Clause 2 — Armed forces covenant report

Armed Forces Bill (Programme) (No. 2) – in the House of Commons at 5:45 pm on 14th June 2011.

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Votes in this debate

  • Division number 291
    A majority of MPs voted against requiring a Minister for Former Armed Services, rather than the Secretary of State for Defence, Personnel to report each year on the armed forces covenant.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Substitute Member)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 16, page 2, leave out lines 8 to 12 and insert—

(a) education;

(b) accommodation;

(c) healthcare;

(d) mental healthcare;

(e) pensions and benefits;

(f) employment and training;

(g) support for reservists and their employers;

(h) the running of the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme;

(i) progress on Armed Forces rehabilitation services; and

(j) such other fields as the External Reference Group may determine.’.

Amendment 3, page 2, leave out line 11 and insert ‘including—

(a) the operation of section 359C (Former Armed Services Personnel Rights Charter),

(aa) the operation of section 359D (Former Armed Services Personnel Support Officers),

(ab) the operation of section 359E (Financial Support for Former Armed Services Personnel Welfare Groups),

(ac) the operation of section 359F (Former Armed Services Personnel Policy Forum),

(ad) the effect of the following issues upon service people—

(i) welfare benefits;

(ii) housing;

(iii) healthcare;

(iv) education, including educational courses and training;

(v) employment advice;

(vi) budgetary and life skills;

(vii) debt management;

(viii) alcohol and drug treatment;

(ix) relationship skills/domestic violence courses for perpetrators and victims; and’.

Amendment 17, page 2, line 11, after ‘housing’, insert—

‘(aa) in the operation of inquests’.

Government amendments 11, 12 and 13

Amendment 4, page 2, line 12, at end insert—

‘(2A) The report shall include expert recommendations on improving the welfare of former armed services personnel.

(2B) Expert recommendations shall include a timeframe in which these recommendations should be implemented.

(2C) If the Secretary of State will not implement any of the expert recommendations as directed then he shall lay a report before Parliament explaining why they have not been implemented, within 40 days of the laying of the armed forces covenant report.’.

New clause 2—Minister for Former Armed Services Personnel

‘After section 359A of Armed Forces Act 2006, insert—

“359B Minister for Former Armed Services Personnel

(1) A Minister shall be appointed within the Cabinet Office who shall be known as the Minister for Former Armed Services Personnel.

(2) The roles and responsibility of the Minister shall be set out by the Secretary of State for the Cabinet Office by order and shall include—

(a) Laying the Annual Armed Forces Covenant Report, in conjunction with the Secretary of State for Defence.

(b) Conducting such activities as shall be seen to be positive for the well-being of former armed services personnel.

(c) Conducting detailed and independently verifiable research to establish a baseline on which future progress can be measured.

(3) The Minister for Former Armed Services Personnel shall be appointed within three months of Royal Assent to the Armed Forces Act 2011.”.’.

New clause 3—Former Armed Services Personnel Rights Charter

‘After section 359B of Armed Forces Act 2006, insert—

“359C Former Armed Services Personnel Rights Charter

(1) A Former Armed Services Personnel Rights Charter shall be published, indicating the rights to assistance that former armed services personnel shall expect.

(2) The Former Armed Services Personnel Rights Charter shall be made by a Minister of the Crown by order made by statutory instrument and include—

(a) the requirement to undergo a psychological assessment immediately prior to leaving the armed forces,

(b) the requirement of a resettlement assessment, conducted approximately six months prior to the expected date of discharge,

(c) the requirement of access to advice from relevant voluntary organisations, approximately three to four months prior to the expected date of discharge, regarding the following possible needs—

(i) welfare;

(ii) housing;

(iii) educational course and training;

(iv) employment advice;

(v) budgetary and life skills;

(vi) debt management;

(vii) alcohol and drug treatment; and

(viii) relationship skills/domestic violence courses.

(d) the requirement of back up support and advice, provided in person, by telephone and other reasonable means, to all former armed services personnel at any point within the first six months following discharge,

(e) the requirement of tailored support for former armed services personnel in the criminal justice system,

(f) any other relevant assistance considered necessary by the Minister in pursuit of the improvements in former armed services personnel welfare.

(3) The Former Armed Services Personnel Rights Charter shall be published following consultation with relevant stakeholders.

(4) “Relevant stakeholders” includes members of veterans’ support agencies.

(5) The Former Armed Services Personnel Rights Charter shall be introduced within one year of Royal Assent to the Armed Forces Act 2011.

(6) The operation of the Former Armed Services Personnel Rights Charter shall be reported upon in the Armed Forces Covenant Report.”.’.

New clause 4—Former armed services personnel support officers

‘After section 359C of Armed Forces Act 2006, insert—

“359D Former Armed Services Personnel Support Officers

(1) A former armed services personnel support officer post shall be appointed in each prison and probation service in England and Wales.

(2) The role of the former armed services personnel support officer shall be to ensure continuation of support in the criminal justice system.

(3) Former armed services personnel support officers shall be appointed within one year of Royal Assent to the Armed Forces Act 2011.

(4) The operation of the former armed services personnel support officers shall be reported upon in the Armed Forces Covenant Report.”.’.

New clause 5—Financial support for former armed services personnel welfare groups

‘After section 359D of Armed Forces Act 2006, insert—

“359E Financial Support for Former Armed Services Personnel Welfare Groups

(1) Financial support shall be provided for former armed services personnel welfare groups in each financial year to provided assistance to former armed services personnel.

(2) Former armed services personnel welfare groups eligible for such financial support shall be those approved by the Minister.

(3) The criterion for such eligibility shall be published by the Minister following an independent scoping study into the needs of former armed services personnel and the services currently available which will provide a baseline for future progress.

(4) The independent scoping study shall be published not later than one year after the Royal Assent to the Armed Forces Act 2011.

(5) The operation of the Financial Support for Armed Services Personnel Welfare Groups shall be reported upon in the Armed Forces Covenant Report.”.’.

New clause 6—Former Armed Services Personnel Policy Forum

‘After section 359E of Armed Forces Act 2006, insert—

“359F Former Armed Services Personnel Policy Forum

(1) A Former Armed Services Personnel Policy Forum shall be created to ensure best practice in the treatment and discussion of veterans’ welfare issues.

(2) The Former Armed Services Personnel Policy Forum shall have membership comprising representatives of the statutory, private and voluntary sector.

(3) The chair and members of the Former Armed Services Personnel Policy forum shall be appointed by the Secretary of State following consultation with relevant stakeholders and shall include a government representative.

(4) The criterion for membership and responsibilities of the veterans’ policy forum shall be determined by the Secretary of State following consultation with relevant stakeholders.

(5) “Relevant stakeholders” shall include Ministers in devolved legislatures and veterans’ support agencies.

(6) The Former Armed Services Personnel Policy Forum shall report from time to time to the relevant authority.

(7) “Relevant authority” means Ministers responsible for the implementation of policies relating to veterans’ welfare, including Ministers in devolved administrations.

(8) The Former Armed Services Personnel Rights’ Policy Forum shall be introduced within one year of Royal Assent to the Armed Forces Act 2011.

(9) The operation of the Former Armed Services Personnel Policy Forum shall be reported upon in the Armed Forces Covenant Report.”.’.

New clause 13—Armed Forces Advocates

‘After section 359 of AFA 2006 insert—

“359B Armed Forces Advocates

(1) The existing network of Armed Forces Advocates will be extended through the nomination of supporting advocates at regional and local level to ensure that local authorities work together to identify and resolve issues in local policy or the delivery of services that may affect service people.

(2) In this section “Armed Forces Advocate” means public servant nominated to monitor and resolve policy or legislative issues that arise for service people.”.’.

New clause 14—Duties of ombudsmen and Covenant commitments

‘After section 359 of AFA 2006 insert—

“359C Duties of Ombudsmen and Covenant commitments

‘The Parliamentary and Local Government Ombudsmen shall have the duty to investigate complaints from service personnel that a public body or local authority has failed to meet the commitments outlined in the ‘The Armed Forces Covenant’ and ‘The Armed Forces Covenant: Today and Tomorrow’.”.’.

New clause 17—Duties of public bodies and Ministers

‘(1) In preparing policy, public bodies and Ministers must have regard to those matters to which the Secretary of State is to have regard in preparing an armed forces covenant report, under subsection (2A) of section 359A of AFA 2006.

(2) In preparing policy, public bodies and Ministers must consider whether the making of special provision for service people or particular descriptions of service people would be justified.’.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales), Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Constitution), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am pleased to be able to speak to the amendments, but also rather baffled by the fact that I was unable to raise my points earlier. Although I spoke on Second Reading and expressed a strong interest in being involved in the earlier Committee stage, I was unfortunately denied that opportunity. For the first time in the current Parliament, the number of Members dealing with a Bill in a Select Committee was reduced so that a representative of a minority party would not be present. I am sure that my disappointment is shared by my colleagues the hon. Members for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) and for Upper Bann (David Simpson). Be that as it may, however, I am very glad to have been given the opportunity to speak.

My amendments and new clauses focus on the need to strengthen the provision of welfare for veterans of the armed forces, an issue on which I have been campaigning in the House and outside for a number of years. They would establish a more robust structure of support for personnel leaving the forces, and would ensure that veterans were not disadvantaged in any way when trying to gain access to public services as a result of the service that they had given. They were heavily influenced by the recommendations made by the justice unions parliamentary group on veterans in the criminal justice system, of which I am chair. They also deal with the need to enshrine the military covenant in law, a move that I am glad to hear that the Government will be making in the coming months via the Bill. I hoped to see a little more detail about the covenant in the Government amendments, given that the devil is always in the detail, but the Government have at least acknowledged the need to uphold, maintain and develop further that all-important relationship between our armed forces and the public.

My amendments set out what we in the justice unions parliamentary group believe is a firm course of action to tackle the problems faced by vulnerable veterans, and it is my earnest hope that the Committee will give them due consideration. New clause 2 and amendment 2 seek to introduce a Minister for Former Armed Services Personnel, who would sit in the Cabinet Office and among whose responsibilities would be the laying of the armed forces report before Parliament each year. Most important, the Minister’s remit would extend across

Departments, and he or she would therefore be ideally placed to tackle veterans’ issues, needs and priorities in an holistic way.

The Bill provides for the armed forces report to be laid by the Secretary of State for Defence. I mean to cause no offence whatsoever to the present Secretary of State in arguing that a Minister with such a wide remit cannot possibly hope to dedicate as much attention to that document as I believe it deserves, and that the report should therefore be written by someone whose sole ministerial responsibility lies with veterans’ welfare and who will not be unduly compromised—in the strict sense—by other vested interests.

Amendment 3 seeks to broaden the remit of the armed forces report, and is relevant to a number of new clauses to which I will return briefly later. Amendment 16, tabled by Gemma Doyle, makes many of the same points. My recommendations were made before the earlier Committee stage, from which I was excluded, but I am glad that they can be raised in the Chamber now.

As Members will know, the Bill specifies that an armed forces covenant report shall be laid before Parliament each year, and shall cover the effects had by membership, or former membership, of the armed forces seen in the fields of health care, education, and housing. Let me make the genuine observation that that is a welcome step, given that the regulation of the services available to veterans is a prerequisite for improvement of those services. I believe that the proposed report’s remits do not go far enough, however. My amendments demand that they inquire in greater depth into how having a military service background affects personnel in obtaining public services. The report should not simply discuss education, housing and health care; I have specified that it should also cover other subjects, including welfare benefits, employment advice, budgetary and life skills, debt management, alcohol and drug treatment and relationship skills.

The most important amendment is that stipulating a series of issues to be covered in the armed forces report as, crucially, it demands that it covers far more areas. In the Select Committee, the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire said that

“Tony Stables of the Confederation of British Service and Ex Service Organisations—from the armed forces families federations and from the Forces Pension Society”— wanted the list of subjects covered by the report to be extended and that there was disappointment about their appearing to be limited to only three. I appreciate that the Secretary of State will have the power to increase the number of subjects if he desires, but, to put it simply, there is no point legislating for an armed forces report to be laid before Parliament if it provides only a limited vision of the problems it needs to address. The bare fact is that veterans do not often encounter these problems in isolation, as the factors that contribute to social estrangement are far more likely to be encountered as a package. Often, although not always, these problems arise contemporaneously; for example, employment advice cannot be fully given without due consideration also being given to debt management, further training, re-skilling and housing.

When personnel leave the armed forces, they will almost certainly need to find a job, as the services tend to recruit their personnel at a young age, and they often retire from the services long before standard retirement age. Little advice or provision in respect of resettlement is given to service leavers, however, particularly if they have served for fewer than four years, although that largely depends on details such as their regiment and where they are stationed. This problem is particularly stark for early service leavers, and studies have shown that they are at far greater risk of suicide, substance misuse, debt, crime and homelessness. That is why it is so important that the covenant and its associated reports pertain to all veterans regardless of the period of time for which they have served.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform) 6:00 pm, 14th June 2011

For the record, I think it is a shame that the full range of views in the House were not represented on the Committee in question because a Member such as the right hon. Gentleman was unable to serve on it.

New clause 3 states that there should be a requirement to undergo a psychological assessment immediately prior to leaving the armed forces. Does the right hon. Gentleman that think there would also be value in making sure there is a psychological assessment on entering the armed forces, as many of the young men and women who enter the armed forces have psychological needs, and they ought to be met while they are serving members, and not considered only when they leave?

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Conservative, North East Hertfordshire

Having served on Committees with the right hon. Gentleman, I know that he always makes an important contribution. On the question of whether his proposal is the best way of ensuring all disadvantages are covered by the report, does he share my concern that by listing all the various areas, he may, in some sense, be prescribing them, and that it would be better instead to leave some discretion with the Secretary of State to be able to look at any disadvantage and report on that, because it is hard to predict exactly where such disadvantages may lie?

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales), Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Constitution), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman makes that point with complete sincerity, but the Secretary of State can look at further areas in any case; he is not limited to dealing with only certain areas. One matter is of concern to me, however, especially from having spoken to representatives of the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association. Not so long ago, I spoke with a gentleman who told me that about 70% of the work he does is debt management, and, unfortunately, drug and alcohol abuse are also big issues. I felt that by specifying these areas, they could at least be identified. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, so the Secretary of State would not be prevented from looking at other issues. I understand the point the hon. Gentleman makes and appreciate the way in which he expressed it, but I do not think listing would necessarily cause any harm.

SSAFA suggests that debt management is one of the greatest problems facing former armed services personnel, since being in the military provides stable employment for them. Armed forces personnel are thus able to access relatively high levels of credit, although little or no training is given to them on how to control their finances. On leaving the forces without proper financial management training, problems with debt can easily arise, and lead to homelessness and crime.

When leaving the forces, an individual is officially made homeless. Former servicemen and women—although it should be pointed out that this problem is primarily associated with men—often end up relying on relatives or friends for temporary accommodation, putting strains on relationships in the process. If they are unable to gain employment, the patience of their relatives may wear thin, while, perversely, an inability to provide a permanent address decreases the likelihood of their finding a job. Ex-servicemen are thus catapulted into a vicious circle of social exclusion, which can be tackled only by strengthening the advice available to them prior to discharge. I shall briefly return to this point.

Equally importantly, the armed services report must give an account of how service life can increase the likelihood of people turning to drug and alcohol abuse. Post-traumatic stress disorder receives much attention in the press, but it is alcohol and other substance addictions that present the most significant threat to veterans’ mental health. Regrettably, anecdotal evidence suggests that at certain stages of Army life, alcohol is treated as a catalyst to unwinding—or, to use the fashionable phrase, self-medication.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales), Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Constitution), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Yes, as the hon. Gentleman humorously says, unlike in Parliament, but let me return to my serious point.

It cannot be a coincidence that so many veterans leave active service displaying an over-dependence on alcohol. I hardly need say how quickly such a dependence can, if left totally untreated, feed into other habits, violent behaviour and crime. That is why I would like the report to address the point of counselling on substance misuse playing a vital part in, as it were, the decompression of personnel.

As those who have worked with or encountered veterans grappling with social estrangement will testify, these problems often do not arise singly, but are part of a package of social hindrances faced daily. It is thus only right that the report should take account of the multi-faceted nature of this rupture. Amendment 4 specifies that the report should take into account the recommendations of a panel of outside experts in the field, as well as specify a time frame in which they should be implemented. Proposed new subsection (2C) to clause 2 ensures that the Secretary of State is obliged to implement recommendations, rather than simply write things he or she has no intention of doing, by the fact that he or she must lay a further report before Parliament within 40 days of the laying of the initial report, explaining why certain recommendations have not been implemented.

Amendment 3 also specifies that the report should outline the operation of the former armed services personnel rights charter, the former armed services personnel support officers, financial support for former armed services personnel welfare groups and the former armed services personnel policy forum, all of which are explained in the Bill.

New clause 3 pertains to the former armed forces personnel rights charter, which would put in legislation an obligation on the Government to ensure that veterans undergo psychological assessment before leaving the armed forces—and possibly on entry, as has been said; that they have a resettlement assessment approximately six months before the expected date of discharge; that they have access to advice from voluntary organisations on how to combat potential problems after leaving the forces; and that they are given access to that advice in good time before they are discharged.

At the moment, many veterans feel when that when leaving the forces people are on their own. Regardless of whether that is the case, I think we need to intensify personnel’s awareness of the support that is available to those who need it.

Photo of Louise Mensch Louise Mensch Conservative, Corby

It is a great pleasure to be able to intervene on the right hon. Gentleman and take this opportunity to thank him for his incredible work for veterans not just in this Parliament but over many years, for which the entire House will commend him. May I put it to him, however, that his amendments are, as my hon. Friend Oliver Heald pointed out, a little too prescriptive? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that a simpler way to address the needs of our veterans would be for this country to have a veterans’ administration or Department, as every other nation in the English-speaking world does?

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales), Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Constitution), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I thank the hon. Lady for her very generous comments, but I visited the United States in September and I visited the veterans’ agency. It is the second largest Department of State in the United States and it costs an absolute fortune to run. It was put in place, I believe, because the United States had to deal with the fallout of Vietnam. There is a much smaller scale operation in Canada. In an ideal world, the hon. Lady would be right, but in these straitened circumstances, it would be rather unrealistic of me to make that call. I hope that in the not-too-distant future we, too, will have such a Department. I do not make that call now, because I do not think it is realistic so to do.

I take the hon. Lady’s point about my amendments being prescriptive and so on. It is a moot point: I may well be wrong and she may be right; I do not know. One thing we should consider urgently, however, as I have mentioned, is having a Minister in the Cabinet Office to cross-cut all available services and to consider everything in each Department that might or might not impact on veterans. I think that would be a useful step forward, albeit that it is not so dramatic a step as a veterans’ Department, which, at the end of the day, she and I would undoubtedly favour although it is perhaps unrealistic to call for it at this stage.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

I am a little uneasy about the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal about a Minister in the Cabinet Office and about the proposal made by my hon. Friend Mrs Mensch for a Department for veterans’ affairs. It seems to me that the Secretary of State for Defence, the three services under him and under them the regiments and units to which people are attached are responsible for looking after veterans when they leave the services.

To remove that responsibility from them and to give it to somebody else in the Cabinet Office or a separate Department would seem to me to be quite wrong.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales), Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Constitution), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman misses my point. That Minister would look at every single Department in turn, including the MOD, and when there was some form of engagement with veterans in that Department he or she would report accordingly on whatever he or she found to be the case. The responsibility would ultimately still lie with the military. I say, with the greatest of respect to the hon. Gentleman and those from the military who might be listening, that hitherto the military has not been very good at looking after veterans and that is why I am on my feet at the moment.

Photo of Sandra Osborne Sandra Osborne Labour, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock

I, for one, would love to see a dedicated Department for veterans in this country, notwithstanding the expense. If we feel that they deserve recognition, we should be prepared to put our money where our mouth is, perhaps not right now but in the future. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the huge step forward we are witnessing today is that the military covenant will be in law, which the Government previously resisted? That is a huge step forward.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform) 6:15 pm, 14th June 2011

The right hon. Gentleman has rightly referred to drug and alcohol abuse, which is unfortunately prevalent among large numbers of those who have served in our armed forces and among some in the armed forces. Sometimes the solutions are not all state run, however. The most successful organisation in helping people with alcohol dependency is Alcoholics Anonymous and, sometimes, the state and the Ministry of Defence have been rather reluctant to involve voluntary organisations such as Alcoholics Anonymous in helping people out of their addiction.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales), Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Constitution), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am sure that is right—I have no argument with that—but what is to prevent signposting and sending personnel to be assessed? For example, just down the road from here is an organisation called Veterans’ Aid, which is run by Wing Commander Hugh Milroy. Under his good offices, very few ex-service people are sleeping rough in London. There were quite a number of them 10 years ago; now there are hardly any. He has done that work. There are numerous organisations doing excellent work for ex-forces personnel, but I am arguing for a more consistent approach across the piece—a more holistic approach. I could use the words “postcode lottery”: there are good services and good practice, but we need to ensure that they are accessible across the piece and across all the constituent parts of the UK, wherever veterans are, wherever they served and whichever regiment they were with.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

At the risk of incurring your wrath, Mr Gale, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman and all in the House would like to join me in congratulating

Wing Commander Milroy on his richly deserved OBE in the birthday honours only last Saturday.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales), Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Constitution), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am delighted to congratulate Wing Commander Milroy on that—it is a well-deserved honour for a lot of hard work in difficult circumstances.

I do not want to take up too much time this evening, so I shall seek to truncate my remarks. Let me explain one or two more amendments. I will not press the Committee to a Division, because I want to make my points and to return to them at another time.

New clause 3 specifies that back-up advice, in person and by telephone, should be made available for the first six months following discharge. Finally, tailored support should be made available for former armed services personnel in the criminal justice system. The issues surrounding veterans who come into contact with the criminal justice system have been the subject of debates in this House and I shall not go into great detail about them now, but holistic support is required, I believe, for such veterans to ensure that they get the support they need.

New clause 4 would appoint a support officer for former armed services personnel in each prison and probation service in England and Wales. That might sound a bit airy-fairy and pie in the sky, but those people are out there. They are often people who are interested in the subject and who are ex-service personnel, but that turns on the question of whether we have the ex-services personnel in a prison, which is often the key to whether services are properly delivered for these people.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

I just want to make one comment, which is that a heck of a lot of people leave the armed forces and go on to lead perfectly normal, decent lives. They do not need help and I am a little worried that we are giving the impression that everyone needs some sort of help. They do not; only a small percentage of people require that help.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales), Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Constitution), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I agree entirely and I do not want to give the false impression that the majority of service leavers are in dire need of help. That has never been true and never will be. I fully take the hon. Gentleman’s point on board and I agree with what he says. He, of course, comes from a service background and knows this patch rather well—probably far better than I do.

Hon. Members:

But he needs quite a lot of help!

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales), Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Constitution), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I will move to finish my remarks fairly quickly because we are subject to some rather strange remarks at the moment.

The role that support officers would play would be to ensure that relevant individuals who came into contact with the criminal justice system received support while they were held within the system. Only a small percentage end up in the criminal justice system, but it is entirely possible that a goodly number of those people would not be in the prison system if they had been assisted in other ways when they came out of the services. That is my point. As far as the numbers are concerned, I am not saying that the majority are affected, as that would be absolute nonsense.

Concurrent with the need for support officers is the need to improve the recording of the number of veterans held in prisons, on probation or on parole. At no time hitherto has an individual been asked, upon entry to the justice system, whether they have a service record, but that is now changing I am pleased to say. I shall not go into this topic at length, but I note that a survey conducted by the Home Office in 2001-02 recorded that roughly 6% of inmates were veterans, whereas a survey carried out by the MOD in 2007 estimated the percentage in one prison, Dartmoor, at 17.5%. I shall not get into bandying figures around, as we have had this debate before. These are MOD figures, not mine or NAPO’s. I remember that the last time we had such a debate everyone clubbed together to denigrate Harry Fletcher, but these are not his figures.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Shadow Minister (Defence)

Stop making them up then.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Shadow Minister (Defence)

I know that discussion of this issue can be a bit like “Groundhog Day”, but when I was a Minister, I—under pressure from the right hon. Gentleman, who takes a great interest in this matter—had the Ministry of Justice’s figures, going back to 1967 for the Royal Air Force, cross-referenced with service records and the figure came out at just over 3%. That is not to dispute the fact that there might be more of those individuals in certain prisons, but the facts were established independently and I do not know why certain people keep disputing them.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales), Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Constitution), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I will tell the hon. Gentleman why, if we have time to talk turkey. They are disputed because of the scoping exercise that was recently carried out, which came out with a figure of about 5% or 6%. The figure does not really matter, but figures he mentioned excluded women who had served, the reserve forces, those who had served in Northern Ireland and people under 18.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

May I make a subtler point, rather than disputing the numbers? Although some of the people we are discussing may theoretically be veterans, in that they may have served in the armed services at some time, the only ones we should be concerned about and who need special care of the kind being described would be those who have recently left the armed services, possibly having had combat experience, and those whose crimes can be directly attributable to their service. The mere fact that someone perhaps did national service 30 years ago should not necessarily distinguish them from other prisoners.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales), Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Constitution), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I agree. The only slight note of caution I would add is that, whatever the figure, there are a number of cases of post-traumatic stress disorder and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, PTSD can show itself within a month or can take 15 years to develop.

New clause 5 sets out that financial support shall be made available for ex-services personnel. Let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to the invaluable work of service charities. New clause 5 also sets out the importance of conducting a study of the services already available to veterans, which would provide a baseline for future progress. There is perhaps a little too much room for overlap in some services, whereas some needs are hardly catered for at all. Joining services together and learning from best practice would establish a holistic means to tackle the problem.

Finally, new clause 6 would establish a veterans’ policy forum that would draw its membership from the statutory, private and voluntary sectors. The aim of this forum would be to consult the Government on best practice in the treatment of veterans and their welfare. This once again rests on the vital importance of those with vested interests in this field working together so that no veteran will be made to feel abandoned by a system that is unable to tackle the peculiar problems they might face. I note that a number of amendments surrounding the military covenant have now been withdrawn. I know not what the reason for that is, but I conclude by saying that having the covenant in statutory form is a historic step. I hope that our debates on these clauses will lead to further action being taken in the not-too-distant future as well.

Photo of Gemma Doyle Gemma Doyle Shadow Minister (Defence)

I wish to move amendments 16 and 17—is that in order, Mr Gale?

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Substitute Member)

Order. The hon. Lady may speak to any of the amendments that have been grouped. They will be moved, if they are moved, when they are reached at the appropriate point in the Bill, so it is simply a question of speaking to them now.

Photo of Gemma Doyle Gemma Doyle Shadow Minister (Defence)

Thank you for that clarification, Mr Gale. I will speak to amendments 16 and 17 and to new clauses 13, 14 and 17. As the Committee knows, the vast majority of debate and discussion on the Bill has been about clause 2 and specifically about the military covenant and how best to ensure that it is honoured. Our concern all along has been to ensure that the Government achieve what they have said they want to achieve by enshrining the covenant in law. At the heart of this debate is the overriding principle that no one should be disadvantaged because of their military service. Indeed, many service families have told me that they do not want special treatment—just fair treatment. I welcome the Government’s amendments as a step in the right direction on the military covenant, but the path to get them to this point has been far from graceful. It has been both tortuous and frustrating to watch Ministers deny what was in black and white on paper in front of them, but however they got here I am certainly glad that they have progressed.

We spent many hours debating the covenant in the Select Committee, with the Government arguing both that the unamended Bill enshrined the covenant in law and that it was not necessary to do so. I am not sure whether they have changed their minds on either or both of those points, but I welcome the change of heart none the less and I am pleased to confirm that we support the amendments in the name of the Minister for the Armed Forces although they are not as strong as we had hoped. They enshrine in law the principles of reporting to Parliament, but they are still a step away from fully enshrining the covenant in law. I suspect that Ministers have once again been thwarted by lawyers and civil servants.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Liberal Democrat, Colchester

Does the hon. Lady accept that what we have before us is a vast improvement on the situation a year ago?

Photo of Gemma Doyle Gemma Doyle Shadow Minister (Defence)

The amendments tabled today are a vast improvement on the Bill as it stood. If the hon. Gentleman agrees with that, I wonder why he did not support my amendments in the Select Committee that would have achieved that. Instead, he voted down any proposals to strengthen the covenant or the Bill.

New clause 17 would fully enshrine—

Photo of Gemma Doyle Gemma Doyle Shadow Minister (Defence)

I should like to make a little progress before the Minister

Photo of Gemma Doyle Gemma Doyle Shadow Minister (Defence)

I should at least like to finish my sentence if that is all right.

New clause 17 would fully enshrine the principles of the covenant in law, not half-heartedly but unambiguously.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence 6:30 pm, 14th June 2011

The point Bob Russell was trying to make was that between 1997 and 2010 there was a Labour Government—new Labour, old Labour or whatever we like to call them—and nothing was done. I do not hold the hon. Lady responsible because she was not in the House then. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, when we took office a year ago there was no mention of the covenant, yet now we are putting it on a statutory basis for the first time. I think I first used those words in the House on 10 January.

Photo of Gemma Doyle Gemma Doyle Shadow Minister (Defence)

On frequent occasions, the right hon. Gentleman has acknowledged that plenty was done for veterans under the previous Government, including the creation of his job. If he wants to keep it, perhaps he should have got this right in the first place.

New clause 17 would place a duty on all Departments and public bodies to give consideration to service families and veterans in policy making and implementation. Although it is very welcome that the Secretary of State will report to the House, I would rather such matters were integral to the policy-making framework from the beginning and the new clause would ensure that.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

In her amendment 16, my hon. Friend draws a distinction—unlike the Bill—between health care and mental health care. Many people hope that there will one day be a time when nobody has to draw that distinction because we treat the two exactly the same, but unfortunately it is still an important area that we have to highlight, particularly for armed forces veterans, because all too often there is a Cinderella service that gets no attention. Does my hon. Friend think that it is essential to maintain that distinction? Otherwise, Ministers might just put a single sentence about mental health care into the Bill and that would be wholly insufficient.

Photo of Gemma Doyle Gemma Doyle Shadow Minister (Defence)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Without amendment 16, there will be no requirement whatever for the Secretary of State to look at mental health care or to come to Parliament to report on it. As I have said on a number of occasions, I welcome both the duty on the Secretary of State to report to Parliament and the consequential annual debate, but I still have great concerns that as the Bill stands, only health, education and housing are cited as issues that the report should cover. That is not sufficient. The list in amendment 16 is more comprehensive and more appropriately reflects the Secretary of State’s responsibilities.

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Conservative, Tamworth

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. It was a pleasure to serve with her on the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill. She says that she is keen to see things in black and white, and she refers to the prescription that she would like to see on the face of the Bill. May I point her to the evidence given by Chris Simpkins of the Royal British Legion in answer to my question? I asked:

“You seem to accept, therefore, that having a prescriptive set of pillars—areas that need to be focused on—in the Report would make it too exclusive and that it is better to have three or four areas that are clearly set out, as required by law, and a catch-all clause to incorporate anything else that is necessary at a point in time.”

To which Mr Simpkins responded, “I would indeed.” Why does the hon. Lady think she knows better than the director general of the Royal British Legion?

Photo of Gemma Doyle Gemma Doyle Shadow Minister (Defence)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He and I have debated that point before and, as he knows, I think he is confusing a list of prescribed entitlements with a list of issues on which the Secretary of State has to report. My point all along has been that the Secretary of State should not be reporting on the work of other Departments without reporting on the work of his own Department. It would be bizarre if a report criticised local authorities, or indeed the Department for Education, for disadvantaging the children of service people, but had no reference at all to the MOD’s responsibilities, such as pension provision for the armed forces. I cannot envisage a time in the near future when pension provision will not be an area of concern for our armed forces, so it should be included in the list.

The list does not limit the fields on which the Secretary of State should report; it expands them and makes provision for further relevant issues to be included as circumstances dictate.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

When the Secretary of State comes to the House to make his annual report and, if the hon. Lady is still in her place

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

Very unlikely, if I may say so—as the hon. Lady has already suggested.

Is the hon. Lady telling the Committee that, if she is still in her place and there is no mention in the report of pension provision or mental health care—on which we are doing a great deal of work, as she knows; my hon. Friend Dr Murrison has done a lot of work for us and we are taking it forward—and she thinks that is an issue, she will not mention it?

Photo of Gemma Doyle Gemma Doyle Shadow Minister (Defence)

I give the Minister a categorical assurance that I will mention it. My concern is whether the Secretary of State will even consider those issues. As the Bill stands, he does not have to; he need only look at education, health and housing, and that is not good enough.

I should have liked to explore further with the Minister why education, health care and housing had been chosen at the expense of the many other issues that have been of great concern over the past 12 months. However, he declined to give evidence on his Bill.

I am also concerned that there is nothing in clause 2 that applies to Scottish or Welsh veterans. At the very least, the Bill should be amended to send a clear signal about the UK-wide responsibilities of the Secretary of State. If the family of a Scottish service person live off-base in local authority housing, their housing requirements are devolved. We have been advised that the Secretary of State will update the House even when those matters are devolved. It seems odd that such a thing could happen, because the Secretary of State is not responsible for the delivery of devolved services; nor is he or she accountable, and thus could not answer questions on the matter.

Photo of Sandra Osborne Sandra Osborne Labour, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock

I am quite surprised to hear my hon. Friend say that. I understood in the Select Committee that the Government had undertaken to discuss that with the devolved Parliaments. I would have expected it to be resolved, including legislation, by now.

Photo of Gemma Doyle Gemma Doyle Shadow Minister (Defence)

I entirely agree, but the correspondence I have seen does not indicate that that is the case.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I think the Opposition are fishing in desperation for things to get excited about, but they do not need to. I have in my hand a letter from the right hon. Alex Salmond, who describes himself as the First Minister of Scotland, for that is indeed his post. The letter is dated June, although I cannot actually read the day. It thanks the Secretary of State for Defence for his letter about the armed forces covenant and states that the Scottish Government have and will continue to provide unequivocal support for the armed forces, families and veterans. I shall not read the whole thing out, but it welcomes the new armed forces covenant as an important step forward from the 2008 service personnel Command Paper.

There is no disagreement between us. We are in discussion with the devolved Administrations. We are interested in results, rather than the box-ticking that the hon. Lady describes.

Photo of Gemma Doyle Gemma Doyle Shadow Minister (Defence)

The letter that the right hon. Gentleman has read out does not address the point I just made. Constitutional issues are involved. I believe that it would be unconstitutional for the Secretary of State to stand at the Dispatch Box here and report on devolved matters. My understanding is that if I were to secure an Adjournment debate on a devolved matter, it would not be taken on the Floor of the House. It would be ruled out of order, as indeed it should be. I am afraid that the letter to which the right hon. Gentleman refers does not address that point.

However the process with the devolved Administrations is handled, the inclusion of pensions and benefits as a defined area in the report would ensure that the report reflected issues for service people throughout the whole United Kingdom. As the Bill stands, Scottish and Welsh veterans in particular are being ignored. Fundamentally, I want the Secretary of State to come to Parliament and report on the matters for which he or she is responsible.

It is one thing to talk about the military covenant; the real test is how that acknowledgement is reflected in the decisions of Ministers. Their actions mean that thousands of servicemen and women will be made redundant, many more will see cuts to their allowances and all will be hit disproportionately hard compared with other workers by plans to downgrade public sector pension rises. These are just some of the many decisions taken by the Government in the past 12 months that have undermined the military covenant and given no cognisance to the unique nature of the work that our armed forces do. I am glad the Bill will recognise that through amendment 11, and I hope that Ministers will reflect that in their decision making, in which such recognition has been absent so far.

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Conservative, Tamworth

The hon. Lady talks about honouring the armed services. Does she not think that a £38 billion black hole in the armed services budget dishonours the armed services—a black hole that her Government left behind?

Photo of Gemma Doyle Gemma Doyle Shadow Minister (Defence)

I should like to see the hon. Gentleman justify and explain that figure. It is not true, as he knows.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

I am interested in outcomes as well. One of my concerns has been that armed forces personnel who live in different parts of the United Kingdom end up being treated rather differently because of the devolution settlement. That is not an argument to undo the devolution settlement; it is simply to say that, for instance, council tax relief for second homes for those who live in Army bases in Wales has been allowed at a different rate from that in England and in Scotland. It would be a good thing to be able to highlight those differences so that all the different elements of the United Kingdom heighten their support for veterans and those in the armed forces, rather than ignore them.

Photo of Gemma Doyle Gemma Doyle Shadow Minister (Defence)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. My concern is about how that will happen. I do not believe that the mechanisms have been fully worked through. That is why I want to strengthen the report and the fields that will be included in it.

On new clause 13, the nation demands a great deal from its servicemen and women, as is often stated in the House. They are required to follow orders without question. They and their families are often separated for long periods. Frequent moves, often at short notice, can disrupt family life. Forces accommodation is sometimes remote, making it difficult for partners and children to mix with civilian communities. Service personnel are entitled to expect as normal a family life as their military obligations permit.

Through the implementation of the service personnel Command Paper, the Labour Government worked to ensure that servicemen and women were seen not as ordinary citizens, but as people deserving the very best in public services. However, public services have not and do not always take account of their particular needs, and the Government should work across Departments to ensure that their needs are always taken into account. Major General John Moore-Bick from the Armed Forces Pension Society said:

“There is a unique nature to what armed forces families go through. This is not special pleading. In the armed forces you are asked to do things nobody else in the public sector would be asked to do. It is only right that they should have a special status.”

Governments of all parties must be committed to giving due consideration to the needs of servicemen and women, their families and veterans when it comes to public service delivery, working hard to create a level playing field so that forces families suffer no disadvantage.

Armed forces advocates were established by the Labour Government to identify and resolve policy or legislative issues that might affect the service community. They advise on how public services can best meet the service community’s needs. At present there are a number of armed forces advocates from various Government Departments, including the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Health and the Treasury. This complements the work of organisations, associations and charities that offer advice and support to service personnel and their families.

The advocates network has worked well. New clause 13 would extend the existing network to ensure that all levels of government in the UK are represented and can therefore help to resolve the issues that may disadvantage our service community.

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster Conservative, Milton Keynes North

What is the hon. Lady’s estimate of the cost of extending that body of advocates?

Photo of Gemma Doyle Gemma Doyle Shadow Minister (Defence)

I envisage that the advocates would be drawn from the staff already working in Departments, who are linked into the knowledge that exists and would be a useful point of contact for armed forces and their families interacting with those Departments and public bodies.

During the evidence sessions in Committee we heard time and again from charities that they wanted those with responsibility for the delivery of services to be involved in resolving issues, rather than the Secretary of State or a Minister directing from the centre. New clause 13 would ensure that those involved in service delivery at every level, including local government and

NHS trusts, are aware of the special nature of service and of the need to tailor their services accordingly. We have talked a great deal about the need for accountability, and the new clause would ensure that accountability is enhanced by bringing into policy formulation and delivery those who are truly responsible for providing the service that people need.

On amendment 17, it is crucial that the annual covenant report covers all the issues that are central to the covenant. At present, the limited list of three issues is subject to the mood of the Secretary of State of the day so, as already mentioned, we would like the list of fields that the Government are compelled to report on to be lengthened. It is extremely important that that includes inquests. Military inquests are often complex and controversial. Understandably, they involve high emotion and require the utmost sensitivity and real expertise.

The office of the chief coroner was established with cross-party support by the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. It aimed to provide for some of the issues that arise out of military fatalities. The chief coroner’s office was intended to ensure that families and friends were sufficiently involved in the coroner’s investigation, to introduce quality controls and independent safeguards in relation to inquests, and to add consistency, leadership, independence and expertise to the coroners dealing with military inquests.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham 6:45 pm, 14th June 2011

I am a bit worried about including inquests in the annual report. This is such a sensitive area and I feel that it should be taken separately. I am not fixed on that, but let us be cautious about bringing inquests into an annual report. That might appear trite or to be dealing with them too lightly, when they are such an important and sensitive matter for families. That is just a comment. Although I am not sure where exactly I stand on the issue, that is my initial feeling.

Photo of Gemma Doyle Gemma Doyle Shadow Minister (Defence)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his observations. I certainly appreciate his concerns. There is great concern among the families who are involved in the issue. Based on their reflections, I believe that further attention needs to be given to the matter.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

The hon. Lady is being extremely generous with her time. I am slightly concerned by her observation that the amendment has come about as a result of representations from families. My experience, bearing in mind that all the inquests in recent years occur in Wiltshire, is that families are extremely well satisfied with Mr Masters, who has been the main coroner involved. I am not certain that there is a huge problem to be solved.

Photo of Gemma Doyle Gemma Doyle Shadow Minister (Defence)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the office of the chief coroner was set up, following a great deal of consultation, to address issues that were raised. Indeed, it was established with cross-party support. Those issues have not gone away as far as I am aware, although I respect his experience in this matter. There have been varying reports from around the country, and that may be where the difference lies.

The office of the chief coroner is to be abolished by the Public Bodies Bill as a cost-saving measure. The Royal British Legion calls this “a betrayal” of bereaved armed forces families which threatens the military covenant. That intention was confirmed today in a written ministerial statement. I understand that the Government say they are transferring responsibilities, but the improvements that the new chief coroner’s office would have brought about will now be lost.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Conservative, South West Wiltshire

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who is being very generous. Trowbridge is in my constituency and it is where the military inquests have been taking place under the supervision of Mr Masters, to whom I have spoken on the issue. Does the hon. Lady accept that the main concern that families have expressed over the past several years is not to do with the lack of a chief coroner, who could easily be biddable in the way that local coroners have not been, but because there has been a disparity in the legal support given to either side? The MOD has been sponsoring—paying for—barristers in what is meant to be a non-adversarial situation, something which, happily, is no longer the case.

Photo of Gemma Doyle Gemma Doyle Shadow Minister (Defence)

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The office of the chief coroner would seek to address some of the issues that he raises about the variations and the inconsistencies in families’ experiences. Each time that the office of the chief coroner has been considered by Parliament it has been supported—twice in 2009, and just last December the other place voted to save it. The Secretary of State for Justice does not seem to be listening, and not for the first time. He cites cost as an issue, but the Royal British Legion and INQUEST have been clear that they are prepared to open discussions on how the cost can be reduced. I hope that the Minister will listen to these pleas. This is exactly the sort of decision that must be subject to greater accountability and scrutiny. At present an issue so central to the armed forces community would not be covered by the armed forces report on the covenant, and that is why we tabled the amendment. I ask the Minister today to commit to making representations on behalf of the armed forces community to keep the office of the chief coroner. I hope that at the very least the Government will support this amendment to ensure that this vital issue is reported on annually.

As I have previously said, we were all entertained in Committee by the Minister with responsibility for veterans as he performed verbal gymnastics on the issue of whether the Government were meeting the Prime Minister’s famous commitment given on the deck of the Ark Royal. However, just as important as writing the covenant into law, the Bill should provide a form of accountability so that the principles contained in the covenant mean something in reality, and that is what new clause 14 seeks to achieve.

During the debates in preparation for Green Paper in 2009, my hon. Friend Mr Jones tells me that he argued strongly, against the wishes of his officials, that parliamentary and local government ombudsmen should provide a system of accountability. The ombudsmen were happy to take on that work and it was included in the 2009 Green Paper—the nation’s commitment to the armed forces community: consistent and enduring support. The Opposition continue to believe that that is the right approach. In Committee, the Minister was at pains to point out that officials advise and Minister’s decide, but given the weak nature of what has been proposed in the Bill, it appears that his officials are more in control than he would care to admit.

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Labour, Rotherham

For a number of years I dealt with the case of a constituent of mine who had served in Iraq, been wounded and shipped home, and then, frankly, hung out to dry by both his former public sector employer and, to a lesser extent, the local authority. This concept of an ombudsman to take up such cases is important.

Does my hon. Friend agree that scores of hon. Members on both sides of the House are keen to see a national defence medal inaugurated so that every former soldier, sailor or airman who has served Her Majesty the Queen in the last 50 years can have a medal that they can wear with pride on Remembrance day? I hope very much that we will be given good news on that tonight.

Photo of Gemma Doyle Gemma Doyle Shadow Minister (Defence)

My right hon. Friend highlights the reason to have such ombudsmen. It is essential that there should be a system of accountability as a last resort, should all reasonable means fail. This is not about creating justiciable rights, but a system of accountability is needed if the covenant is to mean anything. Principles must be enforceable if they are to be anything more than words on a piece of paper.

We will support the amendments in the name of the Secretary of State, but we are still somewhat disappointed as we believe that the Bill could go further, specifically on the military covenant. Our amendments would strengthen those provisions and the Bill. I would very much have liked to press all our amendments, but in particular we will press amendment 16 and new clause 17.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Liberal Democrat, Colchester

I congratulate the coalition Government on bringing forward the armed forces covenant. I served throughout the Committee—

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Liberal Democrat, Colchester

I am grateful. Thank you.

I would like to confine my remarks on this string of amendments to the narrow subject of housing and matters relating to the welfare of Army families. However, I hope that before we finish this evening the Minister will be able to assure the Committee that not a single penny will be cut from the wages of a single member of the Parachute Regiment or 16 Air Assault Brigade more widely.

The last Government can take a lot of credit for things that they did. I hope that what happened previously, under the Veterans Minister and so on, will be built upon by the coalition Government. However, when it comes to the accommodation of the families of our military personnel, successive Governments have failed. The last Conservative and Labour Governments failed. When it comes to single people’s accommodation, Merville barracks in Colchester is the best to be found anywhere in the country, but that only sharpens the contrast with the unacceptable housing for married families. Either Colchester garrison is unique or the accommodation there is typical of that which our military families are required to live in. What makes it worse, is that former Army housing in my constituency has rightly been modernised to a high standard through the Department for Communities and Local Government, while on the other side of the road Army families, looking out on these modern buildings, occupy what an Army wife described in a letter to the

Essex County Standard on Friday as the worst in the country.

That unnamed soldier’s wife says:

“I have been married to a soldier for 20 years and lived throughout in services accommodation.

The married quarters in Colchester are the worst I have ever had to live in, and the system in place to rectify faults is laughable.

The direct line puts you through to a call centre in Liverpool, to talk to someone who has no idea of the conditions you live in or the stresses you endure while your husband’s away. They will then expect you to take a day off work so a tradesman can turn up, and it’s then a lottery as to the standard of the repair.”

The letter goes on at great length to describe the woeful inadequacies of the Defence Housing Executive. The soldier’s wife says:

“We’ve given up complaining to the Defence Housing Executive, as all we get are curt replies, from staff who seemingly have never served or been married to a serving member. It is apparent they have never seen inside the properties.”

There is a critical suggestion that perhaps things have got worse since the Defence Housing Executive took over.

We are talking here of the families of soldiers who only last week marched through the centre of Colchester in a welcome home parade and the next day had a thanksgiving and memorial service at Bury St. Edmunds cathedral. Yet we expect their families to live in accommodation that this soldier’s wife described as the worst in the country. If the Government can rightly find money to modernise former Army housing to accommodate civilians, the same Government should be able to find the money to modernise housing fit for the heroes who have just returned from Helmand province.

Allied to that, the armed forces covenant refers to education. I look at education in the broader sense—not just the education of serving military personnel but the education of the children of military personnel. Once the former Army houses are occupied by civilian families, the adjoining schools, the Montgomery infant and junior schools—that gives a clue to the military ethos—will be full up. There will not be room at the Army schools for the children of Army personnel. If anything, the armed forces covenant should look at the families of military personnel as well as the serving personnel.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Conservative, South West Wiltshire

Will the hon. Gentleman give the Government credit for including service children in the pupil premium, which will benefit his constituents as it has done mine?

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Liberal Democrat, Colchester 7:00 pm, 14th June 2011

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and am delighted to endorse that point. The pupil premium has been a great asset to all children of military personnel and has certainly been a great bonus for those in the five schools in my constituency that have a large proportion of service children—as much as 80% in one case. Military families also require peace of mind, and I greatly regret the fact that the previous Government dramatically reduced the number of Ministry of Defence police officers, from 30 to three in my constituency. I heard over the weekend that, regrettably, up to 1,000 MOD police officers are to lose their jobs.

Photo of Gemma Doyle Gemma Doyle Shadow Minister (Defence)

I sympathise entirely with the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. Does he think that it would have been appropriate for the Minister to attend the Defence Police Federation’s annual conference on Monday? I was there, but instead of looking at him I had to look at an empty chair that the Defence Police Federation had set out for him.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Liberal Democrat, Colchester

I have no knowledge of that, but the hon. Lady has made the point and there will no doubt be a response.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

Indeed there will be if I may intervene. Has the hon. Lady visited the headquarters of the MOD police in Suffolk?

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Substitute Member)

Order. The Minister cannot question the hon. Lady because she does not have the Floor.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Liberal Democrat, Colchester

This is a serious issue. To the best of my knowledge, the MOD police are an integral part of the wider military family. However, over the past 10 years the previous Government were determined, as I regret the coalition Government now appear to be, to reduce MOD police numbers to the point where I suspect at some future stage we will be told that they no longer have a purpose and can be done away with. All I can say is that where there were once 30 MOD police officers serving an exclusive Army estate in excess of 2,000 dwellings, there are now just three such officers. The expectation that Essex constabulary can suddenly conjure 27 police officers to fill that breach will not be met.

We now have a situation in which we have Army families and civilian families and the demarcation between policing is not clear. The lifestyle of civilians is not always compatible with the military ethos of the service families. I am trying to choose my words carefully. All I am saying is that the presence of MOD police officers brought a security and comfort to military families which has been lost at the same time as the ethos of a 100% Army estate has been dramatically reduced. I put it to the Minister that the Government need to look carefully at their proposals to reduce dramatically the number of MOD police officers. It will have little effect in Colchester because 27 police officers have already been got rid of and, with only three left, we do not have much further to go.

I welcome the armed forces covenant, previously known as the military covenant, and congratulate the Royal British Legion on all it has done. We should all be grateful to the legion. My only regret is that some people appear to be trying to turn it into a party political football.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I will respond initially to some of the points raised by Bob Russell. I do not want to mislead him, but I am pretty sure that the pay will continue for all members of the Parachute Regiment who are able to parachute, and certainly for those in parachuting jobs, so we are not scrapping parachute pay. I think that I am the only Member in the Chamber who has received pay for jumping out of aircraft, and it was very welcome at the time.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Liberal Democrat, Colchester

May I just point out that Mr Jones and I got not a single penny when we were thrown out at 13,000 feet?

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

Well, the hon. Gentlemen obviously got parachutes, which might not be my intention for one or two other people.

I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s serious concerns about housing, which is an ongoing problem that we wish to improve. We inherited a bad situation, but I do not question the good faith of the previous Administration because it is a difficult matter—[ Interruption. ] Well, I do not think that we can be blamed for the state of housing 14 years ago.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Shadow Minister (Defence)

If the previous Conservative Government had not sold off the estate to Annington Homes, which the Minister will find hamstrings him in what he can do with housing, we would be in a better position.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I do not think that we want to revisit debates from 1996 and I doubt that you, Dr McCrea, would allow it—[ Interruption. ] Shall we revisit that debate from 1996? I have to say that I had words with Ministers at the time and was not entirely enthusiastic about the policy, but there we are. It is important that we continue to work on housing because we do not wish people to live in substandard accommodation.

Gemma Doyle mentioned the Defence Police Federation’s annual conference, which took place up near the Clyde, next to her constituency. The head of the federation works on the floor above me in the MOD, and I have invited him to come to talk to me about the issues. I do not think that that is particularly unreasonable, especially since the conference is taking place today and I have to be here.

I will consider the large number of amendments in three chunks. I will speak first to the Government amendments, secondly to the amendments tabled by Mr Llwyd and thirdly to the official Opposition’s amendments. When the Government decided to include clause 2 in the Bill, we had two main objectives: to recognise the armed forces covenant in legislation, as we are committed to doing; and to strengthen the Government’s accountability to the House through the mechanism of an annual report on the covenant.

The clause rightly places the covenant at the heart of our national debate on whether we are treating current and former members of the armed forces as they deserve to be treated. This is not a matter in which only the Government have an interest; right hon. and hon. Members are well aware that groups that aim to speak for the armed forces community, including the Royal British Legion, take a close and constructive interest. The legion has now made clear its overall support for what we are trying to do in relation to the covenant. I do not apologise in any way for listening to what it and others have said and, having done so, making changes to the legislation.

Photo of Gemma Doyle Gemma Doyle Shadow Minister (Defence)

Does the right hon. Gentleman regret the process by which the Bill has come about? What exactly changed his mind?

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I do not regret the process at all. What has happened—I would have thought that the hon. Lady had spotted this, because she is a capable person—is that we have been discussing and listening to things and came to the view that we might enhance the Bill, which is what we have done.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

Contrary to what the hon. Lady says from a sedentary position—perhaps she is reading what is on her BlackBerry—it is not chaos.

Those other organisations are as concerned as the Government are to avoid the pitfalls of the covenant ending up in the courts. They have also pointed out where they think we can do better, and we have listened to them. They argued persuasively that the language of the Bill that related to the armed forces covenant report did not go far enough in explaining our intentions. Our amendments aim to put that right, and I hope that everybody in the Chamber welcomes that.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Shadow Minister (Defence)

So why did the Minister, along with his Liberal Democrat colleagues, argue forcefully in Committee on numerous occasions that the Bill as it then stood enshrined the covenant in law, when clearly it did not?

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Gentleman, together with the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire, is continuing to fish for any minor criticisms that he can make. We have listened to what people have said and responded, and they might welcome that rather than carping at it.

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Conservative, Tamworth

Does my right hon. Friend think that this is rather rich coming from Labour Members, and certainly from Mr Jones? Having had 13 long years with the time, the majorities and the money to introduce a Bill, they merely produced a Green Paper, whereas we introduced a Bill within 12 months. Is not my right hon. Friend rather proud of that?

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support.

Our amendments do not seek to introduce new constraints to prevent the Secretary of State from using his discretion in preparing the report. They do not try to prejudge in detail exactly which subjects will be relevant—unlike, I fear, several of the amendments that we are discussing. Rather, they allow us to be clear about the principles to which the Secretary of State must have regard, especially now that the armed forces covenant has been published. The three ideas or principles contained in amendment 11 are, I trust, the subject of agreement in all parts of the Committee. The

“unique obligations of, and sacrifices made by” our service personnel are matters of fact: the requirement to deploy anywhere in the world at no notice, to put themselves in harm’s way, and to use lethal force—all without question, as the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire said. No other part of our society is called upon to undertake those obligations. The sacrifices made not only by those who suffer injury or death, but by those who give up the kind of family life which the rest of us take for granted, are also of a different nature from what is expected of others. We are not in danger of forgetting that, but we recognise that there should be no doubt that the Secretary of State will take it into account when he is preparing the annual armed forces covenant report and considering the effects of service.

The other two principles listed in the amendment are not statements of fact in the same way, but they should command the same level of consensus. They are at the core of the Government’s and the nation’s obligations under the covenant. We can never remove all disadvantage that results from membership of the armed forces—the very nature of the job prevents it—but we can, and must, do all we can to minimise disadvantages, particularly when it concerns access to public services. In preparing the amendment, I paused for a long time over the word “desirable”. Surely it is more than desirable to remove disadvantage. “Desirable” gets overruled by words such as “essential” or “important”. Nevertheless, we must recognise that it will not always be feasible to remove every disadvantage. Therefore, in terms of legislation, we must not express the principle in language which we could never achieve. Let the Committee be in no doubt, however, that where it is appropriate to take action, the Government see that as much more than “desirable”.

The question of disadvantage is dealt with more fully in amendment 12—an important new provision that clarifies how the annual report will deal with removing or reducing disadvantage. The first part requires the Secretary of State to make a judgment about whether the effects of service constitute or result in disadvantage when he is looking at a particular field—an element of the covenant such as health care or housing. He is also required to look at service people or

“particular descriptions of service people”.

In other words, he will be looking at individual elements of the armed forces community. That could be a very broad category including families or ex-service personnel, or it could be a smaller grouping such as those injured in service or foreign and Commonwealth personnel. The Committee will understand that this gives the Secretary of State the ability to drill down to find the real problems, which often do not affect a whole group but a small part of it. The amendment also gives the Secretary of State the responsibility of deciding who should be the subject of that comparison. In some cases, the right comparison will be with the ordinary civilian; in others, it may make sense to look at a rather more specialised comparison such as with members of the emergency services.

The second part of amendment 12 sets out what the Secretary of State must do with his judgment. He must go on to say in the annual report what is his response to the disadvantage that he has identified. Perhaps nothing can be done about it—it may be an inevitable result of the military profession—or he may be able to announce how the matter is to be resolved, or who has responsibility for doing so. In all cases, the House will be in a position to decide whether that response is satisfactory.

Returning to amendment 11, the final paragraph refers to the principle that “special provision” or special treatment “may be justified”. Again, this is expressed in a form that is appropriate to the circumstances. It is not trying to pre-ordain any particular form of special treatment—that would be quite wrong—but it establishes the key place of special treatment in the obligations that we owe to service people.

Amendment 13 adds more about special provision. It requires the Secretary of State to look at the effects of service covered in his annual report and to reach a view on whether special provision would be justified. It adds that when he believes that special provision would be justified, he must say so. As with the previous amendment, he is not obliged to treat service people as if they are a single group who must all be treated in the same way. He can again consider

“particular descriptions of service people” and make detailed judgments about how we should respond to their circumstances.

Members of the armed forces community do not, as a rule, want special favours. They accept that they are citizens like their civilian neighbours. They expect fair treatment. They do not like finding themselves at the back of the queue because they have joined the services, but they do not insist on being at the front of the queue. However, there may be times when we wish to place them at the front of the queue. Of course, when personnel are injured in the course of their duty, or when they lose their lives, the obligations on us are even greater. We can never truly make up for the sacrifice that they or their loved ones have made, but we do make special provision for injured personnel and bereaved families, and we must look out for sensible opportunities to do more. For example, this Government have introduced scholarships in higher education for the children of those killed in service since 1990. That step has been widely welcomed, and we are now processing applications. The amendment does not require us to extend special provision in particular ways or to try to prejudge when it will be appropriate. Instead, it requires us to keep the principle at the forefront of our minds when preparing the annual report so that Parliament can decide if we have treated these particularly deserving groups in the right way.

The three amendments will mean that, for the first time, an Act of Parliament refers to the key principles of the armed forces covenant. They do this in a form which does not give them legal force in terms of individual actions but which ensures that the Secretary of State has regard to them in his important new duty to prepare a report. That will strengthen further the accountability that the Government are seeking to build.

I turn to the amendments in the name of the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, which cover a good deal of ground. New clause 2 and amendment 2 would require the creation of a new Minister for former armed services personnel. I do not take his comments amiss in any way. I do not think that he was particularly getting at me in suggesting that there should be such a Minister—he said specifically that he was not—but I am, of course, responsible for former armed forces personnel. As he said, ex-service personnel issues lie across the whole of Government, not just within the Ministry of Defence. However, the MOD is uniquely placed to play a leading role. After all, we run the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency, and we are closely involved in the transition of members of the armed forces to civilian life. I believe—I know it to be true, in fact—that we have a special understanding of what our people have been through. For those reasons, I am confident that the current arrangements are fit for purpose. That does not mean that they cannot be improved, but we work on that as things evolve. Looking at the different roles envisaged, I can find no justification for a new post. It is right that the Secretary of State for Defence, with overall responsibility for current and former members of the armed forces, has the responsibility of preparing the annual report. I fail to see the value in requiring a Minister to conduct activities that are positive to the well-being of former services personnel. Such legislation is not necessary.

Another proposed duty is to conduct research. The MOD commissions a great deal of high-quality research relating to current and former service personnel. For example, the King’s Centre for Military Health Research has followed a cohort of more than 20,000 members of the armed forces to investigate the impact of service in Iraq and Afghanistan. We continue to work with the voluntary and communities sector to improve understanding of the issues faced by the armed forces community and to build up evidence to monitor progress. There is no need for legislation. I know that the head of the King’s Centre for Military Health Research would be willing to talk to the all-party parliamentary group for the armed forces. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to pursue that, I think he would find it extremely useful and interesting, particularly on mental health issues.

We can consider amendment 3 in two halves. The first half would require the Secretary of State to take into account the operation of a range of instruments and bodies, which would be created in turn by new clauses 3 to 6. We do not think that those new creations are necessary. New clause 3 would require the Government to draw up a charter for former armed forces personnel. It gives a list of things that should be included. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman accepts that the proposal for a charter is overtaken by the publication of the armed forces covenant. The approach that we have taken in the covenant is better, because it avoids the creation of legal rights, which his charter could easily do. The covenant extends to service personnel and family members and is based on firm principles. In contrast, new clause 3 lists specific issues. All of them are important matters, but we believe that they are all captured in Government policy.

I will go through the list briefly. On psychological assessments, we are currently building a greater focus on mental health into service and discharge medical examinations. On resettlement, we are committed to supporting service leavers in making the important step back into civilian life. There is a full package in place, which we are looking to improve. On access to support and advice, all former service personnel facing difficulties have access to the free veterans helpline, which receives between 150,000 and 200,000 calls a year. We also have the veterans welfare service and the veterans in custody support programme, which provides tailored support for former personnel in the criminal justice system. None of that required a charter setting out legal requirements.

New clause 4 also focuses on support in the prison and probation systems. I note that the right hon. Gentleman feels deeply about this issue and has raised it on many occasions. I must tell him that his proposal for—[ Interruption. ]

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Leader of the House of Commons 7:15 pm, 14th June 2011

Order. I ask right hon. and hon. Members to keep the noise down. We want to hear the response from the Minister. A lot of people intervened and asked questions. It is only appropriate, proper and courteous to hear the answers.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

If Members have come in at the behest of the Whips because they expect a Division, they might as well go out for a bit longer, because I have a lot more to say that will delay the Division. They are very wise to do so.

New clause 4, which I was addressing, proposes a legal obligation to appoint a former armed forces personnel support officer to every prison and probation service in England and Wales. That would impose an unnecessarily legislative framework. The veterans in custody support programme focuses on the early identification of ex-service individuals who would benefit from extra support. It offers advice on a range of issues from housing and mental health to medals and war pensions. The voluntary sector provides excellent additional support.

New clause 5 would require financial support to be provided for a range of welfare groups. I pay tribute to the invaluable role played by numerous service and ex-service organisations in promoting the welfare of the armed forces community. Some have been doing so for a very long time. Only this month, we celebrated the 90th anniversary of the Royal British Legion. Indeed, there was a garden party—indoors because it was raining—at No. 10 on Friday, at which the Prime Minister spoke. Members of the Royal British Legion and its supporters, such as Vera Lynn, all appreciated it enormously. Similarly, last week I went to the service at the Guards chapel on the 40th anniversary of the War Widows Association of Great Britain, with which we are in touch a great deal. Many such bodies have an expert understanding of the needs of service and ex-service personnel. Their support sits alongside the provision of facilities from public funds and we have close working relationships with many of them.

However, it would not be appropriate for the Government to give general financial support to such groups. Registered charities are and should remain independent. It is right that they raise their own funding, whether they are concerned with the armed forces or not. It is a long-standing practice that central Government do not provide funds raised through taxation to assist the core activities of individual charities. In any event, given the number of charities, the Government would not be able to do that in a fair manner. I pay tribute to the many charities that are raising a great deal of money at the moment, such as Help for Heroes, the Royal British Legion and Combat Stress—we have been discussing mental health. They are working to raise funds to support our armed forces and I pay tribute to them.

New clause 6 proposes the creation of a policy forum for former service personnel. Is there a need for another policy forum and, if so, do we need to legislate to create it? There are already a number of groups that help to shape the delivery of veterans’ welfare. The external reference group on the covenant brings together armed forces advocates from across Government and external members from ex-service organisations. It provides co-ordination for the effort across Government and oversight of the Government’s performance in rebuilding the armed forces covenant, and it allows ex-service organisations and other experts to influence the development of Government policy. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Confederation of British Service and Ex-Service Organisations. There are regular meetings between COBSEO and senior MOD staff and Ministers, including myself. The annual welfare conference organised by the MOD allows many smaller organisations to debate these issues. There are 13 veterans advisory and pensions committees throughout the United Kingdom that provide assistance to the service and ex-service community and local public service providers. They raise awareness in public bodies and the local community about the needs of veterans. I trust that I have made my point that establishing another former armed services personnel policy forum would not offer any tangible benefit.

I now turn to the second half of amendment 3. [ Interruption. ] For the benefit of people such as the shadow Secretary of State for Defence who have just walked in, perhaps I should repeat what I have said.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Leader of the House of Commons

Order. I ask right hon. and hon. Members once again to be courteous and to listen to the responses. If they want to have conversations outside this business, they can do so outside the Chamber.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

For those who have arrived recently, it would be discourteous of me to not respond to those who have raised points, such as the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd. I have yet to achieve the same length of speech as the right hon. Gentleman or the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire. [ Interruption. ] Indeed, the night is yet young.

The second half of amendment 3 sets out nine headings that must be covered in the annual report. I do not deny the importance of any of those topics. Some are broad and some are fairly narrow, such as “debt management” and “domestic violence”. However, it is not a comprehensive list and I am sure that other hon. Members could add many suggestions. We would rather not legislate for such a list because it may change over the next few years. The question is whether we should cram all possible issues into the legislation and turn the annual covenant report into a box-ticking exercise, or whether we want to give the Secretary of State the opportunity to identify and investigate the problems that are actually faced by service people. Amendment 3 would deny the

Secretary of State the flexibility to deal with the effects of service that are considered to be the most important or relevant at the time of each report.

Finally on this group of amendments I come to amendment 4, which we do not believe would add a great deal to the Bill. The Secretary of State has made it clear that he will seek views and evidence in preparing each annual covenant report. If there are issues, he will respond to them and give a time frame for implementing any recommendations. The amendment would simply get us into questions about who is and who is not an expert in this field. This country is fortunate to have an active community of well informed, constructive and articulate groups that are committed to improving the welfare of service people and want to work with the Government to achieve that. Many are brought together in the external reference group, and I can assure the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd that they are not slow in coming forward. We have stated that we will publish their observations alongside the annual report.

I now turn to the official Opposition’s amendments. I know that Opposition Members who have just come in will be particularly keen to hear about them—[Interruption] —especially Stella Creasy.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I do not think the hon. Gentleman needs to offer to do that. That is a bit sexist, if you ask me, but there we go.

The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire asked earlier from a sedentary position where we got the idea from that there was a £38 billion black hole. May I tell her that it came from the National Audit Office report “Ministry of Defence: The Major Projects Report 2010”?

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

Well, Dr McCrea—[Hon. Members: “Give way!”] Go on then, why not?

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Shadow Minister (Defence)

I am sorry, but if the Minister reads the NAO report, he will see that it states that the figure is between £6 billion and £37 billion. The only way we can get to the £37 billion figure is if we include all the forward programming for the forward thing. The problem is that, like a lot of his colleagues, he cannot get away from the spin of central office.

Hon. Members:

Forward thing?

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Gentleman talks about the “forward thing”, but we have to do the sums, and I am afraid his maths is obviously not very good. If he does not believe that the Ministry of Defence is short of money, he is wrong.

The Opposition’s amendment 16 represents a further attempt to reduce the discretion of the Secretary of State to consider which subjects to include when preparing his annual report. I have three difficulties with it, and they lead me to oppose it.

[Interruption.]

I can find more, if Lyn Brown would like.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

Well, one is that the amendment, no doubt with the best of intentions, describes in more detail the subjects to be covered in the covenant report. As drafted, clause 2 requires the Secretary of State to address accommodation, health care, including mental health care, and education. We have included those topics because it is pretty inconceivable that there would ever be circumstances in which they were not relevant. However, the list is meant to be illustrative, not comprehensive. Any attempt to be comprehensive in the clause would run the risk of missing out something significant, and it would be doomed to become out of date as circumstances change. All the topics listed in the amendment are important and deserve consideration by Parliament, yet the list leaves out many other important matters such as pay, recognition and how we treat personnel on deployed operations.

That leads to the second difficulty with amendment 16. Its supporters may argue that if they fail to make their list comprehensive, the gaps will be filled in by others, hence the reference to

“such other fields as the External Reference Group may determine.”

I am a great admirer of the work of the external reference group, as I have made clear to the House on numerous occasions. By coincidence—[Interruption.] The shadow Secretary of State obviously does not want to hear my response to his colleague the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire, who has raised a great deal that needs to be covered in the debate. That is why we have a Committee stage in the House of Commons.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

He obviously does not realise that.

By coincidence, the external reference group is meeting tomorrow. I offered to go to the meeting, but it wished to consider how it may respond to the covenant report when it comes out. After discussions, it was thought that I might be in the way rather than anything else. The group’s advice and expertise will be of huge benefit to the Government in preparing the annual report, but we cannot place on the group the duty of deciding what subjects the Secretary of State will cover. That must be his decision, so that he is answerable to the House for it.

Finally—[Interruption.] I mean finally on amendment 16. It would remove the reference to “particular descriptions” of service personnel. That is a vital provision, despite the slightly arcane language, because it allows the Secretary of State to distinguish between different groups rather than cover the whole of the armed forces community when there is no need to do so. Leaving it out would make the annual report unwieldy and less useful.

That leads us directly to amendment 17. Inquests are a crucial part of how we support those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country. Two of my hon. Friends from Wiltshire mentioned the matter earlier. Although inquests allow families to learn in detail how their loved ones died, and help them to reach closure, they also bring home to all of us the tragedy of loss and the cost of the operations on which we are embarked. Ensuring that the inquest system is fit for its very important purpose is a responsibility that the Government must never forget.

However, the amendment makes for me precisely the point that I raised earlier. It is an afterthought. Having tried to list the subjects that the Secretary of State should cover, the Opposition realised that they had left one out. That shows the weakness of trying to come up with a comprehensive list in legislation. Next week, people might come up with another category, but it would be too late to amend the Bill. I hope that we can look forward to a happier time when the operation of the inquest system is of less concern to the armed forces community because we are not involved in deployed operations and there are no fatalities.

Photo of Gemma Doyle Gemma Doyle Shadow Minister (Defence)

It is somewhat rich for the Minister to say that it is we who are treating inquests as an afterthought, given that it is his Government who have scrapped the office of the chief coroner. How would he respond—I urge him to make it a brief response—to the comment of the Royal British Legion that it is a betrayal of service families to scrap that office?

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

Unfortunately, as the Members on either side of the hon. Lady—Mr Jones and the shadow Secretary of State—will understand, I cannot speak for the Ministry of Justice. It would be beyond my remit. May I also say that she spoke for longer than I have yet achieved? Don’t worry, I’m working on it.

New clause 13 relates to armed forces advocates. Advocates are an excellent idea, and in UK Government Departments and the devolved Administrations they face in two directions. They ensure that their own Department’s policies take account of the special needs of the armed forces community, and they communicate their Department’s perspective to my officials and external stakeholders.

I turn briefly to new clause 14, on the ombudsmen. I pay tribute to the parliamentary and local government ombudsmen for their work. I do not think any of us doubt the important role that they can play in helping members of the armed forces community, and they have welcomed the familiarisation events that my officials have organised. However, the new clause is unclear about what exactly the ombudsmen are intended to do, and we are not minded to accept it. The Government will continue to work with public bodies and local authorities to implement our commitments, and we will encourage them to help to remove the disadvantage faced by service people and afford them special treatment where appropriate. The ombudsmen have a vital role to play, but it is not the one described in the new clause.

Finally—[Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] Yes, finally, I come to the Opposition’s new clause 17. Once again, the concept outlined in it is perfectly reasonable. I want, just as much as the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire does, a world in which those who make policy take into account the needs of members of the armed forces community as a matter of routine. The best way of ensuring that we avoid problems of disadvantage is to prevent them from happening in the first place. The issue is how to achieve that. We must consider whether the right course of action is to create a legal duty to have regard to certain matters, or to adopt a more practical approach. In the Government’s view, placing a general duty on all public bodies and Ministers in the preparation of all policy would be unhelpful and unfocused. It would lead to more of a box-ticking culture and a cottage industry of assessments. As I have said throughout the debates on the Bill, we are interested in results and want the armed forces community to be looked after better, but that does not involve box-ticking.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), DUP Westminster Leader

I agree with the Minister that results and outcomes are the most important thing, but with reference to the earlier discussion on devolution, how will he ensure that all servicemen and women and ex-servicemen and women are treated equally in all parts of the United Kingdom? There may be some resistance at devolved level, particularly in Northern Ireland where vetoes are in operation.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and I know that he takes the matter very seriously. We did not put forward the devolution settlement, of course—that was done by the previous Government—but we are working with all three devolved Administrations to try to ensure that there is no disadvantage to any ex-service person. However, I absolutely take on board his point and the particular circumstances that he mentions.

Rather than the system set out in new clause 17, I would prefer one in which I and my ministerial colleagues across Government continue to work with public bodies to ensure as far as possible that they take account of the armed forces covenant in their preparation of policy. Much progress has already been made, and the imposition of a new statutory duty would not be of benefit.

The Government look to the annual report to be a powerful, flexible tool to focus Parliament’s attention on the key issues of the time. I fear that the Opposition’s proposed amendments would make that task more difficult and impose a package of unnecessary processes. [Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] I have only another 300 pages to go, but I shall leave it at that, and allow the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd to wind up.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales), Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Constitution), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am not altogether happy with the Minister’s response—in fact, I am desperately unhappy with it—but I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: 16, page 2, leave out lines 8 to 12 and insert—

(a) education;

(b) accommodation;

(c) healthcare;

(d) mental healthcare;

(e) pensions and benefits;

(f) employment and training;

(g) support for reservists and their employers;

(h) the running of the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme;

(i) progress on Armed Forces rehabilitation services; and

(j) such other fields as the External Reference Group may determine.’.—(Gemma Doyle.)

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 223, Noes 283.

Division number 291 Armed Forces Bill — Clause 2 — Armed Forces Covenant Report — Minister for Former Armed Services Personnel

A majority of MPs voted against requiring a Minister for Former Armed Services, rather than the Secretary of State for Defence, Personnel to report each year on the armed forces covenant.

Aye: 223 MPs

No: 283 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Absent: 139 MPs

Absents: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendments made: 11, page 2, line 12, at end insert—

‘(2A) In preparing an armed forces covenant report the Secretary of State must have regard in particular to—

(a) the unique obligations of, and sacrifices made by, the armed forces;

(b) the principle that it is desirable to remove disadvantages arising for service people from membership, or former membership, of the armed forces; and

(c) the principle that special provision for service people may be justified by the effects on such people of membership, or former membership, of the armed forces.’.

Amendment 12, page 2, line 12, at end insert—

‘(2B) An armed forces covenant report must state whether, in the Secretary of State’s opinion, any effects covered by the report are such that service people or particular descriptions of service people are at a disadvantage as regards the field or fields in question, when compared with other persons or such descriptions of other persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.

(2C) Where the Secretary of State’s opinion is that service people or particular descriptions of service people are at a disadvantage as mentioned in subsection (2B), the report must set out the Secretary of State’s response to that.’.

Amendment 13, page 2, line 12, at end insert—

‘(2D) As regards effects covered by an armed forces covenant report—

(a) the Secretary of State must consider whether the making of special provision for service people or particular descriptions of service people would be justified; and

(b) where the Secretary of State considers that such provision would be justified, the report must contain a reference to that fact.’.—(Mr Robathan .)

Clause 2, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill .

Clauses 3 to 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill

Schedule 1 agreed to.

Clauses 15 to 26 ordered to stand part of the Bill

Schedule 2 agreed to .

Clauses 27 and 28 ordered to stand part of the Bill

Schedule 3 agreed to .

Clause 29 ordered to stand part of the Bill

Schedules 4 and 5 agreed to.

Clause 30 ordered to stand part of the Bill

Clause 31, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill

Clauses 32 and 33 ordered to stand part of the Bill