My Lords, it has been a great pleasure to lead the Bill through this House. It delivers on the manifesto commitment to strengthen the legislation of the Armed Forces covenant that will deliver for the Armed Forces community across the United Kingdom. It further strengthens the service justice system for our Armed Forces, wherever they serve. Most importantly, without this Bill, the Armed Forces Act 2006—the legislation that maintains the Armed Forces as a disciplined body—could not continue in force beyond the end of this year.
I therefore convey my deep gratitude to all noble Lords for supporting the Bill and for their invaluable contributions to our extremely incisive and well-informed debates. Undoubtedly, this is a marked tribute to your Lordships’ shrewdness, the depth and breadth of knowledge and the passion that has persistently shone through when debating issues affecting our Armed Forces. I particularly express my appreciation for the constructive engagement made possible by the noble Lords, Lord Coaker, Lord Tunnicliffe, Lord Thomas of Gresford and Lord Dannatt, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, and the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Boyce, Lord Craig of Radley and Lord Houghton of Richmond.
It is an incontestable fact that all within this House have bought into the spirit of what this Bill seeks to achieve. We all want to do the very best for our Armed Forces community, from the sailors, soldiers and aircrew at the forefront of operations around the world, to the veterans whose days of active service have long since passed, and to the families who unstintingly provide support and are the bedrock to their success. I thank your Lordships for their continuing interest in the Armed Forces.
It would be unacceptably remiss were I not to acknowledge and thank the Bill team under the formidable leadership of Jayne Scheier, supported by her able and committed colleagues. There is a lot of technical detail in the Bill, with complex legal consequences, and the team’s guidance and expertise has been exemplary—as has their patience in supporting a Minister who I am sure must have been very irksome at times.
Before I finish, I remind the House again of the undertakings I made both in Grand Committee and on Report that I will keep the House informed of progress on the recommendations of Sir Richard Henriques’s review. We expect to submit very shortly our response to the House of Commons Defence Committee’s report on women in the Armed Forces; that response is detailed and substantial. This Bill now passes from my stewardship to my colleagues in the other place—so, over to them.
Finally, I pay tribute to the courageous, professional and dedicated men and women in our Armed Forces. We are proud to have the best Armed Forces in the world and, ultimately, this Bill is for them. I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.
My Lords, it has been a real pleasure for me to see my first Bill through your Lordships’ House on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition, with my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe, who I thank for his support. It has been helped enormously by the generosity of spirit and co-operative attitude of the Minister. I sincerely thank her and her officials for the briefings and advice that we have received throughout the Bill’s passage. I also thank her sincerely for the way in which she has responded to our questions and amendments, and her commitment to reflect on the various points as policies are taken forward by the Ministry of Defence.
In that regard, I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, and her colleagues, notably the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, for their collegiate approach, which has helped us all scrutinise the Bill more effectively. I also thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd. Thanks to him, I now understand terms such as “concurrent jurisdiction”. Throughout the Bill, advice from my noble friends Lord West and Lord Reid was gratefully received, as was the tireless and impressive work of Dan Harris, our adviser. It was also a privilege to have my noble and learned friend Lord Morris and my noble friends Lord Browne and Lord Robertson alongside me. Their expertise and experience is a huge asset to our country, as is the active involvement of many noble and gallant Lords, some present here this afternoon. We hope that the Government will further consider the amendments that we have passed back to the other place, which are intended not to undermine the Bill but merely to improve it, and that they will reflect and think again.
We are all united by admiration for our Armed Forces and the service they give to our country. We know that we depend on them to defend our democracy and values at home and across the world, with our allies. We know that those values are likely to be tested again and again over the coming years and decades. The Bill, soon to be an Act, is part of the contract we make as our duty of care for them and their families, and we as Her Majesty’s Official Opposition have been proud to support it.
My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, in thanking the Minister, and join her in thanking her officials for the time they have been willing to take to brief the opposition spokespeople here in the Lords, and to answer questions in private, in Grand Committee and in the Chamber. It has been an important process and helpful to have had detailed responses, particularly on some of the legislative aspects, where my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford is expert and I am not. It has been very useful to have the legal input, and I am grateful for that.
Like the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, I pay tribute to the Armed Forces. The Bill is important, and it is particularly important at this time to be putting the Armed Forces covenant on a statutory footing. We have now left Afghanistan—Op Pitting has just taken place—and, for many of our service personnel and veterans, there will be questions about the end of Op Herrick and what we have managed to achieve. For some, there may be consequences with which, I hope, the Armed Forces covenant will help them deal.
I very much hope that the two amendments passed in your Lordships’ House will go through the other place without needing to come back for ping-pong. I suspect that may not happen but, pending that, I thank the Minister again and hope that the Bill is passed as quickly as possible, because we clearly need it on the statute book by the end of the year.
My Lords, as one of the sponsors of a number of amendments, I have added to the work of the Minister and her Bill team. I add my thanks to her for the way she has dealt with them. The Bill team, having been faced with a very large number of late government amendments, have done a magnificent job; Jayne Scheier and all of them ought to be thanked very much for that effort. I hope that the Minister will not forget that I mentioned the Hong Kong veterans and have yet to have a decent reply about that. The issue has been outstanding for 35 years, so it is about time it was dealt with.
I hope, too, that the amendments we have sent back to the other place will be accepted. Time is short, Covid threatens and it would be sensible if the Government avoided ping-ponging it in this direction again. I thank the Minister very much for all that she has done on this Bill.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and noble Lords across the Chamber for their contributions. They reflect what I said in my remarks: we are all united in our admiration for, and desire to support, our Armed Forces. I thank noble Lords for these helpful and constructive comments.
Bill passed and returned to the Commons with amendments.