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Armed Forces Bill

Volume 817: debated on Tuesday 14 December 2021

Commons Reasons

Motion A

Moved by

That this House do not insist on its Amendment 1B, to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason 1C.

1C: Because a presumption in favour of the offences in question being heard in the civilian courts is not necessary or justified.

My Lords, with the leave of the House I will speak also to Motion B.

Your Lordships will understand that the Bill is essential. It must pass this week or the Armed Forces Act 2006 will cease to have effect. As my honourable friend Mr Leo Docherty, the Minister in the other place, made clear yesterday, we have been listening to the concerns of noble Lords and honourable Members and the Government have responded to them. We recognise that all Members of this House want to do the best they can for our Armed Forces and to support them in the vital role that they play.

I turn first to the views put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. I think we all agree that criminal wrongdoing must be robustly and swiftly addressed for the sake of our service personnel and for the victims of crime. We respectfully maintain that the provisions in the Bill will meet these concerns. They will require civilian prosecutors across the United Kingdom to agree with the Director of Service Prosecutions protocols for determining in which jurisdiction cases should be heard. The Bill provides that civilian prosecutors will always have the final say on the choice of jurisdiction under those protocols.

The Government therefore agree that civilian prosecutors should be able to decide whether a case proceeds in the service or civilian jurisdiction. However, we are unable to agree that a role for the Attorney-General is needed, and we consider that it is wrong for there to be an explicit and inbuilt bias towards one system or the other. Each system is and should be capable of dealing with all types of offending, with decisions made by prosecutors on a case-by-case basis. The service justice system will be dealing with all offences when they occur overseas, and it really makes no sense to truncate our capability in this area and create the very real risk that the system could be seen as second class if serious offences such as rape and serious sexual assault can be dealt with in the service justice system overseas but not in the United Kingdom.

There was some discussion in this House last week about the implications of this amendment for Scotland and Northern Ireland. The earlier amendment applied only to England and Wales, giving the role of authorising a service justice prosecution to the Director of Public Prosecutions after consulting the Attorney-General. The latest amendment retains that feature but creates rules for Scotland and Northern Ireland, giving the authorising function to the Lord Advocate in Scotland and the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland.

Let me be clear that this formulation remains unacceptable to the Government. As I have said, the provisions of the Bill already give the final say on jurisdiction to the civilian prosecutors: the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Lord Advocate, and the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland. Our objection remains to any involvement of the Attorney-General or Attorney-General for Northern Ireland and to any inbuilt bias towards either system, for the reasons which I have explained.

We recognise, however, that we could increase confidence in the service justice system by being more open and transparent about the cases that the system is dealing with. This is why a specific commitment was given in the other place yesterday to improve our annual statistical update on offences contrary to the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and historic sexual offences dealt with in the service justice system to include other serious offences. Our bulletin in spring 2022, published on the GOV.UK website, will, in addition to reporting on rape statistics, now include granular data on cases of murder and manslaughter, and for sexual offending those cases involving personnel serving in the Armed Forces who are under 18 at the time of the offence. Furthermore, from January 2022, we will start to record separately information about domestic violence and child sexual abuse offences in the service justice system so that these too can be reported in our spring 2023 bulletin.

Greater reporting will enable the Government to be held to account and to transparently monitor the health of the service justice system so we can make adjustments and improvements where necessary. We know of course that the service justice system deals with a significantly lower number of cases than the civilian system and that small variances in the data can produce seemingly large swings in performance when expressed as percentages. However, low case numbers aside, the service justice system has trained police investigators, prosecutors and judges who are experienced and capable of dealing with the serious offences which are of concern here. We are strengthening and improving investigative capability through the defence serious crime unit.

I now turn to the views of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, on the need for a report to be laid within six months of this Bill receiving Royal Assent, setting out the implications of not applying a new covenant duty to central government. I appreciate the sincere desire that lies behind the original amendment. As the Minister explained in the other place yesterday, the Government have already committed to reviewing the operation of the covenant duty to indicate whether other policy areas or functions could be usefully included. We have listened carefully to the views expressed in both Houses and, recognising the strength of feeling across both, the Government have now committed to going further and have set out in clear terms how such a review will occur. I am pleased to repeat these clear terms, to share that commitment, and to set out as follows how we see such a review progressing.

The review will encompass the operation of the new duty across the UK, going further than your Lordships’ proposals, and it will consider whether it would be beneficial to exercise any of the powers conferred by this Bill to add to its scope. This will include specific consideration of whether central government and any of its functions could usefully be added. The Government will report on the review as part of the covenant annual report in 2023, 18 months after the new duty is expected to come into effect. This timescale is more realistic than the six-month timeline from Royal Assent suggested by your Lordships, which is too short a period for any meaningful review to take place.

Once the Bill is passed, elements of the new duty, such as the statutory guidance, will require further statutory consultation and parliamentary scrutiny. We expect to see the new duty standing up in law by the middle of 2022 at the earliest, which is around the time that your Lordships’ amendment would have required a report. We also need to allow for an implementation period to give local authorities time to adjust to their new responsibilities. Therefore, to conclude and publish the review at the 18-month point of the new duty having been in operation is most appropriate.

Recognising the level of interest in this new duty, we will provide an update in the covenant annual report in December 2022, some six months after the duty is expected to come into effect. We will be able to say more at this point about the scope and methodology for conducting the review, and Members of Parliament will have the opportunity to assess and comment in the 2022 covenant report debate. We are committed to ensuring that parliamentarians from both Houses can contribute and give their views as part of the review process.

I have sought to reassure this House where I have been able to do so. We are up against time, the Bill must pass, and I urge noble Lords to support the Government. I beg to move.

Motion A1 (as an amendment to Motion A)

Moved by

1D: Page 4, line 27, at end insert—

“(4A) Guidance under subsection (3)(a) must provide that where offences of murder, manslaughter, domestic violence, child abuse, rape or sexual assault with penetration are alleged to have been committed in the United Kingdom, any charges brought against a person subject to service law shall normally be tried in a civilian court unless, by reason of the circumstances, including but not limited to specific naval or military complexity involving the service, trial by court martial is directed by—

(a) in England and Wales, the Director of Public Prosecutions, after consultation with the Attorney General;

(b) in Scotland, the Lord Advocate;

(c) in Northern Ireland, the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland, after consultation with the Attorney General for Northern Ireland.””

My Lords, the Justice Minister, Dominic Raab, speaking on “Today” this morning, said:

“I’m proud of our tradition of freedom in this country. We believe in liberty under the rule of law … We want to reinforce our typical British liberties like freedom of speech, the liberty that guards all the others … trial by jury, that’s a common-law right, very much part of the British tradition.”

In another part of the thicket, the Defence Secretary, Mr Ben Wallace, is seemingly against trial by jury and is acting contrary to the advice of his advisers and the judgment of his departmental Ministers, as Johnny Mercer, the Minister for Defence People and Veterans until April of this year, told us last week. Mr Wallace refuses to accept that, where charges are brought against a person subject to service law for serious cases of murder, manslaughter, rape or serious sexual offences allegedly committed in the United Kingdom by a person subject to service law, there should be a presumption that the accused should have the “common-law right” to trial by jury. Let us spell it out clearly again. If you join the services, you lose the common-law right to trial by jury—which is very much part of the British tradition, as Mr Raab would have it.

In the Commons last week, Sarah Atherton, the Member of Parliament for Wrexham, who has made her way up from the ranks of the Intelligence Corps to the green Benches in the other place and to the chair of the defence sub-committee charged with studying this issue, voted against her own Government and in so doing lost her ministerial appointment.

Nevertheless, Leo Docherty, the Minister, said of her last night:

“I put on record our gratitude for that hugely important piece of work, which we will use as a lever to accelerate institutional change to ensure that women can thrive in military careers”.

It is rather ironic that a government Minister expresses his gratitude for Sarah Atherton’s work, which will ensure that women can thrive in military careers, while his Government reward her with the sack. What did that hugely important piece of work from Sarah Atherton reveal? Speaking on the debate on this amendment in the other place yesterday evening, she said:

“The House is aware that the Defence Committee’s inquiry into the experiences of women in the armed forces opened up a catalogue of harrowing evidence around sexual assault, rape, gang rape, poor standards of investigation, and the manipulation of power to deliberately disadvantage servicewomen in complaining or seeking justice.”—[Official Report, Commons, 13/12/21; cols. 824-827.]

She was joined in her opposition to and vote against the Government by three Conservative Members of Parliament with military experience: Tom Tugendhat, a lieutenant colonel who served in Iraq and Afghanistan; Johnny Mercer, who did three tours in Afghanistan as a commando officer attached to Special Forces; and Philip Hollobone, a territorial in the Paras for some eight years.

This amendment reflects the first recommendation of the review carried out by His Honour Shaun Lyons CBE. He achieved the rank of lieutenant commander in the Royal Navy at the age of 32. Later, he served as Chief Naval Judge Advocate for three years. Later, as a judge in the Crown Court, he was ticketed to try, with a jury of 12, all the serious cases that we are concerned with and which he said should be heard in the ordinary courts of this country.

On the Government’s side, Sir Richard Henriques in his report was content with concurrent jurisdiction. So be it. I have huge respect for Sir Richard and his career at the Bar and on the Bench, but I have not found a military element in it. I hope that all his recommendations and areas within his terms of reference will be accepted by the Government, but what were his terms of reference? They were:

“Policing, prosecutorial and other processes for addressing credible allegations emanating from overseas operations”—

nothing to do with what happens in this country.

He was required, in his first term of reference, to

“Build upon the previous Service Justice System Review”

by His Honour Shaun Lyons

“the recommendations of which MOD”

was then considering,

“and not undertake another broad review of the Service Justice System or investigate specific cases.”

His second term of reference was to

“Focus on setting the context for the future so that we can be sure that, for those complex and serious allegations of wrongdoing—against any of our forces—which occur in theatre on overseas operations, we have the most up to date and futureproof framework, skills and processes in place and can make improvements where necessary”.

His view on the jurisdiction for offences committed in the United Kingdom, is, as we lawyers say respectfully, obiter.

The minor alterations to the amendment before the House today reflect the trivial criticism advanced last time that I had omitted to refer to the other criminal jurisdictions in the UK. That is a pretty desperate argument, dreamed up, no doubt, by some intern in the Ministry of Defence.

In my previous remarks in support of my amendment last time, I dealt extensively with the problems of servicewomen reporting sexual offences up the chain of command, their treatment and their difficulties in giving evidence before a court martial panel of officers. Your Lordships will be pleased to hear that I shall not repeat it, but the evidence of the experienced social worker Paula Edwards, of the charity Forward Assist, given to the Atherton committee on 4 March, contains the essence. She was asked by the committee what support the servicewomen who came for help to her organisation received from the military. Her reply was, “None.” She said:

“They don’t get sexual assault screening. When they do make a complaint, it is often to a perpetrator or to somebody who victim-blames and makes that woman feel like she is to blame, like she was asking for it, which, of course, makes that woman have significant mental health problems, and it goes round in circles. A lot of the women do not get any support. The investigation isn’t fair or just and it has poor outcomes for women in the Military.”

That is the view of someone very experienced in dealing with the victims of sexual offences.

Last night, the current Minister of Defence People and Veterans, Leo Docherty, gave the reason for resisting this amendment:

“the Government believe very strongly that the SJS needs to retain the full complement of capability because our armed forces are expeditionary by design and our justice system also needs to be expeditionary”.—[Official Report, Commons, 13/12/2021; col. 815.]

The picture immediately springs to mind of a red-coated regiment marching through the streets packed with cheering, waving crowds to the sound of the regimental band, followed by a ragtag of lawyers, before embarking to go abroad on some colonial enterprise. We are not dealing with overseas expeditionary forces, but with serious criminal offences that occur on the soil of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

In speaking further on this amendment, Mr Docherty’s big concession, repeated by the Minister today, was to promise improved statistics to cover all the offences listed in 2023. He said:

“We believe that this will increase the transparency of, and the confidence in, the service justice system, and we welcome this scrutiny … and it is right that data is available to hold the Government to account”.—[Official Report, Commons 13/12/2021; col. 814.]

My specific question to the Minister is whether that promised transparency will extend to publishing the precise terms of the protocol that is to be agreed between the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Director of Service Prosecutions on the question of venue, as other prosecutorial protocols are routinely published. I beg to move.

My Lords, it is with pleasure that I support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. It has been a long campaign since I first initiated a series of debates following the case of Sergeant Blackman for murder. I also note, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, has said, the proposals of the Lord Chancellor to embed the right to trial by jury in his reforms, as was referred to this morning. It would be gravely inconsistent of the Government to declare this right in statute while denying it to service men and women.

The right to trial by jury—the right to trial by one’s peers—goes back to Magna Carta, with all the protections that have been hammered out over the years for majority verdicts, announced publicly, with everyone knowing exactly what is happening and the careful directions that are given to juries. It should be the right of every serviceman and every servicewoman, too.

I rise to support Motion A1 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. The key issue is trial by jury. I completely accept the improvements in the service justice system—I saw them in my former role as Lord Chief Justice. However, the Minister does not grapple with the fundamental issue: why take away the right to trial by jury? It is important, because sometimes Ministers misspeak on the “Today” programme, to see what the Deputy Prime Minister wrote in this morning’s Times:

“Trial by jury is another ancient right, applied variably around the UK, that doesn’t feature in the ECHR, but will be in our bill of rights. We should be proud of our history of liberty—and preserve a human rights framework that promotes it.”

It seems inconsistent with that declared policy of Her Majesty’s Government that the Ministry of Defence opposes the fundamental right of trial by jury for those who put their lives at risk for our country. That is what this amendment has at its heart.

It seems to me that by their support of this amendment in the course of debate, the Opposition have accepted that a mistake was made in 2005 when the right to trial by jury was taken away from those in the armed services for these very serious offences. Why does the Ministry of Defence not have the courage to admit that a mistake was made and restore the fundamental right of every member of the Armed Forces to trial by jury for these most serious offences?

My Lords, I give a cautious but warm-hearted welcome to the remarks and undertakings from the Dispatch Box by the Minister about my amendment. She will recognise that the amendment last week required a report from the Secretary of State about why he, and so central government, should not have statutory authority or due regard. As the Government have stated in both Houses that they have reached the view that legislation is not necessary, it should not have been unduly onerous or difficult for them to explain why in a report to both Houses in the six-month timeframe. Now, however, I sense a changing view and the need for a longer period before making a report.

This change of view is most welcome. It has effectively been demonstrated since Report by the decision of the MoD to refer the case of the Hong Kong Military Service Corps to the Home Office, from one central department to another, dealing with a veterans issue that could not be gripped at devolved or local authority level. However, the MoD must continue to discharge its responsibilities to those veterans. It must continue to take an active interest in their plight until the Home Office responds. Will the Minister give that undertaking now? It should not need to wait for further consideration under the Nationality and Borders Bill when it comes to this House. My hope is that the Government will take “nonne” or a “ne” rather than a “num” approach in answering the request and reporting on why central government must have a legal covenant duty of due regard.

I am very conscious that time is pressing to gain Royal Assent, without which the Government have no statutory right to military forces. I was also somewhat reassured by the Minister’s statement in the other place, so I have not moved any further amendment. I thank the Government for conceding that the role of central government must be considered and reported upon to Parliament.

My Lords, let me say once again that Her Majesty’s Opposition support the Bill; we have sought only to challenge the Government to improve it. I believe that, including today, it has been a very good debate in your Lordships’ House, with important contributions from all parts of the Chamber. As we have seen, this has led to many important clarifications and further commitments from the Government. In this, the House has been helped by the approach of the Minister, who has been both engaging and constructive in the work that she has done.

We accept the Government’s Motions A and B as sent back to the House today, but we remain determined to hold the Government to account as we go forward, ensuring that commitments made on the record—both in this House and in the other place—are indeed met. We remain disappointed that the Government have not agreed to Motion A1 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, which we have supported all along.

We will want to test the Government on the commitments that they have made on transparency. Leo Docherty MP talked about all sorts of statistics, which were now to be used by the Government to enhance transparency with respect to serious violence, serious sexual violence, the recording of sexual offences against under-18s and so on—and these will be included in the annual report. When reporting those statistics, however, what will happen if problems remain despite the Government’s belief that the service justice system, as it is to be constituted, will improve the situation? What if the situation does not change? Will that be the time, perhaps, for the Government to consider Motion A1 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, supported by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, and my noble and learned friend Lord Morris of Aberavon? It would be helpful if the Minister could say how the Government will judge the statistics that they are committed to publishing with respect to dealing with sexual violence and sexual offences within the criminal justice system.

I turn to the amendment in the name of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, and, much as he has done, welcome the changes and further commitments that the Government have made on reporting with respect to the covenant, its scope and its extension to government—so that government itself must have due regard to it—with the first annual report to be published in 2023, and an interim report in 2022. We welcome that, but what happens if these reports show that change is needed, and how will they be reported to Parliament?

We believe that the Government have moved forward, making concessions and additional commitments. We thank the Minister for ensuring that the debate has taken place and has been used to inform decisions in the Ministry of Defence; I am sure that all your Lordships welcome that. However, as the Minister knows, serious questions remain around the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. We look forward to seeing how these will be dealt with as we go forward.

It would not be appropriate for us to allow the Bill to pass today without once again praising the bravery and professionalism of our Armed Forces. As well as their duty abroad, they are once again to be called upon to help in the fight against the pandemic. Whatever discussions and debates we have, they should know that this Chamber, and all your Lordships, recognise that duty and service as we pass this Bill. We will never, and should never, take that for granted.

My Lords, I start by echoing the sentiments of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, because throughout the Bill’s progress in this House, we have genuinely had well-informed debates which have been extremely helpful in the scrutiny of the legislation. I again pay tribute to all who have facilitated that positive review of it. I also thank the noble Lord for his kind remarks.

Let me try to deal with some of the points which have arisen. In relation to the service justice system, there was a sense of reprise of previously presented arguments. I know they were presented in good faith. Some have now been addressed by the Government, but, as your Lordships will be aware, others they reject. We have a fundamental point of principle here, which is that some of your Lordships feel that there should be a bias and an explicit tilt towards the civilian system, while the Government are not convinced that that is in the interests of the service justice system or of those who would have to use it. What matters is that the service justice system is robust, which it is, and this Bill introduces many improvements to it.

I do not want to bore your Lordships by repeating the arguments I have previously adduced as to why the Government support the approach of concurrency of jurisdiction. I simply observe that trial by jury is not a part of the service justice system, but we require a system which works both overseas and across the United Kingdom, is professional and has capability and capacity. That is what this Bill provides.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, asked me specifically about publishing the detail of the protocols. I would direct him to Clause 7, creating a new Section 320A, and to subsection (8) of that, which directs that the current version of the protocol must be published in whatever manner the directors think appropriate.

I thank the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, for his kind remarks and his acknowledgement of the Government’s willingness to hear his concerns and to seek to address them. I am not a position to deal with the specific point that he raised, but he will know that announcements are likely in the near future.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, raised two issues. He asked what would happen if the publication of the more detailed data and statistics for the service justice system caused concern. I said that we are very clear as a Government that that additional data will help to inform us as to where we may need to make adjustments or where improvements may be necessary if issues arise which occasion concern.

On the covenant, the noble Lord asked a similarly aligned question about the reports: what if they suggest that the positive progress we all want is not being made as effectively as we would hope? First, that will inform the Government, but, secondly, as his honourable friend in the other place said, it is the job of opposition to hold the Government to account and to scrutinise. I absolutely agree with that; that is what the Opposition exist to do. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, is an exemplar of holding me as a Defence Minister to account, and I am sure that formidable and tenacious approach will continue.

What this Bill and our debates are all about, and what we try to do in improving this legislation, is of course for the benefit of our Armed Forces. All of us are very conscious not only of what they have done over time, of the sacrifices they make and of the commitment they give, but, perhaps very particularly at this time, of the extraordinary support they have been giving to the country during the pandemic. I know that your Lordships will want on behalf of this Chamber to express our unqualified appreciation—

Before the Minister sits down, I would be grateful if she could write at some point saying why trial by jury is not being conceded for members of the Armed Forces. It may require some legal argument. I would be delighted to read it.

I will address the noble and learned Lord’s point in a moment, but if I may continue with my tribute, it is very important for this House to send a message to our Armed Forces that we absolutely value everything they are doing. I am particularly conscious of that at this time. Their contribution is extraordinary and invaluable to the country, and we would want them to know just how much we appreciate that.

The noble and learned Lord will be aware that the jury system is not part of the service justice system. It is the view of the Government that the service justice system is robust, that this Bill will make distinct improvements to it and that it has to operate in a manner which makes it fit for purpose both overseas and across the United Kingdom. That is what this Bill does. I beg to move.

If the Minister will allow me, will she deal with the inconsistency between the Lord Chancellor’s remarks this morning that he seeks to embed the right to trial by jury in statute and the fact that, at the same time, this is being denied to service men and women?

I think the noble and learned Lord overlooks the tradition of the service justice system and why we have such a system. That has been one of its characteristics over decades: that is the character of the system. It exists to serve a particular purpose, which most people in this Chamber acknowledge, and that is why it has different characteristics from the civilian justice system.

My Lords, I thank everybody who has contributed to this debate. Many fine words have been said and two issues have really come forward. The first is the denial of the right to trial by jury to members of the Armed Forces—they sign away that right when they join up. This issue will not go away but will rumble on and on.

The second issue relates to victims and the problems so clearly delineated to Sarah Atherton’s committee. She had representations from more than 4,000 women serving in the Armed Forces, all going the same way. Indeed, one person from an NGO which helps them said she was looking after 600 servicewomen, none of whom wanted trial by court martial; all wanted their right to have a trial in the ordinary courts so that the alleged transgressors could be brought to justice in the ordinary way.

This is absolutely fundamental to the constitution of this country. Regarding what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, said a moment ago, in his press release today Mr Raab talked about the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Slave Trade Act and so on, calling them to his aid in supporting the right to trial by jury. It is a simple point.

I am very conscious that there are good things in this Bill that I have worked for for ages, such as majority verdicts in courts martial. I do not want to see this Bill fail, nor do I want the military to be let loose at this particular time by this Bill falling for lack of time. Therefore, I do not propose to press my amendment, but I hope we will come back to this issue. I hope that that will not be in five years’ time with our next Armed Forces Bill but that, once statistics emerge and show us the true situation, the Government will have the guts to admit that they were wrong.

This is not a historic thing going back decades. Jurisdiction was given to courts martial to try murder, manslaughter and rape in 2006, so this is barely 15 years old. Consequently, it is not a great military tradition— if it is being presented in that way. Up until that time, the service justice system insisted that offences committed by servicemen in the United Kingdom, on the soil of this country, should be tried in the ordinary courts. I hope we get back to that very quickly. I will not press the matter and beg leave to withdraw Motion A1.

Motion A1 withdrawn.

Motion A agreed.

Motion B

Moved by

That this House do not insist on its Amendment 2B, to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason 2C.

2C: Because the proposed legal duty is unnecessary having regard to the Government’s existing obligations.

Motion B agreed.