Motion to Approve
My Lords, today we have a small though essential piece of parliamentary business to conduct: our annual consideration of the legislation governing the Armed Forces. First, I express my admiration for our Armed Forces—a sentiment that I know is echoed across the Chamber—who display with professionalism and commitment their exceptional feats to protect this country. At times they do so in incredibly difficult circumstances at home and further afield. They deserve our absolute unqualified respect and appreciation.
As we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Falklands War, I take this opportunity to extend our gratitude to those 30,000 brave men and women who made that long journey to the south Atlantic and served with courage and distinction. It was a privilege for me to attend the Falklands War memorial service at the National Memorial Arboretum last month. That was a most poignant occasion.
The draft order that we are considering is to continue in force the Armed Forces Act 2006 for a further year—that is, until the end of 14 December 2023. This reflects a constitutional requirement under the Bill of Rights that a standing Army, and by extension now the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, must have the consent of Parliament. Every five years, renewal is by an Act of Parliament—an Armed Forces Act. The most recent was in 2021 and there must be another before the end of 2026. Between each five-yearly Act, annual renewal is by Order in Council, such as the one before us.
The Armed Forces Act 2006 contains the provisions necessary for maintenance of the Armed Forces, including the systems of command, justice and, very importantly, discipline. If the Armed Forces Act 2006 is not renewed by this Order in Council before the end of 14 December 2022, it will automatically expire and the legislation that governs the Armed Forces and the provisions necessary for their maintenance as disciplined bodies will cease to exist. The continuation of this Act therefore is essential for the maintenance of discipline wherever service personnel are serving in the world, whether that is supporting emergency services and local communities at home, as demonstrated so impressively in the recent fight against Covid; continuing to provide high-quality instruction and training to many of Ukraine’s troops; or maintaining and enhancing our welcome footprint in the Baltic and northern Europe to strengthen Euro-Atlantic security.
Your Lordships will recall the thorough and considered scrutiny given to the Armed Forces Act 2021. We have a programme of secondary legislation planned to implement that Act, which noble Lords can expect to see over the coming months, including a statutory instrument that makes changes to the rules that apply to the service courts, regulations relating to the Defence Serious Crime Unit and regulations that establish a service police complaints regime. The focus of today’s debate, however, is not that Act and its implementation, but the requirement to agree the draft order to continue the Armed Forces Act 2006 for another year.
I hope your Lordships will support and approve this draft continuation order, which will provide the sound legal basis for our Armed Forces to continue to afford us their vital protection, which is more needed than ever in Europe’s new reality. I beg to move.
My Lords, we of course fully support this SI so that the Armed Forces Act 2006 can remain in force. It gives us a chance once again to offer the Armed Forces our full support and acknowledge all that they do, as the Minister said. The order is essential for the Armed Forces to be maintained as disciplined bodies. Indeed, it is as a result of this discipline that our Armed Forces are so successful in the discharge of their duties, whether at home or abroad, which she outlined for us. The need for our Armed Forces has been brought into sharp focus by events in Ukraine following Russia’s illegal invasion.
We are all proud of the way in which our country has supported Ukraine, and we need to ensure that it goes on as long as necessary. I ask the Government continually to explain to the British public the importance of our efforts and that we are defending democracy and freedom in eastern Europe, and for the rest of Europe and ourselves. Their fight is our fight. There will be other occasions to discuss this more broadly as well as the recent NATO summit in Madrid, the new strategy that emerged from it, defence spending and the future of our Armed Forces, including the mistake, as we see it, of reducing our Army by 10,000 troops, a decision which needs to be reviewed.
I have one specific question relating to the order. It is about Article 1(2), which states:
“This Order extends to England and Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man and the British overseas territories”.
I understand that, but can the Minister explain why it continues:
“(except Gibraltar) and the Channel Islands”?
We have a base in Gibraltar and our Armed Forces serve there, and I assume that there are some Armed Forces activities in and around the Channel Islands, and I wonder why they are not included.
I thank the Minister for her comments. As she said, we are rightly proud of our Armed Forces, whether they are supporting local communities, delivering aid or defending human rights, democracy and freedom in Europe and beyond. We will never take them for granted. They are respected across this Parliament and across the world, and for that we are humbled and grateful.
From these Benches I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and the Minister in supporting the Armed Forces and recognising the huge debt that we as a country owe them every day of every year.
When I realised there was yet another Armed Forces Act (Continuation) Order, I began to think that perhaps I was getting so old that time was running away from me, because it did not feel like a year since we last debated the continuation of the Armed Forces Act. Then I looked and realised that Her Majesty gave Royal Assent only in December 2021, so it is not quite that we have gone a year without discussing the Armed Forces.
In some ways, this legislation ought to be the most important parliamentary business that we conduct. Having our Armed Forces is vital. We often talk about the security of the realm being the most important duty of government, but at the moment we do not see very many people on the Government Benches. It may be that noble Lords are busy trying to work out whether there is indeed a Government who are going to ensure that the Armed Forces provide the security of the realm at the moment. I hope that the Secretary of State for Defence will remain in his role for a little while longer, because we clearly need to ensure that defence is a top priority.
This is a very simple piece of legislation, but it is very important. As the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, said, it matters because of discipline. The Minister mentioned that statutory instruments will be coming forward in future. I looked to see whether my noble friend Lord Thomas was here because I normally rely on him to deal with the legal aspect of forces discipline and those aspects of Armed Forces legislation.
This order gives us the opportunity not just to pay tribute to our Armed Forces but to ask Her Majesty’s Government what they are doing not just to ensure that there can be service discipline and that our Armed Forces are loyal to the Queen, but that as a country and a Parliament we are ensuring that our Armed Forces have the resources they require in terms of procurement, that the equipment they work with is adequate and does not cause health issues, that they have adequate accommodation, that their morale is ensured, and that we look again at forces numbers because having legislation that simply says “We have Armed Forces” is not sufficient. We need to ensure that our Armed Forces are fit for the 21st century and for the many tasks that are asked of them. I hope that in her reply the Minister will be able to go a little broader than the legislation in front of us today.
My Lords, I support this continuation order, but I shall refer to two points that I raised during the passage of the Act last year. It was agreed that the first would be dealt with in later work. It was whether having due regard for veterans’ treatment under the military covenant should not be restricted to issues dealt with by subordinate authorities and whether there were some which it would be necessary to grip at central government level. The Government undertook to report after due consideration taking place later this year and next. Can the Minister confirm that this is still the position? Does she have anything to add to it?
The second issue concerns the treatment of Hong Kong Military Service Corps veterans who did not retain their British passports as had some of their number in 1997. I raised this in the debate on the then Armed Forces Bill. The MoD passed it to the Home Office for further consideration. I raised it again in the debates on the then Nationality and Borders Bill earlier this year, which led to a commitment from the Dispatch Box that the Government would resolve this long-standing issue by the end of this calendar year with a further undertaking to report on progress in June. June has been and gone, and I have yet to have a response to my Question for Written Answer seeking information on progress. As this concerns veterans, I hope that the MoD will continue to take an active interest in the outcome which veterans have long sought.
My Lords, I join the Minister of State, my noble friend Lady Smith and the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, in their support and admiration for our wonderful Armed Forces. During the progress of the Act, I referred to Sir Richard Henriques’s admirable report and the suggestions and recommendations he made. Will the Minister give us an answer as to what is happening about those recommendations? If not much is happening, when will something happen about them?
My Lords, I thank your Lordships for the warmth of sentiment. I think we articulate a conjoined view of admiration for our Armed Forces. It is very important to our Armed Forces to know that these sentiments come from all quarters of the Chamber. It is important that they are aware of that and know that they are valued right across the political spectrum. I thank your Lordships for making that so clear.
The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, raised a number of points. He correctly raised the need to continue to explain to the public the importance of what we are doing to support Ukraine. I absolutely agree with that. As I think we all understand, what we are doing to come to the aid of Ukraine and to assist in its self-defence, along with our NATO allies and other partners, is, frankly, a fundamental fight for the preservation of freedom, sovereignty and respect for international law, which we have seen so appallingly traduced in recent months. I entirely agree with his sentiment, and there are probably various ways in which we can apply our minds to how we might continue to do that, and maybe do it better, so I thank him for raising the point.
As he indicated, it extends not just to the United Kingdom but to our NATO allies. The NATO summit did its own bit of dissemination of information, because it garnered a lot of publicity and interest. It was largely all about how we in Euro-Atlantic security recognise what has been happening and then pool our resources to make sure we have a really impressive and robust facility to deter any further illegal activity.
The noble Lord raised a technical point that I understood, but it bewildered me because I did not have an answer to it. I am grateful to him for raising the point. I am informed by my officials that the Armed Forces Act 2006 itself does not extend to Gibraltar and the Channel Islands. I think that is because of their particular Administrations and regimens within their jurisdictions, but apparently they can apply the Act using their own legislation. It seems that technically they are outwith the scope of the Act but that if there are parts of the Act that they wish to invoke, they can use their own legislative powers to achieve that.
The support of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, for the Armed Forces was also very welcome. I rather shared her sense of déjà vu about the recurrence of Armed Forces legislation. We all agree that it is important, but we have been seeing it quite regularly in the legislative programme. It matters and it is probably refreshing for us all—not least for me as a Minister—to be constantly reminded of things we must keep an eye on.
I wish to reassure the noble Baroness that the SI we are dealing with is of course very important. She mentioned the paucity of personnel on the Front Bench. I think earlier matters completely consumed your Lordships’ attention and probably exhausted their appetite for further discussion. I was very nearly not here myself, so it was a great relief that I came panting in at the 11th hour. I hope the Secretary of State for Defence remains in post; he and I have a good relationship and I think he is doing a first-class job.
The noble Baroness raised the important issue of what the Government are doing to value our Armed Forces and to be sure that we are allocating to them the resources they require. She raised a number of important specific issues, such as health and safety, morale and troop numbers, which I know is a subject of interest to your Lordships. With the recent budget settlement, a lot of expenditure is now being allocated to the very sorts of things she is concerned about, whether that is improving uniforms—not least for women, interestingly—or looking at upgrading service families’ accommodation and making sure it is much more modern and acceptable. There have been issues with some elements of that accommodation but that is currently very much under active review.
The noble Baroness mentioned health and safety. I am pleased to say that we recently—in the last two years, I think—set up a directorate of health and safety in the MoD. We have a very capable director serving in that department; I liaise with him monthly because that is one of my areas of ministerial responsibility. There has been a seismic change in how we approach this because of the professionalism of the department, led by this director. I am very clear that health and safety is now imbued into the culture of what we do. Part of it is that we have to create a safe environment for our Armed Forces to operate in, but part of it is also about educating our Armed Forces to be vigilant about recognising where risk exists and taking steps to avoid it. I am pleased to say that some excellent and very positive work has been proceeding on that front.
We have had discussions about troop numbers. I know that my noble friend Lord Howe responded to a Question in the House last week; there is not much more I can add to that. There are perhaps two spectra of opinion. One is that you need more bodies there. Another is that it is not so much the number of bodies as what we are directing them to do and how we are giving them the technology and equipment to do it. That will be a continuing debate, which I fully understand, but the Government’s position is clear and I can do no more than reiterate it.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, asked specifically about the covenant, the “due regard” obligation and whether any of the powers envisaged in the Armed Forces Act have now been specifically allocated to central government. I apologise to the noble and gallant Lord—he will be disappointed—because I do not have an up-to-date position. It is not in my briefing, but I undertake to inquire and shall report to him.
On his question about the Hong Kong military veterans, I must confess to not being au fait with what commitment the Home Office gave at the Dispatch Box, but I shall find out. I have noted that there was to be a report by the end of June. I shall make inquiries about that and, again, undertake to communicate with the noble and gallant Lord.
I must apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Burnett. As he spoke, I was busy jotting down a response to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. I invite the noble Lord to re-pose his question, because I did not get a proper note of it.
Sir Richard Henriques made an admirable report, which we discussed in last year’s debate leading up to the Act. He made some recommendations, and I wonder what has happened about them—whether they have been adopted and when they will be adopted if they have not—and the progress the Government are making in dealing with those very important recommendations.
I thank the noble Lord and apologise for failing to pick up on his question first time round. I have good news to share. The Henriques report was, frankly, excellent, and pivotal to redirecting how the MoD should conduct activity within the service justice system. I remind your Lordships that Henriques found that that system was, in its own respect, robust, professional and capable. Importantly, the Defence Serious Crime Unit has been set up, and a provost marshal has been appointed to run it. There are to be improvements to Military Police investigations, but the Military Police are now benefitting from additional training which they share with their civilian counterparts. That is a very important aspect of how we assist our Military Police in dealing with investigations. There have been other improvements in how we expect witnesses to give evidence and the protections we can afford to them when they give evidence, including victims, so that that much more replicates the safeguards we find in the civilian criminal justice system.
What might be helpful to the noble Lord is for me to go back and task my official who is preparing a little précis of the progress that has been made—progress has been constant and it has been important—and undertake to write to the noble Lord with that. I will put the letter in the Library so that that information is more broadly available.
I thank the Minister for that very helpful reply about the Henriques review and the progress being made with it. Given that she said that this order does not apply to Gibraltar, and has outlined the way in which discipline will be progressed through the Henriques review and other regulations as they come forward, does that mean that none of the regulations as they relate to discipline and apply with respect to this order will apply to Gibraltar? The Minister may not be able to answer, but she gave a very helpful answer about the Henriques review, which deals with service discipline and service justice, and outlined the progress made with respect to its implementation. But given that this order does not apply to Gibraltar—if I understood it right, the Gibraltar Government have their own rules—what does that mean for regulations such as the Henriques review with respect to Gibraltar?
It is probably important to distinguish between discipline, which is one of the tenets of our UK Armed Forces, and operating according to a code of behaviour and under a chain of command. That is what the Armed Forces Act embraces and what the annual renewal order refreshes every year. That is entirely to do with United Kingdom forces and how they are constituted. Gibraltar and the Channel Islands are outwith that.
On the question of how we run our service justice system, I may be wrong but I think that the service justice system is distinct from Gibraltar because Gibraltar has its own administrative and legislative processes. I will inquire on that, and undertake to write in greater detail to the noble Lord.
House adjourned at 6.53 pm.