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Armed Forces Act (Continuation) Order 2012

Volume 738: debated on Monday 25 June 2012

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Armed Forces Act (Continuation) Order 2012.

Relevant document: 3rd Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

My Lords, I am pleased to speak to the Armed Forces Act (Continuation) Order 2012. The purpose of the order is to continue in force the legislation governing the Armed Forces for a further period of one year, until November 2013.

I should like to say a few words about the legislation that the continuation order is set to continue—that is, the Armed Forces Act 2006 as amended by the Armed Forces Act 2011. The 2006 Act made significant changes to the legislation governing the Armed Forces and established a single system of service law for the first time. The single system applies to all members of the Armed Forces, wherever in the world they are serving.

The 2006 Act was fully implemented and came into force on 31 October 2009. I am pleased to say that the services say that the 2006 Act is doing a good job—the modest scale of changes made to it by the 2011 Act is testament to that—so I am confident that the 2006 Act will continue to serve the Armed Forces well for many years to come.

Your Lordships’ House has enjoyed full and interesting debates on matters of great importance to the Armed Forces, none more so than during last year’s passage of the Armed Forces Act 2011, which received Royal Assent on 3 November last year. That Act continued the Armed Forces Act 2006 for a further year, allowed it to be continued by annual Order in Council until 2016 and made various provisions to amend the Armed Forces Act 2006.

I should also like to say a few words about the 2011 Act. Although it is modest in size, its provisions are wide-ranging, partly as a result of the Ministry of Defence normally bringing forward primary legislation only every five years. I am pleased to report that over half the provisions in the new Act have been commenced, and an implementation programme for the remainder is well under way. Our aim is to complete the largest part of that work by spring 2013. Notably, for the first time, and as a result of this Act, the Armed Forces covenant is now recognised in legislation. The 2011 Act places an obligation on the Defence Secretary to report annually on progress made by the Government in honouring the covenant. The first report will be published at the end of this year. The Armed Forces covenant makes a clear commitment by the Government on how service people should be treated. Now, this and future Governments will be held to account on what they deliver on the covenant.

I should make a further observation about the order that we are considering today. Previous Governments have given an undertaking that Ministers moving instruments subject to the affirmative procedure will tell the House whether they are satisfied that the legislation is compatible with the rights provided in the European Convention on Human Rights. We believe that the order that we are considering today is compatible with the convention rights. I welcome this opportunity for another interesting debate. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction. The Armed Forces Act 2011 introduced into law the concept of the Armed Forces covenant, as he has mentioned, and the particular requirement for the Secretary of State to prepare an Armed Forces report. I was pleased to note when that report is due to appear.

As the Minister knows, I have also tabled a Question for Written Answer about compulsory redundancies. I asked whether, in selecting personnel for compulsory redundancy, consideration was given to their immediate pension point. For the record, is the Minister able to answer this question now? There has been considerable anxiety and press coverage. There is a feeling that the Government are solely focused on achieving financial savings rather than showing understanding for the effect on the individuals involved of a sudden abrupt end to their aspirations of a lifetime career in the Armed Forces. Equally, it is a difficult time to find alternative employment in civilian life.

The effect is of course not confined to the individual but spreads to their immediate family and friends, who are as shocked, taken aback and worried about the future as the individual being made redundant. What steps is the Ministry taking to help those who are being sacked? There seems to be little in the public domain to give confidence that these individuals are being looked after with sympathy and real understanding for their plight. It would underline the value of the military covenant, and show that personnel should be considered, if a more proactive approach to the impact of redundancies on the individual were to be taken by the Ministry of Defence.

My Lords, lest any of the points I wish to make should be construed as meaning otherwise, I make it clear at the outset that we of course support this order, which enables our Armed Forces to remain in existence, by law, for at least a further year by providing that the Armed Forces Act 2006 will not expire on 3 November 2012, as currently scheduled, but instead will continue in force until 3 November 2013. As the Minister has said, the 2006 Act also brought together various orders of discipline in the Armed Forces while the 2011 Act enshrined the Armed Forces covenant in legislation.

Depending on one’s point of view, this order is either a piece of archaic ritual bearing no relevance to the way that we should be conducting the affairs of our nation, or indeed the affairs of our Armed Forces, in the 21st century or an essential constitutional prop, ensuring that anyone who might be tempted to think otherwise knows that our Armed Forces remain in existence to perform their role not because they think—or anyone else thinks—they should, but only because the representatives of the people in Parliament have decided that that should be so, with that decision having to be renewed and restated each year. As I understand it, the order that we are discussing stems from the Bill of Rights Act 1689, or 1688 by old-style dating, which restated in statutory form the declaration of right presented by the Convention Parliament to William and Mary in March 1689, inviting them to become joint sovereigns of England while further restricting the powers of the sovereign by laying down certain constitutional basic rights, in respect of which the Crown was required to seek the consent of the people as represented in Parliament. Among those basic rights was that no standing army could be maintained during a time of peace without the consent of Parliament.

I am not sure that the people of this country are quite as suspicious, in the 21st century, of a reigning monarch deploying a standing army as they were in the 17th. While other countries have suffered and do suffer from military dictatorship, I am not convinced that it is the existence or knowledge of the requirement for this Armed Forces Act continuation order to be agreed each year by Parliament that is preventing or deterring a takeover of this country by the military. There may just be other, rather more powerful and influential factors and considerations at play. Having said that, is it literally the case, as I understand it, that if this continuation order was not approved our Armed Forces would cease to exist from early November, or is there in reality other legislation or a decision of Parliament that would enable them to continue in being?

I make these points seriously to understand what failing to renew the Armed Forces Act 2006 for a further year—I stress that this is not a road I am suggesting we go down—would mean in practice, as opposed to theory. We have an Armed Forces Act every five years. If there is a continuing widespread feeling, as is presumably the case, that Parliament should have to make a regular decision in order for our Armed Forces to continue in existence, one wonders whether there is still a need for this to be done every year as opposed to, say, every five years in the Armed Forces Act. The debate on this annual order does not seem to be regarded as an opportunity for having a wide-ranging discussion or debate, no doubt because there are other, better ways of having more frequent and lengthier discussions and debates on our Armed Forces in your Lordships’ House. It is presumably also the case that if the other place had reservations or concerns at any time, it could bring things to a head—not least by declining to agree to the necessary expenditure needed to maintain our Armed Forces for the following financial year. Nor does it seem likely that your Lordships’ House, as an appointed House, would decide to vote down an order on such a major issue as retention of the Armed Forces, and surely not when the other place, the elected House, had voted for the order.

As I said, we support the order, but I hope that the Minister can say whether any consideration has been or is likely to be given to whether this remains the appropriate way or procedure in the 21st century to ensure the continuing existence of our Armed Forces and the vital role that they play in the life and security of our country, for which we will be expressing our thanks and gratitude on Armed Forces Day this Saturday. It would also be helpful if the Minister could clarify, as a point of factual interest, the consequences in practical terms for the continuing existence of our Armed Forces if the Armed Forces Act 2006 were not renewed beyond 3 November this year. I reiterate, though, that we support the order.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, and the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, for their support in the debate today. The noble and gallant Lord asked about compulsory redundancy. When selecting personnel of the Armed Forces for compulsory redundancy, no consideration was given to the proximity of the immediate pension point. As we reduce the size of the Armed Forces, our priority is to ensure that the services maintain the correct balance of the skills and experience across the rank structures that are required to deliver operational capability now and in future. It is that which has determined the redundancy fields.

The noble and gallant Lord asked whether we were focused just on financial saving. The department has gone to great lengths to carry out these redundancies as sensitively as possible. We fully understand that making the transition from the Armed Forces into civilian life can be daunting and we remain committed to helping service leavers in taking this important step. The Ministry of Defence offers service leavers a wide range of activities that help to facilitate the transition to civilian employment. The support offered is built around preparing the service leaver for future employment in terms of accessing appropriate opportunities for reskilling as well as accessing suitable civilian job opportunities.

The majority of resettlement provision is contracted out to the career transition partnership—the partnering relationship between the MoD and Right Management Ltd. The contract is successful as 97% of eligible service leavers use CTP, 93% of whom tell us that they succeed in becoming settled or gain employment within six months of leaving. That figure increases to 97% after 12 months, and 57% will have had two jobs.

I am grateful for the support of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser. He asked whether, if we did not approve what we are doing today, the Armed Forces would cease to exist. He also asked whether there was other legislation or a more appropriate way of doing this. A change was proposed by the Ministry of Defence in the Armed Forces Bill in 2005 but was resisted by the Defence Committee and the Select Committee that considered the Bill. Both committees favoured retaining the present arrangements and the Ministry of Defence amended the Bill accordingly. What would the effect be if the order were not made? Unless the Armed Forces Act 2006 is continued, there would not be lawful authority for the disciplinary system that governs the Armed Forces. I hope that that addresses the issue.

Can I be clear, at least in my mind, that the only effect of not continuing this order would be the impact that it would have on the disciplinary system and not on the reality of our Armed Forces continuing to exist?

My Lords, I think I need to write to the noble Lord. The disciplinary issue is pretty important but it is quite complicated, to the extent that I probably do not have time to provide an answer now, but I shall write to the noble Lord. If I may, I shall study the Hansard record of the points that have been raised and write to the noble and gallant Lord and the noble Lord if I have anything to add to these exchanges.

Motion agreed.