1: Clause 2, page 2, line 3, leave out from “section” to “Armed” in line 4 and insert “343 of AFA 2006 insert—
“PART 16AArmed forces covenant report343A””
My Lords, the amendment is in the names also of the noble Lords, Lord Astor of Hever, Lord Wallace of Saltaire and Lord Ramsbotham.
I am much obliged to the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, for inviting me to lead on this amendment. The issue is one that I first raised at Second Reading last July. I felt strongly that Clause 2, dealing with the military covenant, was not getting the visibility and treatment that its importance to all service personnel, to veterans and to their families—a very large constituency—deserved.
The Prime Minister and other senior Ministers have repeatedly stressed the high esteem in which they hold the Armed Forces and said that they were determined to give formal recognition to this as part of the law of the land. However, the Bill before the House inserts a single clause giving meaning to those sentiments at the tail end of ad hoc and miscellaneous provisions of the Armed Forces Act 2006. Regrettably, it will follow immediately after Section 359, which deals with pardons for servicemen executed for disciplinary offences in World War I.
There was a stark mismatch between the fine sentiments of the Ministers and the derisory legislative approach intended. I argued for a special part of its own for the covenant in the Act to emphasise and reflect the importance of this government initiative.
The collusion of noble Lords who support me in this amendment demonstrates that a very satisfactory outcome has been reached—albeit after some hesitation by the Government. This amendment inserts Clause 2 as a new stand-alone Part 16A of the 2006 Act. This far more adequately reflects the importance of this new legislative initiative of the Government.
I am most grateful for the way that both the noble Lords, Lord Astor and Lord Wallace of Saltaire, have helped in achieving this satisfactory outcome. I pay tribute to their efforts in support of an amendment that, from the time that I first raised it, has engaged their personal interest and sympathy. I am also very impressed by the strenuous efforts of all the officials involved, working in very shortened timeframes, to get this amendment, and Amendments 5, 6 and 7, into shape and through all the necessary hoops of government. They have done us all proud. I thank and congratulate them. Thanks to all these efforts, Amendment 1 has, I believe, the Government’s full support. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, for his kind words. He first mentioned his concern during the Bill’s Second Reading. He made reference to the unfortunate juxtaposition that would result from the Armed Forces covenant 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. Since then, he and I have had several exchanges. We have discussed the possibility of a printing change that would remove the need for a formal amendment, and considered the possibility of adding provision to the next Armed Forces Bill. At each stage, as the noble and gallant Lord has said, I have made clear my sympathy for the point that he raised. I am therefore pleased to be able to support his amendment, which will have the effect of moving the clause to a different position in a new Part 16A of the Armed Forces Act 2006. The new part will be entitled “Armed Forces Covenant Report”. So, in the future, the covenant report will have its own part within the legislation.
This is a good outcome. Once again, I am grateful to the noble and gallant Lord for his helpful and constructive approach. I pay tribute to his resolve in pursuing this matter and I am pleased that we have been able to meet his concern.
I should now like to speak to the government amendments in this group. Further to discussions at the Bill’s Report stage, these amendments clarify the role that Ministers and departments other than the Ministry of Defence will have in contributing to the annual report. If the amendments are approved, the Defence Secretary would be under an obligation to obtain the views of the relevant government departments on the matters covered in the annual report, and to seek those of the relevant devolved Administrations. He will be required to set out those views in full, or to summarise them in the annual report. In the case of a summary, he will need to obtain the department’s agreement to any summary.
We have accordingly responded to requests from several noble Lords to bring forward proposals of our own on the subject. I am very grateful to officials in the department and elsewhere who have been able to get the amendments ready in time for the House to consider them this afternoon. When we come to the amendments later, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, and her colleagues and the noble Lord, Lord Empey, will accept that the three amendments in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Wallace meet the aims of their own amendments. I also hope that they will accept that the formulation that we have adopted fits better into Clause 2 and reflects the legislative conventions by avoiding references to other Secretaries of State.
During the passage of the Bill I have sought to make it clear to noble Lords that the Government are committed to an open and inclusive approach in preparing the annual report in order to maximise its value to Parliament. The statements that I placed on the record at Report taken together with the amendments that we are now considering lay a strong foundation for the future. I accordingly invite your Lordships to approve the government amendments.
My Lords, perhaps I may say a few words about the government amendments that we have now seen and thank the Minister for his co-operation in listening to the voices of several Members of this House on all sides who raised the issue at Second Reading, in Committee and on Report. It has perhaps taken a little longer than we would have liked to have reached this position, which is very much a last-minute position, but very real progress has been made. Those of us who have been involved in the passage of the Bill will want to acknowledge and thank both Ministers and officials for the level of co-operation and the constructive outcome that we have.
I particularly mention Amendment 7, which is important in making it clear to those entitled to be covered by these provisions exactly what their positions are. They are named in different categories so no one who is entitled should have any doubt that the Armed Forces covenant will apply to them.
We have had a good level of co-operation. We have proved the usefulness of this House for those who have any doubt and I am sure that in another place these changes will be widely welcomed. I appreciate the work and co-operation on all sides of the House. We should all be very pleased with the conclusions and the final drafting that we have.
My Lords, I first speak to Amendment 1, which is in my name as well as that of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig. I repeat his thanks to the Minister and his officials and to the officials in this House who came in for some criticism the other day for possibly being slow over this matter.
In Committee and at Second Reading a number of us made comments about how the veterans part of this covenant would be overseen. I am enormously grateful for the way that the Government have moved and for the amendments now before us. However, thinking through how this might happen, I still think that in the years to come the Government may well find that they will have to have somebody outside the Ministry of Defence responsible for overseeing the delivery of the veterans part of the covenant. A number of us have suggested in the past that that would be better done by having a Minister for veteran affairs in the Cabinet Office. I suggest that whoever is given that appointment will also need someone like a commissioner responsible for the 24/7 oversight of the work being done for veterans in response to whatever is presented by the various Ministers in each of the annual reports.
My Lords, I, too, speak to Amendments 5, 6 and 7. I, too, am grateful to the Minister for his attention to these matters. I recall when I first went to see him in July that his officials were somewhat sceptical about the need for some of these changes. But if these amendments are accepted, the Bill will leave the Chamber a better and stronger piece of legislation than when it came in. The military covenant is gradually being defined to the extent that it will mean things to people. I was anxious to avoid some potential political slip-ups in the future, particularly with regard to devolved regions, and to try to ensure a degree of compatibility and comparison in terms of the treatment available to people in different parts of the country so that over time we did not see disparities developing.
I thank the Minister for communicating with us and making himself and his officials available, which I think has contributed to the comments that have just been made. I believe that we can now move forward in a much stronger position with the concerns raised on all sides of the House addressed. I certainly will be supporting these amendments.
My Lords, we, too, welcome the amendments moved by the Minister in response, I think, to Amendments 6 and 7 moved on Report and also Amendment 1 moved by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, just now with government support. We appreciate the work of the Minister and his officials, first, in listening to the points being made since the Bill was first debated in your Lordships’ House and, secondly, in bringing forward the Government’s own amendments to address those points—amendments which I am sure have support from all sides of the House.
Amendment 1 agreed.
2: Clause 2, page 2, line 11, after “housing;” insert—
“( ) in the operation of inquests;”
My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister and officials for the time they have spent looking at all aspects of the Bill and the amendments we have just debated are most welcome. I now want to return to the question of including the operation of inquests in the annual report on the Armed Forces covenant. This would be incorporated into the new wording of the Bill.
It is important to consider that in this part of the Bill “service people” means,
“members of the regular forces and the reserve forces … members of British overseas territory forces who are subject to service law … former members of any of Her Majesty’s forces who are ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom … and relevant family members”.
I welcome the Minister’s comments that the report must be open and inclusive and I would hope that the operation of inquests could therefore also be included. The covenant report is to be about the effects of membership or former membership of the Armed Forces on service people. The reference group would steer and guide the detailed content of the report in relation to healthcare, education and housing and in such other fields as the Secretary of State may determine.
Why do we need the operation of inquests in the Bill? I suggest it is needed because the quality of civilian inquests is very variable and there is no office of chief coroner to address that. This amendment would complement such a post whenever it comes into being. Currently, the narrative verdict is used differently by different coroners and the information in the narrative verdict is not collated. However, it is important data, particularly in relation to former members of Her Majesty’s forces. For example, self-harming behaviours that are fatal may be linked to previous trauma. The long-term effects of emergency resuscitation techniques in the battlefield or from the use of equipment may as yet be unknown but they will emerge with time. Of course, many ex-service personnel die and there is no inquest—they die in civilian life and die of diseases like everybody else.
However, sometimes there is an inquest. I take asbestos as a specific example from history. The family of someone with mesothelioma may develop it from inhaling asbestos fragments that were on the clothing of the person exposed. As asbestos-related death has to be related to a coroner, such data were picked up. A current example that may be pertinent is those with Gulf War syndrome. I know that these personnel are being followed, but when they die, inquest data will become important.
The long-term sequelae of battlefield injuries may result in early deaths in civilian life. Cataloguing these can provide information for trauma management in future and the information will not be captured unless inquests into deaths of ex-service personnel are specifically catalogued. I am aware that many do not want to be followed up when they return to civilian life. They want to get on with their lives and put the past behind them. That makes health follow-up particularly difficult and is precisely why unnatural and untimely deaths, as would be referred to a civilian coroner, may represent the only point at which long-term sequelae of active service could be picked up.
I return to the operation of the inquests themselves. Those who die on active service are subject to support from the Defence Inquest Unit of the Ministry of Defence. It provides coroners in the civilian world with a summary of the incidents in which people have died on active service and suggests who to call as witnesses. The unit meets the pledge in the covenant to support the bereaved, but it is involved in the inquests only on those on active service, including those who die in training. Sadly, year on year, there are deaths in training; one man died very recently. The tragedy is that the number of deaths in training really does not seem to be falling year on year; it seems almost to be flat-lined.
The Armed Forces covenant document requires that help and support are given to the bereaved families, as is done by the Defence Inquest Unit, but it does not specifically state that the operation of inquests themselves will be monitored. Yet some bereaved report experiences at these inquests that were unexpected and deeply traumatic. The waiting time for inquests has only recently fallen and has not yet reached the target time of nine months. Bereaved families often feel unable to grieve properly awaiting the inquest, and my concern is that unless we maintain a spotlight on inquests themselves the timing may slip. In civilian life we know that some people are waiting up to seven years for an inquest.
Currently, the quarterly reports to Parliament are a very important catalogue of deaths, but the reports will cease when we are no longer in the theatres of war. The reference group for the report on the covenant will include the Royal British Legion, which has been very active in campaigning for a chief coroner. Despite all the discussions since the Public Bodies Bill, no development has obviated that need. To have the operation of inquests on the face of the Bill will complement such an office; it will not replace it.
This amendment will not incur expenditure; it will ensure joined-up government between the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Justice, the latter having responsibility for inquests. The report can incorporate the current quarterly reports on military deaths and any other reports that get laid before Parliament. But when the frequency goes down, it will ensure that military deaths continue to be monitored, reported and catalogued. It will ensure that there is a record of inquests held on those actively serving, respecting their memory, and will allow collation of deaths of those who died after leaving the forces and whose deaths, for whatever reason, were the subject of an inquest, thereby providing important epidemiological data in the long term.
These annual reports, as they are proposed and as I hope they become, will be a historic document of our forces’ health and welfare. I suggest that we must also record their sacrifices of life through active service. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support my noble friend Lady Finlay in this amendment, having also supported her in the campaign to get the chief coroner into post as part of the Public Bodies Bill. She has already mentioned that. I mention this because it has been 149 years since the coroners legislation was last updated, and it is now not fit for purpose. Those constituents who are finding it so are the families of those armed servicemen who are killed overseas. They have to wait an inordinately long time now for the inquest. This adds to their distress and is the very antithesis of everything that the Armed Forces covenant is all about. Therefore I hope that by putting this in the Bill and having it included in the annual report on the covenant, we will put pressure on those who ought to see that the coroners regulations and way of operating is updated and made fit for purpose, particularly for our servicemen and their families.
My Lords, I, too, support this amendment. Once again, I thank the Minister for all that he has done in helping us forward on the covenant. I have seen all too often in the see city of Wakefield recently the tragic sight of funerals at the cathedral of people who have lost their lives in Afghanistan. The clergy often finds itself at the sharp end of this, as it were, because it is trying to minister to families who are feeling particularly raw through the normal outcome of war and the sadness that that brings.
I support the amendment for two reasons. First, the delays that we have heard about reinforce that rawness and sense of loss that families find so difficult to cope with, particularly having lost loved ones in these tragic and, in some ways, unforeseen circumstances. Although people realise that they are taking a risk when they join the military forces, somehow one always thinks that it will be someone else who actually dies in battle.
Secondly, there should be proper monitoring of what is going on, as the noble Baroness said. It seems to me that remembering people who have lost their lives and having them recorded is essential in this process. The fact that it is not going to cost anything ought to encourage us to go with this amendment. I realise how much the Minister and the Government have worked to improve the Bill, but if we do not include this amendment, I think that ultimately it will not capture the proper operation of inquests. For that reason, I ask noble Lords to support this amendment.
My Lords, I, too, support this amendment. Although I did not take part in the debate last week, I listened very carefully to it. Arrangements had been made so that we did not vote last week; I expect that we will today on this amendment.
Following the Bill closely, I feel somewhat incredulous that the Government have not conceded in this area. This proposal is very much diluted from where we originally started. About three years ago I was privileged to sit in on a consultation, conducted by the Ministry of Defence, with the bereaved families of members of the Armed Forces. It was somewhat humbling to sit there and listen to them talk very constructively about how things could be changed. It would not help them, since they had already been in that situation, but it would help bereaved families of service men and women in the future and ease their lives with regard to delays in inquests. I gather that there is still a backlog of inquests.
I regard this as quite a simple amendment. It is about our duty of care to our service men and women. The covenant covers active service personnel and veterans, but what about service people who lose their lives and pay the ultimate price? What about the families they have left behind? This is a very small, light amendment. It does not call for huge expenditure. In my view, it meets what the whole ethos and spirit of the covenant to our Armed Forces personnel is really all about.
A number of colleagues have thanked the Minister for the changes in the Bill, which will leave the House very different from how it arrived. I give much of the credit for that to the Minister, to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and to the civil servants who have worked hard on this; I am not sure that these changes would have been achieved in another place. I ask why, on this last small request, which is really about the duty of care, the Government will not concede.
The amendment would not cost money and it certainly would not cost a lot of time. It would help the families and it would prevent us going back to the situation that we were in three years ago. It looks likely that multiple deaths will still be dealt with in Wiltshire, but inquests on single deaths in the Armed Forces look like going to a coroner who has probably never dealt with one before, which cannot be right. I give this amendment my wholehearted support, and hope that, if not through the Government conceding, then through a vote, we can get this into the Bill.
My Lords, the amendment would provide that the annual Armed Forces covenant would cover the operation of inquests as well as the subjects of healthcare, housing and education.
I do not wish to repeat the arguments already advanced in support of the amendment about why it is essential that there should be a specific reference in the Bill to the report covering the operation of inquests. Suffice to say that the decision not to proceed with the creation of the office of the chief coroner has strengthened the case. One of the roles of the chief coroner accepted on all sides of the House was the monitoring of investigations into service deaths and ensuring that coroners are trained to conduct investigations into military deaths. The chief coroner would also have had the responsibility to transfer inquests into military deaths to coroners in different jurisdictions to ensure that an inquest would be held by a coroner trained in military matters. The position now, as I understand it, is that investigations into single fatalities will still be transferred to the coroner closest to the next of kin. Inconsistency in quality of service and in quality of investigations for military families will therefore remain.
The amendment would not reverse or amend the Government’s decision in respect of the office of the chief coroner, but it would ensure that the issue of the operation of inquests—which, as has been said, remains a matter of considerable concern—is one that the Secretary of State has to report on each year in the Armed Forces covenant report, and thus is guaranteed to be the subject of continuing parliamentary and public scrutiny, challenge and debate.
In his responses in Grand Committee and on Report, the Minister—I think that he will accept this—has accepted that the operation of inquests is a subject that would be required to be covered by the Secretary of State in the Armed Forces covenant report at present but, his view is, not necessarily in future. The Minister argues that we currently have forces deployed overseas in military action—obviously, for example, in Afghanistan—which, sadly, continues to result in fatalities and consequential inquests, but that, hopefully, this will not be a permanent situation and thus there is no need, as there is with healthcare, housing and education, to have the operation of inquests included in the Bill as a required subject matter to be covered in the annual report.
I am sure that we all share his hope that the situation regarding fatalities will be transformed, but under current policy the current operations in Afghanistan will be continuing for just over another three years, and inquests are not always resolved and finalised quickly, as has been pointed out. Further, the anticipated position could well not materialise and we just do not know when or where our Armed Forces might be deployed overseas in the future. It is also the case that not all fatalities on active service occur overseas, as has been said, and there are fatalities in this country, including, in some years, some high-profile ones. It seems unrealistic to claim that, even though a highly sensitive issue such as the operation of inquests is one that the Secretary of State would almost certainly be expected to address for the next few years in an Armed Forces covenant report, such is our apparent certainty over what is going to happen in the highly uncertain and volatile arena of world affairs in the medium and longer term that we should decide now that it is not necessary to include any reference to the operation of inquests, along with healthcare, housing, and education in the Bill.
We have an Armed Forces Bill every five years—it is the one piece of guaranteed legislation that emanates from the Ministry of Defence, which is a department that generates very little new legislation. As a result, legislative changes and amendments that are required tend to be left until the next Armed Forces Bill. It may well be that experience of the processes and procedures provided for in this Bill for the annual Armed Forces covenant report will lead to some amendments being put forward by the then Government in the next Bill in just the same way as other parts of this, or previous Armed Forces Bills, may necessitate revision or amendment. There is nothing wrong with that, and there is likewise nothing wrong with the reference to the operation of inquests being included in this Bill as a subject matter that will be addressed in the annual Armed Forces covenant report, when we know it is an important and sensitive issue, because in what many might feel is the less than likely event of its ceasing to be an issue of importance and concern, it can be removed from the Bill by an amendment to a future Armed Forces Bill.
If the noble Baroness does not feel able to accept the Minister’s reply, and is minded to seek the opinion of the House, we will be supporting the amendment.
My Lords, during both Grand Committee and Report stages, the noble Baroness gave a detailed and moving account of problems which had been encountered by bereaved service families in the course of a coroner’s inquest. I have considered carefully what the noble Baroness said on Report; it seems to me that she has three main areas of concern, and I shall try to deal with each in turn.
The first is the process and quality of inquests. In the past decade, more than 500 inquests have been held into the deaths of service personnel who have lost their lives in military operations, including 12 service personnel who died in the UK of their injuries. Sixty-three of these inquests were held this year alone. Several years ago, bereaved families could have waited around two years for an inquest. Last year we completed 131 inquests into operational death, for which the average date was 15 months, and only 11 and a half months for those where there did not have to be a service inquiry. For those who died last year the average wait is currently eight months, although this will increase, as a small number of inquests have yet to be held.
These improvements are a direct result of changes we have made, including the setting up of a dedicated defence inquest unit. But we are not complacent. The Ministry of Defence will continue to support coroners to ensure that they are able to hear inquests into service deaths promptly. This we hope will go some way to ease the burden on families at such a difficult and distressing time.
The defence inquest unit deals generally with around 20 to 25 coroners, and as the noble Baroness said on Report, the Ministry of Defence has held training events for them. I note, too, that the noble Baroness also raised concerns over the wide variation in the standards and performance of coroners. At present there are 99 coroners in 114 coronial districts. She will be interested to know that the Government propose to take forward a package of measures aimed at improving the standard of service provided by coroners, including statutory provision set out in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, such as training regulations for coroners, and powers to make new rules, regulations and guidance. In the mean time, the Government will also publish a new charter for the current coroner service in early 2012. This will set out the minimum standards of service that those coming into contact with the system can expect and establish a new bereaved organisations committee for the important role of monitoring the impact of the charter.
Moreover, as the noble Baroness has acknowledged, quarterly ministerial statements on military inquests are already provided to Parliament and have been since 2006. They are accompanied by detailed tables, outlining the status of each operational death in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am sure that information of this kind will continue to be presented to Parliament for as long as there is public concern about how the inquest system works in relation to service personnel.
I also refer the noble Baroness to the commitments that I made on Report. The Secretary of State will have regard to a whole range of subjects included in the scope of the Armed Forces covenant, as set out in the guidance document published on 16 May. That includes the operation of the inquest system for bereaved service families. Again, I draw the attention of the noble Baroness to the membership of the covenant reference group. Both the Royal British Legion, which the noble Baroness mentioned, and the War Widows Association of Great Britain are there to ensure that the Secretary of State receives very clear advice.
Noble Lords are well aware that the Ministry of Defence does not and cannot have total control of the process. Inquests and coroners are independent of government. In so far as the Government provide a legislative framework for inquests, that is a matter for the Ministry of Justice. Of course the Ministry of Defence has an interest in ensuring that inquests are effective and that they understand the military context. However, it would be wrong in principle for the Ministry of Defence to take on a general legislative responsibility to report every year on the operation of the inquest process.
The second main issue concerns the information about the health of members of the Armed Forces that can be obtained from inquests. It is true that valuable epidemiological information can sometimes be obtained from inquests into the deaths of those who die in service. However, the noble Baroness expresses concern not only about those who die in service but those who have left the services. The difficulties of tracking what happens to all former members of the Armed Forces until their deaths are well known. Whether their deaths are the subject of an inquest will, moreover, depend on whether the death is violent or unnatural, the cause of death is unknown, or the death occurs in detention. Therefore, for those veterans whose deaths are from illness or plainly from the long-term effects of injury, there will be no inquest. The focus of the inquest is on the cause of death. For example, if a veteran is killed in a car accident, the effect on his health of military service or injury is very unlikely to be looked at in the inquest. If he or she dies of, say, cancer or heart disease, there will generally be no inquest at all. As a result, tracking veterans and then examining the inquest, where one is held, is unlikely to be a major source of information.
I accept the noble Baroness’s point that inquests can yield information about the long-term effects suffered by those who have been in a theatre of war and been injured. However, it seems that the point here is not that there should be a legal obligation to cover inquests in every report, but that we should ensure that we use the information that comes from inquests in our analysis of healthcare problems. In this respect, inquests should be a recognised source of information for those healthcare issues that the reports address. However, only where there is an Armed Forces issue about them should inquests be the focus of a covenant report themselves.
The third point made by the noble Baroness on Report was that:
“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”.—[Official Report, 4/10/11; col. 1045.]
This indeed is an important area of concern. However, if I may be blunt, I do not see how a duty to report on inquests would help in this area at all. What the noble Baroness refers to here is an issue of long-term healthcare for veterans, which comes squarely under the existing requirement of the clause to address healthcare for serving personnel, for veterans, and for Armed Forces families.
The noble Baroness mentioned deaths in training. It is very important that deaths in training are carefully monitored, and that, if there are indications of underlying failures, they are the subject of government action. A report might be the right way to take that action; but it could not be a report on the effects of service in the operation of inquests—the inquest would be a source of information for the report, not the subject of the report.
I believe that, for the reasons I have set out, there is no need for the legislation to refer to the operation of inquests. Moreover, if I have understood the noble Baroness correctly, its aims in respect of veterans would not be realised. I therefore ask her to withdraw her amendment.
I am grateful to the Minister for his very detailed response to the points I have made at previous stages of this Bill. I am well aware that we are at Third Reading, and will therefore be very brief.
I fully understand the package of measures that are going to be introduced to improve the inquest system in general, and that the system will be evaluated and monitored. I suggest that reporting on how that affects military deaths would be particularly useful, so those measures do not remove the need for my amendment.
In terms of tracking, and the information that is obtained from inquests, of course many deaths occur in civilian life. However, to take an example such as a death in a car accident, it is precisely the question of whether there are more alcohol-fuelled deaths in road accidents among ex-service personnel, and if there is a link to trauma that they have experienced previously, that makes such information highly important.
I accept that some of the points will be covered by the health requirement. However, they will not all be covered by it, and we will miss an important opportunity if we do not incorporate inquests, particularly because there has been so much concern over military inquests in recent years. For that reason, I wish to test the opinion of the House.
Amendments 3 and 4 not moved.
Amendments 5 to 7
5: Clause 2, page 2, line 22, at end insert—
“(3A) For the purposes of preparing an armed forces covenant report, the Secretary of State must obtain the views of any relevant government department, and seek the views of any relevant devolved administration, in relation to the effects to be covered by the report.
(3B) An armed forces covenant report must—
(a) set out in full or summarise the views of a relevant government department or relevant devolved administration obtained pursuant to subsection (3A); and(b) where the views of a relevant devolved administration have been sought but not obtained, state that fact.(3C) The Secretary of State may not include in an armed forces covenant report a summary under subsection (3B)(a) unless the relevant government department or relevant devolved administration has approved the summary.”
6: Clause 2, page 2, line 40, leave out subsections (7) to (9)
7: Clause 2, page 3, line 26, at end insert—
“343B Interpretation of Part
(1) In section 343A “service people” means—
(a) members of the regular forces and the reserve forces;(b) members of British overseas territory forces who are subject to service law;(c) former members of any of Her Majesty’s forces who are ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom; and(d) relevant family members.(2) In section 343A “relevant government department”, in relation to an effect to be covered by an armed forces covenant report, means a department of the Government of the United Kingdom (apart from the Ministry of Defence) which the Secretary of State considers has functions relevant to that effect.
(3) In section 343A “relevant devolved administration”, in relation to an effect to be covered by an armed forces covenant report, means whichever of the following the Secretary of State considers to have functions relevant to that effect—
(a) the Scottish Executive;(b) the Northern Ireland departments;(c) the Welsh Assembly Government.(4) In this Part—
“British overseas territory force” means any of Her Majesty’s forces that is raised under the law of a British overseas territory;
“membership or former membership” of a force, in relation to a person, includes any service in that force that that person is undertaking, undertook or may be expected to be called on to undertake;
“relevant family members” means such descriptions of persons connected with service members, or with persons who were service members, as the Secretary of State considers should be covered by a report or part of a report;
“service member” means a person who falls within any of paragraphs (a) to (c) of subsection (1).
(5) Any reference in this Part to membership or former membership of the armed forces is to be read, in relation to a person who is—
(a) a service member, or(b) a relevant family member by reason of connection with a person who is or was a service member,as a reference to the service member’s membership or former membership of a force mentioned in subsection (1).”
Amendments 5 to 7 agreed.
8: After Clause 23, insert the following new Clause—
After section 339 of AFA 2006 insert—“339A Commonwealth medalsMedals awarded by Commonwealth governments, including the Pingat Jasa Malaysia Medal, to present or former members of Her Majesty’s armed forces and other Crown servants may be worn without restriction.””
My Lords, I beg to move Amendment 8 in my name and that of the noble Lords, Lord Ramsbotham and Lord Touhig. I am grateful for their support. As I made clear in my remarks at Report and Committee stages, the current arrangements are not satisfactory. This is not so much a criticism of individuals but of a process that is no longer—to use that popular phrase—fit for purpose.
I propose to respond to the points made by the Minister when he resisted this amendment in his letter of 23 September and at Report stage. In that letter to me and to other noble Lords who have spoken on this topic, the Minister said that when exceptions to the long-standing rule of no double medalling and the five-year moratorium are allowed, the results are then seen to be anomalous and unfair.
This is surely the wrong conclusion. The problem arises because the rules are out of date, and are no longer suitable for dealing with the donor countries and international organisations of today and the variety of involvements of many individual recipients. I am glad the Minister has put a review in hand. However, it must address the matter of what guidance there should be on accepting—or refusing to accept—foreign awards. The no double medal and the five-year moratorium have been breached at least since the time of the Korean War in the early 1950s and, in one way or another, in almost every year since. It is simply not tenable to claim that they are the right benchmark. I suspect that the mindset—or default position—is to try to deter an offer first, rather than have to deal with the much trickier problem of refusing or prevaricating over one once made. That is why these rules are still prayed in aid. However, they have lost their validity with the passage of time.
Secondly, in his reply to my earlier amendment, the Minister claimed that the HD committee was non-political, being made up of senior Crown servants, and was the source of advice to the Queen on the acceptance and wearing of foreign medals. However it defies belief that an award proposed by a foreign head of state or Government to one or more British subjects would not be considered by Ministers at some stage. Surely the interplay of diplomatic and cultural, economic and security interests and so on between a donor and this country must be taken into account on how best to respond to a generous gesture by a putative donor.
Lacking the speed of modern communication, those considerations may not have been uppermost 70 years ago, but surely they cannot be ignored today. Ministers must have some part to play, particularly if a refusal is mooted. Moreover, as is clear from my remarks at Report about the Minister’s letter of 23 September, and in the Written Statements that I quoted about the rules and government policy, the Queen, as is normal, will on this topic act on the advice of Ministers. The Minister says so himself. I assume that this advice is couched to deal with agreements to restricted or unrestricted acceptance. I doubt that any submission put to Her Majesty seeks formal approval to refuse an award.
The Minister, in answering my points at Report, said that the effect of my then amendment would be to end the broadly consistent approach across government. The words “other Crown servants” in the current amendment deal with that objection.
The Minister’s next point was that a 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. He said that it would not be easy to justify to non-Commonwealth allies or 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. Surely, that misunderstands this amendment, and I note too the mindset or default opinion which is expressed in the words “would generally decline the offer”.
On the one hand, my amendment would facilitate, without recourse to any archaic HD committee rules, the acceptance and wearing of Commonwealth medals. That would be set down in statute. Until the rules are changed, as I believe that they should be, the treatment of other friendly nations or international organisations would be, as now, unchanged, apart from explaining to them that the new Commonwealth arrangement was approved by Parliament and had received Royal Assent. I do not see that causing any greater diplomatic difficulty than already exists, as the Minister asserted, and almost certainly a good deal less, even without any changes to the HD committee rules. Those rules, or the way in which they are applied by officials, seem designed to deter as far as possible any foreign offer. That approach must surely merit thorough re-examination.
As I mentioned at Report, there is renewed interest in Government to strengthen the Commonwealth heritage—in short, to put the C back in FCO. It would be timely to adopt this amendment so that the Prime Minister, at the forthcoming CHOGM in Perth at the end of this month, could mention it then as a gesture of the Government’s determination to strengthen their Commonwealth ties.
I now turn to the vexed question of a particular Commonwealth medal, the Pingat Jasa Malaysia medal, which is mentioned in the amendment. UK subjects have Her Majesty’s approval to accept that medal but not to wear it. The Minister, who has one, says that he keeps it hidden in his top drawer. However, I welcome the statement at Report saying that the Minister would,
“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 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”.—[Official Report, 4/10/11; col. 1074.]
Can the Minister confirm that he has written? Has he any indication when he will receive a response? Indeed, does this not also confirm the involvement of Ministers and that this is a topic not solely left to the HD Committee, as has been claimed?
I do not wish to detain the House by going over in full all the arguments brought to the Minister's attention that favour removing the restriction on wearing the PJM by British subjects, but let me give him just one further example of what is happening and is wrong, sent to me by another recipient of the PJM, one of many who have contacted me to express their outrage at the way that they have been treated by our system.
This individual, an RAF veteran of Malaya and North Borneo, describes his experience on ANZAC Day. He says that when marching with Malaysian and North Borneo veterans of the Australian Defence Force, he is unable to wear his PJM medal, although all the ADF veterans have royal approval to do so. It appears, he says, that the Queen of Australia rejoices in them wearing the PJM, but the Queen of the United Kingdom does not. As he and others have pointed out, that appears to be an insult to the people of Malaysia. He personally concludes, regretfully, that he can but agree.
It is time that that ridiculous anomaly was righted forthwith. Will the Minister accept my amendment? He does not automatically have to resist now that the Bill is to return to another place. The amendment would give great pleasure to numerous veterans—a gesture to their loyalty and valour worthy of the military covenant—and smooth the HD committee's work with Commonwealth countries pleased to make a national award to UK Crown servants. Agreement now would allow holders to wear their PJM on Remembrance Sunday this year, and wear it with pride.
I urge the Minister to accept the strength of those arguments and those of other noble Lords and to let the revised Bill complete its passage through both Houses with the amendment to gain Royal Assent. I beg to move.
I put my name to the amendment, as I did in Committee and at Report. I declare an interest as a holder of the Pingat Jasa Malaysia. I shall not repeat all the arguments made so well by my noble and gallant friend, which have been put forward on numerous occasions. I should just like to mention three points.
First, as my noble and gallant friend said, the existing rules are utterly discredited. It was mentioned in the previous amendment that the coroners’ regulations are 149 years old; some of the regulations for these medals go back to the Crimean War.
Secondly, it is all very well saying that it is a committee of civil servants who will draw this up, but it is actually Ministers who should give advice. I am concerned that Ministers do not appear to have given the ruling on this issue that they might have done.
I mention that in coming to my third point, because we are all abundantly clear—it has been made clear by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and by the Minister in this House—that the Foreign Office is trying to put back the C into the FCO. There is an emphasis on the Commonwealth. This is a Commonwealth medal. To my mind, it is discourteous not to accept something from the Commonwealth when the people who were awarded it went out honouring a treaty obligation to help a fellow Commonwealth member in trouble. This really ought to be put right as soon as possible.
My Lords, I support the amendment moved by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig—in particular, his remarks about the Pingat Jasa Malaysia medal. This has been a running sore for far too long, and it is about time that we sought to heal it. I have been a long-time critic of the Committee on Honours, Decorations and Medals, the so-called HD committee, which advises Her Majesty the Queen on these matters. As has been said, the committee advised Her Majesty that the veterans of the Malaysian campaign should accept the medal but must not wear it. Over the years, like others, I have tabled Parliamentary Questions. When I sat in the other place, I obtained an adjournment debate and tabled EDMs, all to no avail: the rule still stands.
If any of us were to walk down any high street in Britain today and stop a complete stranger and say, “Do you know that this country has allowed veterans who fought in the jungles of Malaysia to accept a medal from the King of Malaysia but they must not wear it?”, they would think you were “dwp”—a Welsh word meaning daft in the head. British soldiers gave their lives in this campaign. We are told that this cannot be changed because of the five-year rule and the double medalling rule. We now discover that these are not rules at all but merely conventions which the HD committee operates. We are here this afternoon in the glorious surroundings of this magnificent Chamber of the House of Lords and yet only halfway round the world in Afghanistan somebody’s husband, son or father is risking his life for us as a country in defending British interests. What sort of message do we send to these brave young men when we say that someone who fought for our country over 50 years ago should be treated so dishonourably?
I recognise that the HD committee has a difficult task. I have done my best to understand how it reached its decision. I have attempted through freedom of information requests to discover how this has happened, but I have been totally thwarted by the Cabinet Office. However, we have a chance to do something about this today. This is the Parliament of the United Kingdom. It is a privilege to sit here, whether in the elected House down the corridor or in this House. People in this country still expect Parliament to do something about righting a wrong or ending an injustice. I believe this should be a free vote in both Houses. If your Lordships’ House was to carry this amendment today, I have no doubt that on a free vote down the corridor it would be passed overwhelmingly by Members there. If ever there was a case for parliamentarians to be allowed to use their conscience, this is one. This is about how we respect and treat those who have served our country. The Minister is a good and decent man and well thought of all around the Chamber. We know he has worked hard to try and resolve this matter and we certainly wish him well. But this is a case when the Executive should stand aside and Parliament, unfettered by the Executive, should speak for the people of Britain.
My Lords, I declare an interest in that I chair one of the honours committees within the mainline honours system, although happily it has nothing to do with this. However, because of my familiarity with that system and some of the problems that can arise between us and Commonwealth countries, I feel at least entitled to express the view that I cannot see a single good reason for allowing somebody to accept a medal and not be able to wear it. I can see circumstances in which you might refuse to allow them to accept a medal for whatever reason, but I cannot see how you can say, “You can have this medal but you must never put it on”. I think this needs looking at.
My Lords, I am afraid I have disobeyed my late great friend Lord Weatherill who said, “If you are at all in doubt do not listen to the debate”. I have listened to the debate and I entirely agree with my noble friend Lord Newton. It really is nonsense. I am actually standing before your Lordships wearing a decoration—Commander of the Order of the Lion of Finland. When I received it for services which do not begin to compare with the bravery that the people we are talking of displayed in the Malaysian jungles, I received a letter from the Queen’s private secretary giving me unrestricted permission to wear it whenever I wished to. It seems a total nonsense to give permission to these brave people to accept this medal and then to say, “But you cannot wear it”. There is no logic in that argument whatever and I hope that my noble friend who will be replying to this debate—for whom I, too, have very real regard and respect—if he cannot give the logical answer will say that we ought to let Parliament make up its mind to allow these brave veterans, most of whom are very old people now, to enjoy at least one Remembrance Day where they can wear this decoration of which they are rightly proud.
My Lords, I rise as someone with no military medals, though my late father had some. I find it incomprehensible that we are not proud that service people fighting for this country were awarded medals by one of our Commonwealth nations. If we are proud that they should be awarded such medals, why should they not be allowed to wear them? It seems incomprehensible that they are not. We talk in your Lordships' House about the cost of this and the cost of that—I was told that the cost of national defence medals would be higher than I imagined—but the cost of doing this is nothing other than perhaps a dent in some civil servant’s pride. There is no reason why this House should not encourage the Government to allow people to wear medals such as the PJM medal.
Having been awarded a medal from a Commonwealth country, the recipient does not have to wear it. There is no saying that if you have received a medal from a Commonwealth country of which you might, for current reasons, disapprove you have to wear it, but the idea that you cannot wear it seems anathema.
The Bill has to go to the other place. It is not on this one amendment that it may ping-pong. Therefore, contrary to my normal loyalties to the coalition, I will vote with the noble, valiant Lords in favour of the amendment.
My Lords, I listened to the debate on medals in Grand Committee. I said at the end of it that our position was neutral but that I had found many of the arguments very persuasive. I have read the letter from the Minister of 23 September and welcome it as far as it goes. It is good that there is to be a review, and I am pleased that it will be relatively rapid. I apologise for not being present on Report, but I have carefully read the debate in Hansard. As a consequence, I assume that, arising out of those debates and that letter, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, and his colleagues have produced what is now a very narrow amendment about a particular anomaly.
We have taken enough time on this; I shall not repeat the arguments except to say that I unknowingly applied the test described by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, to a peculiar group of people called the opposition Whips. I tried to explain to them that we were going to debate how the King of Malaysia had presented a medal to British soldiers, how the Queen through Her Majesty's Government had agreed that they could accept it, and how they were not then allowed to wear it. It took me 10 minutes to convince them that I was being serious, especially, as I recollect from Committee, there is one day or one week when the soldiers are allowed to wear the medal.
We will support Amendment 8. I take this opportunity to say how flexible and how positive the Minister, his fellow Ministers and their team have been throughout the Bill. I earnestly invite him to maintain that theme and accept the amendment. Unfortunately, if he is unable to do so and there is a Division on it, we will join the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, and his colleagues in the Lobby.
My Lords, does my noble friend not think that we should also point to how these actions will be seen in Malaysia, which is a very important country that is deeply attached to ours? We have very strong links in higher education and business. It seems to me needlessly insulting of the people of Malaysia to do this.
My Lords, the debates that we have already had on the subject of medals can have left no doubt about how important this matter is, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to address it again today.
The debate has had a number of strands: the process and rules for deciding on the acceptance and wearing of awards given by foreign and Commonwealth nations; the position within this process of Her Majesty as the fount of honour and the person to whom loyalty is owed; and the desire—shared, I believe, by all noble Lords—to recognise and support the Commonwealth. The amendment put down by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, relates to all these strands.
The position of the Government on the fundamentals of how the system should work remains the same as that of the last Government, when in 2007 the HD committee considered for a second time the Pingat Jasa Malaysia medal. It is the same position as has been held by every previous Government since King George VI established the HD committee.
The foundations of this position are quite simple. First, when British citizens, whether civilian or military, carry out their duties to the sovereign and their country, it is for the sovereign to decide on the award of honours for that service.
Secondly, the advice given to the sovereign about the grant of honours should be consistent across government—expert and, so far as is possible, dispassionate. Decisions on whether to reward service should not be made in the glare of public debate or potential party political argument about the wider political context in which that service was given.
Lastly, there should be consistency in our response to the wishes of all states, foreign or Commonwealth. In particular, our response to all our allies and friends should be consistent. I do not pretend that absolute consistency has been, or can always be, maintained. Sometimes exceptions are, and no doubt will be, made. But it is nearly always when exceptions are made that unfairness or anomalies are likely to occur.
The amendment would have two direct effects. First, it would lay down for the future a new rule about medals—that those awarded a Commonwealth medal shall be entitled in all circumstances to wear it. Secondly, it would apply this rule to Commonwealth medals awarded in the past. These include, as the amendment specifies, the PJM medal.
In doing so, the amendment would also have a number of indirect effects. By overturning past decisions that have been made on Commonwealth medals, it would establish the precedent that Parliament may overturn—and after any length of time—any decision of the sovereign as the fount of honour. Her decision is needed on the full details of what is proposed, as to both the acceptance and the wearing of medals. The amendment would overturn, specifically, past decisions on Commonwealth cases. I need hardly say that it is Her Majesty who is Head of the Commonwealth, not Parliament.
It would establish a further precedent that Parliament is able to lay down and change the rules which are to be applied to decisions on the acceptance of honours from foreign and Commonwealth states. It would assert that Parliament can do so in a way which alters the fundamentals that I have described of the existing arrangements, such as the need for a basically consistent approach to awards by all friendly and allied states.
Equally profound in its implications is the argument that must underlie this amendment—that decisions on the award of honours, and whether to change decisions previously made, are better made in the emotive and often party political atmosphere of parliamentary consideration, than with the detached and largely non-party political approach envisaged in the arrangements set up by King George VI. I believe that it would be wrong in principle for this House to lead the way towards such a new approach to the award of honours. As to the particular new rule that the amendment would put in place, I simply point out that it would create a different principle for the wearing of medals awarded by Commonwealth nations from that which applies to those awarded by other allies.
The operations in which our Armed Forces are 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 those individuals whom they wish to reward, why the United Kingdom had decided to treat their awards on a fundamentally different basis from those offered by a Commonwealth nation.
That does not mean that I do not attach a special value to our membership of the Commonwealth and to our connections with its members. They are of the greatest importance, historically, culturally and constitutionally. But I do not believe that the creation of the distinction which this amendment would make between our Commonwealth and other friends is the way to reflect our respect for the Commonwealth.
Neither does it mean that I do not understand the force of the points that have been made in these debates about particular cases, and about the way that the process works, or is perceived to work. I have therefore instructed Ministry of Defence officials 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.
As I explained on Report, this work will also consider the way that decisions are promulgated. My officials will ensure that they have the benefit of the views of the current chiefs of staff and they will discuss the issue with HD committee members. They will then consider whether any advice should be given to Her Majesty about the need to review the process and to make changes. Once my officials have reported back to me, I shall report the outcome to Parliament through a Written Ministerial Statement. I aim to do so before the end of the year.
I have been particularly struck with the force of the points made about the decision on the PJM medal. We have heard about how it is seen in Malaysia and about the continued importance and awareness of the issue not only in Malaysia and among those working for or representing the United Kingdom in Malaysia but among all those who were awarded the PJM medal. I shall put in hand, through my officials, representations to members of the HD committee about these issues, with a request that their advice to Her Majesty is to consider again whether those who have been awarded the medal should be permitted to wear it. Again I shall report the outcome to Parliament through a Written Ministerial Statement, and I aim to do so before the end of the year. However, for the reasons that I have explained, I do not believe that it would be right, in order to improve the system, for Parliament to overturn Her Majesty's decisions or to establish a precedent for laying new rules. Such an approach would not in my view support the essential merits and aims of the existing system, or support Her Majesty in carrying out her role as the fount of honour.
For those reasons, I cannot support the noble and gallant Lord's proposed amendment, and I would urge noble Lords to reflect extremely carefully before starting down the road it represents.
My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, I hope he will be pleased if I simply say that I, at any rate, in what I acknowledge is an extremely difficult area, found his reply entirely acceptable, bearing in mind the pressures that he will exert for a review and the fact that he will come back to us before the end of the year.
My Lords, I raised this particular question in my earlier comments. The Minister has said:
“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 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”.—[Official Report, 4/10/11; col. 1074.]
Has the noble Lord written, and when does he expect a reply?
I thank the noble Lord for that assurance. There is a fundamental disconnect, I feel, between the approach that I and my colleagues are taking and the one that the Minister has taken. It is all to do, fundamentally, with whether the HD committee rules to which we keep referring are still fit for purpose. My contention is that they not fit for purpose. On that basis, I propose to ask for the view of the House.
My Lords, I gather that it is traditional at this point for the Minister guiding the Bill to say a few words of thanks. More than 30 noble Lords and noble and gallant Lords spoke during the debate at Second Reading in July. That is testament to the deep and abiding interest in the Armed Forces that exists in this House. In our exchanges since then, we have at times taken different views on some issues. However, I have been impressed, as I always am, by the courtesy and helpfulness that have been shown to me by noble Lords on all sides of the House. It is difficult to single out individuals, but I should like to pay tribute to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, for his hard work on the Bill and for his tenacity in pursuing issues that he thought were wrong. I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, who is not in her place now. I should also like to thank the many people behind the scenes, in the House and elsewhere, who have supported us during the Bill’s passage. Finally, I should like to pay tribute to the Armed Forces. This Bill is for them. We owe them our best efforts at all times, and I believe that we have a Bill that meets the high standard that they set for us.
My Lords, I will be brief, but I would like to thank the Minister and his team for all the considerable help that they have given on this Bill. The Minister has been prepared to listen with an open mind to the points made during our discussions. Where he has felt able to make changes in the Bill to address some of the concerns that have been raised, he has done so. We wish to express our thanks to the Minister for all the work that he has done on the Bill and for his major contribution to the fact that our debates have been constructive and conducted without rancour, and conducted with the interests of our Armed Forces in our minds.
Bill passed and returned to the Commons with amendments.