Committee (3rd Day)
51: After Clause 18, insert the following new Clause—
“Armed Forces Federation
(1) The Armed Forces Act 2006 is amended as follows.(2) After section 333, insert—“333A Armed Forces Federation(1) There shall be an Armed Forces Federation for the United Kingdom for the purpose of representing members of the Armed Forces in the United Kingdom in all matters affecting their welfare, remuneration and efficiency, except for—(a) questions of promotion affecting individuals, and(b) (subject to subsection (2)) questions of discipline affecting individuals.(2) The Armed Forces Federation may represent a member of the armed forces at any proceedings or on an appeal from any such proceedings.(3) The Armed Forces Federation must act through local and central representative bodies.(4) This section applies to reservists of the Armed Forces as it applies to members of the Armed Forces, and references to the Armed Forces are to be construed accordingly.333B Regulations for the Armed Forces Federation (1) The Secretary of State may by regulations—(a) prescribe the constitution and proceedings of the Armed Forces Federation, or(b) authorise the Federation to make rules concerning such matters relating to their constitution and proceedings as may be specified in the regulations.(2) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1), regulations under this section may make provision—(a) with respect to the membership of the Federation;(b) with respect to the raising of funds by the Federation by voluntary subscription and the use and management of funds derived from such subscriptions;(c) with respect to the manner in which representations may be made by committees or bodies of the Federation to officers of the Armed Forces and the Secretary of State; and (d) for the payment by the Secretary of State of expenses incurred in connection with the Federation and for the use by the Federation of premises provided by local Armed Forces bodies for Armed Forces purposes.(3) Regulations under this section may contain such supplementary and transitional provisions as appear to the Secretary of State to be appropriate, including provisions adapting references in any enactment (including this Act) to committees or other bodies of the Federation.(4) A statutory instrument containing regulations under this section is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.(5) This section applies to reservists of the Armed Forces as it applies to members of the Armed Forces.””Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause would create a representative body for the Armed Forces, akin to the Police Federation, which would represent their members in matters such as welfare, pay and efficiency.
My Lords, Amendment 51, in the name of my noble friend Lord Coaker, is a probing amendment. We will be interested not only in the Government’s response but in the response of the noble and gallant Lords whose experience we value.
The new clause would create a representative body for the Armed Forces, akin to the Police Federation, which would represent its members in matters such as welfare, pay and efficiency. It has been clear for some time that the Armed Forces need independent advice and representation. Witnesses before the Bill Select Committee in the other place have reinforced this and we continue to hear shocking stories of abuse that takes place within units. We have also heard that continued delays discourage the use of the service complaints system, and there is a concerning perception that one’s career will be under threat if one complains.
Most members of the Armed Forces have also endured a real-terms pay cut for most of the last decade. Given the renewed emphasis that Ministers appear to be placing on the value of people as assets to our national defence, the time may be right to formalise representation and support for service personnel on issues such as welfare and pay.
Perhaps the noble Lord could take his mask off.
Sorry. You do not want me to start again, do you? I am in two minds about it.
This would not be the equivalent of a trade union for the Armed Forces in that it would not conduct or condone any form of industrial action or insubordination within the Armed Forces. The federation would work with the Ministry of Defence to put in place a form of understanding that could deal with such issues. It would also recognise the importance of the chain of command.
The proposal might seem radical or dangerous to some, but other nations, including the United States and Australia, already have similar models embedded in their existing military structures. Would the Minister not accept that if our police service enjoys access to a representation body for welfare, pay and other key issues, our Armed Forces deserve the same?
Following on from the Budget, I want to ask the Minister a specific question. The Budget set out that the MoD would experience a decrease of 1.4% in average annual real-terms growth between 2021 and 2025 in day-to-day departmental spending. Does the Minister accept that this means less money for forces recruitment, training, pay and family support? Ministers should seize this opportunity to give the Armed Forces a real voice. I beg to move.
My Lords, I oppose this amendment. Fundamentally, I believe that it would be seriously detrimental to the chain of command. I have some questions. Will membership be voluntary? Would there be a subscription? Would all Armed Forces members be expected to join?
I want to focus particularly on the purpose mentioned in the amendment: that the federation might represent members on welfare, remuneration and efficiency. On welfare, we have the covenant. We have myriad Armed Forces charities, and we have the internal welfare services and a number of other things. I cannot see what value this would add. On remuneration, the Armed Forces’ Pay Review Body has respect among the members of the Armed Forces. How would this dovetail with the federation? On efficiency, what do we mean by efficiency? Is it fighting efficiency—in which case, what will the competence of the federation be to decide what is good or bad efficiency on the fighting side of life?
The amendment also says that:
“The Armed Forces Federation may represent a member of the armed forces at any proceedings”.
Would we have to have an Armed Forces federation member, rather like a Soviet commissar, on ships deployed for example in the Pacific? I think this is completely impractical.
My Lords, I, too, oppose this amendment. I take the opportunity at the start of the session to remind your Lordships of my interest as a serving member of the Army Reserve.
I was going to intervene on the noble Lord, but perhaps I will give him this opportunity to intervene on me in reply to this question: how many members of the Armed Forces have contacted him or the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, to ask for this? Surely somebody has. I say that, because at no point in my 33 years’ service in the regular and reserve has this ever really been a topic of discussion for serving members of the Armed Forces. If the noble Lord wants to intervene on me or perhaps answer the question when he comes back at the end, I would be fascinated to know how many members of the Armed Forces have actually asked for this. I have a horrible feeling that the answer is none. I certainly have no experience of that.
Equally, I share the noble and gallant Lord’s concerns about the impact on the chain of command. Given the unique circumstances that we find ourselves in in the military, certainly on operations, there is a distinct way of doing things with the chain of command. There are ways through the chain of command to make your complaints. Of course, we now also have the Service Complaints Commissioner. We have quite a developed sense of how this works in the military, which is why I go back to my first point: I just do not sense that there is any demand for this at all within the community the noble Lord is seeking to impose it on.
Where there are areas of concern, for example pay, we have quite a developed system with the Armed Forces’ Pay Review Body. I have given evidence to this body as a Minister. It is a very considered body, it is independent and its recommendations have been taken very seriously by successive Governments now for many years. We have seen that in the annual pay award, which the Government are forced to respond to
I suppose my principal opposition to all this is that I just do not understand where the demand is coming from, other than political parties potentially wishing to impose their values on our Armed Forces.
My Lords, I do not support this amendment either. Indeed, I fully endorse the remarks of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce. I do not for a moment question the good faith in and the fulsome support of the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Tunnicliffe, for the Armed Forces. However, I believe that there is a concept, of which this amendment is an example, that has been aired from time to time over the past 30 years and more—a concept that seems to have sprung in part from the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s. The concept, or supposition, was that the Armed Forces were “civilians in uniform”, so their treatment, expectations and everything else about their daily lives should be seen and fashioned in that civilian primary context. However, it is a false premise.
I believe that the proposal in this amendment has been floated unsuccessfully more than once since the 1980s. Of course, members of the Armed Forces, like all their civilian counterparts, are human, but members of the Armed Forces have duties and responsibilities unmatched in the civilian environment. The fact that we are dealing with an Armed Forces Bill that affects the lives and well-being as well as the fighting efficiency of our Armed Forces underlines that point in spades. The fact that this Act has to be renewed every year and owes its origins to the time of Henry VIII exemplifies the unique difference in treatment, both in law and more generally, of the Armed Forces from the civilian world of employment over centuries.
Whether on or off duty, the behaviour of service personnel may be much praised, but if they fall short of good behaviour it is their service as well as themselves that attracts bad publicity and opprobrium. The more senior the individual, the greater the public dismay at poor or reprehensible behaviour. Both on or off duty, the service individual has a duty to behave responsibility, and who or what has or should have the responsibility to lead and encourage that? It must be the chain of command.
I have many times in my own experience explained why this is so fundamental to the ethos and fighting efficiency of the Armed Forces. The noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, spelled all this out in the clearest of terms in her introductory remarks in the first sitting of this Committee. She said, and it is worth quoting:
“It is worth emphasising that members of the military are governed by a more stringent set of rules and restrictions than those of us in civilian life. These rules are designed to maintain discipline and promote operational effectiveness so that they can get the job done. Many of these additional rules and restrictions to which service personnel are subject apply regardless of whether they are on or off duty.”—[Official Report, 27/10/2021; col. GC 146.]
That is worth listening to and remembering.
The regard for an application of such a unique regime must rely primarily on the chain of command. I am not alone in expressing concern and, at times, even dismay at the way in which the chain of command’s uniquely important role has been set aside or weakened, sometimes in the search for more transparent justice. However, no judicial system is perfect. The imperfection is processed and managed by gradations of justice, but that does not make it infallible.
The introduction of an Armed Forces federation, regardless of whether such an organisation could perform alongside the chain of command without confusion, overlap or mismanagement, would once more be to underrate the chain of command’s importance to the efficiency and ethos of the Armed Forces. Indeed, I am not sure, as the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, was saying, on what research or examination the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Tunnicliffe, have undertaken in support of this amendment. Like the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce—and, I believe, all chiefs of staff since my day, over 30 years ago, including the present holders of that office—I agree that an alongside federation as proposed in this amendment would be a grave mistake. That body of expert opinion should be heeded. I do not support the amendment.
My Lords, I fear that the noble Lords, Lord Tunnicliffe and Lord Coaker, will not have very much support this afternoon. We on these Benches are also somewhat sceptical about the proposed amendment. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, said that this was not a trade union, which we would clearly oppose, but it is also not entirely clear what an Armed Forces federation would bring that would serve an appropriate and necessary purpose. We therefore share a lot of the reservations raised by the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Boyce and Lord Craig of Radley, and by the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster. In particular, what precise problems do the noble Lords believe will be served by having this federation? In particular, in what way can it serve efficiency? Adding another mechanism does not necessarily seem to be a way in which to help efficiency.
The one area where I think something might be useful that would not, I hope, undermine the chain of command is that on some occasions, particularly at times with issues of pensions and pay, there could be better lines of communication. What was fed to me occasionally when I was involved in the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme was not that people were saying, “We must have representation and a trade union or an Armed Forces federation”. It was more that they would like to understand better what was going on. So slightly better lines of communication would be welcome.
However, I do not think there is anything in this amendment that will really be necessary or particularly useful. In particular, I have reservations about proposed new Section 333B(2)(a), (c) and (d). What will the Secretary of State be providing on membership, voluntary subscriptions or financial support for this Armed Forces federation? Will those really be useful expenditures? Will they help our security, our defence or our Armed Forces?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, for tabling Amendment 51, and the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, for so eloquently speaking to it. As has been explained, this amendment seeks to create through primary legislation a representative body for the Armed Forces that is similar in many respects to the Police Federation. It proposes that details of how the federation would operate are set out in regulations. I recognise the commitment of both noble Lords to the welfare of our Armed Forces, as other contributors have rightly acknowledged.
This has been an interesting debate. It has thrown up in broad terms the particular environment and context in which we ask our Armed Forces to operate, and it has disclosed some specific issues. Let me try to address some of the points raised. Clearly, the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Boyce and Lord Craig of Radley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, have reservations. I think they were well articulated and suggest that they should be heeded.
To go to the context, the environment in which we ask our Armed Forces to operate, the Armed Forces have a unique role and can be called upon to carry out tasks that are clearly beyond anything that most other people would be asked to do in the course of their duties. What works for a civilian workforce such as the police will not necessarily work for service personnel. That is why the interests of Armed Forces personnel are already represented through a range of mechanisms, not least the chain of command. I will spend a short time outlining some of those provisions. We are currently, in fact, considering what more we can do in this space without compromising operational effectiveness.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, raised the issue of pay in general terms and made a particularly interesting point about whether the Armed Forces understand the structures. The Armed Forces’ Pay Review Body and the Senior Salaries Review Body provide independent annual recommendations on pay for the Armed Forces to the Prime Minister. The X factor addition to basic military pay, which is currently at 14.5%, recognises the special conditions of military life, including the limits on the ability of service personnel to negotiate on this issue. Processes are in place for personnel to make complaints about their pay or allowances. I would hope that, with the new ambience that now pervades the Armed Forces, people would be encouraged to articulate those concerns and ask questions of the very type the noble Baroness mentioned.
With regard to complaints more widely, the Service Complaints Ombudsman provides independent and impartial scrutiny of the handling of service complaints made by members of the UK Armed Forces regarding most aspects of their service life, and service personnel are able independently to approach the ombudsman or ombudswoman about a complaint which they do not want to raise directly with their chain of command. Support is provided to those who are making complaints or allegations and to those who are the subjects of such actions. In addition to this practical support, there is a range of internal and external welfare support for personnel to draw on if they need it as they go through these processes.
Improvements to the service complaints process are being progressed as a matter of policy, as the vast majority of these do not require primary legislation. For many other issues, the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association—SSAFA—the Royal Naval Association, the Royal Air Force Association, the Veterans Support Association and a host of other regimental associations and groups around the country have regular access both to the chain of command and to Ministers to represent their members’ interests.
Service personnel have their own voice on matters which concern them through the Armed Forces annual continuous attitude survey, which asks our people about all aspects of their service life. The results, which are published, are used to inform the development of policy and to measure the impact of decisions affecting personnel, including major programmes and the Armed Forces covenant.
Service personnel can also play an active role in the development of the policies which affect them. There are currently more than 50 diversity networks operating within defence at various levels. Most of these are run by volunteer members, with senior officer advocates and champions, and they can be consulted on matters which are likely to impact our people.
Noble Lords will understand that the well-being of our personnel directly contributes to the operational effectiveness of the Armed Forces. It is therefore important to the chain of command and to defence to both sustain and support the well-being of service personnel and their families and, where necessary, provide welfare support to resolve issues that might otherwise undermine well-being and impact on operational effectiveness.
That is why, during basic training, all service personnel receive details on how to identify welfare issues and how to get help, with refresher training provided during subsequent initial trade training. All regular and reserve officers also receive training during their respective commissioning course which teaches how their service provides welfare support and sets out their welfare roles and responsibilities as line managers. Once again, refresher training is provided throughout and welfare specialists are also on hand to provide advice to the chain of command and provide support to their personnel.
We recognise that some personnel and families may feel uncomfortable exposing welfare issues to the chain of command and, in some cases, issues may even arise as a direct result of conflict with the chain of command. My noble friend Lord Lancaster spoke in broad terms about that and the alternative channels available to complainants.
I therefore submit that, in these circumstances, service personnel have alternative mechanisms for raising and addressing welfare issues, giving them a voice independent of the chain of command. These include unit welfare staff, padres and confidential helplines, in addition to the service families federations and service complaints process that I referred to earlier. The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, referred to Australia, but Australia disbanded its armed forces federation in 2006.
The noble Lord also raised an issue about the recent Budget, in response to which I would say that as the department prioritises providing a wider range of supportive bodies and invests in training for service personnel throughout their service career, it would be misleading to quantify this in terms of budget lines as such. The department feels strongly that the interests of service personnel need to be protected and we take a varied approach by providing many strands to offer that protection. We cannot put a price on giving people a voice.
I hope that this explains clearly the rationale for the Government’s approach to ensuring that the interests of service personnel are protected and the provisions that exist. I trust that, following these assurances, the noble Lord will agree to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, one of the essential skills for survival in politics is being able to count. I recognise a 5-0 defeat when I hear one; it can also be pretty uncomfortable when the closest you get to support comes from the Government. But I ask noble Lords to pause and consider that the speech that the Minister just made was probably unthinkable 30 years ago. She at least took the generality that representation, through one mechanism or another, is necessary. We also have to take the generality that, much as we all are proud of the Armed Forces, we know that in some areas things are not as perfect as we would want.
The concept of representation will have its day. Clearly, that is not today. But on the ideas behind it, I am pleased that the Government, I think, conceptually see that it is necessary to make sure that there are appropriate mechanisms for representation. Over time—this will come up every five years—we will test the ground, because we as a party believe in representation.
There is an interesting concept about civilians in uniform. They are not civilians in uniform; clearly, they are different from civilians in that they have to put their lives on the line, and I accept that. However, I think that they are citizens in uniform and there need to be processes and a mechanism for their views to be made known. We talk about supporting individuals going to the ombudsman. That is a good thing. I think that there is a recognition that that might have to be more formalised and more powerful. We will see. I accept that we are apart on this issue. Nevertheless, we are not as apart as one might think. The idea of agency by individuals is one that will not go away, but it is certainly not an idea that should be forced on an unwilling institution.
I opened by saying that I wanted to hear what the Government had to say. I am pleased with the direction of their answer. I also said that we were interested in what noble and gallant Lords might say. I note what they said. Therefore, taking account of all those issues, I beg leave to withdraw this amendment and will not be bringing it back on Report.
Amendment 51 withdrawn.
52: After Clause 18, insert the following new Clause—
(1) The Government must publish annual statistics on the number of veterans who are receiving universal credit.
(2) These statistics should be included in the annual Armed Forces covenant report.”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would require the Government to publish statistics on the number of veterans in receipt of universal credit.
My Lords, in moving Amendment 52 in the name of my noble friend Lord Coaker, I will speak also to Amendment 56. Her Majesty’s Opposition believe that we owe a debt of gratitude to, and have a moral obligation to help, those who have served our country transition back into civilian life. This transition can often be hard. Just the idea—let alone the process—of finding a new job can be challenging. Too many veterans are falling through the cracks of veterans’ employment support and struggling to find a job. This support has even been cut back by Ministers.
I was shocked to learn earlier this year that the Government have dropped their target for helping personnel, veterans and their families to find work after they leave the Armed Forces. Ministers are now hiring only 50 Armed Forces champions, despite committing £6 million in 2019 to fund “more than 100” Armed Forces champions in jobcentres. Announcing the increased spending in 2019, the Work and Pensions Secretary Thérèse Coffey said that 100 champions should provide
“specialist, individual support to former service personnel and their families”.
The Government also said that champions were a key part of their commitment to the Armed Forces covenant.
However, in response to a Written Question in June 2021, the DWP Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman-Scott, said that a “new model” was now being pursued, with 50 Armed Forces champions being recruited. She also confirmed that the number of Armed Forces champions had fallen to a record low, with only 34 champions being appointed so far. In 2019 there were 46 Armed Forces champions in the UK, so why did Ministers decide to cut the number of Armed Forces champions in jobcentres? How much money did they save? Can the Minister tell me how many Armed Forces champions are currently working in jobcentres? Is it the target of 50, or fewer; if so, how many fewer? Amendment 56 seeks to reinstate the Government’s original commitment of 100 Armed Forces champions.
It is clear that the Government do not even know the full picture of the number of former personnel receiving universal credit. Earlier in the year we were told that Ministers had introduced an Armed Forces identifier on the UC system, but when we asked how many had been identified we were told by the DWP Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman-Scott:
“This information is not currently available. We are developing the way to determine numbers of people identified by the Armed Forces ‘identifier’ and plan to release them later in the year.”
What are the current figures? I hope that the Minister has them to hand today or will write to me to confirm. Her Majesty’s Opposition believe that if you do not know the full extent of the problem, it cannot be fixed. Amendment 52 would force the Government to publish annual statistics in the Armed Forces covenant report on the number of veterans in receipt of universal credit.
We must support veterans’ transitions into civilian life with dignity, not cut employment support and fail even to understand the full extent of the problem. This is what these amendments seek to do. I do not understand why the Minister would have an issue with them. I beg to move.
My Lords, we on these Benches did not add our names to these two amendments, both of which seem to be small but important. In particular, as the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, said, Amendment 56 essentially asks the Government to go back to a prior commitment. Can the Minister commit to 100 champions in jobcentres? As the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, pointed out, the Minister’s noble friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman-Scott, could not answer all the questions the other day in the Chamber. If it were possible for either DWP or the MoD to come forward with some statistics, that would be helpful. Normally, asking for annual reports on this, that and the other can be a little time-consuming and bureaucratic but, on this occasion, if the information is not available it is time to suggest that we ask the Government to make sure that it is available. Unless the Government can make a commitment, the amendment seems wholly appropriate.
This amendment, which I do not particularly support or otherwise, would be an awful lot better placed if better evidence were available. There does not appear to be the relevant data. Personally, I am convinced that if that data were made available, it would re-establish in people’s minds and in society at large that the Armed Forces are one of the nation’s most successful organisations for social improvement among the people who join.
I fear that amendments such as this convey the impression that people enter the Armed Forces and then leave, at some later stage, damaged by the experience. That is far from the reality of the situation. Yes, some unfortunate people will struggle to find employment—some people struggle with second careers—but, by and large, people leave the Armed Forces both socially and professionally improved and go on to have highly successful second careers. So the publication of the evidence base would be hugely helpful in determining whether this sort of amendment was, in truth, required.
My Lords, this may have been a short debate, but it was interesting. Once again, I have no doubt about the commitment of the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Tunnicliffe, in taking an interest in these matters. Amendments 52 and 56 engage with the subject of, first, the number of veterans claiming universal credit, and secondly, Armed Forces champions.
I will deal with Amendment 52 first. The Government are delighted that the universal credit system has now been enhanced to allow the Department for Work and Pensions to collect information on how many universal credit claimants are veterans. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Houghton, put his finger on the point: the all-important issue here is the data, which is not yet complete. It is still early days. The DWP is still building up its data base and working out what the data is telling them and how to make best use of it, including producing reports and making information public. This may well include making information available through the covenant annual report, as well as more routine data releases.
I understand that, as soon as decisions have been made, the DWP will write to the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, setting out its plans. I expect it to be able to do this early in the new year. Further, the MoD will keep a close eye on this area as well. We are also interested in the data being collected, so I, too, look forward to the DWP’s response on this matter. With that assurance, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
I will now address Amendment 56, again in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, which seeks to put into the Bill a specific number of Armed Forces champions who would be in place at all times. The number of Armed Forces champions, their specific roles and how and where they are deployed are detailed day-to-day operational matters for the DWP.
The DWP’s long-standing, undoubted and profound commitment to and support for the Armed Forces covenant is clear. Like the rest of this Government, my colleagues there do everything that they can to provide members of the Armed Forces community with the help and support that they deserve. I thought that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Houghton, made an important point about the impressions that we wish to create and what the perceptions might be. Armed Forces champions are key in supporting and enabling the DWP to provide that help and support, but setting out a specific number in the Bill will limit the DWP’s flexibility to adjust the support to meet levels of need and will do nothing to enhance the current support provided by the DWP to veterans and others.
The DWP works very closely with the MoD and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs to help ensure that those using its services get the help and support that they need. Earlier this year it introduced a new model. Once again, it is important to put all this into shape so that there is context. It introduced the new model to transform the support that the DWP provides to members of the Armed Forces. This change of approach by the DWP was not subjective; it reflected feedback that the department had received, including from formal research and from those representing members of the Armed Forces community.
The new model was designed to ensure that veterans and others are served in a more intelligent and effective way. It enables the department to better match available resources with the demand for its services. The new model has built on the successful network of Armed Forces champions, which had been in place within the DWP for a number of years.
As part of the new model, the department has introduced for the first time a dedicated Armed Forces role at middle management level. These roles have responsibility for building capability and sharing best practice on Armed Forces issues across the DWP network, as well as building networks with the tri-services. It is important to understand the relevance and significance of that conjunction of activity.
There is a lead role in each of the 11 Jobcentre Plus groups and, as part of its work, it oversees 50 Armed Forces champions stationed across the Jobcentre Plus network. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, was critical of that level of champions, but the work of the champions cannot be viewed in isolation, for the reasons that I have just described.
The champions have specific responsibility for supporting claimants who are members of the Armed Forces community. Under the new model of support, the champions also have a front-line role and will personally handle some claims for the first time, supporting veterans into work and helping to resolve some of the more complex cases where necessary. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe—I think the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, also raised this point—that there is at least one Armed Forces champion in each of the 37 Jobcentre Plus districts.
The new model has been welcomed by the department’s Armed Forces stakeholders, who have been more interested, to be honest, in the structures and quality of services than in actual numbers. The DWP has listened to what stakeholders and researchers have said. Putting in place the new lead roles will help to improve the co-ordination of support activity and facilitate the sharing of best practice between the champions, and more widely across the department. The new roles also provide the opportunity for more pro-active work with the three armed services on resettlement and recruitment. Again, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Houghton, took an interest in this issue.
In the early stages of introducing the new model, the DWP talked to a number of stakeholders, including Armed Forces charities and other groups, about the planned structures and roles. It explained how these would work in practice for stakeholders, as well as for individual claimants and their families. Now, almost six months in, the change seems to have settled in well and continues to be well received.
The DWP’s support is not limited to those with a formal Armed Forces role. For example, the new model enables the dedicated Armed Forces roles to complement the wider investment the department had already made during the pandemic in the recruitment of an additional 13,500 work coaches, bringing the total to 27,000. The Committee may be interested to know that every work coach receives specific training to support members of the Armed Forces community, and that an important part of the work of the new champions and lead roles is to build capability on Armed Forces issues across the whole department. This is not just across the Jobcentre Plus network but more widely, for example in DWP service centres.
As your Lordships will understand, there are many DWP staff, some based in individual jobcentre offices, who will be the local expert on Armed Forces issues and will work with those in the dedicated roles also to the support the Armed Forces. Many of these staff will have experienced service life themselves, either directly or through friends and family. They will use this experience in their work.
As within other parts of its business, the DWP will monitor and evaluate the new model, and will use the information gathered from this work to shape the support provided. These new arrangements come on top of other support that is already in place. For example, veterans are given early entry to the work and health programme, and if we can use service medical board evidence, a severely disabled veteran does not have to undergo additional examinations for employment and support allowance and universal credit purposes.
If the intention of this amendment is to make sure that the DWP always provides an Armed Forces champions service, it is unnecessary. The the DWP, through its words and actions, has consistently demonstrated its commitment to support veterans and members of the Armed Forces community. I accept that this is unintentional, but the amendment would constrain what are rightly day-to-day operational decisions for DWP managers. For example, holding open a post for a short while during a recruitment exercise would become unlawful. I know that is not the noble Lord’s intention, but we should let the expert delivery managers in the DWP manage their resources as they see fit.
With that reassurance of the scale of support within the DWP for Armed Forces personnel and veterans, I hope nthe noble Lord will be prepared to withdraw his amendment.
I thank everyone who has taken part in the debate. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Houghton of Richmond, called for better evidence. If there is any consensus here, it is between him, the Minister and me that data, which we are promised will be early in the new year, will add light to our concerns.
I am in no way suggesting that, as a generality, individuals are damaged by their experience of being in the Armed Forces. In the limited experience that I have of contact with the Armed Forces, I see, as a generality, good people who have valued their training and their roles.
The problem is that there is anecdotal concern that some veterans have a difficult time and there is a general concern in society that veterans of the Armed Forces in particular should be looked after. The dilemma of the covenant is the negative concept—it is put in a negative way, although I do not mean it negatively—that nobody shall be worse off as a result of coming from the forces. There is a second tranche that says that, in view of the special service of members of the Armed Forces, we should do things at the edge to help, having regard for their previous experience.
We will carefully consider what the noble Baroness has said, although we would welcome any additional information that she finds to reassure us. However, she has put on the record areas of comfort, which we will take account of, so I am content at this point to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 52 withdrawn.
53: After Clause 18, insert the following new Clause—
“Flexible Service scheme report
A Minister of the Crown must make provision to improve the uptake and use of the Flexible Service scheme, for both women and men, and report its progress by the end of 2022.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is based on recommendations in the House of Commons Defence Sub-Committee Women in the Armed Forces report, “Protecting Those Who Protect Us: Women in the Armed Forces from Recruitment to Civilian Life”.
Good afternoon, my Lords. I look forward to continuing the interesting debate that we have had on the Bill.
As I know all Members of the Committee will agree, these are extremely important amendments. We can see their importance not only because of the concerns that all of us have raised in Committee and beyond, but because, as we read last week, the Defence Secretary himself has written to Armed Forces chiefs, asking to meet them to discuss his concerns over the progress of the implementation of various recommendations. I understand from press reports today—perhaps the Minister will be able to update the Committee on this—that the Defence Secretary is meeting them to discuss some of the issues raised in the amendments. The BBC says:
“The defence secretary told the BBC it was ‘really important we get the culture right’ in the Army.”
We all agree with that.
The purpose of the amendments is to try to understand how the Government intend to deal with some of the concerns that have been raised and some of the serious issues that various reports have highlighted, including media reports that we have read in our papers, and to move forward on them. The evidence for and recommendations in the amendments are based on the Defence Select Committee’s report that was published just a couple of months ago; it is also the source of some of the data that I will quote and is the basis of the amendment before the Committee. It is therefore incumbent on us to understand what, if the Government say that the amendments are unnecessary, they will do to achieve the effect of the recommendations. Clarity from the Minister on that would be welcome to us all and those outside who read our proceedings.
I beg to move Amendment 53, and will speak to Amendments 54, 55, and in particular, 66B. They are all amendments based on an excellent recent report from the Defence Sub-Committee into women in the Armed Forces. The report stated that it was
“disappointed … with gaps between the many policy documents”
on women in the Armed Forces
“and practice on the ground”.
It added that
“the 2021 Armed Forces Bill”—
in other words, what we are discussing—
“may represent a missed opportunity to address critical issues.”
So here we are with these four amendments, which seek to understand from the Government what has actually happened.
Some of the report’s conclusions were that:
“Services are failing to help women achieve their full potential … barriers still affect female recruitment, including an impression that it is harder for women to thrive there … Within the military culture of the Armed Forces and the MOD, it is still a man’s world. There is too much bullying, harassment and discrimination—including criminal behaviours”,
which we discussed earlier in Committee,
“like sexual assault and rape—affecting Service personnel … Juggling Service life and family life can be hard for all Service personnel, but especially for military women”.
These were the conclusions of that Sub-Committee and are the sorts of things we need to hear about from the Minister. How are the Government going to seek to address them? Nobody would want to read about some of those things; all of us want them addressed. We need a clear plan of action. We need bold and unequivocal action from the Minister in solving these challenges.
In 2019, the Wigston review identified a
“pressing need to reform the Service Complaints system”,
echoing the findings of the ombudsman that BAME and female personnel were disproportionately affected by such behaviours. Wigston made 36 recommendations, all of which the Government, to their credit, accepted. But the question two and a half years on is: where are we on the implementation of those recommendations?
The Defence Sub-Committee’s recent report said that the recommendations in the Wigston review were “positive” but that
“progress is slow, and frequently there is a gap between the raft of policy documents in place and actual practice on the ground.”
Many of us, if not all of us, in the Committee would welcome a statement from the Minister as to how the Government intend to accelerate this progress so that we do not read in another report in a year or two that progress has been made but it is slow.
The most recent Service Complaints Ombudsman annual report found that female personnel were overrepresented in the service complaints system—21%, compared with their representation in the UK Armed Forces of 12%. What do the Government intend to do to rectify that situation? In 2020, female service personnel were disproportionately represented in the service complaints system. Female personnel had nearly twice the rate of service complaints that males had. Although this overrepresentation was found in all categories, it was primarily driven by differences in levels of bullying, harassment and discrimination. The rate at which female service personnel raised bullying, harassment or discrimination service complaints was four times the equivalent figure for male service personnel.
The Defence Sub-Committee made a number of recommendations and we have tabled amendments to raise some, but not all, of the most important of them. Amendment 53 forces a Minister of the Crown to
“make provision to improve the uptake and use of the Flexible Service scheme, for both women and men, and report its progress by the end of 2022.”
Amendment 54 forces the Secretary of State to make recommendations of the Service Complaints Ombudsman binding on the Armed Forces and the Ministry of Defence, and Amendment 55 ensures that the covenant annual report includes a metric to monitor the experiences of veterans by sex or gender and by other protected characteristics.
I say again to the Committee, to reinforce the point, that these are not my recommendations; they are based on the Defence Select Committee report. It would be interesting to know whether the Minister believes that the amendments are unnecessary and not needed, and, if so, why that is.
Amendment 66B seeks to establish a defence authority responsible for cultures and inappropriate behaviours that is outside the chain of command. Again, this was a direct recommendation from both the Wigston review and the Defence Select Committee. I say to the Committee that we have tried very hard in the amendment to be reasonable and to understand why the Government or others might object to that. That is why we have put that the Secretary of State must review whether it is desirable to establish an independent defence authority. If it is not desirable, why is it not, and why would the things identified in the various Defence Select Committee reports and in the Wigston review and in many other reports, including the experiences of personnel who gave evidence to these various committees, mean that such an independent authority is not needed, and how can the people who have made those significant complaints in many areas of service life be reassured that their concerns can be dealt with and things can be improved without the establishment of such an authority?
I say to the Minister that there may be flaws in the amendment, and the Government might say “Item C doesn’t work with respect to legislation, it’s not needed, it’s not drafted correctly” or whatever, but two or three of us have tried to put these things together without the legal expertise of the MoD, and what they seek to do is represent the spirit of the various committees that have reported, to try to deal with concerns that have been raised.
As I said, the Defence Secretary himself is clearly worried and concerned by the various problems that have arisen and that we have read about in our papers recently. None of us in this Committee would try to justify any of that; all of us would want something done about it. But what I am saying to the Minister is that “We need to do something about it” is not good enough. What is it that we are going to do? What practically is going to happen? What policy changes are going to take place? What sense of urgency is being put in place at the MoD to drive this on?
Clearly, if the Defence Secretary himself has written to defence chiefs to say “I want to see you to understand why there are problems and these problems are not being fixed as quickly as I would want”, this is now an opportunity for the Minister to reassure the Committee that the Government have a grip on this and “This is what the Government intend to do”. If these amendments are unnecessary, “This is why they are unnecessary, because this is what the Government are doing to take into account all the various recommendations”.
I thought the Defence Select Committee report was a very sobering document. I am not a military person, but in any walk of life, if you read that two-thirds of the 4,000 women who gave evidence had experienced bullying, sexual harassment or discrimination during their time in the Armed Forces, it does not matter what the organisation is. It is not an attack on the Armed Forces; it is not an attack if you are talking about this as a Civil Service or as a police force or as an industry. There is something that really needs looking at, to understand how it is possible that of the 4,000 women who came forward to give evidence to the committee, two-thirds reported that there had been a problem.
None of us would want that. None of us condones that: of course not. But the question is, what are the Government doing about it? That is the purpose of the amendments before the Committee today—to try to put some meat on the bones and say “These are some of the ways that were recommended by the Defence Select Committee as ways of helping with respect to this particular problem”. The Defence Secretary thinks there is a problem. I think there is a problem. I am sure that many noble Lords in the Committee think that there is a problem. But we want to understand what the Government are going to do to tackle these very real issues. That is the purpose of the amendments before us.
My Lords, I support these amendments, to which I have added my name. As the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, pointed out, they very much draw on the House of Commons Defence Select Committee’s report. In a sense, that was a cross-party report. The signatories in this place come from the Labour and Liberal Democrat Benches, although of course Sarah Atherton, the MP for Wrexham, who was the force behind the report, is a Conservative. We potentially have cross-party and cross-Chamber support for a range of issues brought forward in these amendments.
If these amendments are not necessary, we would be delighted to hear the Minister say, as the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, invited her to do, that whatever the Secretary of State has been doing today in bringing the service chiefs together will somehow deal with all the issues. That would be fantastic, but the evidence seems rather concerning, to put it at its mildest. The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, talked about the number of female service personnel and veterans who had come forward. The report also talks about delays in the complaints procedure. It says that the performance target for the Armed Forces is apparently that
“90% of service complaints should be resolved within 24 weeks. This target has not been met by any of the services in recent years, and the pandemic has increased delays in the system.”
Maybe the pandemic has made it even worse, but in 2020 only 24% of the complaints brought in the Royal Navy were dealt with within 24 weeks, although it had a much better record in previous years. In 2019, before the pandemic, the Army’s statistics were only 32%. Those figures seem entirely inappropriate.
Could the Minister tell the Committee what is being done to try to resolve the complaints system? It does not seem to be working at the moment. What is even more shocking, in addition to the delays, is that the people who have brought complaints have been extremely dissatisfied with the outcomes and the way they were kept informed about progress. What is going on? If the Minister and her team are unable to give the Committee good answers, these amendments seem the very minimum of the recommendations that came forward from HCDC that we would want to see in the Bill to ensure that the service complaints system is improved.
Noble and gallant Lords raised concerns about the chain of command under the Armed Forces federation proposals in an earlier amendment. I understand that. I do not think that anything in these amendments would undermine the chain of command, but there are suggestions in the House of Commons Defence Select Committee’s report and in Amendment 66B that say essentially that if service personnel bring cases against somebody in the chain of command, that has to be looked into. It is hugely important to acknowledge that the argument about the chain of command cannot be used in any way to negate the complaints that have been brought by service personnel, particularly women. I hope the Minister will take these amendments in the spirit in which they are brought, which is in no way to criticise the MoD specifically but to say that these issues need to be explored and that the service complaints procedures need to be speeded up if that is possible, which we hope it is.
I will say a brief word about Amendment 55, in case the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Houghton of Richmond, feels the need to say that we should not be talking down veterans or the experience. I do not believe that the intention of the previous set of amendments on universal credit was to say that there is particular problem and somehow veterans are coming out as being poorly treated; rather, it was to understand the situation for veterans. Again, the House of Commons Defence Committee report seems to suggest that there are some problems for women transitioning out of the Armed Forces that may be a little bit different from those experienced by the men. If we can understand the experience of veterans and have a report on that, we can try to improve the situation for all veterans.
These amendments are intended to be positive and constructive, and I hope the Minister takes them in that light.
One would think that one would get into a routine of “Off with the mask, slug of the water, stand at the Dispatch Box”, but it still comes as a ritual.
Amendments 53 to 55 and 66B in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and promoted so ably by the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, cover four strands: promoting flexible service, making binding the recommendations of the Service Complaints Ombudsman, monitoring the experience of veterans with protected characteristics, and considering whether to establish an independent defence authority. These are important amendments, and I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that the Government understand that Members are trying to make constructive contributions.
The amendments concern a broad range of topics but, as has been identified, each is based on recommendations of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee report, Protecting Those Who Protect Us: Women in the Armed Forces from Recruitment to Civilian Life. The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, was interested in what happened at the convened meeting of the Army Board this morning. I think he will understand that I am constrained in what I can say, because these proceedings are confidential. I hope he realises that the Secretary of State, his Ministers and the Army do want to be sure that they are proactive in addressing issues which, as noble Lords have indicated, can be upsetting when they surface in the media and can cause concern. Without being able to impart any specific details, I reassure your Lordships that this morning’s meeting was very constructive, with what I thought were some excellent suggestions coming forward.
I believe that the motive behind the amendments is driven by a subject which I am deeply passionate about and wholeheartedly supportive of: women in the Armed Forces and, indeed, women in defence. To that end, I want to say a few words about that Select Committee inquiry and to thank the committee for its thorough work and report. That work has been enhanced by the testimony of current and former servicewomen, whose experiences have greatly assisted the inquiry. Their courage and fortitude were not just admirable but inspiring, and I extend my thanks to all those women who came forward to such positive effect. I acknowledge that, on too many occasions in the past, Defence has failed to provide women with adequate support. It will not surprise your Lordships to hear me say that.
We have examined the Defence Committee’s report in minute detail. We want to use it to build on our improvements and to ensure that our response is substantial and informed. We recognise that the lived experience for many women is not yet good enough, and this has to change.
The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, rightly identified the report as pivotal. I assure the Committee that the Secretary of State is absolutely committed to delivering against its findings. Indeed, he intends to go further. The Secretary of State has personally discussed the initial draft of our response to the report with members of the servicewomen’s networks, and this has led to additional work.
I know that your Lordships are keen to see a response to the Defence Committee’s report and I acknowledge that it is taking a little longer than expected, but that is for good reason. The Secretary of State has kept the inquiry chairwoman, Sarah Atherton, fully informed. She is in the picture. I think that we all agree that we would much rather produce something meaningful and substantial that provides hope and concrete direction for the way forward than just cobble together something to produce it within a time limit.
Defence Ministers and service chiefs are adamant that the important issues in the report are addressed comprehensively and that no opportunity is missed to bring about meaningful and enduring change. We are all taking an active role in ensuring that our response to the report is comprehensive and well informed to deliver positive outcomes. We are in the process of finalising that and anticipate submitting our response “in due course”, as it says here. I say to your Lordships to read that as “sooner rather later”.
I wish to be clear that many changes have already been introduced to improve the experience for women in the Armed Forces and military service remains a fantastic career opportunity for men and women alike. It is important to remind your Lordships that nearly 90% of the women giving evidence to the committee would recommend a career in the Armed Forces to female relatives and friends. We should not underestimate the importance of that. Yes, there are matters to be addressed. Yes, there are improvements to be made. Yes, there were areas overdue for investigation, for being addressed and for being rectified. But that sort of testament shows that many women have confidence in a career in the Armed Forces. We are delighted about that and proud of it. We owe it to them and everyone else in the Armed Forces to make sure that the response to this report has clout and impact.
Before speaking to Amendment 53, I first remind this Committee that the Armed Forces launched flexible service on 1 April 2019. The policy allows all regular personnel to apply to serve part-time and/or to restrict the amount of time that they are away from the home base, for a temporary period, subject to defence need. Flexible service is part of a suite of flexible working opportunities that we offer our people, which include remote working, variable start and finish times and compressed working. Between its introduction in April 2019 and September 2021, more than 355 service personnel and their families have benefited from flexible service. This level of uptake is in line both with the MoD’s forecast and with the experience of other nations’ Armed Forces that have introduced similar measures. Defence is ensuring that as many service personnel as possible can benefit from these measures by keeping flexible service under constant review.
We have an ongoing communications campaign aimed at encouraging uptake and improving awareness of flexible service and the wider flexible working opportunities that it offers its people. For example, this autumn, Defence is releasing a series of podcasts that explore service personnel’s experience of flexible working. On completion, the campaign’s impacts will be evaluated to inform communications for 2022.
Our previous communications have led to a high awareness of flexible service. The Armed Forces continuous attitude survey for 2021 shows that 82% of service personnel have heard of the policy. Notable campaigns have included video case studies of service personnel on flexible service in summer 2020, which attracted over 270,000 impressions on social media and nearly 10,000 engagements, and promoting Defence’s full flexible working offer to the Armed Forces through a digital booklet Flexible Working and You: A Guide for Service Personnel, which was published in January 2021. The booklet was viewed 17,000 times on the GOV.UK website and 12,850 copies were distributed to Armed Forces information centres and military units during June and July this year.
Ownership and development of flexible service policy is overseen by the Minister for Defence People and Veterans and, as such, he, too, is committed to ensuring that all service personnel can benefit from the policy. Defence already has several initiatives in place to measure and report on its awareness and uptake. These include annual reporting of flexible service’s developments, uptake and usage in the Armed Forces continuous attitude survey’s background quality reports.
As I have outlined, Ministers are already firmly committed to improving the uptake and usage of flexible service for all service personnel. Quite simply, it works for our people and it works for us. Defence is already reporting on its progress regularly and continually assessing its people’s attitudes towards the policy. Overall, we have a positive story to tell about flexible service and all these measures will help us to ensure that flexible working policies are the best that they can be for our people who continue to serve our country with such bravery and distinction. I hope that, following that fairly lengthy explanation and these reassurances, the noble Lord will agree to withdraw his amendment.
On Amendment 54, the MoD values the strong independent oversight that the ombudsman brings to the service complaints process. I think that it was the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, who asked about the complaints system and, specifically, what was happening to try to improve it. There are constant ongoing pieces of work. A transformation programme is being delivered and, of course, this Bill introduces various improvements to aspects of the complaints system.
Once the ombudsman has completed her investigation into a particular service complaint, she must prepare a report setting out her findings and any recommendations. This report is sent to the Defence Council and the complainant, among others. The ombudsman’s findings from an investigation are already binding on the Defence Council; this was the clear intention when the office was created in 2015. The courts have had no problem finding in other contexts that the intention of Parliament was that such findings by an ombudsman are binding on the recipient. Therefore, it is unnecessary to specify the legal effect of findings in the legislation. As a matter of law, the ombudsman’s recommendations on a service complaint are not binding. On receipt of any recommendation, primary legislation obliges the Defence Council to consider that recommendation and then decide what action to take. The legislation makes it clear that the Defence Council may reject a recommendation, giving reasons in writing.
The position for the Service Complaints Ombudsman corresponds to the position for other public sector ombudsmen. No specific provision is made in other ombudsman legislation, where it is standard practice that they make non-binding recommendations. It is important to note that, while recommendations are not binding, they have legal consequences. The Defence Council is not able to reject recommendations simply because it does not agree with them. It has to give written reasons for a refusal to accept a recommendation—and, of course, a failure to follow a recommendation can be judicially reviewed. The process is also transparent. Should a recommendation not be implemented, the Defence Council ensures that it provides the reasons for not implementing that recommendation in order to be transparent about the reasons for not doing so. I hope that, with that explanation, the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, will be minded not to press his amendment.
Amendment 55 would monitor the experience of personnel with protected characteristics serving in the Armed Forces. I understand and share the intention of the noble Lord’s amendment but I do not share his desire for a requirement in law—and I shall explain why. Understanding the experiences of all Armed Forces veterans and making sure that we provide world-class services to our veteran community is a vital priority for the Government. We recognise and highly value the contributions that veterans have made to our Armed Forces and want to ensure that the support in place is tailored to their needs. There is still work to be done to understand our veteran community and to improve the data that we collect. Indeed, the Government plan to undertake an ambitious programme of work in this area over the coming months and years.
I will build this out with an illustration and focus on a specific example. The census that took place in 2021 in England and Wales included, for the first time, a question asking respondents whether they had previously served in the UK Armed Forces. The first breakdown of this data will be available in 2022, before the publication of the covenant annual report, with further analyses available in following years. This new dataset will transform our understanding of the veteran population and enable us to look at how key policy issues impact veterans with protected characteristics, from their health and well-being to housing and employment situations. Through utilising the census data and linking it to other datasets, we will be able to answer a range of questions that we cannot answer currently on the experiences of veterans with protected characteristics. This information will be fed into policy-making across government.
Additionally, the Government will develop a suite of metrics to track our success against achieving the goals we set out in the 2018 Strategy for our Veterans. These metrics will improve our understanding of progress across the key themes of the Strategy for our Veterans, from health and well-being to employment opportunities. This will provide a crucial additional opportunity to further understand the experiences of veterans with protected characteristics and some of the potential gaps in provision.
The work is ongoing, and the Government are committed to taking it forward. We do not see the need for a statutory requirement when the Government agree with, and indeed are committed to going beyond, what this amendment requires. I hope I have assured your Lordships of both the Government’s commitment to this matter and the action currently in course. I urge the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, not to press his amendment.
The final amendment in this group, Amendment 66B, proposes a new clause and seeks to oblige the Secretary of State to review whether an independent defence authority is required. The vision of a central defence authority, as foreseen in the Wigston review, is currently being delivered through the new Diversity and Inclusion Directorate, which was stood up earlier this year. This directorate, which is independent of the chain of command, was established on 1 April 2021, bringing together for the first time diversity and inclusion, service complaints and justice policy, as well as the Wigston implementation teams. The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, referred to Wigston, and I would like to reassure him that 11 of the 12 sub-recommendations made in the Wigston review have now been achieved.
The Diversity and Inclusion Directorate carries out a number of important functions, including ownership of the policy for behaviours, informal complaints and service complaints, as well as holding the services to account through the department’s performance and risk-monitoring process. The directorate has also developed consistency with pan-defence climate assessment, which is a tool for local leaders to understand their culture, including the use of core questions and mandated mediation. It has established a 24-hour bullying, harassment and discrimination helpline for individuals to raise concerns. It also continues to develop programmes to support victims and has introduced a new harassment investigation service, which is outsourced and independent of Defence. Furthermore, Danuta Gray concluded in her one-year-on Wigston progress review that a new diversity and inclusion directorate would in effect fulfil the functions of a central defence authority.
I apologise for describing the current situation at some length, but I hope it is helpful to your Lordships to understand some of the detail of what is happening. In that context, I hope the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, is reassured by what I have had to say, and I invite him not to press his amendment.
Finally, I wish to reassure the Committee that our commitment to making a difference for all women in the Armed Forces is real, and when the response to the Defence Select Committee’s report comes out, I think your Lordships will agree. It will be a really chunky and impressive piece of work.
I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way. I simply want to ask a technical question, which she will not be able to answer right now. I accept that, but perhaps she would be so kind as to write to me. Having thought about this as she spoke, can I take her back to Amendment 53 and the wonderful flexible service scheme? We are going to face the challenge between dialling down the regular service of an individual, male or female, to perhaps two or three days a week and what they are going to be paid. Given that when you are on operations, you sometimes work seven days a week but at other times, effectively, you work Monday to Friday—five days a week—are they to be paid, for example, 60% of their salary if they are dialling down to three days’ service? I am bearing in mind that a part of that is their 12% X factor, which they get because of the inconvenience of service life. Would they continue to get that 12% X factor when they dial down their service?
I will compare that to the other end of the spectrum and the Reserve service. Part of the Reserve Forces 2030 review, which I chaired, sought to have a spectrum of service so that a reservist can increase their service, potentially, to three days a week—the same level that the regular has dialled down to. Bearing in mind that a reservist gets paid only a reduced X factor of 5%, and that their individual pay is based on one-365th of their regular counterparts’, unless we manage to mirror those two schemes so that they meet in the middle, individuals will potentially be doing exactly the same service per week but will be paid quite different amounts. That is a technical challenge, but we need to think about it. I simply ask whether, perhaps in slow time, my noble friend could write to me about how we are going to address that issue.
I am sure that your Lordships are, as ever, immensely impressed by the noble Lord’s command of this matter. I think he is the only person on the Committee who really understands it and I am very grateful to him. I will look in Hansard to consider all his remarks—and, yes, I do undertake to write to him, because there are serious points in there and I do not have the information before me.
Before I conclude my remarks on this group of amendments, I was saying that the response to the Defence Committee’s report will be significant and I think your Lordships will be reassured by it. I will certainly be pleased to update your Lordships once the Government’s response to the report is published and I might even, I suggest, do a Peers’ briefing on that topic when it is forthcoming.
I thank the Minister for her response which, as usual, sought to engage with the questions. That is always very helpful to the Committee. In particular, we all look forward to what she mentioned in her last point: she said to the Committee words to the effect that there will be a significant response to the Defence Select Committee report, which we have been referring to. I am sure that the Committee will look forward to that response.
I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, for not mentioning that she had added her name to the amendments. I did not mean to be rude. I had it in a note that I wrote to myself but I just went over it, so I apologise for that.
In addressing the specific amendments, on Amendment 53 I wrote that I understood what the Minister had said. I think I nearly understood what the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, was saying. That reflects my ignorance, not his explanation, and it was an important point. I would be interested to see that, but I understood the points that the Minister made about Amendment 53. However, like all of us, I am going to have to reread Hansard a little to fully grasp some of this—and Amendment 54 is a classic example of needing to read it. As I understood it, the Minister said that if the ombudsman makes findings, they are binding; but if they make recommendations, they are non-binding, but that is okay because they can be judicially reviewed. I need to read what she said because, again, the role of the ombudsman is important for us. On Amendment 55, perhaps I need to look again, but I think she said that the Committee will be pleased because the Government are going to go further than is stated in the amendment so, in that sense, more will be done.
Before I make a couple of general points, with respect to Amendment 66B I refer the Minister—if the Committee will bear with me for one moment—to something that I will read. She referred to the Diversity and Inclusion Directorate as one of the reasons that a defence authority was not needed, but paragraph 147 of the report says:
“Although the Wigston Review identified a pressing need to reform the complaints process, the MOD has not fulfilled the recommendation for a Defence Authority, to handle complex BHD complaints outside the chain of command.”
The Minister then referred to the Diversity and Inclusion Directorate, but the committee says:
“The new Diversity and Inclusion Directorate does not fulfil this function, due to its limited role in complaint handling. Nor are we convinced that the new standing Decision Bodies and ‘centralised functions’ do either, because they are still in the Single Services. Due to a limited mandate, the Ombudsman does not offer an alternative reporting system in the first instance.”
So there would appear to be a divergence of view between the Minister said and the committee with respect to the defence authority. The Government are saying that there is no need for a defence authority, but the Defence Select Committee is saying that those bodies do not do the job and prove why there is. We will need to look at that.
With respect to the Minister, and within the realms of common sense, what is appropriate and what does not compromise security, it is exceptionally important that not only we in this Committee but people more broadly know what was said at the Army Board this morning about how the Defence Secretary wants to see some of his concerns addressed and what is to be done. That is why I couch it in the terms of common sense and reasonableness, because I accept that there will be things that should not be said, but after a meeting which has been briefed out—not leaked out, briefed out—where the Defence Secretary raised his concerns publicly and said that he will call in defence chiefs to discuss it with him as a special defence board at the Ministry of Defence, we are entitled to know a little about what was said at the meeting and what recommendations arose from it. I make that request to the Minister, who I know is reasonable—and the Defence Secretary is a reasonable man. We should hear formally what was said and how it seeks to address some of the concerns. Some of what was said at that meeting may affect what amendments Members may wish to table on Report. That may be important information for us.
The Minister said, “Things have to change. It is a pivotal report. We intend to go further.” Can she guarantee that no policy improvements will be held up because of any timescale problems? Supposing that the Government’s response to the Defence Select Committee comes in four weeks’ time. The Bill may well have gone through Parliament before then. Supposing there are issues in the Government’s response to the report that require primary legislation. The time will have passed. The Government will not be able to fulfil their own desire because the primary legislation vehicle will have passed.
I respectfully ask the Minister to consider, with her officials and the ministry when she goes back, trying to ensure that no primary legislation would be required to put into effect anything in the Government’s response to the Select Committee’s report; otherwise, the vehicle to do so will have gone. I am sure the Government could find somewhere else to do so, but I hope the Minister takes my point.
I reiterate that this is an extremely important area that we may wish to return to on Report and I thank the Minister again for her response. With those brief comments, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 53 withdrawn.
Amendments 54 to 58 not moved.
59: After Clause 18, insert the following new Clause—
“Liability for using novel technologies: review
(1) Within three months of this Act being passed, the Secretary of State must commission a review of the implications of increasing autonomy associated with the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning, including in weapons systems, for legal proceedings against armed forces personnel that arise from overseas operations, and produce recommendations for favourable legal environments for the United Kingdom’s armed forces operating overseas, including instilling domestic processes and engaging in the shaping of international agreements and institutions.(2) The review must consider—(a) what protection and guidance armed forces personnel need to minimise the risk of legal proceedings being brought against them which relate to overseas operations in response to novel technologies,(b) how international and domestic legal frameworks governing overseas operations need to be updated in response to novel technologies, and(c) what novel technologies could emerge from the Ministry of Defence and the United Kingdom’s allies, and from the private sector, which could be used in overseas operations.(3) Within the period of one year beginning on the day on which the review is commissioned, the Secretary of State must lay a report before Parliament of its findings and recommendations.”
My Lords, this amendment is also in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Houghton of Richmond and Lord Craig of Radley. I am very grateful to them for joining me in this amendment, and I convey the apologies of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, who is unable to be present today because he had a prior, immovable commitment to be abroad representing your Lordships’ House in a meeting.
Amendment 59 focuses on the protection and guidance that Armed Forces personnel engaged in the deployment and use of new technologies will need to ensure that they comply with the law, including international humanitarian law, and that will explain how international and domestic legal frameworks need to be updated—all because of the predicted increased use of novel technologies that could emerge from or be deployed by the Ministry of Defence, UK allies or the private sector.
Today the private sector is often deployed with our Armed Forces on overseas operations as part of a multinational force. The amendment imposes an obligation on the Secretary of State to commission a review of the relevant issues, sets out what that review must consider and obliges the Secretary of State to lay a report before Parliament of the report’s findings and recommendations.
That is the focus of the amendment but underlying it is a much broader issue about the duties of the Government for our Armed Forces in respect of the development, deployment and use of these technologies, and another complementary obligation on the Government to ensure that they are parliamentarily accountable for these developments—to the extent, of course, that they can be.
Noble Lords will recall that the same amendment was tabled and debated during the passage of the overseas operations Bill but was not pressed to a vote. Separately, on behalf of those noble Lords who supported it, I told the Minister that it was our intention to bring it back in this context, which is perhaps a more appropriate and broader context for the amendment.
I thank the Minister and pay tribute to her and to the MoD officials who are wrestling with the complex legal challenges posed by the development and deployment of these weapons systems for their work on that, and for their repeated engagement with me and other noble and noble and gallant Lords, including those who have put their names to this amendment. As a result of that engagement, I am very aware that the Ministry of Defence continues, and has continued over recent months at pace, both domestically and internationally, to work hard on this, and is making progress with these complex challenges.
I do not want to take unnecessary time going over again all the arguments made in support of the measure in the overseas operations Bill context. I take them as read. There are still unanswered questions, but I hope that, over time, they may be answered. I shall refer to some of them, and more recent developments, for another purpose, which is to set the context, and reinforce the importance, of addressing these challenges—so I shall repeat a few points that I made in earlier debates.
First, the integrated review, published in March, was the third defence and security review since 2020, which alone is an indication of the pace at which these developments are taking place. It was described as forward-facing, recognising both current and future threats against the UK, and set out the capabilities that will need to be developed to deter and engage them. It does do that—imperfectly, I have to say, but it does do it.
When the Prime Minister made a Statement on the review in November last year, he said that
“now is the right time to press ahead”
with the modernisation of the Armed Forces because of
“emerging technologies, visible on the horizon”.—[Official Report, Commons, 19/11/20; col. 488.]
The Prime Minister said that these would “revolutionise warfare” and I think he was right. The CGS, General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, said that he foresees the army of the future as
“the integration of boots and bots”.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Houghton of Richmond, who is with us today, has repeatedly warned your Lordships about the risks posed by the intersection of artificial intelligence and human judgment and has spoken wisely about the risks posed by technology interacting with human error.
These risks are with us now and they are very real. Last month retired General Stanley McChrystal, who led the coalition forces in Afghanistan for two years, said that artificial intelligence inevitably will come to make lethal decisions on the battlefield. However, he acknowledged the “frightening” risks of potential malfunction or mistake. He said:
“People say, ‘We’ll never give control over lethal strike to artificial intelligence.’ That’s wrong. We absolutely will. Because at a certain point, you can’t respond fast enough, unless you do that. A hypervelocity missile, hypersonic missile coming at the United States aircraft carrier, you don’t have time for individuals to do the tracking, you don’t have time for senior leaders to be in the decision loop, or you won’t be able to engage the missile.”
Now, at a less strategic level, military-grade autonomous drones can fly themselves to a specific location, pick their own targets and kill without the assistance of a remote human operator. A UN report about a March 2020 skirmish in the military conflict in Libya records that such a drone made its wartime debut. The report states that retreating forces
“were subsequently hunted down and remotely engaged by the unmanned combat aerial vehicles”,
but does not say explicitly that this lethal autonomous weapon system killed anyone. But it certainly tried to.
The very real fear is that autonomous weapons will undermine the international laws of war. These laws are premised on the idea that people can be held accountable for their actions even during wartime and that the right to kill during combat does not confer the right to murder civilians. But how can autonomous weapons be held accountable? Who is to blame for a robot that commits war crimes? Who would be put on trial: the weapon, the soldier, the soldier’s commanders, the corporation that made the weapon, or the person who wrote the code that gave the weapon the ability to do this?
In a world without regulations that compel meaningful human control of autonomous weapons, there will be war crimes with no war criminals to hold accountable, and the laws of war, along with their deterrent value, will be weakened significantly. I say “deterrent value” because I think, from my experience, that the laws of war and international humanitarian laws work because they are observed, not because they are enforced. It is important that we find some way of collectively reviewing these laws so that they can continue to be observed in this more complicated—and, in many ways, terrifying—new world that we are moving rapidly into.
On 21 October 2021, NATO Defence Ministers agreed to NATO’s first ever strategy for artificial intelligence—AI—which states:
“At the forefront of this Strategy lie the NATO Principles of Responsible Use for AI in Defence, which will help steer our transatlantic efforts in accordance with our values, norms, and international law. The NATO Principles of Responsible Use … are based on existing and widely accepted ethical, legal, and policy commitments under which NATO has historically operated and will continue to operate under. These Principles do not affect or supersede existing obligations and commitments, both national and international.”
Our Government must have agreed these principles. When will the Minister make a Statement to Parliament on them, allow them to be debated and allow Ministers to be questioned on their sufficiency or their breadth and depth? The provisions of Article 36 of Protocol 1, additional to the 1949 Geneva conventions, commit states, including our own, to ensure the legality of all new weapons, means and methods of warfare by subjecting them to a rigorous and multidisciplinary review. I have no reason to believe that we have not complied with our legal obligations in that respect, but, unfortunately, as we are not one of the eight nations in the world that publish a review of legal compatibility, including the United States of America, I have no Minister’s reassurance in that regard. When will we get that assurance or transparency?
The important purpose of this amendment is to protect our Armed Forces from the accusation or from the inadvertence of breaching international humanitarian law and the laws of warfare while operating these weapons—but it is also to encourage the Government to create the appropriate framework and transparency in these matters, which will be essential if we are to move forward, and to allow Parliament to be a part of that process. This technology creates awesome responsibilities and challenges for their operators, but it does the same for our Governments. Will the Minister take the long view on those challenges? I accept that today she will only be able to respond, in a reassuring way, that the actions set out in the amendment are being undertaken and that Ministers will appropriately reveal details of progress and invite parliamentary scrutiny when they are able so to do.
In the meantime, can the Minister review everything that I have said in these debates, or ask her officials to, and answer my questions?
My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak in support of this amendment. It is one of the few elements of the Bill that seeks to get ahead of the game rather than just play catch-up. My particular perspective is that there is one element of the new security challenge that I feel has escaped proper consideration, one for which there seems no comprehensive or coherent plan of action, which is the issue most commonly referred to as “lawfare”.
To my view, the law is potentially one the most powerful weapons that we have in the security context of the age. It is both a weapon of defence that we should use to protect ourselves from the malign activity of others, and a weapon of attack that we should use to liberate our own freedom of action. As had been said, a fundamental deduction from the recent integrated review was that, within what is a significantly changed strategic context, we now live in a persistent state of adversarial competition, but one in which the resort to formalised warfare at scale is, perhaps by choice, avoided. The preferred vectors of attack in this competitive world are not, therefore, active, large-scale military operations, but more subtle, more deniable and less attributable activities.
The domains of active warfare are no longer necessarily primarily land, sea and air, but space, cyber and what is called the “cognitive domain”. Whereas traditional warfare has rules and laws and accepted norms of ethics and morality, the new character of grey-zone warfare is one in which our enemies exploit, for advantage, the absence of a legal framework within which to operate. So the new vectors of attack are activities such as disinformation, multiplied by internet bots; deniable cyber offensive activity; proxy terrorism; and political assassination, potentially using international private military companies.
More specifically in relation to this amendment, technological advancement in the areas of artificial intelligence, machine learning and autonomous weapons systems also offers scope for our adversaries to deny us their potential benefit while they exploit their unattributed use simply because no accepted legal framework for their authorised use yet exists. This context means that our principal geopolitical adversaries can employ methods that are both malign and aggressive but which we find difficult to respond to because we are unclear about what is morally, ethically and legally permissible. We risk, in effect, allowing our enemies to win without fighting.
In this House, during the passage of the overseas operations Bill, I bore witness to—forgive me—some remarkably contorted debates that appeared to present the law as either something inviolate to change or else an irremovable object that needed elegant methods of circumnavigation. I fear that our enemies will exploit our legal complexities to undermine our morale and devalue our credibility as an ally, among other things.
My view is that the only practical way to respond to the situation I have described and the one described in the integrated review is to start to use the law to our advantage: to go on the legal offensive, to reimagine our use of the law not as a time-honoured constraint on activity but as a weapon to be employed to liberate and confirm the legal boundaries of our own freedom of action while bringing much-needed constraint to the malign activities of our enemies. The Government need to give serious thought as to what aspects of this legal offensive need prioritisation. This House, consisting as it does of far more legal minds the military ones, has a significant role to play, but unless global Britain can make a meaningful contribution to the re-establishment of internationally accepted norms of morality, truth and justice, some might seriously undermine the willingness of our people to fight for them.
My strong view is that this country has all the necessary skills to embark on lawfare. I hope that, within their stated intent to help shape the future international order, the Government have the political will to do so as well. I believe the amendment is a small step in the right direction and it has my unreserved support.
My Lords, I support this amendment and agree that there is an increasing need for clarity not just today but in the immediate future about the legality of, for example, remote aerial vehicle kinetic operations that involve loss of life, whether military, paramilitary or civilian. Many recent operations have been conducted on an asymmetric footing and not all perhaps with formal, clear-cut international approval. Of course, the right to self-defence is well understood, but how confident are we that emerging technologies in defence weapons systems and their oversight will remain invariably with a human in ultimate control? How it that to be maintained in order to comply with the present laws of conflict as new weapons systems with new technologies are deployed? Are the laws of conflict being overtaken by the possibilities of new types of lethal weapons systems?
Presumably the legality of a remote aerial vehicle operation applies to long-distance control from ships as well as to that from a land base that is remote geographically from the target. Does that base have to be on national territory? What if it is not? What if the operation of the remote vehicle is shared with an ally? How has the operation been approved? What justifications are required for an armed response or for initiating one?
What if the child of a non-combatant civilian accidentally killed by a remote kinetic strike subsequently grows up and seeks to sue the individual or individuals responsible for the control or authorisation of the attack that killed their parent? Will the loss or destruction of any official records of the attack be any sort of viable defence?
As technology moves defence capabilities forward, we will soon enter the era of loyal wingman UAVs and how they interact with their human control. Swarming mini drones are also emerging. There will soon be more, as novel digital technologies are exploited; for example, in the Tempest programme, although I do not have knowledge of secret projects.
The Armed Forces personnel—and this is the key point—involved in kinetic operations exploiting these novel technologies must have absolute clarity about the legal position in which they are required to operate. It is time to know more about how the Government are examining this issue, as I am sure they must be. It is time to be kept informed about the considerations of this complex legal issue as it evolves. Reports from the Secretary of State to Parliament are a must. A review, which should be already in hand, should be reported to Parliament.
My Lords, I rise as a Liberal Democrat to support this amendment and, like the noble Lord, Lord Browne, to apologise that my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones is not able to be present in Committee today. He asked an Oral Question last week, to which the Minister responded:
“UK Armed Forces do not use systems that employ lethal force without context-appropriate human involvement.”—[Official Report, 1/11/21; col. 995.]
I was not sure that the Chamber fully understood what “context-appropriate human involvement” was. It was a phrase that the Minister used many times. I wonder if she could elaborate this afternoon a little more on what she meant and whether now might not be the time to think a little more about AI, machine learning and some of the forward-looking issues. As the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Houghton of Richmond, pointed out, this would be a forward-looking aspect to the Bill. It is surely time for us to think about that, because the ethical and moral questions of people being killed by autonomous weapons that have a life of their own are unconscionable.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Browne, the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Houghton and Lord Craig, for tabling this incredibly important and forward-thinking amendment and the ensuing debates around it. As we have heard, Amendment 59 seeks to force the Government to conduct
“a review of the implications of increasing autonomy associated with the use of artificial intelligence … for legal proceedings against armed forces personnel that arise from overseas operations, and produce recommendations for favourable legal environments for the United Kingdom’s armed forces operating overseas, including … how international and domestic legal frameworks governing overseas operations need to be updated in response to novel technologies”.
As a number of noble Lords have mentioned, this was first debated during the passage of the overseas operations Bill and, just like then, it is about future-proofing this legislation as well as ensuring protection for our personnel from the increased risks when using new technology. I understand my noble friend Lord Browne’s concerns about the mismatch between the need to be future-focused when it comes to technology and emerging threats, and the legislation we have in front of us.
Technology is not only changing the kinds of threats we face but changing warfare and overseas operations in general. Clive Baldwin of Human Rights Watch said that
“we are seeing a breakdown in what is the beginning and the end of an armed conflict, what is the battlefield and what decisions are made in which country … The artificial distinction of an overseas operation with a clear beginning, a clear theatre and a clear end is one that is very much breaking down.”—[Official Report, Commons, Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill Committee, 6/10/20; col. 67.]
I would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on how the Government view this and what changes they have in mind.
The Prime Minister was surely right, when giving his speech on the integrated review last year, when he said that technologies “will revolutionise warfare” and announced
“a new centre dedicated to artificial intelligence”—[Official Report, Commons, 19/11/20; col. 489.]
and an RAF fighter system that will harness AI and drone technology. It sounds impressive—it is impressive—but, as my noble friend Lord Browne said, as military equipment gets upgraded, we do not know whether the Government necessarily plan to upgrade the legal frameworks for warfare and what this means for legal protections for our Armed Forces personnel.
We absolutely must tackle vexatious claims and stop any cycle of investigations and reinvestigations, but how will claims against any operators or personnel operating new technology be handled? Service personnel who operate such technology deserve to be protected, and the legal framework needs to reflect that.
As new technology develops, so too must our domestic and international frameworks. The Final Report of the US National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence stated that the US commitment to international humanitarian law is of long standing, and that AI-enabled and autonomous weapons systems will not change that commitment.
As my noble friend Lord Browne said, NATO recently adopted its first ever AI strategy and stated that its aim is to
“accelerate AI adoption by enhancing key AI enablers and adapting policy, including by adopting Principles of Responsible Use for AI and by safeguarding against threats from malicious use of AI by state and non-state actors.”
It would be interesting to know how this strategy will be implemented by Her Majesty’s Government. As other noble Lords have asked, when will the Government’s own AI strategy be published? Will it include AI principles, as NATO’s strategy does? If so, does the Minister expect them to be similar to those adopted by NATO?
It will be interesting to hear the Minister’s reply. This is an extremely important amendment, and I thank my noble friend Lord Browne and the other noble Lords for bringing it forward.
My Lords, I have added to my choreography before standing at the Dispatch Box: can I get a Polo mint in before the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, concludes? The answer is no. That is the first question I am able to answer.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Browne, for tabling Amendment 59, which is supported by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Houghton and Lord Craig, and engages with the subject of novel technologies. It is a significant issue that merits discussion, and I am grateful to the noble Lord for his kind remarks.
There is no doubt that the increasing adoption of innovative technologies is changing how military operations are conducted. The noble Lords’ analysis—that we need to be particularly mindful of the legal ramifications—is hard to dispute. From the engagement that I and the department have had with the noble Lords, I know that they understand very well the broader complexities likely to be created by Defence use of AI and are anxious that we should address these issues both purposefully and systematically. This scrutiny and challenge is welcome, because we are grappling with questions and subjects that are indeed very complex.
I hope to reassure your Lordships that the department is alert to these issues and has worked extensively on them over the course of the last 18 months. Noble Lords will understand that I cannot set out details until these positions have been finalised, but work to set a clear direction of travel for defence AI, underpinned by proper policy and governance frameworks, has reached an advanced stage. Key to this is the defence AI strategy, which we hope to publish in the coming months, along with details of the approaches we will use when adopting and using AI. This commitment, which is included in the National AI Strategy, reflects the Government’s broader commitment that the public sector should set an example through how it governs its own use of the technology. Taken together, we intend that these various publications will give a much clearer picture than is currently available, because we recognise that these are important issues that attract a great deal of interest, and we need to be as transparent and engaged as possible.
Noble Lords asked pertinent questions. I think the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, asked some of these: where in the chain of command does responsibility for AI-related outcomes reside? When might the Government have an obligation to use AI to protect service personnel from harm? What are the military and moral consequences of machine-speed warfare? These are vital questions, and we recognise that we do not yet have all the answers.
Nor can we hope to arrive at these answers on our own. We have to persist in our engagement with our international partners and allies, and with our own public and civil society. It is perfectly legitimate for parliamentarians to take an interest in this subject, to ask questions and to table debates. I hope that our forthcoming publications will provide a solid platform for an ongoing effort of public engagement and efforts to enhance public understanding, subject to the usual caveats that may apply to the release of Defence information.
To turn to the subject of the proposed amendment, we are committed to ensuring that our Armed Forces personnel have the best possible care and protection, including protection against spurious legal challenges. I assure noble Lords that, regardless of the technologies employed, all new military capabilities are subject to a rigorous review process for compliance with international humanitarian law. Furthermore, we also adjust our operating procedures to ensure that we stay within the boundaries of the law that applies at the time.
International and domestic frameworks provide the same level of protection around the use of novel technologies as for conventional systems because their general principle is to focus on the action, rather than the tool. These frameworks therefore offer appropriate levels of protection for our personnel. Earlier this year, we acted to bolster this protection in historical cases, for example, through the overseas operations Act.
In respect of artificial intelligence, I have mentioned our forthcoming AI strategy and our plan to publish details of the approaches we will use when adopting and using AI. This is really where we come to the nub of the issue. The noble Lord, Lord Browne, put his finger on it, as did the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Houghton, and the noble Lord, Lord Coaker. I want to try to encapsulate what I hope will be a substantive and reassuring response to them all.
These approaches will not affect or supersede existing legal obligations, but they will ensure coherence across defence. They will also drive the creation of the policy frameworks and systems that, in practical terms, are needed to ensure that personnel researching, developing, delivering and operating AI-enabled systems have an appropriate understanding of those systems and can work with and alongside them in compliance with our various legal and policy frameworks.
The noble Lord, Lord Browne, specifically referred to the NATO AI principles. Essentially, NATO’s position is that alliance members can sign up to these NATO-wide standards or they can produce their own to a similar standard. We support NATO’s leadership in the responsible use of artificial intelligence and, as I have indicated, we intend to publish details of our own approach in early course.
In addition, we will continue to engage internationally, including through the United Nations Conference on Certain Conventional Weapons, to promote consensus on international norms and standards for the use of new and emerging technologies on the battlefield, while continuing to act as a responsible leader in this area.
I think it was the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, who asked about the phrasing I used in response to her noble friend Lord Clement-Jones’s question last week. From memory, I said two things: first, the UK has no systems that could unilaterally employ lethal force without human involvement at some stage in the process. I think that I went on to say that, sharing the concerns of government, civil society and AI experts around the world, the UK opposes the creation and use of systems that would operate without context-appropriate human involvement. I think that is the phrase the noble Baroness sought clarification on.
The phrase means that a person is exercising some form of control over the effect of the use of the weapon in a way that satisfies international humanitarian law. This could be some form of control over the operation in real time, or it could be setting clear operational parameters for a system. I hope that that has been helpful to the noble Baroness in explaining what was behind the use of that phrase.
I have endeavoured to provide reassurance to noble Lords that the Ministry of Defence takes these matters very seriously, is already doing all that needs to be done, and is planning to be proactive in communicating our approach appropriately to Parliament and the public. On this basis, I suggest that the amendment is not needed.
I also say, with the greatest respect to the noble Lord, Lord Browne, and no sense of impertinence, that I do question the utility of requiring a review and a report. This will necessarily be only a snapshot; it will quickly become out of date when we are dealing with a rapidly evolving subject matter. Not to put too fine a point on it, the effort of staffing it risks reducing the capacity needed within the department for developing the extensive systems and frameworks that we need to ensure the proper handling of AI.
I must say that I have enjoyed this debate, as I always enjoy my engagement with the noble Lord, Lord Browne—but, for these reasons, I ask that he withdraw his amendment.
I thank the Minister for her response to this debate and, with the indulgence of the Committee, I will refer to parts of her response. I was greatly appreciative of it all, but some parts I welcomed more than others.
I will start with the last point. The criticisms the Minister made about the vehicle that I tabled in order to have this debate was correct. It is implicit in the way I debate these issues that they are moving so fast that probably there is no point in time at which we could publish a report that would not quickly go out of date. I accept that. In fact, for that reason I wish that people, and sometimes senior military officers—but thankfully no British ones—would stop talking about a “race” for this technology. A race requires a line, and the development of this technology has no winning line that we know of.
In fact, the likelihood is that when we move to AGI, which is a hypothetical but likely development, whereby an intelligent agent understands or learns any intellectual task that a human being can, it may well be that we think we are at the line, but the machine does not think we are at the line and runs on and looks back at us and laughs. So I accept all of that but, at some point, we need to find a framework in which we in Parliament can connect with these issues—a methodology for the Government to report to Parliament, to the extent that they can, and for all of us to take responsibility, as we should, for asking our young people to go into situations of conflict, with the possibility that these weapons will be used, with all the implications.
So that is what I am seeking to get. I want a 24 year-old who is asked to take some responsibility in an environment in which these weapons are deployed to know with confidence that he or she is acting within the law. That is my shared responsibility with the Government; we need to find a way of doing that. This may be an imperfect way, but we may always be in an imperfect situation with a moving target. So I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this debate. None of these debates answers any questions fully, but they all add to our collective knowledge.
I thank the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Houghton, for his unqualified support. He took me slightly by surprise with the deployment of his eloquence to make the case for deploying the law as a weapon of war. I fear that I agree with him—I used to be a lawyer—but I will have to think long and carefully before I give him my unqualified support for that. However, I suspect that, as always, I will end up supporting what he said.
I thank the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, for his contribution highlighting an issue which is alive today because of the operation of the overseas operations Act. Anyone deployed in a conflict who operates technology remotely from the United Kingdom is not covered by the provisions of that Act, because they are not deployed into the environment. In my view, that is a breach of that person’s human rights, because those who are deployed with them have an advantage over them. We made that mistake, and we need to go back and correct it.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newham, in the absence of the genuine expert in her party on the issues of artificial intelligence, raised an exceptionally good point. The Minister responded to it very cleverly but very accurately. We deploy weapons at the moment—I will not identify what they are, because it does not really matter—which act so independently that many would consider them to be autonomous. It is no answer to say that someone designed the framework within which they operate and therefore there is meaningful human control of them; there is not, in many people’s view, although I am not saying that that is my view. We need to find some method internationally—because this is another global problem and needs a global answer. Otherwise, we will have no stability in our strategic defence. That may be too much to ask us to resolve today, but we should, in the long view, consider that. I thank my noble friend Lord Coaker for reminding me of at least half a dozen things that I should have put in my speech.
The Minister has given me reassurance upon the reassurance that she and her officials are already giving me in their regular engagement with me. It is not happening all the time, but with sufficient regularity for me to be reassured. I spent part of this weekend with some people who are genuine experts on artificial intelligence. I am pretty frightened by what can happen with artificial intelligence, but when they started talking about AGI, I was terrified by what may be coming down the track at us. At the moment, we do not have it, and we will have to move very quickly to try to get it regulated before it is fully developed.
Although I will withdraw the amendment, there is always the possibility that this environment and its potential will develop sufficiently for me to need to retable it at Report to extend this debate a little further. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 59 withdrawn.
Amendment 60 not moved.
61: After Clause 18, insert the following new Clause—
“Age of recruitment
In section 328 of the AFA 2006 (enlistment), in subsection (2)(c), omit “without the consent of prescribed persons.””Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment establishes 18 as the minimum age for recruitment into the UK armed forces.
My Lords, Amendments 61 and 62 consider the minimum age for recruitment into the UK Armed Forces. Amendment 61 would establish it as 18. Amendment 62 would ensure that soldiers aged under 18 were not required to serve for a longer period than adult personnel.
Noble Lords may remember the efforts of my late noble and much-loved friend, Lord Judd, who fought to change the situation with regard to the recruitment of under-18s. I am honoured to resume his campaign and hope that progress can be made. He would have reminded us—I shall do so, therefore—that people under 18 are actually children. We should not forget that. Today I am honoured and delighted to have support for these amendments from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, my noble friend Lady Lister and the noble Lord, Lord Russell. They all have great expertise in children’s issues and are passionate in supporting children’s rights. I look forward to hearing the contributions of other noble Lords and, of course, the Minister, for whom I have the highest regard. I thank the Child Rights International Network for its help and support.
I have tabled these amendments due to concern about the rights and welfare of children. I have worked for many years with children—that is, people under the age of 18. Thankfully, we now have a much better understanding, thanks to research and experience, of the teenage brain and behaviour. This knowledge of the brain can help us understand the mental and emotional health of those under 18, and how those develop. Children mature at different rates and the ability of a 16 year-old to make decisions about, for example, life choices may lack the necessary maturity. The younger children are, the more vulnerable they are. Some children will thrive as recruits—we know that—but others may not.
The Minister may point to the opportunities available in the Army for young recruits who might otherwise be unemployed, but circumstances have changed and the new circumstances must be taken account of. It is now the norm for young people to stay in full-time education beyond the statutory school leaving age of 16. This includes those whom the Army targets for recruitment. Four out of five of the most disadvantaged young people in England now stay in full-time education after their GCSEs. In fact, the policy of enlisting at 16 draws young people out of full-time education. The Army is now competing not with the dole office for its underage recruits but, as its officers acknowledge, with schools and colleges.
Every year the Armed Forces enlist around 3,000 young people aged 16 or 17. Most join the Army, which tends to recruit from deprived neighbourhoods. Military recruitment at 16 is now highly unusual internationally. Three-quarters of countries worldwide now allow only adults to be enlisted. A few other NATO member states still recruit at 17 in small numbers, but the UK is the only country in Europe, and the only NATO military power, still allowing its Armed Forces to enlist 16 year-olds. Indeed, we appear to be the only country in the world to rely so heavily on that age group to fill the ranks. In the British Army, more new soldiers of 16 than any other age group—
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. She places significant importance on her research. I simply seek some reassurance from her, and perhaps the other proposers of the amendment, that they have actually been to the Army Foundation College in Harrogate and talked about these issues with the young people to find out what has motivated them to join the military.
I thank the noble Lord. I shall mention this later. I have not visited that college myself. I know people who have and I know an organisation that has visited quite regularly. I will come on to that later. If the noble Lord is not satisfied then, I will try to give some more information.
I was saying that more new soldiers are recruited at 16 than from any other age group in the UK. I am aware that some join due to instability in their lives—I have known several of those—such as divorcing parents, or unhappiness at school or in their communities. The 16 year-olds who enlist sign a binding contract. Its terms of service are so restrictive that they could not be imposed on any person of any age in any other walk of life, with or without consent.
A 16 year-old has no right at all to leave the Army in the first six weeks, which corresponds with the most stressful period of their training. Then the recruit may leave. They are subject only to a notice period of between two weeks and three months. From the day that recruit turns 18, they have no right to leave the Army for the next four years. That means that the 16 year-old recruit is subject to a minimum period of service of up to two years longer than recruits who enlist as adults, whose four-year minimum term is counted from the day they enlist, rather than from their 18th birthday. In effect, a soldier’s service before they turn 18 is not counted, when plainly it should be. An 18 year-old recruit who serves for four years can leave the Army. A 16 year-old recruit who serves the same duration cannot.
The second amendment seeks to end that discrimination. Although the High Court has ruled that the Army is entitled to discriminate in this way, the basic principle of fairness—and, I suggest, common sense—demands otherwise. Indeed, even the Army says that the change would, to quote its junior entry review,
“provide greater consistency to U18 recruits”.
That is the Army saying that.
It is important to know that under-18s are not normally deployed on hostile operations, but that they will be during training is a matter of serious concern; here I come on to the noble Lord’s intervention. The Army’s youngest recruits undergo their initial soldier training at the Army Foundation College in Harrogate. As is well publicised, the institution has an “outstanding” grade from Ofsted, awarded again this year. But Ofsted does not grade the Army Foundation College on the same basis as civilian schools. The outstanding grade is awarded not for the education on offer, which amounts to less than one day per week, but for the welfare arrangements. Despite this, the Army recorded an extraordinary 60 allegations of abuse of recruits by staff at this college between 2014 and 2020. The allegations include assault and battery. They are all on the Army’s record and officers are aware of them, but they are absent from the Ofsted inspection reports, including the latest report this year.
The situation facing girls is of particular concern. Freedom of information requests show that since 2015, 41 girls aged under 18 in the Armed Forces have made formal complaints of rape or other sexual assault to the service police. This is equivalent to a rate of 2.5%—one in every 40 girls in the forces. This is twice the reported rate of sexual abuse for girls of the same age group in civilian life.
The Child Rights International Network has collected some testimonies from parents of former recruits at the Army Foundation College. They have shown great courage in speaking out about their children’s treatment. The father of a former recruit at the college writes:
“[My son] had been bullied verbally [by staff]; he and the other recruits were talked down to, called [the c-word and the f-word] constantly … [we had a] fraught and stressful negotiation to get our son out.”
A mother says:
“[My son] struggles to talk about what happened … but we know that staff bullied and abused the young recruits … [My son] is a completely different person since his time at Harrogate. He has attempted suicide and his mental health is permanently damaged.”
Another mother said that her boy was,
“hit, slapped, pushed, kicked and verbally abused by staff. He told me his request”
to leave the army
“was ripped up in his face. He was only 17 years old and devastated at not being able to leave … My son died last year while still serving in the army.”
This is abuse, and these are shocking testimonies concerning young people placed in a care of an institution that has a clear legal and moral duty to safeguard them from harm. One can only imagine what would happen to a civilian school or college, whatever its Ofsted grade, with so many allegations of violent abuse to students.
The evidence speaks for itself: the policy of recruiting 16 and 17 year-olds for the Armed Forces is unsafe. The human rights community and organisations concerned for child welfare have repeatedly called for a transition to an all-adult Armed Forces. Among those to challenge the policy are the UK’s four Children’s Commissioners, who in December 2020 urged the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to ask the UK whether it would raise the enlistment age to 18. The Commons Defence Committee has twice asked the Ministry of Defence to account for the Army’s dependency on recruiting under the age of 18.
We have yet to see a genuinely open, accountable and thorough-going review of this policy. The Army looked at it in 2019 and decided that the policy did not need to change, but its review did not look at the impact on young people at all—nor did it examine the feasibility of raising the recruitment age to 18. The review was a closed process, so those arguments could not be put. I wonder whether any young people were actually consulted about their feelings about what was going on in the college. Can the Minister tell the Committee, and comment on why an open review has not been undertaken?
I know the Minister to be a sensitive and sympathetic woman. Perhaps she would be prepared to meet those of us concerned about this issue of child recruitment to the Armed Forces and, based on arguments put today, review the situation. Meanwhile, I thank noble Lords for their participation. This issue is of enormous importance. It will not go away. The question is: what are the Government going to do? I look forward to the Minister’s response. This is a serious issue of child protection and welfare.
My Lords, I rise to speak in support of Amendment 61 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, to which I have added my name. I have done so because of my concerns about the well-being of young people and because I am not convinced that there are sufficient benefits in allowing the enlistment of young people of 16 or 17 rather than 18. Evidence and personal experience tell me that there is not.
I speak because of the experience of a member of my own family, so I know a story inside out, but I have also spoken to a number of parents whose children were recruited under the age of 18—and I have heard some very similar stories those described by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, in her speech. I have no doubt that, for some early leavers recruited below the age of 18, the mental damage can take years to recover from. These recruits have the legal status as children and are entitled in law under safeguarding legislation to be protected from harm as far as possible.
There are a number of other reasons why I question this policy. Younger recruits suffer from very high drop-out rates. Official statistics show that, once enlisted, 30% of the Army’s under-18 recruits leave or are dismissed before they finish their training. They can find themselves out of work and education within months of joining, and these discharged recruits are not tracked, so we cannot speculate on how they fare after they leave the military. That being said, it would not be unreasonable to say that, had the option of joining up not been available, they would have stayed in full-time education, taken an apprenticeship or worked part time while undertaking a qualification. We are talking about not some small, troubled minority who failed to adapt adequately to military service, but nearly a third of all junior recruits. That is affecting some 700 young people a year, according to the Child Rights International Network.
According to data from 2011 to 2014, of those junior recruits who stay on to complete their training and enlist fully, an additional 10% drop out at the age of 22, the minimum length of service. This gives a total retention percentage beyond the age of 22 of around 63% for all those who enlisted below the age of 18. Furthermore, data from 2017 to 2019 shows that only one in five recruits enlisted under the age of 18 are still in the Army 10 years later, compared with one in four adult recruits.
Surely this makes little sense for the Army, which allocates huge amounts of time and resources to recruit so many under-18s only for such a large proportion to either leave prematurely or complete just the minimum required service. The Ministry of Defence’s own data shows that adult recruits aged 18 or above are more likely to finish their training. Hence, it makes economic sense apart from anything else for the Army to focus its efforts on older recruits, especially given that the MoD admits that adult recruits cost half as much to train.
As I have mentioned, there are also concerns surrounding the long-term mental health outcomes of those who join up early. A recent study led by Glasgow University comparing the long-term outcomes of junior entrants with civilians of the same age and background found that junior entrants since 1995 were between two and three times more likely to develop long-term PTSD. This is significant because PTSD has been found, in a range of studies, to co-occur with depression and addictive behaviours, including substance and alcohol misuse and gambling disorders. This point is reinforced further by a study led by King’s College London, which reviewed the mental health of veterans who had originally enlisted as junior entrants. Since 2003, junior entrants were twice as likely to develop alcohol misuse and twice as likely to report episodes of lifetime self-harm compared with veterans who had enlisted at older ages.
Even if these are afflictions that affect junior recruits in adulthood, any reasonable duty of care must consider the long-term consequences of a particular policy. Since around the turn of the millennium, the youngest recruits to the Armed Forces have been substantially more likely than older recruits, and more likely than civilians of the same age and social background, to develop mental health problems in the longer term.
I am sure that some might prefer to focus on the fact that this problem has emerged since the late 1990s. The slur “snowflake” has been used to tar a generation some believe are overly sensitive and unable to overcome adversity. But the reality surely is that, regardless of our approach to young people, the problems young recruits face are real and have serious long-term impacts. In an age of heightened awareness about mental health, old mantras such as “toughen up” fail to alleviate the damaging consequences of junior enlistment.
The evidence I have been trying to outline in favour of these amendments points to a real problem with the policy of recruiting at such a young age. Seeing as most other countries can manage by recruiting adults, surely the UK should have no problem either. For those 16 or 17 year-olds who would have eagerly joined the military, if they are still passionate about doing so at 18, the option is still available to them. They will be entering with greater life experience and a greater chance of success both in the military and in their subsequent civilian life.
My Lords, the last time I spoke on this issue was in support of my late noble friend Lord Judd, who, as my noble friend Lady Massey said, was much admired and loved—and, I would add, is much missed. He brought to issues such as this his passion for social justice, which was unrivalled in your Lordships’ House. That said, my noble friend has made a powerful case today in introducing these amendments. Like her, I come to the issue from a children’s rights perspective and am grateful for the briefing from the Child Rights International Network.
I apologise that I could not attend the Second Reading debate but, reading it, it seemed that the Minister was rather flippant in her response to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, when she raised this issue. The Minister dismissed the term she used, “child soldiers”, as
“a term that few of us in this Chamber recognise”.—[Official Report, 7/9/21; col. 775.]
Perhaps so but it acts as a reminder that we are talking about children, as defined by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, as has already been emphasised. The Minister may wish to point out that the convention does not prohibit enlistment of children under the age of 18. But the body which monitors compliance with the convention, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, has repeatedly called on the UK to raise the minimum age of recruitment to 18. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has in the past, including when I was a member, also questioned government policy on this matter from a human rights perspective.
The UN committee will be reviewing the UK’s progress on children’s rights again next year and has already flagged up Armed Forces recruitment in the list of issues that the review will examine. It has asked the Government to explain what steps they have taken to raise the enlistment age since the last review in 2016. The committee has also asked whether the minimum period of service for recruits aged under 18 is still longer than for adult recruits—a discrimination that Amendment 62 seeks to end. Surely we wish to be able to point to progress in this area since the last review.
As my noble friend underlined, it is important to remember the international context. She pointed to a clear positive trend: half a century ago, it was normal for state armed forces to recruit children; in most parts of the world, including Europe, it is now abnormal. This is a seismic shift at a global level that has already safeguarded countless adolescent children from the harm associated with joining the armed forces too early. Increasingly, the global consensus that children should be safeguarded from military work is denying political cover to less scrupulous countries than our own and armed groups which otherwise have no qualms about sending child soldiers into combat.
We have an opportunity here. A global ban on the use of children for military purposes used to be a pipe dream. Now, it is at least imaginable. At the moment, the UK follows the lowest legally permissible standard in the world by allowing enlistment from age 16, lagging behind others when we could be helping to lead the way—and it can be done. Noble Lords here will know much more about this than I do but, in contrast to the Army, the RAF and Navy do not recruit many under-18s. Historically, the Army has said that it needs younger recruits just to fill the ranks and when the issue was last debated, the then Minister—the noble Earl, Lord Howe—explained that the under-18s represented 15% of the Army’s inflow, which I found rather shocking. Given that the Army has downsized and, as I understand it, is continuing to do so, surely it does not need underage recruits any more. Can the Minister give us some up-to-date information on the trends in recruitment of those under 18, including what proportion of inflow they represent now?
It would seem that the transition to an all-adult Army could now be within easy reach. For the protection of children’s rights, here in the UK and globally, it is a step we should take.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to support the amendment of my friend and fellow member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the noble Baroness, Lady Massey. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, I apologise for not speaking at Second Reading. At that point I had not had the irresistible invitation from the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, to support her on this. She and I have form when it comes to working on children’s rights. I put on the record that I am a governor of Coram, the oldest children’s charity in the United Kingdom, dating from 1739.
For 30 years I was in recruitment. To an extent, in these amendments we are talking about a recruitment exercise by Her Majesty’s Government to recruit 16 to 18 year-olds into one part of our military: our Army. As your Lordships will know, the Ministry of Defence has a well-earned reputation—I will not say whether it is a good or bad reputation—for using taxpayers’ money in rather large amounts, with not always terribly effective results. From my point of view, speaking as a businessman and looking at this as a recruitment exercise, on the face of it this is a complete disaster.
Suppose that one of our children or grandchildren was for whatever reason unfortunate enough to have learning or behavioural difficulties and that, as a parent or grandparent, one was faced with a child aged 16 who, despite all one’s efforts to try to do one’s best for them, still had a reading age of between nine and 11. How would any of us feel about having that 16 year-old son or grandson, daughter or granddaughter, with all those educational challenges, recruited into the Army, knowing that they will go to the college in Harrogate, which—I have just checked—costs about £62 million a year to run? Most of these children will have GCSEs—if they are lucky; many will not—and they are going to an educational establishment that will not further in any meaningful form their foundational education in the core subjects that make them more employable and, frankly, from their colleagues’ point of view, more safe and able to understand, read and interpret some of the orders and codes they are asked to follow.
Let us look at the dropout rate from this recruitment exercise. If I, in my old headhunting firm, had had the failure rate that this recruitment exercise has—if this was any normal recruitment exercise—we would quite rightly have been fired. We would have been castigated and might even have had legal proceedings against us.
I cannot understand why the United Kingdom, alone among every single member of NATO—which includes one or two countries with slightly unsavoury reputations—should still recruit children into its Army, primarily into the infantry. I would be very interested to hear a reasoned justification from the Minister, standing up and defending this, not least because of the implications it has under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. I note that on the face of the Bill the Minister says:
“In my view the provisions of the Armed Forces Bill are compatible with the Convention rights.”
A previous Children’s Commissioner for England, Maggie Atkinson, said that if you were serious about the Convention on the Rights of the Child, you would not expect children
“to join the armed services until they are 18.”
I find this quite indefensible. It is not exactly best practice among the better armed forces around the world. Frankly, I think we should be ashamed.
My Lords, I oppose Amendment 61, which would effectively prohibit the enlistment of persons under the age of 18. I, for one, certainly am not ashamed that we give young people these life opportunities. I say to the noble Lords who have proposed this amendment that many of what they seem to have taken as facts I simply do not recognise: presumably they have been published by organisations opposed to this. I am happy to give way to be corrected, but the one cohort they do not seem to have engaged with is the young people themselves at the Army Foundation College. Has anybody been to the Army Foundation College? No, no one has. That is a disappointment. Perhaps I could ask noble Lords to at least consider going to visit the college.
Slightly tongue in cheek, I say to the right reverend Prelate, on his concerns about what is an appropriate age to recruit young people into an organisation, that I think I was 14 years old when I was recruited into the Church of England, effectively, through confirmation. I have no idea what is now the minimum age to be confirmed in the Church of England, but I am happy to give way for him to tell me.
I would say that we are not asking our confirmation candidates to enter into armed conflict. It is a very different thing when we talk about membership of clubs, the Church or whatever. We have laid out our concerns about this very strange period when young people are growing up because, right across Europe and most of the world, we are absolutely clear that these are children who we are asking to undertake an adult task. That is the concern I bring—but I am happy to have further conversations.
That is a reasonable point, but none the less, the Church of England is actively targeting young people of a certain age to be recruited into an organisation. Okay, I say that slightly tongue in cheek, but there could be a discussion of what age is appropriate for young people to make an informed decision.
I begin by reminding your Lordships that there is no compulsory recruitment into the Armed Forces. All those under the age of 18 are volunteers, and we should take pride in the fact that our Armed Forces provide challenging and constructive education, training and employment opportunities for young people while in service, as well as after they leave.
The Armed Forces remain the UK’s largest apprenticeship provider, equipping young people with valuable and transferable skills for life. I declare an interest, because I applied to join the Army before the age of 18. I went through a regular commissions board and made an informed choice to join the Army when I was still a minor. Although I did not attend Sandhurst until shortly after my 18th birthday—a short course for the type of commission I was undertaking—I recall my time in the regular Army when I was a teenager with great pride and a sense of satisfaction. That may well be in part due to my posting to Hong Kong, where I received both a formal military education and a rather less formal liberal education in life—but that is another matter.
The minimum age for entry into the UK Armed Forces reflects the normal school leaving age of 16, but recognises, through the training offered, that participation in education or structured training remains mandatory until 18. In the services, all recruits who enlist as minors and do not hold full level 3 qualifications are enrolled on an apprenticeship scheme, unless their trade training attracts higher-level qualifications. All undertake structured professional education as part of their initial military training, and therefore automatically fulfil their duty to participate under the various education Acts. Many individuals who join under the age of 18 are not academic high achievers, although some are, and the duty of care and training that the Armed Forces provide enhance their self-esteem and prospects for the whole of their working life, within or without the services.
Let me be clear: our military is full of service men and women who freely admit that, had it not been for the structure, education and discipline that service life offered them as 16 year-olds, it is highly likely that their lives would have led them down an entirely different and less positive path. Joining the military at 18 would have simply been too late for them to make that positive change of direction in their lives.
In my experience, the military fully recognises the special duty of care that it owes to under-18s, and commanding officers continue to have that made clear to them. The recruiting policy is absolutely clear. No one under the age of 18 can join the Armed Forces without formal parental consent, which is checked twice during the application process. In addition, parents and guardians are positively encouraged to engage with recruiting staff during the process. Once accepted into service, under-18s have the right to automatic discharge at any time until their 18th birthday. All new recruits who are under the age of 18 and have completed 28 days’ service have a right of discharge within their first three to six months of service if they decide that a career in the Armed Forces is not for them. It is simply not in the interest of either the individual or the service to force them to stay where they are not happy to be.
MoD policy is not to deploy personnel under the age of 18 on operations. Service personnel under the age of 18 are not deployed on any operation outside the UK, except where the operation does not involve them becoming engaged in or exposed to hostilities. There is evidence to suggest that those joining at a younger age remain in service for longer and that under-18s in the Army achieve higher performance based on their earlier promotion. Evidence clearly shows that junior entrants are likely to serve longer and to achieve higher rank than some senior entrants, so the additional costs incurred in their training that noble Lords have mentioned reap considerable benefits for the service, the individual and society as a whole.
The services are among the largest training providers in the UK, with excellent completion and achievement rates. Armed Forces personnel are offered genuine progression routes which allow them to develop, gain qualifications and play a fuller part in society—whether in the Armed Forces or the civilian world. In the naval service and the Royal Air Force, initial military training is conducted on single-service sites and, because of the smaller scale, no distinction needs to be made in the training provided to those under 18. In the Army, phase 1 training for under-18s, the basic military training course, is completed at the Army Foundation College, where the facilities have been specifically designed for this age group. The training courses last either 23 or 49 weeks, both of which are longer than the basic over-18 course and dependent on the length of the subsequent specialist training.
The MoD’s duty of care policy for under-18 entrants is laid down in a defence instruction and covers the duty of care obligations of commanding officers. This is constantly updated, and I am the first to admit that I am probably now out of date, since I have left being a Minister for two years, but I am sure that my noble friend in her response will update the Committee on some of its current components to offer some reassurance as to how the military deals with that duty of care.
Equally, as I have mentioned, all recruits enlisted as minors who do not hold full level 3 qualifications are enrolled on an apprenticeship scheme, unless their trade training attracts higher-level qualifications. For example, as a Royal Engineer I trained to be a bricklayer and an electrician. The time taken to complete their apprenticeship varies according to the programme being followed, but completion rates are high. Additionally, while in service all Armed Forces personnel—subject to meeting certain qualification criteria—can claim financial support for education under the standard learning credit scheme and enhanced learning credit scheme.
To conclude, I believe that under-18s who chose to join the Armed Forces are an important and valuable cohort among those starting their military career. The MoD invests strongly in them and they repay that investment with longer service and higher achievement. The duty of care for that cohort is paramount and establishments are regularly inspected by Ofsted and achieve consistently good or outstanding gradings. The training and education are clearly first class and MoD policies on under-18s in service are robust and comply with national and international law.
Crucially to me—and I have seen this time and time again—joining the Armed Forces provides prestigious and respected career opportunities for young men and women who may not have achieved the same in civilian life. But there is no need to take my word for it. I would encourage any noble Lord seeking to support this amendment to visit the Army Foundation College in Harrogate and speak to the young service men and women themselves—because it is, after all, their future we are debating.
Well, perhaps he might respond as this is Committee stage. I pay tribute to the Army training, because the noble Lord is certainly able to follow a brief and read it in a fairly military fashion and in a straight line. But if this is such a good idea, if it is so effective and productive for the children who enter the Army at the age of 16, why are we one of the very few countries in the world, and the only military force within NATO, to do this? What do we know that they do not? Why have we got it right and why have they got it wrong?
I think the evidence speaks for itself. I have attempted to outline some of that evidence, bearing in mind that for those first two years we offer first-rate training. We are the largest apprenticeship provider in the United Kingdom. We are giving life opportunities to young people who, without that discipline or training, may well have followed a different path. I am convinced through my experience of 33 years in the military, of visiting this college and of meeting young people who have been through their careers, will look me in the face and say, “Had it not been for joining the military, I would have ended up doing something awful on the streets of Portsmouth or London, or wherever. It is only through the opportunity that the military gave me at a young age that I became the man or woman that I have.” That, away from the MoD’s passion for young people, has to be the best reason why this should continue.
My Lords, I shall speak to both amendments. I thank my noble friend Lady Massey of Darwen for tabling them. My noble friends Lady Massey and Lady Lister and I are doing our level best, in his absence, to do justice to our recently deceased, much-loved and greatly missed noble friend Lord Judd, who was a person of the greatest integrity and enormous kindness, in the context of an issue which was very dear to his heart. But that is not why I want to speak to these amendments.
When I was Secretary of State for Defence, I attended a passing-out parade for young recruits and, on occasions, spent time with the young recruits themselves and those who were training them. I invariably enjoyed a morning of meeting recruits, their families and the Army training and welfare staff. Among other matters, we talked about some of the social challenges that these young people faced. On each occasion—this was some time ago—I left with an overwhelming feeling that the Army offers many young people an accessible alternative at a time when some could quite easily drift down another path; a point which the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, made repeatedly and which I think is not lost on your Lordships’ Committee.
Of course, the discussion was almost exclusively about how the Army had provided for these young people, often from very poor socioeconomic backgrounds, an opportunity to find meaning in their lives and to develop comradeship and interpersonal skills, as well as training them for a variety of trades—opportunities which may have been difficult for them to obtain otherwise. I admit all of that. I wish I had access then to the research I have now read because I would not have asked the young people these questions. I would have asked the people who were training them and responsible for them, and who had recruited them, many different questions. I now have access to this research, which I regret that the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, dismisses with a wave of his hand, saying that it clearly is being done by people who have a vested interest—as he does, of course.
Frankly, I have much experience of personal experiences which have been contradicted by the truth. I would, in the face of this peer-reviewed research, not be conceited enough to make the case that my short experience, which has never been peer reviewed or tested properly, was a better basis for public policy than that research. That is the point I want to make in this debate.
My attention has been drawn to the work of King’s College, which found that violent, sexual and drug-related offending increases after enlistment and then rises again before first deployment. My attention has been drawn to two recent studies by the University of Glasgow—my alma mater and hardly an institution which has some grudge against the Army or its practice of recruiting young people, but which has, like King’s College, an enviable academic record and an insistence that before any work is published it is properly and rigorously peer reviewed—which found that the mental health outcomes of junior entrants give further cause for concern. The Glasgow study found that PTSD among veterans who enlisted before 1995 was between two and three times more common than among civilians from the same social background.
In the face of these recent reports, it is hardly surprising that many people are calling for an end to the UK’s policy of permitting 16 year-olds to join the military, but I am asking for an urgent rethink. I press this upon the Minister. I will not rehearse all the many good arguments as to why this reconsideration ought to conclude with a termination of the policy, but my conclusion is that the case for consideration of raising the minimum age is comprehensive. It is built on medical evidence, sound logic and, much more importantly, ethical standards.
Beyond those recruited to the Army, adolescence is known as a time when the brain and the ability to make well-reasoned decisions are still developing. Why would we ask young people to make a decision of this importance when their brain is still developing? Of course we ask young people to make all sorts of decisions that affect what they do in the rest of their life, but this is a very special decision because of what the Army does. It means that teenagers recruited to the Army are more likely to be acting on impulse than making a fully informed decision about their future. I say no more; I do not say that every one of them is but they are more likely to be. That is enough to make me hesitate. It means that they are also less likely, although it is not impossible, to withstand the physical and emotional strains of military life and training. Young people who have experienced childhood adversity are also more likely to develop mental health problems in the Army.
There is credible research on all of this. The noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, invites each of us to visit a particular institution. I invite him to read the research with an open mind. I will be confounded if he does not come to the conclusion that there is a serious issue. One study found that three-quarters of military personnel have suffered two or more instances of childhood adversity and that factors such as younger age, lower educational attainment and serving in the Army were all linked with higher vulnerability to depression and anxiety. I understand that that might be because of what we ask these people to do and what we subject them to in order to keep us secure. That is their service to us and it has consequences for them. We have to ask ourselves, however: at what point in their maturity is it more likely that they will make the right decision to commit their lives to do that? All I ask is that we consider what that time is.
There are, of course, logical flaws in the policy of 16 year-olds joining the Army. It is inconsistent with other legal age limits. Supposedly 16 year-olds are not mature enough to vote but they still can make life-changing decisions about their future. They cannot purchase knives but they can learn to use lethal weapons. Perhaps the greatest irony is that the sale of certain military videogames is prohibited to under-18s. That is not at the heart of my argument, but there are these inconsistencies. This is not the only case where an age limit that we apply to activity appears arbitrary and illogical.
In answer to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, about what age we should choose: any age we choose is arbitrary because each of these young people—these children—is an individual. If we could find some way to measure their maturity and their ability to go through what they will go through, that would be a far greater way to decide whether they were ready to be recruited to the Army, but we cannot. It was tried and it proved to be ineffective.
Surely, if we are satisfied, on the incontrovertible evidence, that it is far less likely that we will expose young people who are actually not fit for this if we wait until they are 18 instead of doing it when they are 16, that is a very compelling reason for moving the age from 16 to 18. I am not suggesting that those arguments ought to convince the Government to go back on this policy; there are many others. But surely the time has come, now that we have this knowledge, to do what noble Lords in this Committee have repeatedly asked the Minister to do—to expand on the research until we can make the best judgment we can with what we have available to us about this. The preponderance of the evidence suggests that it should be to stop recruiting young people at scale into the Army at 16 years of age.
It is not a preface. I want to turn to Amendment 62, for a couple of paragraphs. The amendment would ensure that
“soldiers aged under 18 are not required to serve for a longer period than adult personnel.”
In my view, the amendment addresses an issue that is just wrong—we just should not be keeping people who signed at 16 in the Army longer than people who signed at 18, just because of their age. There is no justification for that discrimination, in my view. It is an abuse of their rights; they should be treated the same as everybody else, and we should simply get rid of their distinction. I have finished now.
My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the dramatic pause of the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, but I think that the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, was going to interrupt if I had not.
It is unusual to get to the final group of amendments and suddenly discover the most heated debate of the whole Bill. That is clearly were we are today. Clearly, the concept of child soldiers, which the Minister said at Second Reading that she did not recognise, is emotive. If one talks about “child soldiers”, it gives a very strong sense of children running around, perhaps recruited by being stolen away from their families by regimes that would be seen as unsavoury. The recruitment of 16 and 17 year-olds in the United Kingdom is somewhat different.
With some of the arguments in favour of Amendment 61, there was a sense that somehow people were being forced to join—that the Army is so determined that it needs more young people, and it can fill its ranks only if it recruits 16 and 17 year-olds. But nobody is forcing 16 year-olds to join the Army; it is voluntary recruitment, and they can do so only with parental agreement.
I am not as passionate as the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, in saying that I am not persuaded by Amendment 61. On these Benches, our defence spokesperson in the House of Commons, Jamie Stone, and I discussed these amendments at an earlier stage. We were encouraged to table such amendments, but neither of us felt that we wished to do so, because there are some benefits to the current arrangements.
We heard clearly from the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, about certain problems at Harrogate. Like other noble Lords, perhaps with the exception of the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, I have not visited Harrogate. I would be extremely happy to do so if the Minister can arrange a visit, because I think it would be important to do so.
We have heard some horrifying-sounding statistics about things that have allegedly happened at Harrogate. However, on an earlier group of amendments we were looking at the report from the House of Commons Defence Committee and some of the issues facing particularly female soldiers—recruited, presumably, after 18. Those statistics were also horrifying. If we were to say that a higher level of abuse or sexual harassment should lead us to say, “Away with Harrogate; away with recruiting child soldiers”, we could almost be getting ourselves to the point of asking why we are recruiting to Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. I do not think we should conflate two things. If there are issues associated with the Army Foundation College at Harrogate, they should be dealt with separately from the principle of whether it is acceptable to recruit people at 16.
I am very happy to look at more evidence. I assume that the Minister and the Secretary of State have looked at all the relevant evidence; they have rather more officials and supporters than I have to sift through the information. The noble Lord, Lord Browne, is right that we need to look at the evidence and that it should not be taken simply on the basis of individual anecdotes.
Equally, having done the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme—not visiting Harrogate but talking to other people recruited at a very early age—I have heard exactly the things that the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, said. People said it transformed their life to be able to join the Armed Forces at, in one case, 15—those were earlier days when the rules were slightly different—so the idea of saying that there is a blanket view that we should not permit recruitment at 16 should at least be reviewed on the basis of evidence and debate, not necessarily on the basis of an amendment at this stage.
There are cases in which people are going to leave school at 16. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, suggested that the world has moved on and that most people now stay at school until they are 18. That is true, but there are still people who will not want to stay at school until they are 18 or will not be able to find the right apprenticeship for them, for whom joining the Army at 16 might indeed make the difference to keeping them on the straight and narrow.
There is at least a case to be made for keeping recruitment at 16, but I would like to hear the Minister’s responses to some of the specific questions about mental health outcomes and other questions. If the evidence is overwhelming, clearly we should take that into consideration in any votes on the amendments, but equally we have to bear in mind that people recruited at 16 were not forced into it—they chose to join—so there are questions about what motivated them to join in the first place. That needs to be considered as well.
I did sit down; I apologise.
On Amendment 62, like other noble Lords, I can see no justification for saying that somebody recruited at 16 should be required to stay in for longer than people recruited at any other age. I really have finished now.
My Lords, I am a bit nervous of standing up.
I will make some brief remarks, if noble Lords will bear with me. It is somewhat strange for me: my noble friend Lady Massey, the noble Lord, Lord Russell, and I have spent years campaigning on children’s rights and on 100% of occasions have been exactly as one on all these issues. I therefore fully understand the proposal outlined in Amendment 61, but I have always been persuaded by the argument that has been put forward: for some young people in some situations, recruitment into the Army at 16 offers a way out of the situation in which they have found themselves. It is often a desperate situation—not for all the recruits at 16, but certainly for a number of them.
I was persuaded by this as much as anything. Most of the schools I taught in for 20 years before becoming a Member of Parliament and then joining your Lordships’ House were in the most deprived and desperate communities. One of the options available to those young people was the Armed Forces. Indeed, we used to use the uniformed organisations, admittedly not the Army, but certainly organisations such as the cadets, the Scouts and the Guides, if it was girls, to try to instil some structure into completely chaotic lives. I have always felt that, in some situations, recruitment at 16 gave some young people an opportunity that they otherwise would not have had. I have always been persuaded by that argument and certainly that is our position formally from the Front Bench.
I do not want to get into an “I have done this and other people have not” discussion but I have been to the college at Harrogate—not that you have to go to places like that to have a legitimate or honest opinion. I went there when I was shadow Secretary of State a number of years ago and it was fantastic. It was brilliant and the experience of the young people and the dedication of the Army personnel who were responsible for them was first rate. The young people talked openly about their experience there. You can be cynical about it and say that they were set up to do it and they would not say anything else because they would be worried about getting in trouble, but I did not feel that, to be honest. Maybe I was duped—who knows? However, I felt when I was there that those young people expressed a view that supported the fact that they were allowed to be recruited at 16.
I know that there are very deeply held views on both sides on this. They will cut across party lines, probably. As I have said, I am completely persuaded and always have been by that argument that it creates opportunity. That is the position that the Front Bench of Her Majesty’s Opposition have at present.
There are concerns and I think the Minister would say that some of the allegations that have come out need to be addressed. Some of the statistics from the report quoted by my noble friend Lady Massey are concerning. We need to understand the rights and wrongs of the bullying and of the sexual allegations. We need to get to the root of that. As Amendment 62 points out, maybe there is something there that needs to be looked at.
A very serious debate has taken place here and people have very deeply held views. It is a debate that has been going on for decades about whether it is right to recruit young people at that age because they are too young, or whether is it right to create an environment in which they can join at that age if they are properly supported, protected. They are looked after but they are given an opportunity that were it not available to them there would be significant problems in their lives. That opportunity should be made available to them, but that then puts an added responsibility on all of us to ensure that they are properly cared for and properly looked after as part of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.
First, I can say to all contributors that, wherever one comes from in relation to this debate, this was a cracking debate. It was really interesting, with genuinely thought-provoking contributions from all round the Committee. I thank contributors for that.
The subjects under discussion are, essentially, fairly simple to understand. To look at these two relatively small amendments is perhaps misleading, because they are the genesis of the content that is the trigger for the debate. Essentially, we have amendments tabled in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, with Amendment 61 supported by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, and the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool. Amendment 62 is once more supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, and the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool.
These amendments seek to raise the age of recruitment to the Armed Forces to 18 and to ensure that those recruited while under the age of 18 serve the same period of time as those who enlisted at the age of 18. To be honest, what I have detected is a fundamental philosophical divergence: the proposers and supporters of Amendment 61 think that such recruitment is bad; the Government take a different view. I will try to address the concerns articulated by your Lordships in the course of the debate.
I want to be clear about one thing: we comply with the law. We are not in breach of the law in doing what we do. We remain clear that junior entry offers a range of benefits to the individual, the Armed Forces and society, providing a highly valuable vocational training opportunity for those wishing to follow a career in the Armed Forces. I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Lancaster, who spoke eloquently and authoritatively from a very personal standpoint as to the merit he sees in this system. That opinion should weigh with us.
What I am very happy to do—if others want to respond to this, I am more than happy to support that—is facilitate a visit to the Army Foundation College at Harrogate. I offer to join that visit myself. I, too, have not visited that college, but I would be very happy to do so. I can reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, who specifically asked whether I would be prepared to do that. I hope that, following the impressive marketing strategy from the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, relating to the foundation college, there will be a good take-up of this invitation. I will take that away, engage with those who might be interested in attending and see whether we can get a visit to Yorkshire sorted out.
A number of noble Lords quite rightly raised our duty of care in Defence. We take our duty of care for entrants under 18 extremely seriously. Close attention has understandably been given to this subject in recent years, especially after the tragic deaths at Deepcut. We have robust, effective and independently verified safeguards in place to ensure that under-18s are cared for properly.
I will give a little more detail on that. Mental health and well-being are a priority across Defence and all training establishments. We are clear that the duty of care to all our recruits, in particular those aged under 18, is of the utmost importance, and that those aged under 18 should be treated with special consideration. The 2020-21 Ofsted report, Welfare and Duty of Care in Armed Forces Initial Training, noted the well-co-ordinated care and welfare arrangements for regular and reserve recruits and trainees. At the Army Foundation College in Harrogate, Ofsted was particularly impressed by the strong ethos of emotional and psychological safety, as well as the high standards of all facilities and accommodation. The AFCH has dedicated safeguarding, mental health and well-being leads to support students while they are at the college.
As others have indicated, the provision of education and training for 16 year-old school leavers provides a route into the Armed Forces that complies with the law and government education policy while providing a significant foundation for emotional, physical and educational development throughout an individual’s career. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. She made a very balanced contribution and acknowledged her acceptance of these virtues.
As others have said, there is no compulsory recruitment into the Armed Forces. Our recruiting policy is absolutely clear. No one under the age of 18 can join the Armed Forces without formal parental consent, and that is checked twice during the application process. The noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, adduced an example and thought it would be extremely undesirable if the individual whom he envisaged were to go into the Armed Forces but, presumably, in that situation, parental consent would not be given, and one could understand why not. In addition, parents and guardians are positively encouraged to be engaged with the recruiting staff during the process. As has been acknowledged, service personnel under the age of 18 are not deployed on hostile operations outside the UK, or on operations where they may be exposed to hostilities.
The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, is concerned that those who join the Armed Forces before their 18th birthday serve longer than those who join after their 18th birthday. This is a matter not of length of service but of discharge. The “statutory discharge as of right” rules allow all new recruits, regardless of age, to discharge within their first three to six months of service, depending on their service, if they decide that the Armed Forces is not a career for them.
In addition, service personnel have a statutory right to claim discharge up to their 18th birthday, subject to a maximum three-month cooling-off period. Those rights are made clear to all on enlistment. Ultimately, all service personnel under the age of 18 have a statutory right to leave the Armed Forces up until their 18th birthday, without the liability to serve in the reserve, as an adult would. That is in compliance with current law.
The noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, for whom I have the greatest respect, as she knows, articulated a significant number of challenges, difficulties and, as she perceives them, disadvantages attaching to these arrangements. I argue that the benefits of an Armed Forces career, including for under-18s, are clear. The Armed Forces remain one of the UK’s largest apprenticeship providers, equipping young people with valuable, transferable skills for life. Irrespective of age, all recruits who need it receive education in the key skills of literacy and numeracy and, also irrespective of age, more than 80% of all recruits enrol in an apprenticeship programme, equipping them with the skills they need to succeed. They will continue to build on it throughout their careers, and it will serve them well when they leave.
The Armed Forces offer apprenticeships across a broad range of specialisations, including the engineering disciplines, digital and communication technologies, construction, catering, HR and administration. Importantly, Ofsted regularly inspects our initial training establishment, as I indicated, and we are very proud of the standards we achieve. Over the last 10 years, Ofsted has documented significant improvements in areas such as education for English and maths, support for care leavers, improvements in reducing injury, improved retention rates, better communication with parents and staff selection, training and development.
Despite this record, we guard against complacency and recognise that there is always more we can do. One example of this is the new inspection framework we have agreed with Ofsted, which more closely aligns with the unique challenges of initial military training. We welcome the independent scrutiny of Ofsted, which is a very important intervention, and the confirmation it provides that we treat our young recruits well.
I turn to some of the specific points raised by contributors. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, were concerned about what we do to recruit people who may be unsuited to a career in the Army. All recruits to the Armed Forces undergo selection and testing, including medical, educational and physical tests, which confirm that they are able to undertake training. We recognise that military training is tough, and some recruits realise that they do not meet the increasing demands placed on them as training progresses. That is why additional safeguards in place for under-18s, as well as the rules of discharge as of right, exist.
A number of contributors also raised the issue of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. We remain fully committed to meeting our obligations under that convention and to the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, and have taken steps to bestow special safeguards on young people under the age of 18. Specifically, we ensure that no one under 18 is exposed to hostilities; there is no compulsory recruitment; we have special protection and safeguards; recruitment is genuinely voluntary; there is informed consent; and the youngsters are informed of their duties.
The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, raised the issue of retention for under-18s. I do not have recent retention data, but I shall procure it and shall write to her.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans referred to some research. I think that he was referring to research back in 2003, and I would suggest that much work has taken place since then, not least the Ofsted report to which I referred and from which I quoted.
The noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, described a very tragic incident. She described a young person who sadly, as I understood it, took his own life. I do not have information on that incident. I obviously deeply regret the behaviour that she described, to which the young man was subjected. As I say, his death is tragic, and I send my sympathies to his family. I would be happy to meet the noble Baroness to obtain further information from her and to consider what further action might be available, if that would be welcome to her.
In conclusion, our Armed Forces provide challenging and constructive education, training and employment opportunities for young people, as well as fulfilling and rewarding careers. I hope that, following the provision of further information, and following those assurances, the noble Baroness will agree to withdraw her amendment.
On Amendment 62, can the Minister answer this deceptively simple question? Why do the Army, in their regulations regarding the minimum service period, discriminate against younger recruits? On the issue of whether this is legal, I am not arguing that it is illegal—but will the Minister confirm for the record that the only reason why this discrimination, which would be unlawful in civilian life, is lawful, is because the Armed Forces benefit from an exemption from the Equality Act 2010 which was put there to allow them to continue to discriminate?
I think I can add nothing more to what I have already provided by way of an explanation for how that system works and why it is there, and why we do not believe that it is as discriminatory as the noble Lord indicates. However, I am happy to look at his remarks in Hansard and see whether I can provide him with a fuller response.
In conclusion, I thank your Lordships for all contributions. I genuinely thought that it was an extremely interesting debate, and I have welcomed the thoughts from contributors all around the Room.
My Lords, I have about 10 pages of notes here, which I shall go through very slowly. I joke, of course—it is late.
First, I thank the Minister for her extended response. I should love to meet her, and I should also like to bring others with me to that meeting, because I think we all have a variety of experiences on this—they are very different. We are almost at some sort of philosophically possibly permanent divide. I know where I stand and the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, knows where he stands, and possibly never the twain shall meet. But perhaps they will.
I will say a little about some of the comments by my very dear noble friend Lord Coaker, who talked about children joining the guides or scouts. They are not forced to join them, obviously, and can also not go if they do not want to. You cannot do that in the army, so it is a different situation. Sorry about that, Vernon.
In trying to make any comments of any sense, I can only say what I would like next from this debate. It has been a super debate, it has been really interesting and exciting, with very good speeches from my friend the right reverend Prelate, my noble friend Lady Lister, and my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Russell, who are all clearly where I am—on the side of the rights of the child, child protection and welfare. That was my focus: child protection and child welfare.
We perhaps all need to seriously look at—I do not mean in depth, just some summaries—the new research coming out about children’s brains. It is very extensive and scientific. We have to accept from this research that the teenage brain develops at different levels in different children. However, there are trends, and 16 is generally too low an age to accurately make decisions or predict what you want to have in life. I was a teacher—as was my noble friend Lord Coaker—a long time ago. I do not think we knew all this stuff then. We knew that children were different, but we did not have all this scientific input about the development of the brain. I am grateful for it. I have just read a wonderful book about it, and I am really grateful we have it.
The noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, said that the Armed Forces can equip children with skills for life. Yes, they can, but so can other places. I cannot accept that equipping people with skills for life should include such joys as I have heard—I have not quoted all the stories I have heard—about the not-so-good parts of Harrogate. I would love to go to Harrogate with the Minister or anybody else. I am very aware that institutions can gloss over things. I have been in schools, so I know that when you have an Ofsted inspection you would not think there were naughty children there, or anything is wrong, you would just believe what you were told. You were often not invited to interview children. It is absolutely key that children must be interviewed, and parents should give their views as well, to have a complete spectrum of what is going on in an institution.
I keep talking about the rights of children. We should respect the international agreements, that we have not just made but endorsed, about the rights of children as embedded in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is a hugely important document; we do not know enough about it and we should take more account of it. My noble friend Lady Lister was quite right to bring out the awful reports from the committee on our attention as a country to youth justice and the rights of the child. We need to look at all these things if we have not already.
I would also say that the evidence of people tonight has not really answered this question: if the case for recruiting at 16 is so strong, why do none of our closest allies do it? We are really out on a limb. I read in the Times the other day that the Marines are now looking at recruiting people at an older age because they are more mature and have more experience of life, and that is what they want, rather than people who are raw recruits.
Sometimes we have to look at ourselves and ask: are we really right on this? What evidence do we need that we are? What about anecdotes that we get from other countries? We may not be being narrow-minded but we are being a little too relaxed about our systems and what they are doing, right down to recruiting 16 year-olds for something which I do not think their brain, emotions or intellect are ready for.
With those few words, I will end my 10 pages of written notes. I thank the Minister again and hope that we can have some more experience of research, visits and interviews. I would particularly focus on parents and children—not people who have been trained to do it, but ordinary parents and children who have left the institution for one reason or another. We should see what we think then.
In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment but I will probably come back to it on Report. I thank all the Committee for listening and for being so patient after one hour and 26 minutes.
Amendment 61 withdrawn.
Amendments 62 to 66B not moved.
Clauses 19 to 23 agreed.
Clause 24: Extent in the United Kingdom
67: Clause 24, page 38, line 21, at end insert—
“(ga) paragraphs 1 to 23 and 33 to 52 of Schedule (Tri-service serious crime unit) (and section (Framework for establishment of tri-service serious crime unit) (5), so far as it relates to those paragraphs);”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is about the territorial extent of the new Schedule proposed by Baroness Goldie to be inserted after Schedule 4.
Amendment 67 agreed.
Clause 24, as amended, agreed.
Clause 25: Extent in the Channel Islands, Isle of Man and British overseas territories
68: Clause 25, page 39, line 4, leave out “and” and insert—
“(ha) paragraphs 1 to 23 and 33 to 52 of Schedule (Tri-service serious crime unit) (and section (Framework for establishment of tri-service serious crime unit) (5), so far as it relates to those paragraphs), and”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is about the territorial extent of the new Schedule proposed by Baroness Goldie to be inserted after Schedule 4.
Amendment 68 agreed.
Clause 25, as amended, agreed.
Clause 26 agreed.
Bill reported with amendments.
Committee adjourned at 7.32 pm.