3

Moved by

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

“( ) in the operation of inquests;”

My Lords, I am grateful to the House for allowing me to de-group this amendment, and I listened carefully to the Minister’s comments in response to the previous grouping. For the avoidance of doubt I shall state publicly that I will not attempt to divide the House at this stage and I am respecting the agreement made through the usual channels. That is not to underestimate the strength of feeling over inquests and their operation.

My amendment would cover those currently serving who have died in action or on other aspects of active service; those who have died in training, who sadly constitute a significant number each year; and previous serving personnel who have now left the services but whose death for whatever reason is referred to a coroner. The Minister spoke of the relevance of the report to the issues of the day, and indeed about year-to-year variation in what may be a priority. I suggest that death is always relevant and will always remain a priority with those who have been bereaved, however small or large the numbers are. The amendment will never—one scarcely uses the word “never”—fall from being pertinent year on year.

My amendment does not incur additional expenditure, because the data are being collected and collated anyway and will be brought together in the annual report. There are data on the epidemiology of the pattern of deaths and on post-mortem findings. There are variations in verdicts, particularly narrative verdicts, and there would be much merit in pooling all those together. I am not asking for new and additional work, other than the work that is being collected. However, by putting it all together in one place, there will be an annual report which I suggest year on year could become quite an important historic document for monitoring trends and patterns, and for making sure that vigilance does not drop back over time.

I suggest that, in the absence of a chief coroner, this is particularly needed. It has strong support from the Royal British Legion, which, as the House knows, has felt very strongly about the conduct of inquests.

The health report aspects certainly will capture much of the research that is going on, and will capture the psychological and psychiatric sequelae where those data are collected as well as physical problems. The importance of research has already been alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, but it will not capture those who fall outside such monitoring. The one thing that will be caught is their deaths, because death is a universal end-point.

The amendment is about the “operation of inquests”, not the “conduct of inquests”. Therefore, it is very broad and allows that freedom to which the Minister referred in needing to report on the pertinent issues of the day. Currently, the quarterly ministerial statements on military inquests are produced and are providing very important data. They are extremely interesting and are especially interesting if read one after another. However, I suggest that they will not always be produced. When we are no longer in the current theatres of war, it is much more than likely—I would have thought it is inevitable—that they will no longer be produced. There will be a decision that they are no longer needed. It would be very sad if they were to fall altogether, whereas an annual report could be incorporated into the report we are discussing today.

The Defence Inquest Unit of the Ministry of Defence provides coroners in the civilian world with a summary of incidents where people have died on active service, and suggests who to call as witnesses, but respects the independence of the coroners. It is there to try to demystify military inquests and I understand that it is now going to be working with the procurator fiscal in Scotland. There has been an improvement in the conduct of inquests: there was a waiting time of 17 months before 2005, but that has fallen to 11 months in 2009 and there is an aim to get it down to nine months. The problem, however, has only just improved and we need to ensure that it does not slip back, that the pressure that has been mounted does not ease up when the current theatres of war are no longer in play and that ex-service personnel are respected just as current service personnel are.

Why is it important to look at the operation of inquests? It is because there is wide variation in coroners. We know that there are some excellent coroners but there are a series of complaints against some coroners. Post-mortems on servicemen are all done in Oxford, but that is not where ex-servicemen’s post-mortems are done. Much has been learned from the post-mortems in Oxford: they have actually altered the way acute trauma is dealt with—on the battlefield, and now in civilian life by our accident and emergency and first-response teams. The information is invaluable.

There has been talk about coroners attending training, but sadly not all coroners do because it is not mandatory for them. I know there have been two-day training events put on in Salisbury Plain—the first attended by 35 coroners, the second by 40 coroners. Sadly, that is not all the coroners who could have gone and benefited from it.

The experience of relatives when a person dies after service can be lamentable. I described that in Committee, so I will not go back over that ground as we are now on Report. The Armed Forces covenant has been said to cover this issue, but it says:

“Bereaved families should receive assistance commensurate with the loss that they have suffered, including help during the vital but difficult inquest process”.

That refers to the help and support for the families, not to the other issues around the way that an inquest occurs and is conducted. When the Minister responded in Committee, he recognised that inquests were an important element of the Armed Forces covenant. However, the wording in the covenant is inadequate to deal with the issues that I have tried to highlight; it does not deal adequately with all aspects of inquests. That is why I feel strongly that the matter must be covered in the Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, has already dealt in detail with a lot of the criticisms of the current process, so I will not reiterate them. However, we must remember the long-term sequelae suffered by those who have been in a theatre of war and who have been injured. They may have a long-term disability, they may have been exposed to toxic substances, or they may have other co-morbidities that are fatal because the original wounds have weakened them. There are deaths among those who are deeply traumatised and who develop mental health problems later in life—sometimes very much later.

Ex-service personnel in civilian life go to their GP like everybody else. The problem is that many GPs will see only one severely wounded or traumatised ex-serviceperson in their whole working life. The Royal College of General Practitioners has established a veterans training pack. Of course, it is taken up by GPs who have a particular interest in the field and who work in areas where there is a high number of military personnel—but it does not capture everybody. The problem often is that the service personnel who are at highest risk are those who are emotionally isolated and who present to clinical services that do not understand the long-term sequelae of what has happened previously. The final time to pick up the fact that they were serving their country is at the time of their death. This would be at the time an inquest is held.

It is very important that, just as we do not forget our servicemen’s health, education and welfare, neither should we forget them in death. Nor should we forget the information that their death will provide both to future serving personnel and to the rest of the population. I beg to move.

My Lords, I certainly will not repeat the powerful arguments advanced by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, when she moved her amendment. However, when the issue was debated in Committee, the Minister said in reply that the Government recognised that inquests were an important element of the Armed Forces covenant. He referred to the substantial number of casualties in Afghanistan and said that he fully expected the matter to be covered in the annual report. He went on to say that he could also imagine a happier time when the operation of the inquest system would be of less concern to the Armed Forces community because we might not be involved in deployed operations or suffering fatalities. In other words, the issue of inquests was not likely to be another “enduring topic”, to use a government phrase, on a par with healthcare, housing and education.

I do not share the view that the Government can reject the amendment in quite the way that they did when it was discussed in Committee. We are likely to be involved in Afghanistan for a few more years and, sadly, the issue of inquests will continue to be high on the agenda for some time. In addition, numbers of serving personnel die on active service but not overseas, so it may be optimistic to believe that a time will come when inquests need not be covered in the annual Armed Forces covenant report. However, since we have an Armed Forces Bill every five years, if it was felt that the operation of inquests was no longer an issue of concern in five years’ time or at some later date, this perfectly reasonable amendment could be removed in the next or a subsequent Armed Forces Bill. I hope that the Minister will feel able to give a more sympathetic response to the amendment than was the case in Committee.

My Lords, in Grand Committee and again today, the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, has given a detailed and moving account of the problems that have been encountered by bereaved service families in the course of a coroner’s inquest. It is very sad that any family should feel at the end of an inquest that their burdens have been made even heavier, but this is particularly regrettable for the family of someone who has given their life for their country.

We are focusing on the Bill today and time does not permit me to detail the progress that has been made. As the noble Baroness knows, Parliament is kept well informed through quarterly ministerial Statements. However, I can understand her wish to ensure that this subject is not allowed to drift away from public attention. I hope that my remarks on the first group of amendments have offered her reassurance, in two ways.

First, the commitment that the Secretary of State would have regard to the whole range of subjects included within the scope of the Armed Forces covenant, as set out in the guidance document published on 16 May, includes the operation of the inquest system for bereaved service families. Secondly, I draw the noble Baroness’s attention to the membership of the covenant reference group, which will now be consulted on the subjects to be covered in the annual report. It includes both the Royal British Legion, which has campaigned strongly on this issue, as the noble Baroness said, and the War Widows’ Association of Great Britain, which brings together many of those who unfortunately have first-hand knowledge of inquests. I am therefore confident that the Secretary of State will receive very clear advice on this aspect of the covenant.

I recognise that the noble Baroness is not just concerned about inquests for serving personnel. She also envisages drawing together information from any inquests into the deaths of former service men and women that might perhaps show a common thread. I can understand how data of this kind could be valuable, and we are always interested in developing our knowledge of the health outcomes of veterans, where this is practical. However, I would point out to the noble Baroness that the field of healthcare is already mentioned in the clause. Beyond that, I would not wish to commit to any more detailed provision in relation to inquests without a much clearer idea of what is feasible.

Perhaps I could respectfully make two remarks. First, the noble Baroness was quite right to say that the time for investigation into these matters has passed. I made gentle inquiries through discussions here and there and there is actually no plan for increased casualties and therefore this timetable will naturally go on. I hope the noble Lord and his officials have considered this awful business if casualties were to increase at a faster rate and therefore all the timings would not be kept up.

Secondly, to those who wish—as we all wish and hope—that there is no requirement for inquests one day in our lives, I would merely say that history shows that since the end of World War II there has only been one year that a British serviceman has not been killed in action.

The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, makes an important point. We have no plans for increased casualties, and indeed the aspiration is to be out of Afghanistan in a combat role by the end of 2014. If, unfortunately, there are increased casualties, we will respond to that as best we can.

I am most grateful to the Minister for his reply, and I want to put on record my thanks to him for the time he spent with me before the debate today and for the freely available contact I have had with his officials. They have gone to great lengths to answer my questions. However, I reiterate that I believe that this provision should be in the Bill. I urge the Government to pick up the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, that in the unlikely event of it being surplus to requirements, it could subsequently be removed. But, at this stage, I will withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 3 withdrawn.

Amendments 4 and 5 not moved.

Amendment 6

Moved by

6: Clause 2, page 2, line 22, at end insert—

“( ) An armed forces covenant report must include a statement from—

(a) the Secretary of State for Health,(b) the Secretary of State for Education,(c) the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government,(d) the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and(e) the relevant comparable ministers in the devolved assemblies,in respect of progress in fulfilling obligations to serving military personnel and their families, and to veterans.”

My Lords, it will not have escaped the notice of the Minister that this amendment has the support of all sides of the House. It is a practical and workable attempt to bring together the various strands and ideas put forward in the excellent debate on this aspect of Clause 2 in Committee. The nub of the argument is that there are two principal constituencies of service personnel and their families. There are those who have left the Armed Forces and others who are still serving who, with their families, may need different consideration. I shall leave it to other noble Lords who have added their names to the amendment to expand on those points in their contributions.

I understand that there is in the Ministry of Defence not inconsiderable support for the concept of a commissioner to assist the Defence Secretary. Indeed, would the Minister be prepared to go so far as to confirm that this idea is favoured by Dr Fox and others in the MoD, so it could be acceptable in principle? If so, the debate and the arguments can concentrate on the best ways in which to bring the necessary assistance to the Defence Secretary in fulfilling his remit. If Amendment 6 is not yet to the Government’s liking, would the Minister consider one that captures the essence of the assurances about how the Government intend to handle the requirements of Clause 2, because that might well be a way forward?

The Minister made the valid point that this Government cannot commit their successors by mere words in a debate in your Lordships’ House; one looks for an Act of Parliament to do that. So I hope that we can still find a way to put into the Bill an amendment along these lines. However, should the Minister find that unacceptable, would he consider a clause that would allow for the creation of a new appointment—in shorthand let me call it the “commissioner”, but another title might be more appropriate—by secondary legislation, as experience in preparing the statutory annual reports expected from the Defence Secretary is gained? The Minister may argue that there is no need for secondary legislation as such a post could be set up without statutory authority, but my point is that it would be much better, and an indication of the importance attached to the way that the covenant is to be handled, if this potential need were to be covered in statute.

It is generally agreed that the covenant is a moral construct that does not lend itself to prescriptive or detailed rules and requirements, but if it is to be given the benefit of statutory recognition, as the Bill will achieve, it is worth making the importance of all aspects of the reports and their preparation clear, and in particular to make possible provision for further steps as experience is gained. The opportunity to do so arises only once in five years, so it seems sensible to take the opportunity now. There is wide agreement that the annual report is going to be a serious and important piece of work. I hope, having listened to the arguments from noble Lords, that the Minister will be prepared to agree with this amendment, but if not, will agree that a provision for the revision of the current proposals by means of secondary legislation would be acceptable. I beg to move.

My Lords, I rise briefly to support the noble and gallant Lord and to speak to Amendment 6. I think that we in this House are all aware of the low morale that exists today, sadly, in our Armed Forces. According to the Armed Forces continuous attitude survey of all service personnel, only 18 per cent regard morale as high, whereas 44 per cent regard it as low. In the RAF, only 9 per cent regard it as high and 62 per cent regard it as low; in the Navy, 9 per cent regard it as high and 56 per cent regard it as low. I think that it is obvious to us all why morale is so low, given the cancellations, the cuts and the recent unfortunate redundancies. So anything that we can sensibly do to add certainty and clarity to the Armed Forces covenant must be beneficial to Armed Forces morale.

Amendment 6 builds on the earlier amendment that I and other noble Lords moved in Committee. I am happy to acknowledge the movement in the Government’s position as a result of the contributions from noble Lords during the passage of the Bill. However, I still ask my noble friend and the Government to go just one step further and include in the covenant report specific statements from the respective Secretaries of State, thereby giving them part ownership of and direct responsibility for the report.

My Lords, I, too, would like to say a few words in support of Amendment 6, which I spoke to in Committee, as did many other noble Lords. Indeed, some of the arguments put forward were echoed in the debate on the first grouping of amendments. I think that this does go very wide, and a lot of people are concerned to make sure that we do not lose an opportunity to maximise the impact that we can have in showing our commitment to the military covenant and ensuring that the provisions—that I think we all agree should be there—materialise in reality.

Rather than repeat the arguments that were used before, I want to reinforce certain points. I also acknowledge the work that the Minister has done in trying to reassure us that he understands the concerns that are there and why there is pressure to move in the direction in which we are pushing. I said in Committee that this amendment is designed genuinely to be helpful. I think that it will be helpful to any Minister in the Ministry of Defence to have other Ministers underwrite the statements that have specific responsibility from their departments, so that when the Secretary of State for Defence or whichever Minister signs off that document, they will be dealing with things that are the direct responsibility of the MoD. Other people will be taking responsibility where they should in the other areas mentioned, such as education and health. We also have to think of the devolved Assemblies. So I think that it is helpful to Ministers in the home department.

There is another very important reason for writing into the Bill the responsibilities of Ministers in other departments. Unless their names are on the face of the Bill, we will not get the maximum buy-in, commitment and drive from those departments to meet the obligations that we know Ministers in the MoD want to see and, I think, the rest of us want to see as well.

We have heard on other occasions that other Ministers are very happy to co-operate—as we found when we were considering the armed services White Paper a couple of years ago—but we have to make sure that the momentum does not diminish and that everybody maximises their level of commitment. It is important that we do not lose this opportunity to drive home that very necessary message.

The amendment serves a further useful purpose by making it clear that the covenant applies not only to military personnel but also to their families and to veterans. In our earlier discussions, it was felt that it would be helpful to specify very clearly that that was the case, not because the Ministry of Defence or other departments did not feel that it was but to show that those people could have the expectation that they would be cared for in a way that was appropriate.

I hope that the Minister will look favourably on Amendment 6; I think that it is technically in order. As was said earlier, Ministers are always under pressure not to accept amendments in legislation, but I think that there would be considerable support in both Houses for action along the lines that we have discussed.

My Lords, my colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield has been involved in the efforts to add strength to this part of the Bill, and his name appears on the amendment paper as supporting this amendment. Unfortunately, he is unable to be present today because of duties within his diocese. I am here to speak on his behalf from these Benches.

Having heard what other noble Lords have said, I think that there is little that I can add, so I shall restrict myself to saying that the amendment will help to ensure that any report to Parliament is authoritative and extends both across all government departments as well as across the whole United Kingdom, including the devolved Assemblies.

While I warmly welcome the undertaking given earlier by the Minister about other ministries being consulted, naming them in this way gives a degree of future-proofing to make sure that it happens. The amendment would enhance transparency by ensuring that all the relevant bodies and departments other than the Ministry of Defence really were part of any report laid before Parliament.

There appears to be considerable consensus as to the objective that the amendment seeks to achieve; the division comes over the appropriate means and whether achieving those means is possible within a tight timeframe. I do not think that the amendment is overly prescriptive, and I hope that it is not so complicated or contentious a proposal as to cause undue delay to Parliament's handling of the Bill.

If it is possible to be assured that the objectives of the amendment could be achieved by other means, I, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield and others would of course be very prepared to listen to what those means might be. However they are achieved, the ultimate test will be the quality of the first report on the covenant that is made by the Secretary of State. The aim of this amendment is to help ensure that the report is both of a high standard and effective.

My Lords, I rise in this case not to seek solidarity with the episcopate, though I would be very happy to have that, but in a spirit of camaraderie with my noble friend—as I think I shall call her on this occasion—another former Leader of another place. She made some very important points, building on what the noble and gallant Lord had said, about the effect of the amendment, or something like it, on the activities of government, and in particular the desirable aim of promoting joined-up government. The amendment would make sure that everybody in government departments throughout Whitehall and Westminster paid attention to the covenant, which is between not just the Ministry of Defence and the services, but the Government—and, in a sense, the people—and the armed services. That should be reflected throughout.

I support the general thrust of this. In slightly more tendentious mode, in light of the earlier exchanges about the ombudsman, it might be wise to include the Ministry of Justice, which is responsible for administrative justice policy, and the Cabinet Office, which is responsible for ombudsman policy, because it appears that intelligence has not filtered through from either to the Ministry of Defence, which wrote the Minister’s brief.

My Lords, I speak to Amendment 7 in my own name and comment on Amendment 6 in this group. There is an obvious similarity between the two amendments. I worded mine slightly differently because the particular Secretary of State who may be required to provide information from time to time will vary. That is why in Amendment 7 I used the term “relevant”. Similarly, it may be that in some reports specific requirements are made of one devolved Administration and not another.

There is a second reason why Amendment 7 differs from Amendment 6. I detected in conversations with the Government a sensitivity over any interference with the devolution settlement. I phrased my amendment so that it goes to the Administration rather than to the individual Minister in the Administration. I personally have no difficulty with the requirement going to the individual Minister in the devolved Administrations but, with personal experience in dealing with this for many years, I can assure the House that there will certainly be difficulties, particularly if that applies in Northern Ireland.

I made the point at Second Reading and in Committee that we have cast-iron experience that there is a loose end in the Bill. At Second Reading, the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, expressed the views of many Members in this House that there was broad support for the covenant and that we were glad to see it coming before the House in the amendments. But the noble Baroness made the point that there were loose ends and that those would have to be tidied up as the process continued. We now have an opportunity to do just that.

The wording of either of these amendments may not be perfect. Indeed, there may be technicalities here or there that need to be improved, but there is time for that to be done. I join with the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, in the comments he made when introducing his amendment. Mine merely gives the Minister a different way of doing that, another option to achieve exactly the same thing. We want buy-in.

An important point has been made by the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, and the noble Lord, Lord Newton. If there is a statutory requirement on a department to do something, somebody in that department is plugged in to do it. All legislation and legislative requirements in a department are written down every year and a path is created in the department for that particular legislative requirement to be fulfilled. Otherwise, it is left to the whim of the relevant Minister, or to a correspondence between two private offices, or to whatever particular interest any given Minister may take in the subject. Making a requirement on a department ensures that the legislative section takes it on board and it is put into the programme of that department for a year ahead, so we know that the thing will be done right.

I can well understand Government resisting amendments. I have done it myself and we all know it. My anxiety is over the fact that this is a unique piece of legislation. The speeches delivered by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, would have got the message across that we are dealing with something unique, and I welcome that. If one sees the privations and dangers that our service personnel are going through, and if we read, hear and see in our own areas the consequences of the actions that they are being required to take—far-reaching consequences that will grow in significance over time, because people are coming back from these wars with terrible injuries from which in other times they would have perished on the battlefield and facing 40, 50 or 60 years of life with them—they are going to put a Major requirement on the delivery of service in the years ahead.

It is not unreasonable in those circumstances to say to given departments, which I expect will vary from year to year, and to the devolved Administrations, that they have to be plugged into this process. I know there are sensitivities over interference with devolution settlements and I suppose that there may be some people who do not want to annoy Mr Salmond, or whoever, but the fact of the matter is that service personnel and former service personnel are a national responsibility. They are the responsibility of Parliament; they are employed as soldiers, service men, airmen and naval personnel on behalf of the United Kingdom, not on behalf of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or England. It is therefore up to Parliament, irrespective of devolution settlements, to ensure that there is not a postcode lottery as far as the provision of services is concerned throughout this country.

As I said, I know this from personal experience because last year, in the Northern Ireland Assembly, a Bill was introduced entitled the Armed Forces and Veterans Bill. It was a Private Member’s Bill and it went through all its stages. I provided the Minister with copies of the debate from the Committee and all the rest of it. Yet when push came to shove in February of this year, that Bill was vetoed and not allowed to proceed. That was done under the special provisions that we have, because some people objected to special provision being made for service personnel or former service personnel. I wrote to the Minister—he has kindly replied to me—that in Northern Ireland we have Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act, which is designed to prevent discrimination. I was concerned that people would hide behind the idea that if they were giving something special to service personnel, it would be discriminating in favour of a particular group, but I am happy to say that the Minister assured me that that was not the case.

Nevertheless, I believe that there has to be some means of ensuring that Parliament is aware of what the input is and that if there is a special requirement which the Secretary of State should deem appropriate, it can be delivered. I believe that on two points: first, that of ensuring that departments actually deliver on this and, secondly, that there is no political interference at a devolved level with the delivery of service. This is a national provision. It will remain the responsibility of Parliament, which is the way it should be because defence is an excepted matter. Yet while that provision is never going to be the responsibility of the devolved Administrations, the delivery of the necessary services is—so Parliament has to prioritise and be clear. I have no problem whatever with whether that is done by means of Amendment 6, my own amendment or another amendment which we could deal with between now and next week. To ensure that it is done is the key and I therefore look forward very much to the Minister’s response to this group of amendments.

My Lords, I too support these amendments, in particular Amendment 6. I would like to reinforce the argument made by my noble friend Lady Taylor, which was reinforced by the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that the responsibility to reinforce the commitment that each of the departments has is crucial. We have some evidence now, as we regrettably have a number of members of our Armed Forces either being made redundant or leaving the service early. The evidence is that in terms of education and skills there are great gaps in the opportunities that they have had in the Armed Forces and that they are having to catch up very quickly. The Bill refers to the opportunity of not discriminating in that way. It would be extremely interesting for all of us to see what the Secretary of State for Education—and perhaps even the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, in terms of their responsibility for skills—would have to report about that. That would be reassuring for all us. More importantly, all the arguments have been made about how much it will mean in the department if it has to report back, but that would be absolutely enforceable. In that context, I support Amendments 6 and 7.

My Lords, I make no apologies for returning to the word “trust”, which I used earlier. I must say that I exclude the Minister from my remarks, as I am sure we all have absolute trust that he will do precisely what he has said in his comments. I should add that I am enormously grateful to him for the way that he has taken so much trouble to brief us on this Bill, and to write to us, which has been hugely appreciated.

I pick up on two things that the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, mentioned—first, the importance of the quality of the first report and, secondly, the expectations that people will have of it. By “people”, I refer to the two constituencies mentioned by my noble and gallant friend Lord Craig; that is, the veterans, and the servicemen and their families. My concern is over the presentation of the report. The Minister will remember that when he was in Opposition he and I both regretted the fact that the Government had cancelled the position of the chief of public relations for each service. Those three officers had the responsibility of projecting and protecting the image of their particular service, and of protecting the image of their own chief of staff. As a result of the removal of those people, the PR from the Ministry of Defence became much more concerned with protecting and projecting the image of the Minister, which is not the same thing at all. Instead of having the chiefs of staff protected and not going out and saying things that might damage their very important relationships with Ministers, chiefs of staff were speaking out. My noble friend Lord Dannatt will remember this himself: the situation must have been uncomfortable for him, and in earlier days he would not have needed to say the things he did because they would have been said by others.

People in the two constituencies mentioned will have huge expectations on the publication of the first report of the covenant. I put it to the Minister that it is therefore very important that the way in which this is presented is thought through. I use the word “trust” because, although guarantees are given that there is a momentum at the present in the first covenant that the ministries concerned will say things—I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Newton, mentioned the Ministry of Justice as well because of the issue of veterans who fall into the hands of that service—we cannot be absolutely certain that that immense momentum will be maintained. This is where the word “trust” comes in. People will have trust if they see in the Bill the fact that each and every year all the people who have an impact on them and their lives will have to give an account of what they are doing to look after them. This may seem like micromanagement, but when we are considering something as important and fragile as morale and trust in our Armed Forces, I do commend that this is thought through with great care.

I hope that I am not too late or out of order; I do not know if the noble Lord who has just spoken was the prime mover of the amendment.

I was listening to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, as well as comments made earlier in the proposition of Amendment 6, and became interested in the devolved Administrations and the noble Lord’s comments about the First Minister of Scotland. Today’s proceedings would be of enormous interest to relevant Ministers, let alone the First Minister and other Ministers in Scotland. I hope that any measures added to the Bill, or which come to the devolved Assemblies and Parliament, will be relevant and brief, and are able to branch out, year by year, as per the thoughts and experience of the noble Lord, Lord Empey.

I would be worried if what we are discussing today about the devolved Administrations were unnecessarily burdensome in outlook and discussion. I get a trifle worried about the financial implications and arguments on expenditure for servicemen, their families and others, but particularly for veterans. I broke my leg as a young conscript 50 years ago and other servicemen who served with me might have had injuries. The thought of them being able to use the measures, let alone the finances, we have discussed this afternoon to come back now to receive compensation or bring up a problem worries me mildly.

What my noble friend has indicated and the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, are very helpful. I hope that a form of words can be found that will achieve everything that he wants from the devolved Administrations and can be knitted on to the funds that come from what I call this Parliament.

My Lords, I contribute at this stage of our proceedings because Amendments 6 and 7 are critical to this whole debate. They encompass our concern about incorporating the responsibilities of all government departments, and our desire to make sure that the serving and veteran communities are both looked after adequately and properly, within all the constituent parts of the United Kingdom. These two amendments really get at the substance of what this debate and this stage of the Bill is about.

That said, I would be quite happy if the second issue to which I draw attention—how these things are implemented—was attended to in a way that I, at least, was comfortable with. There has been discussion this afternoon of the possibility of looking at the position of chairman of the covenant reference group. I am firmly of the view that, as distinguished and expert as that person might be, a three-star civil servant in the Cabinet Office is not the right person, either by experience or position, to be the chairman of the covenant reference group. I do not believe that a person like that can inspire the confidence and trust to which the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has referred twice this afternoon.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, made some reference in speaking to his amendment to the idea of a commissioner having more favour that we had perhaps originally thought. If there is an absolute desire in the Government not to accept any changes to the Bill—I personally regret that, given the amount of energy, time and enthusiasm that has got us here so far—and it is their determined position not to accept any amendments, and if there is the possibility of going down a secondary legislation route, then, if a chairman of the covenant reference group of a thoroughly senior and independent standing were put in place, I, for one, would have confidence that the substance was going to be delivered and that I would be comfortable with that process.

I have been talking about the military covenant—now the Armed Forces covenant—fairly volubly for the past five years. I am delighted by where we have reached. Let us not fall at the last fence. Let us really bang this one home. The soldiers, sailors, marines, their families and veterans want to see this absolutely nailed for all time so that they know they will be looked after now and in the future. All Members of this House and all political parties would wish to support that. Let us not pass this up by being parsimonious against a tight parliamentary timescale. Please, find a way to do it—it can be done.

My Lords, noble Lords have made some very important points on both amendments this afternoon. I have listened very carefully. I repeat what I said earlier on the first group. Noble Lords wish to be absolutely clear as to which parts of government participated in the process of preparing the report and what position they have taken. My ministerial colleagues and I have already indicated that the Secretary of State will consult widely and will identify the source of the evidence and opinions that we include in the report. We have also noted that the annual report will be laid before Parliament on behalf of and with the approval of the whole Government. Nevertheless, I can go further by giving an undertaking that the Secretary of State will consult all UK government departments with a significant role in the delivery of services to serving personnel, veterans and their families and the three devolved Administrations. In the annual report he or she will confirm that he or she has consulted other government departments and the devolved Administrations, and will identify their contributions in the published report.

Having said all this, I will reflect again over the next day or two with my ministerial colleagues. I have asked my officials to do the same across government as a matter of urgency. I will be in touch with the noble and gallant Lord as soon as possible.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken to this amendment, which is clearly one of the most important in this part of the Bill. The Minister read out yet again the assurances that he wished to have on the record. I recognise that they are. However, he failed to repeat that this Government cannot commit their successors. We all know that. I feel very strongly that the only way in which successor Governments may be committed is by an Act of Parliament. They often overturn them but that is the right way to go. Therefore, I urge the Minister to continue in the way in which he has been moving, towards finding an acceptable compromise on which we can all come together. This is a non-partisan point and a very important Bill. We have only one year in five in which we can do something about it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 6 withdrawn.

Amendments 7 and 8 not moved.

Amendment 9

Moved by

9: 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, this is almost a consequential amendment. I said in my previous remarks that the one thing that I want to prevent is a postcode lottery in the delivery of services to members of the Armed Forces and veterans. Given that we have a national commitment and defence is a national issue, but the delivery of many of these services is within the remit of neither the Secretary of State for Defence nor other Whitehall departments, there is a long-term danger of divergence. We all know that there are already differences between regions of the country in the delivery of healthcare, for instance. That is not specific to the Armed Forces; it is true in general. There are also variations in standards in education, and variations from one local authority to another in the standard of housing provided. Therefore, because of the diversity of our nation, one is not going to get absolutely the same level of service in every corner. However, we have an obligation to ensure that, in so far as it is possible, we have broadly the same level of service provision where that is required for members of the Armed Forces or veterans.

Lest the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, thinks that I would like to see people who had an accident 50 years ago coming forward for compensation, I stress that that is not what I am getting at. I do not think that is what anybody here is getting at. What we are getting at is to ensure that those people who put themselves in harm’s way on our behalf are provided for. The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, who is not in his place, pointed out that in only one of the past 40 or 50 years have no personnel died in action. Given all the complexities and the growing number of multiple amputees and seriously injured young people who are coming back from conflicts, we know that there will be a long-term burden.

The Secretary of State has the power to indicate in the covenant if he feels that special provision has to be made. However, the Secretary of State for Defence is not the person in charge of the delivery of that special provision. He may have considerable influence in Whitehall due to the fact that you generally have a one-party Government or at least a coalition, as we now have, but in the devolved Administrations you could have anything but. You could have parties that are poles apart. It is highly likely that the special provision will cost money. Where will the money come from? The devolved regions are given block grants and it is up to their relevant Ministers to disburse them. The Secretary of State could say, “I believe provision X should be provided to the service personnel and veterans”, but he cannot deliver it because a devolved Minister can tell him to take a running jump. I assure the Secretary of State that I know for certain that some of them would do that—and he knows that only too well—so how is he to deliver on the covenant without running the risk of instituting a postcode lottery? The only way that I can think of—other noble Lords have said the same thing—is by having a statutory requirement because, if the requirement is placed on a devolved Administration as opposed to an individual Minister, the Administration take on the responsibility, just as a Whitehall department takes on a responsibility.

If the Secretary of State for Defence decides that provision needs to be made which would have implications for health spending, what will his colleague in the health department say? Will he say, “Do you realise that this will cost me another £70 million a year? Where is the money to come from? Are you giving it to me?”? How will the Secretary of State provide the wherewithal to deliver the special provision which, sadly and regrettably, I have no doubt will be required? The amendment seeks merely to nail down the covenant so that it has a practical implication and outcome for those who need it most. I return to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Newton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, about departments and how the system works. A department has a mechanism whereby all its statutory requirements are listed and the obligations are brought through year on year and there is a process for doing that. If it is merely a case of having a chat with the relevant Minister, I assure noble Lords that that will not deliver. As the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, said, we need to tidy up the loose ends.

This matter follows on from Amendments 6 and 7 and the consensus that we have had throughout the passage of the Bill. I join the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, in thanking the Minister for making himself available for briefings. I regret that I could not attend the one this morning because I could not get here in time but I thank him for what he is doing. I sincerely hope that the period of reflection that he and his colleagues will undertake will be highly productive. I beg to move.

Briefly, I support my noble friend Lord Empey. Just today, I had a briefing on the impact of the commissioners who will come in under the Health and Social Care Bill. On the Floor of this House, I have already raised the question that the National Health Service is without sufficient skilled technicians to look after the high-tech artificial limbs with which some of our injured are being fitted. That is exactly the sort of thing that we do not want to have postcode lotteries for around the country. We need to put those two matters together in the reflection which I know that the Minister will carry out.

I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Empey. I hope that I was not flippant in my comment about my military career, which ended in 1959. I agreed with the points that he raised, especially about Northern Ireland, and the two wonderful words that he used: running jump. Of all people, I appreciate what he was getting at. As for my devolved Administration in Scotland, I see enormous enthusiasm among relevant Ministers in Scotland to do everything possible for injured servicemen and those who have suffered, but, as a very humble member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland, I am sure that, with its skills, it could consider the budgetary and financial implications of the measures we are discussing today on either a case-by-case or a category-by-category basis.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, has raised the point and has been wonderfully supported by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. As far as is humanly possible, every case and category that we have been discussing this afternoon should be considered on a United Kingdom basis. The funds should be found to boost support, as described by the noble Lord, Lord Empey. I hope that that will be the case in Scotland. I do not know if we have heard anything about Wales; perhaps I had better not delve into that.

I am very grateful for the support and comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey.

I intervene very briefly to support the spirit of the amendment and the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. We must remember that we now have people surviving injuries who previously would have died. They are therefore surviving with much higher needs for prosthetic fitting for artificial limbs, and so on, than previously. Unless the budgeting is looked at carefully, in a central format, we will have people whose needs cannot be met locally because some of them are literally unique in surviving in their situation. The budgetary implications must be addressed in the reflection.

My Lords, the Minister had the support of the whole House in his response to the previous amendment, and I hope that he will also give a helpful response to this one.

As has been said, our Armed Forces are United Kingdom forces. For that reason alone, it would surely be undesirable not to try to ensure that special provision for service people is broadly the same across the United Kingdom. The amendment does not require the Secretary of State to do the impossible and ensure that special provisions made are broadly the same, but simply provides for the covenant report to state how the Secretary of State will seek to ensure that such provisions are broadly the same. This is an eminently reasonable and constructive amendment, and I hope that the Minister will give an equally constructive response.

My Lords, noble Lords who have spoken in support of Amendment 9 have voiced their disquiet at the prospect of variation between the different countries of the United Kingdom in the way that special provision or special treatment is applied. I have previously said to your Lordships that the Government are sympathetic to the principle of consistency. As noble Lords have pointed out, members of the Armed Forces serve the Crown and the whole of the United Kingdom, not a local council or the devolved Administrations. The Armed Forces covenant is with the nation, not with one part of it. All parts of government across the UK share the moral obligation to honour it.

Nevertheless, we must keep this in perspective. The terminology of a postcode lottery is emotive and sometimes used unfairly to describe the legitimate scope for local decisions about local services. There are many examples where that scope for local decision has led to better outcomes for members of the Armed Forces community, rather than allowing councils or Administrations to escape their obligations. The Government have no wish to stifle that local initiative or control everything from Whitehall by regulation.

One alternative to regulation is successful dialogue. Again, I have referred in the past to what dialogue has achieved across a range of different domains, such as the introduction of the new arrangements for scholarships for bereaved service children. Another example I gave was the new transition protocol for transferring the care of injured personnel from military to civilian services across all the countries of the United Kingdom. So I am not as pessimistic about the future as the noble Lord, Lord Empey. The noble Lord knows that the particular terms of the amendment, which would require the Government to include in the report a statement on how we would ensure that the provision is broadly the same across the UK, causes difficulty. That goes some way beyond what we envisage as the content of the annual report. Even if we accepted the underlying assumption that the UK Government should act in the way suggested, we would not necessarily have the answers available when the report was published.

In Grand Committee, the noble Lord invited the Government to reflect further on those matters, and we have. He used a very good phrase when he referred to his desire to connect every part of the UK to the report process. In that debate, I gave the noble Lord the assurance that, where the Secretary of State reaches the conclusion that special provision is justified, the annual report will attempt to take into account the position across the United Kingdom. We would take a wide view. I trust that that assurance, together with the further statements which I had made today about the report process, will give the noble Lord the assurance he seeks. I therefore ask him to withdraw his amendment.

I thank the Minister for his response. I understand that “postcode lottery” can be an emotive phrase, but he knows that neither I nor anyone else who has used it has done so with any sense of flippancy. It was used to convey the point that servicepeople serve all of us and that services that they need in unfortunate circumstances should be broadly equivalent or equal throughout the United Kingdom. I think that that is the general view.

I support the concept of dialogue. That is excellent and, so far, it is going fine. However, I can tell the Minister, because I know—I do not have to imagine it, we have it in black and white in Hansard in Stormont—that there can and could well be a difficulty. The reason why it is going so well at the moment is purely because of the individual personnel who happen to be in post at this time, but that will change from Administration to Administration.

I am trying to ensure, as other noble Lords are, that we avoid difficulty in the future. However, we accept, and I think everybody accepts, that one wants to do this with the minimum of regulation. However, the Minister needs to take it on board that if the Secretary of State for Defence decides that special provision has to be made, which is perfectly natural, the quid pro quo is that the Secretary of State has to be in a position to tell Parliament how it is going to be delivered. The Secretary of State for Defence is not the Minister who can deliver. That is a fact. It might be an inconvenient fact but it is nevertheless a fact.

All I am interested in is avoiding a problem in the future. I have no desire to create difficulties for the Minister or for the Government but I wish to ensure that difficulties are not created down the line and that an unseemly row starts over something that we would want to keep above that sort of level. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 9 withdrawn.

Amendment 10

Moved by

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

“Armed forces advocates

After section 359 of AFA 2006 insert—“359 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.””

My Lords, this amendment refers to the position of Armed Forces advocates and provides for the existing network to be extended 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 which may affect servicepeople. I moved a similar amendment in Committee.

In rejecting the amendment in Committee, the Minister said that he regarded Armed Forces advocates as an excellent idea, but in effect argued that the role of government was to ensure that best practice was promoted around the country by drawing attention to successful uses of the advocate system but did not extend beyond that. It was for example a matter for local authorities to decide whether or not they wished to appoint Armed Forces advocates. Armed Forces advocates, among other things, help to ensure that services provided at the local level appropriately recognise the specific needs of Armed Forces personnel, veterans and their families.

The previous Government piloted an Armed Forces welfare pathway which led to the appointment of some Armed Forces advocates. The Minister argued in Committee that since this had been done without legislation, the same should continue. The previous Government, however, was getting the system off the ground. We have now seen what can be achieved and there appears to be a general recognition of the merits of Armed Forces advocates. We also now have the Armed Forces covenant and a situation in which many authorities are under considerable pressure as well.

My noble friend Lord Davies of Stamford, who is not in his place, said in Committee that it was those local authorities least inclined to establish the post of Armed Forces advocate where it was most likely that the Armed Forces would need such an advocate, and vice versa. In response the Minister said that that was a very good point and that he would certainly look at it. I hope that having done that, the Minister, even if he is not prepared to accept this amendment, will at least be able to spell out some much more specific action that the Government intend to take to ensure that best practice is actually introduced and implemented in those places where it is most needed—mainly where there are no Armed Forces advocates or their equivalents at present.

My Lords, the noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Tunnicliffe, tabled a similar amendment to Amendment 10 in Grand Committee. In response I assured your Lordships that I regarded Armed Forces advocates as an excellent idea and outlined the tasks they carried out in central government departments. I also mentioned the variety of roles which advocates or champions can and do play at local level in local authorities, NHS trusts or jobcentres. The form this took depended on the job to be done.

The issues surrounding this amendment have not changed. It is not the merits of local Armed Forces advocates that are in question but the need to legislate for their existence. Our approach is to spread good practice by demonstrating what advocates and other local initiatives are able to achieve. As the noble Lord pointed out, the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, suggested in our earlier debate that it was precisely those local bodies which decline to appoint an advocate which were most likely to need one as they had not focused on the issues. I undertook to consider this point further. Having done so, I take rather the opposite view. I suggest that a local body which appoints an advocate, simply because it ticks a box or meets a legal requirement, is very unlikely to make effective use of that individual. This is not the right approach to stimulate genuine improvements at local level, and I ask the noble Lord not to press his amendment.

My Lords, I am obviously somewhat disappointed at the Minister’s reply because although I accepted that he might well not be prepared to accept the amendment, I expressed the hope that he would be able to spell out in rather more detail the specific action that the Government intended to take to ensure that best practice is introduced and implemented. It does not seem to me that the Minister has really addressed that point in his reply. However, I will not pursue the matter any further at this stage and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 10 withdrawn.

Amendment 11 not moved.

Amendment 12

Moved by

12: 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—“74A Procedure on arrest for substance abuse, violence against the person or damage to property

(1) If a person subject to service law and currently serving in Her Majesty’s armed forces—

(a) has been arrested on suspicion of having committed an offence, and(b) the damage is related to substance abuse, violence against the person or criminal damage to property,prior to any decision being made as to charge, consideration shall be given and the conclusions recorded as to the possible diversion of the person for specialist services to assist with substance misuse and mental health treatment either through Her Majesty’s armed forces or in the community.(2) Prior to such a person’s case being determined before a military or civil court, the prosecuting authority and the court shall review whether the case should be referred to specialist services such as are described in subsection (1).””

My Lords, this amendment has been rewritten in the light of the debate we had in Committee. It has, I hope, addressed the criticisms of the previous wording. It is about the procedure on arrest of somebody for substance abuse, violence against the person or damage to property. This relates quite specifically to alcohol-fuelled aggression, a problem that sadly is increasing, and possibly to drug-fuelled aggression. The alcohol-fuelled problem is much greater. The aim of the amendment is simply to bring into line the military court system with the civilian court system.

The Police and Criminal Evidence Act, known as PACE, set out criteria for the police station in civilian life which present an automatic safeguard that does not exist in the military court system as PACE does not apply. Some of these safeguards include: access to a forensic medical examiner, addiction and arrest referral and mental health liaison and assessment teams. I am most grateful to the Minister and to officials who met me and spent some time discussing the details of this amendment. I draw noble Lords’ attention to the wording just after the proposed new subsection (1)(b), which says that,

“prior to any decision being made as to charge, consideration shall be given and the conclusions recorded as to the possible diversion of the person for specialist services”.

All this amendment is asking is that it is considered. It is not asking that any more than that happens. It does not mean that there has to be detailed testing. It simply means that the person making the arrest should have a prompt to think about the problem.

I understand that probation trusts are going to become increasingly involved in the assessment of Armed Forces personnel when they are up for charges. Indeed, Hampshire Probation Trust has been named as one. One of the difficulties, of course, is that like other areas it is facing stringent budget cuts, including front-line cuts. I would be concerned as to how a probation trust is going to have probation officers in areas such as Newcastle or Yorkshire or wherever there are other barracks because they are quite far-flung. I note that there has been a recent advertisement for probation officers to cover the whole of Germany. It is for two officers. It is a very large area for just two people to cover. There is concern about the level of training and support that these people will have. Therefore, I hope that the Government will be able to provide some reassurance that the prosecuting authority will seek to engage with local probation trusts, wherever appropriate, because a local probation trust will be familiar with local issues and local diversion projects both in the community and in barracks.

Any probation officers dealing with people from the military need to have proper training to identify underlying mental health and substance misuse issues. The way that such cases present in the military may be different from how they present in what one might call the purely civilian population.

The idea of an intervention before charging is precisely to avoid stigmatisation and to avoid court proceedings when other interventions would be more appropriate and, indeed, perhaps less expensive. In the civilian justice system there are many intervention and diversion possibilities before a person is charged. For example, if the custody sergeant or arresting officer suspects drug and alcohol or underlying mental health issues, he will, in fulfilling his duty, call in a police doctor. Under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 there are triggers to look for evidence if drugs or alcohol are suspected. I quote from the guidance:

“The drug test is a screening tool only and the result cannot be used … against the detainee ... The result of the test can lead to referrals for treatment and can also be used to inform court decisions on bail and sentencing”.

If that guidance were adopted for military courts, we would certainly not run the risk of any results being used against a detainee but an intervention might provide the support needed to deal with the fundamental problem behind the offending behaviour.

The problem of stigmatisation is particularly marked in the Armed Forces. In medicine there has been, and perhaps still is, a somewhat macho culture in terms of coping with very traumatic situations. People suppress their feelings and have a drink, and it is quite a macho thing to hold your drink or to cope with drugs. When you fail to hold your drink and maintain that bravado, you are stigmatised as being weak because you have failed the alcohol or drugs test. People’s inhibitions about admitting to having a problem or a trauma is therefore perpetrated by this macho culture.

Early detection and intervention is extremely cost-effective and was monetised by the New Economics Foundation. I have the figures relating to women, although I do not have them for men. The cost of incarcerating a woman for a year is £56,000 and the cost of locking her up for 10 years is £10 million. Therefore, on those figures, early intervention with someone for whom such incarceration had no benefit at all could certainly quickly be seen to be very cost-effective for society. There is simply a need to ask whether the person misuses substances and whether he wishes to self-harm or has ever tried to self-harm or commit suicide. That opportunity for self-disclosure in a safe setting prior to charging must be encouraged and nurtured by the Ministry of Defence, as opposed to the current culture of shaming a person and heaping punishment on them. With the help of outside lawyers, I ran the Minister’s Committee stage briefing past former service personnel. I am afraid their response suggests that the impression that a lot is already in place may be a sign of slightly misplaced faith in the current system, and it reinforced my resolve to bring forward this amendment.

In the civilian justice system there is a fairly new joint initiative between the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Health to identify people known to the community mental health team as suffering from mental health issues or as being treated for substance misuse so that they can be dealt with fairly and appropriately. I would hope that the same could be put in place for the court martial service and the defence community mental health teams, and I think that this amendment would help to stimulate such collaboration.

In Committee, objections were raised about the pressure on the military court system to deal with every case through psychiatric reports and drug testing, but the wording has removed the obligation. As I said before, it simply makes it a consideration which lays some, although not an onerous, measure of legal responsibility. The wording creates a consideration, not an obligation, and leaves room for discretion. Some important current initiatives could certainly be built on and would, I think, be completely compatible with the wording of the amendment. For example, it looks as though the Trauma Risk Management programme, which is a peer-review support programme used in Afghanistan, will be a very effective way of supporting deeply traumatised members of our Armed Forces.

It is important to remember that many service personnel are very young indeed and do not have the emotional infrastructure behind them to help them to cope with the traumas that they encounter. Their repeated infractions are often symptoms of far deeper problems, some of which may have occurred before they ever joined the Armed Forces. When the revealing of those multiple traumas is alcohol-fuelled, it can result in the injury of and violence towards people around them, particularly within the personnel’s own family.

I suggest that lower welfare costs and the effect on budgets across all government departments will come about by dealing with the underlying issues through early intervention. That is the spirit behind the amendment. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, who regrets that he is unable to be here at the moment, feels that the amendment should meet the criticisms made in Committee, and it should also help to turn around the existing attitude within the military court system, bringing it into line with the civilian court system. I beg to move.

My Lords, I recognise the noble Baroness’s concerns, which form the background to her amendment and to the way in which she has responded to points made in Committee on her earlier amendment. She wishes to bring awareness of and investigation into potential links between substance abuse, mental disorder and the committing of offences within the Armed Forces as close as possible to what is now required within the civilian justice system.

My understanding is that alcohol abuse is currently a much more common problem in the forces than drug abuse. Mental health issues—particularly those associated with post-conflict trauma—are, however, a wider concern.

I recognise the noble Baroness’s concern that there are insufficient and insufficiently trained staff to provide the examinations and reports that are needed. I reassure her that the MoD will look again at the level of provision, but I am informed that there have not been recent complaints from within the military that resources are inadequate.

She raised the question of Germany. I have just checked again my previous understanding that UK forces remaining in Germany are now concentrated in two geographical areas and are not spread across the whole country. The appointment of two probation officers therefore seems appropriate.

There remain some real problems with the exact terms of the amendment as drafted, which make it impossible for the Government to accept. However, we do accept and share the underlying concern that the noble Baroness is addressing. 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 the service justice system, as in the civilian system. However, the framework within which the forces operate is not, and cannot be, identical to the framework within which civilian offences are handled. None the less, the MoD and the Armed Forces are conscious of the importance of recognising at an early stage those who may need specialist attention. If possible, this must happen before offences are committed or prosecutions are started. That is part of the service support system.

The measures to identify and support those who are vulnerable range from informal support within the unit through to specialist medical attention. I will not attempt to cover them all but there is a clear pre- and post-deployment stress management policy in place across all three services. No system can provide a guarantee to detect every individual at risk of mental disorder. Nevertheless, measures are in place to increase awareness at all levels. These include pre- and post-deployment briefing and the availability of support, assessment and treatment if required both during and after deployments.

It is essential for there to be an understanding and awareness of mental health problems at all ranks and, in recognising the question of stigma, to remove the stigma that is still sometimes attached to admitting to mental health problems and obtaining treatment. Among the steps in place is the increased use of trauma risk management, known as TRIM. The aim is to provide non-specialist advice and support within the unit. Suitably trained members of each unit can do much to identify those in the unit who may have a problem, to give them basic but informed advice and support, and to refer them, if necessary, for specialist help. Another useful measure is decompression. This informal relaxation and briefing after an operational deployment allows individuals to begin to unwind mentally and physically while having time and briefing to encourage them to talk through their experiences.

I have already made reference to the importance of understanding the psychological state of an offender and the appropriateness in some cases of a specialist social or mental health approach. But in most cases, drugs offences and offences of violence or damage to property will be prosecuted. When a case is serious enough to go to a prosecuting authority, whether civilian or military, that authority must consider the evidence available as to whether the suspect had the necessary intent to commit the offence under consideration. The prosecuting authority must also consider whether the interests of justice make a prosecution in that case appropriate. This is not a statutory requirement but part of the general responsibilities of those making decisions on prosecutions. It is also a prosecuting authority’s responsibility to keep these issues under review throughout the proceedings.

The defence routinely provides submissions to the prosecuting authority about the accused’s state of mind and whether continued proceedings are appropriate. The prosecuting authority is therefore able to review in context its assessment of what the interests of justice require. It is also a 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. The prosecuting authority should, and does consider what the interests of justice require and, in particular, whether a prosecution is appropriate. It does so, taking into account the evidence before it. But it would go too far to require prosecuting authorities or commanding officers to consider and to record their consideration whether the suspect should be referred instead to specialist services. To do so would confuse the role of prosecutor and the role of a commanding officer with that of a court. It is right for a prosecutor and a commanding officer to have some discretion on 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 role this amendment would require them to play.

The second effect of the amendment applies once the member of the Armed Forces has been charged. It would require the prosecutor and the court to consider referring an accused to specialist services before trial. This would, I believe, be wrong in principle and unfair to the accused. It would in effect require the court to consider how the accused should be dealt with before hearing the evidence. To take a simple example, if a member of the Armed Forces pleaded not guilty to a charge of assault, the amendment would require the court to consider referring the person to specialist services before it had heard the evidence on whether he or she had committed the assault.

Lastly, the amendment would mean that members of the Armed Forces were singled out by statute as requiring in every case related to substance abuse, violence to a person or damage to property, special consideration of the need for assistance with substance abuse or mental health treatment. These do not apply to other citizens, and I do not consider that there are grounds for such a different approach between members of the Armed Forces and civilians. I emphasise that we recognise the importance of understanding the psychological and social background of an offender in the Armed Forces as well as in civilian life, and I hope that the noble Baroness will be reassured by my summary of what has been put in place in the Armed Forces to identify mental health problems and to treat them in the right way. In the light of the reassurances that I have given, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

I am most grateful to the Minister for providing me with a very detailed response, and for the reassurances that he has given now. I was not given such reassurances in Committee. The points that he makes are extremely important. In the light of them I will withdraw the amendment and hope that we will not hear in the future about some of the disasters that have occurred in the past. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 12 withdrawn.

Amendment 13

Moved by

13: After Clause 23, insert the following new Clause—

“Commonwealth medals

After section 339 of AFA 2006 insert—“339A Commonwealth medals

Medals awarded by Commonwealth governments, including the Pingat Jasa Malaysia Medal, to present or former members of Her Majesty’s armed forces may be worn without restriction.””

My Lords, I speak to Amendment 13 in my name and that of other noble Lords mentioned on the Marshalled List. In the course of the debates on the topic of medals it has become clear to me that there is considerable ambiguity and genuine confusion over who is responsible, who does what and why, and when foreign awards may be accepted by British subjects with or without restriction. Restriction seems to mean that a recipient may accept an award but is not allowed to wear it.

It has been normal for the Foreign Office to handle awards from foreign states but that now seems to be in doubt. I asked a Written Question about the Malaysian Pingat Jasa Malaysia medal but it was answered not by an FCO Minister but by the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever. The noble Lord has since written to me to say that he has set in hand a review of the process by which advice about the institution of medals and the acceptance of foreign awards in respect of military service is put together, considered and submitted to the Queen.

I also raised in Committee the issue of the prerogative when it came to submissions to the sovereign. I quoted two examples of Written Ministerial Statements, in 2005 and 2006, which made clear that the rules of no double medalling and a five-year moratorium were government policy. The Minister, in a Written Answer about the prerogative, dated 23 September, states that these references to the Government, “are not strictly correct”.

Noble Lords will be taken aback to learn that such authoritative Statements to Parliament as two Written Ministerial Statements are not correct, or are deemed to be incorrect, in order to uphold a unique position claimed for the honours committee in relation to advice to the sovereign. I remind the Minister that in a reply to my Written Question in September about wearing the PJM medal, the noble Lord said about Commonwealth Governments:

“Each Government apply their own rules and judgment to their own citizens”.—[Official Report, 5/9/2011; col. WA 17.]

Is there really such a difference for the UK Government? It would appear not. In his letter to me and other noble Lords dated 23 September, the Minister states that,

“there remains under the Prerogative scope to make exceptions”.

In other words, Her Majesty follows the advice of her Ministers.

The Minister also claims that when an exception is allowed, the results are likely to be seen as anomalous or unfair. Surely, that is not the right conclusion to draw. Rather, it is that with the passage of time the rules themselves and officials who seek to hide behind them are the problem, not the numerous exceptions that have been granted over many decades. I am sure the Minister is right to have instituted the review. It should look at the so-called rules, and I welcome his assurance that a Written Ministerial Statement on the outcome will be forthcoming.

Amendment 13 should not be delayed because of any review. As I mentioned in Committee, the long-standing issue of the Pingat Jasa Malaysia medal has yet to be resolved. I visited Malaysia last June at the personal invitation of Prime Minister Najib. It was clear from what he told me and what I saw that Malaysia is now well on the way to achieving its vision of being a fully developed nation by 2020. Putting a restriction on the generous recognition of the contribution of many service and other personnel to the start of that process of development seems quite unnecessary and lacking in appreciation of the donor’s gesture and standing in the world. Even more bizarre, a British recipient has Her Majesty’s agreement to accept but not to wear the PJM, while an Australian serviceman has Her Majesty’s approval to accept and to wear it. How confusing and frustrating must that be to an individual with dual nationality?

As I have already mentioned, in his response to my Written Question about the PJM, the Minister attempted to explain this anomaly away when he said:

“Each Government apply their own rules and judgment to their own citizens”.—[Official Report, 5/9/2011; col. WA 17.]

In other words, the Government are in the lead and Her Majesty is following that advice. How does that sit with the claim that the honours committee is independent of government? Once again, we have confusion and conflicting answers to the same Question. No contortionist could so ridiculously point in so many different ways at the same time. Other Commonwealth countries are also making giant strides in development, and this Government are anxious rebuild and reinforce the ties of Commonwealth. For these reasons, I believe that now is the time to make special provision for awards from Commonwealth countries. With the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting due at the end of this month in Perth, it would be a positive announcement for the Prime Minister to make at that meeting.

A further argument sometimes prayed in aid of the discredited restrictive rules is that the presence of a second award on the chest of an individual somehow reduces the value of the national award. I wonder whether that is really right. The individual can take pride in both and his contribution is clearer to those who see the medal ribbons on his uniform. I recently saw a photograph of the late Lord Mountbatten of Burma. He had 10 rows of medal ribbons on his Admiral of the Fleet uniform. I am sure he was proud to be able to display them all, but I shudder to think how the honours committee of the day managed to recommend so many exceptions to their precious rules so close to the date of their original adoption. I invite the Minister to accept this amendment. I beg to move.

My Lords, as in Grand Committee, I support every word of my noble and gallant friend Lord Craig. Unlike in Grand Committee, I have not brought my PJM medal with me; nor have I brought my General Service Medal with its clasp, showing that I was involved in confrontation in Borneo, but they are two medals for the same thing.

Another aspect of the unfortunate way in which this issue has been handled relates to the veterans who raised the issue of the PJM with the Government. They were, frankly, treated in a way that I would not have expected of the Ministry of Defence. The HDC—the Honours and Decorations Committee—may have met, but if it did so, it did so internally and did not share any of its findings. The letter that was then sent to the veterans was unworthy of the ministry. I am grateful to the Minister for announcing that he is going to revisit this, and I hope that this time there will be proper transparency so that the veterans are aware of the arguments and that they are not just produced in secret and, as my noble and gallant friend has said, erroneously.

My Lords, while we were in Committee in your Lordships’ Chamber, there was a very fine debate on the Commonwealth and how it could be brought closer together and how we could enhance it. There were some excellent speeches. I think this whole question, put by the noble and gallant Lord, of Commonwealth decorations and medals received would bring the Commonwealth even closer together. After all, in the past three years, one New Zealander and two Australians got the Victoria Cross. There seems to be no problem about them participating; they are from the Commonwealth.

The Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence have missed a point or two about the PJM medal of Malaysia, which is in dispute at the moment. The HD Committee, which I feel is the right way to go about these things, and I have said so in Committee, has missed a trick. Here is a Muslim nation—sophisticated, democratic and ably led—offering in gratitude a medal of thanks to all our veterans. That is really what it is. It is about the only nation I can think of that we have left that has thanked us like this. Of course, history shows, as many noble Lords will recall, that the gratitude comes from the fact that while the terrorist campaign was going on, and the British were definitely running that, it gave the Malays time to make their Government and to build their democracy.

As I said in Committee, I do not think that the HD Committee advised the Sovereign well. I would put it no stronger than that because I would not wish to embarrass the Sovereign in any way. We have not been very clever, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, says, in the way in which we have treated the veterans in rather rude, grubby and unfriendly letters that say, “You can do this but you can’t do that”. There is discontent among those veterans. They are old men and women now. Many in the Brigade of Gurkhas spent 15 years of their lives in Malaya, and they are not allowed to wear the medal. Many British service men and women in the 11-year period went back one, two, three more times. This is giving, and this is service—to Britain and to Malaysia. The noble Lord the Minister wears such a medal himself. I know that he puts it on the inside of his jacket when he goes out and makes sure that he has it on. I say to the noble Lord the Minister that if I appeared in front of the Agong or any of the Malayan generals whom I know, respect and look up to and I was not wearing a PJM, they would be very offended.

Let us ask the noble Lord the Minister to refuse the recommendation and look at this again. The HD Committee should not be too proud to change its mind. As the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, said, we are moving on and things are different from how they were in wartime and in the early days after World War II. The noble Lord the Minister wears his general service medal bravely and proudly for his time as an excellent cavalry officer in Malaysia. I ask him to look again and not to let the civil servants rule him all the time.

My Lords, I support the amendment of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig. The issue of the Pingat Jasa Malaysia medal is a stain on the honour of Great Britain. This is no way to treat our veterans. They are told that they can accept a medal awarded by His Majesty the King of Malaysia but that they must not wear it. The decision was based on advice to Her Majesty the Queen from the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals. I have been involved in this matter, with other noble Lords and noble and gallant Lords, over the years. We were told that one reason why the HD Committee reached its conclusion was the double-medalling and five-year rule. However, the double-medalling and five-year rule was set aside in order that the men could accept a medal and then reimposed to prevent them wearing it. This is appalling. To add further shame, the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals then advised that they should wear it for one week when they were invited to return to Malaysia for the celebration of its 50th anniversary of independence. What an appalling way to treat our veterans.

Mention has been made of the way in which some veterans had communications from various departments and civil servants. I have a letter from a veteran who said that he was advised by a civil servant that he could stuff his PJM back into his Kellogg's packet because the medal’s status meant nothing. What a way to talk to somebody who fought for our Armed Forces in the jungles of Malaysia but not in the jungles of Whitehall. I have sought, through freedom of information legislation, more information on how the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals reached its decision. Members often do not meet; they communicate and reach their decisions by e-mail. It is a good thing that we did not have e-mails in 1957 at the start of the Malaysian campaign, or some of the boys we wanted to send might have said, “I’m not going but I’ll send an e-mail of support”. This is an appalling way to treat our veterans.

In a few weeks, on November 11, we will remember those who gave their lives for Britain. There could be no better time to take stock and say, “We’ve got this wrong, we need to review this and ensure that these boys are able to wear a medal that they richly deserve”. I know that the noble Lord the Minister feels this in his heart. I echo the comments made by the noble Lord: set aside the advice given by civil servants and anybody else. The right thing to do is to let our boys wear a medal. Let us—as a Government, as a Parliament and as a country—honour them in the way that they deserve.

My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 14. I waited until everyone had spoken on Amendment 13. This does not stop me saying that I agree entirely with all noble Lords who spoke on that amendment. I hope that the Minister will change his mind.

I will talk about a national defence medal. We have heard very poignantly about medals for gallantry, for campaigns and for being in the armed services. However, since the end of the Second World War there has been an inconsistency and an injustice in medallic recognition. Noble Lords have spoken about medals they and others received, but many people in the armed services have received no medals. I found some amazing cases in my research. The Minister talked earlier about spreading good practice. It would spread good practice if we had a national defence medal issued to those who served in the Armed Forces. I thank the Minister and his colleagues who have given us a lot of verbal and written information on the subject. One civil servant commented that there were 4 million such veterans. Not all would apply for the medal, but the fact that there are 4 million veterans shows that this is an incredible group of people to whom we owe a debt of honour. In the United States they would all be in a veterans’ organisation and very powerful politically. I am afraid that the only politics here is today in your Lordships' House.

A number of people do not support such a medal. This was also the case in Australia and New Zealand, where a very vocal minority opposed it. However, the medal was introduced and I believe that it is very successful and appreciated. I feel that I am on a losing wicket in trying to get this incorporated into the Bill. However, at the very least we should have a medal review that is independently chaired, transparent and open and that consults veterans. Sadly, the MoD review, which has been going on for a long time, is seen by veterans as flawed. The draft report that has been wandering around for a long time has been greeted with little enthusiasm.

The reality is that of 7,500-plus e-petitions on the government website, the one requesting a national defence medal ranks 46th. Of the 60-plus e-petitions that affect the Ministry of Defence, the one calling for the introduction of a national defence medal comes top. It would be extremely popular and symbolic if this came as part of the five-year review of the Armed Forces Bill. The cost would be about £2.50 per medal. Is that what is stopping this? Why can we not have this symbolic recognition of people's service to their country? I hope that the Minister will at least pursue an independently chaired committee that will be transparent. It may in the end decide not to have a medal, but at least the veterans will see that the decision has been made transparently and not in the back rooms of power.

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the subject of medals, the rules about accepting and wearing them, and the possible introduction of a national defence medal. A number of amendments on medals were tabled in Committee. They prompted a lively debate about an issue that clearly raises a great deal of interest. The discussion today has emphasised this. As my noble friend Lord De Mauley explained in Grand Committee, decisions on the institution of medals and honours, and the acceptance of foreign honours, are ultimately a matter for Her Majesty the Queen. The general approach adopted is that permission to accept and wear foreign medals should be given only exceptionally for services, whether civil or military, to the Crown. Her Majesty is advised on the award and wearing of medals by the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals.

The HD Committee, as it is known, was established by King George VI to ensure proper co-ordination and consistency across Government regarding honours and decorations, both military and civilian. The committee is deliberately non-political and is made up of very senior Crown servants representing the departments most involved in matters relating to medals. The committee’s work is administered by the Cabinet Office and, in respect of foreign awards, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which liaises with the Governments of other countries over any proposed awards.

The effect of the amendment proposed by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, if adopted, would be to end the broadly consistent approach across government. First, it would apply one approach to the award and wearing of Commonwealth medals for serving and former members of the Armed Forces and a different one for civilians whom a Commonwealth Government may wish to honour. It would mean that the rule for the Armed Forces was that they could wear Commonwealth awards, but the general principle for civilians would remain that they could not.

A further problem would be created by establishing a separate principle that applied to medals offered by the Governments of Commonwealth nations as opposed to those offered by other allies. The operations in which our Armed Forces find themselves involved are increasingly international, with British units regularly working alongside UN, NATO or EU partners. It would not be easy to justify to non-Commonwealth allies or to members of our Armed Forces why we would generally decline the offer of a medal from them while readily accepting a medal offered by a Commonwealth nation. Considerable diplomatic difficulty could result from having to explain this to a non-Commonwealth ally.

For these reasons, I regret that I cannot support the noble and gallant Lord’s amendment. However, I am aware that there is such concern over the matters raised today and in Committee that they warrant further examination. In that spirit, I have recently written to the noble and gallant Lord and other noble Lords who spoke about medals in Committee. In that letter, I explained that successive Governments have supported, and this Government continues to support, the principles that the HD Committee seeks to apply in relation to the receipt and wearing of foreign medals in accordance with the arrangements established by King George VI.

Most of the issues raised have been in relation to the application of sound principles in difficult cases to do with military medals. I have therefore asked Ministry of Defence officials to set in hand work to consider the process by which advice about the institution of medals, and the acceptance of foreign awards in respect of military service, is put together, considered and submitted to Her Majesty. The work will also consider the way that decisions are promulgated. My officials will discuss these matters with the current chiefs of staff and HD Committee members. They will then consider whether any advice should be given to Her Majesty about the need to review the process and make changes.

Once my officials have reported back to me, I shall report back to Parliament through a Written Ministerial Statement. I aim to do so before the turn of the year. In addition, I propose to write to ministerial colleagues in the FCO emphasising the strength of feeling that continues to exist, both in this House and elsewhere, specifically about the Pingat Jasa Malaysia medal. I declare an interest as being a holder of the medal, which I assure noble Lords remains hidden in my top drawer. In doing so, I will propose that they look again at whether they can advise the HD Committee to recommend to Her Majesty that those who were awarded the medal should also be permitted to wear it. I will write to the noble and gallant Lord in due course outlining our position.

All this work will complement the Ministry of Defence’s review of military medal policy that resulted from an undertaking in the coalition’s programme for government. This review is nearing completion under the direction of my right honourable friend, the Minister for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans. The receipt and wearing of medals is a sensitive issue. I hope that what I have just set out might reassure noble Lords that, while I do not agree with the noble and gallant Lord’s amendment, the Government are listening to the concerns that have been raised on this issue. In the light of that, I hope that the noble and gallant Lord will withdraw his amendment.

Turning now to my noble friend Lord Palmer’s amendment about the institution of a national defence medal, I must inform him that there have been no significant developments in the situation since he raised the same amendment in Committee. I am aware that a relatively small group of veterans has campaigned vociferously for a number of years now for a national defence medal. I understand that they believe that such a medal should be presented to all of those who have served in the Armed Forces for two years or more since the Second World War—an estimated 4 million men and women—irrespective of where that service took them.

Of course, we already have an Armed Forces Veterans lapel badge which provides universal recognition of past military service. Almost a million badges have been issued and are worn with pride by veterans of all ages. The national defence medal campaigners consider the veterans badge to be insufficient recognition for having served. My noble friend suggested that a national defence medal could be produced for as little as £2.50 each. I would question whether a medal of quality could be produced and distributed for a figure anywhere near that. Our own estimate is closer to £75 each when one takes into account the cost of producing a medal of some quality, the cost of drawing individual service records from archives to check eligibility, the cost of distribution and the cost of the extra public servants to do all this. To issue a national defence medal to a potential 4 million people could therefore cost in the region of £300 million. Money is not the main issue here, but it is a significant factor in the current environment. The main question we must address is whether there is justification for such a medal to be introduced for all who served, whatever it is made of or its cost.

As my noble friend Lord De Mauley explained in Grand Committee, the Government set out their intention in their programme for government to review the rules governing the award of medals as part of its commitment to rebuild the military covenant. In delivering that commitment, the Ministry of Defence has recently completed a draft review which included the case that has been made for a national defence medal. Extracts of that review were sent to representatives of a number of groups that have campaigned for new medals and their views sought. Extensive comments were received from the chairman of the national defence medal campaign and the review is now being considered by my ministerial colleagues. We must await the publication of this review before drawing any conclusions as to whether there is justification for a national defence medal being created.

I hope that in the light of the comments I have made, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, willwithdraw his amendment.

My Lords, the Minister has obviously given a lot of thought to this subject. Nevertheless, I am extremely disappointed, not only that he does not accept the amendment but that his opening remarks took no account at all of the numerous anomalies and differences between what he was saying was the position and what the reality has been. I leave him with that thought, but meanwhile I wish to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 13 withdrawn.

Amendment 14

Tabled by

14: After Clause 23, insert the following new Clause—

“National Defence Medal

After section 339 of AFA 2006 insert—“339A National Defence Medal

All serving and former members of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces must be awarded the defence medal in recognition of their role in defending the United Kingdom and its interests both nationally and internationally.””

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I want to take up one point he raised, that of the ongoing review and the result, whatever it may be. It would help the veterans so much if the review was not something that just comes out of the Ministry of Defence but had some form of independence and transparency about it, whatever the result. There is a feeling that this is all being done behind closed doors. I invite the Minister to consider this.

Amendment 14 not moved.