Clause 20 — Extent in the Channel Islands, Isle of Man and British overseas territories

Armed Forces Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:45 pm on 11th January 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Amendment made: 5, page 17, line 38, after “5(3),” insert

“(Discharge of members of the armed forces: homosexual acts),”—(Mark Lancaster.)

This amendment provides that NC1 does not extend to the Isle of Man or any of the British overseas territories. NC1 amends the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 which does not extend to the Isle of Man or any of the British overseas territories.

Third Reading

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence 5:58 pm, 11th January 2016

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Our purpose in this debate is to agree that the Bill has been scrutinised by the House and to wish it well as it moves to the other place, and it is customary at this stage to thank hon. Members for their interest and support. Armed forces Bills are generally well received and enjoy wide interest and support, and this Bill is no exception.

I thank my hon. Friend Jack Lopresti for his sterling work as chair of the Bill Committee, and I thank the Committee for its thorough scrutiny of the Bill. I am grateful for contributions from both sides of the House to ensure that the Bill is fit for purpose. I also thank Kirsten Oswald for her contributions and support of the Bill, and I pay particular tribute to Mr Jones for his positive and thoughtful contributions in consideration of the Bill. I have some catching up to do to match the hon. Gentleman’s experience as a veteran of Armed Forces Bills, but I am pleased to add this one to my tally. I am grateful to him for showing his wisdom during our debates. I regret that he no longer sits on the Opposition Front Bench.

As I said at the outset, the Bill is relatively modest. However, that in no way diminishes the significance of its provisions. Hon. Members will know that the Armed Forces 2006 Act is a significant piece of legislation. The 2006 Act provides a single system of service law which applies to all members of the armed forces wherever in the world they are serving. The Bill provides for the continuation of that Act and makes a few changes to the service justice system to keep it current. The Bill also makes other important changes, including giving MOD firefighters the same statutory powers to act in an emergency as civilian fire and rescue authority firefighters. With the support of the House, we have introduced a couple of new clauses. I am pleased that we have not needed to make many changes to the Bill.

In Committee of the whole House, we amended the Bill so that it expands the statutory remit of the Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committees. This is good news both for the Committees and the veterans they so ably support. Today, we added a clause to repeal redundant provisions in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 that are incompatible with current policies on homosexuality and equality in the armed forces.

For completeness, I should mention Gibraltar. In Committee, I said that we were discussing with Gibraltar whether it would be best to provide for the 2006 Act and the Bill to extend there. Those discussions are ongoing. If necessary, the Government will introduce an amendment to the Bill in the other place.

I am most grateful to hon. Members on both sides of the House for the contributions they have made. I thank them for their interest and support. As a member of the reserved forces, I have a personal interest in the Bill. I will repeat here my words spoken on Second Reading, which are that I take very seriously the obligations I have to the men and women who choose to abide by the high standards of discipline and behaviour that the Bill supports. I said then that I very much looked forward to taking it through the House. Today, I am very proud to have done so.

Finally, I pay tribute to the brave men and women in our armed forces who serve our country with honour and distinction, and to those who, as MOD firefighters, work to protect life and property. The Bill is for them. I believe the Bill we send to the other place is in good shape.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Defence) 6:02 pm, 11th January 2016

The first test of an Opposition is whether it can support the Government constructively when they do positive things, introduce positive additions to Government legislation, and scrutinise both the intentions and implications of Government legislation. In all these regards, I believe the Labour party has done an important job of work in Committee and on Report. I am glad that the Bill leaves the House in a stronger state than when it arrived. We should be very pleased with that.

We welcome the provisions in the Bill to: extend the circumstances in which commanding officers can require service personnel and civilians, subject to service law, to be tested for drugs and alcohol after accidents; simplify the processes by which service personnel are charged with offences by reducing the number of stages required to decide and bring charges; and create of a statutory framework for immunity and sentence reductions for offenders who co-operate in investigations and prosecutions. The Bill will also bring the Armed Forces Act 2006 into force in the Isle of Man. As we have heard, consultation is ongoing with regard to Gibraltar. The Bill will also ensure that MOD firefighters will have the statutory powers to act in an emergency to protect life or property.

I have already covered the Labour amendments to the Bill, which we are pleased the Government now support. We were, however, disappointed that in Committee the Government failed to adopt our amendments relating to the incredibly important issue of sexual assault in the military. There is substantial evidence that sexual harassment is a major problem for a number of people serving in our armed forces, and for servicewomen in particular. Last year, General Sir Nick Carter described the level of sexual harassment in the military as “totally unacceptable”. Despite widespread acknowledgement of the problem, however, there is an alarming scarcity of reliable data. The Government do not regularly collect or publish statistics on the number of allegations, prosecutions or convictions related to sexual assault and rape. Labour’s new clause 5 sought to require the MOD to publish statistics on sexual assault and rape, including: the number of cases referred to the service police, how many cases are prosecuted and how many convictions are secured. Without a central register, we are leaving our armed forces at a disadvantage.

A recent report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary on the Royal Military Police found that there was a

“lack of standards and guidance on incident and crime recording”.

Currently, when allegations of sexual assault are made it is up to individual commanding officers to decide whether to investigate them themselves or to refer an allegation to a police force, which may be either military or civilian. We on the Labour Benches believe it is wrong to put allegations of serious sexual assault alongside other misdemeanours in behaviour. Labour’s proposed new clauses 6 and 7 would have removed commanding officers’ discretionary powers in these cases, introducing a legal requirement for all allegations of sexual assault to be referred to the relevant civilian police force for investigation. The Government chose not to adopt any of the amendments in Committee, deeming them all “unnecessary”. We feel that this is an opportunity missed.

Nevertheless, we recognise that, partly thanks to pressure from Labour, important amendments have been made to the Bill, including measures to ensure compensation for veterans suffering from mesothelioma, and the removal of unnecessary discriminatory clauses. I would like to echo the Minister’s comments and take this opportunity to thank all Members who scrutinised the Bill, and all those who have made a contribution to it: the Chairman of the Bill Select Committee, the Clerks of the House and other staff who facilitated the Committee stage. I even thank those members of staff at the Ministry of Defence who have done an admirable job of persuading the Minister to make the right decision or to appear to know what he was talking about—never an easy task. Seriously, I thank the Minister for the very positive steps he has taken during the passage of the Bill to ensure it leaves in a better state than it was in when it arrived. I look forward to working constructively with him at further stages.

The Bill will now be scrutinised in another place and Labour will continue to push the Government on some of the issues raised in Committee. We will continue to stand up in every case for the rights of our armed forces personnel and veterans. Labour believes in a modern, effective armed forces to ensure the security of Britain in the world. It is for that reason that I am pleased to offer our continued support to all those who serve our country, and to the Government’s positive measures that improve the lot of the personnel who serve.

Photo of Jack Lopresti Jack Lopresti Conservative, Filton and Bradley Stoke 6:06 pm, 11th January 2016

It has been a real privilege for me, as somebody who has done a small amount of military service in the ranks before coming to this place, to have the honour of serving as Chair of the Armed Forces Bill Select Committee. I participated in, and contributed to, the previous Bill Committee. To chair the Committee this time has been a real privilege for me personally.

I would like to begin by reiterating what I said on Second Reading. I welcome the Bill in terms of its content and the fact that it comes from the great tradition of this place. It comes from 1688 and the Bill of Rights, under which

“no standing army may be maintained during peacetime without the consent of Parliament”.

That provision is one of this country’s enviable documents that form our uncodified constitution, balancing the power of the monarchy and the Government with both Houses of Parliament.

The Bill will renew the Armed Forces Act 2006, update elements of the armed forces’ disciplinary system and extend the powers of MOD firefighters. To put that in the context of what we ask our armed forces to do, the great General George Patton said:

“Perpetual peace is a futile dream”.

That quote is as relevant today as it was in his time. The world is as dangerous and unstable today as it has ever been. We never know where the next threat to our freedom and way of life will come from. We face threats from Putin in the east, are engaged in the global war on terror and ISIS in particular, and have to deal with threats from rogue states such as Iran and North Korea. The number of our service personnel deployed in joint operations in 19 countries has doubled over the past five years to over 4,000. Our fantastic and brave men and women of our three armed forces are the best soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen in the world.

The Bill is part of the UK’s investment in the security of our people, which enables the Government to safeguard our prosperity and way of life. Not only are the Government one of the five of the 28 in NATO to meet the recommended commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence; but I am pleased to say they are also meeting the NATO guidelines to spend 20% of the defence budget on major equipment, research programmes and R and D. I am proud that the Government have plans to spend more than £160 billion on equipment and equipment support over the next 10 years.

I thank all Members of the Bill Committee, from across the House, for the constructive and informed way that the discussions and debates were conducted as the Committee scrutinised the Bill through this important stage in its passage into law. There has been a reassuring level of consensus, a word I am not normally very comfortable with and do not use very often. On this crucial matter of defence of the realm, however, and while we argue passionately for things we believe in, with our forces deployed in offensive operations, it is crucial that Parliament is united in support of them. In saying that, I sympathise with those Labour Members under pressure on account of their party leadership’s position on defence.

On behalf of the Committee, I thank members of the public, representatives of service charities and voluntary groups for their engagement and written submissions. I also thank all the witnesses who gave oral evidence. In particular, I thank General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the General Staff, and Andrew Cayley, Director of Service Prosecutions, for their excellent, extremely informative and very useful verbal evidence. Finally, I thank the House and departmental staff for their work on the Committee stage. In particular, I wish to mention Dr Dickson, whose procedural guidance was extremely helpful.

The Committee produced new clauses supported by the Government. I pay particular tribute to Mr Jones, whom I have come to know during my few years in the House and with whom I was proud to serve on the previous Armed Forces Bill Committee, when we enshrined the military covenant in law. It is a shame that his expertise, passion and care in relation to the armed forces will be lacking from Labour’s Front-Bench team, and of course I support and admire hugely his passionate defence of the provisions on homosexuality. Of course, homosexual acts should not in any circumstances be grounds for the discharge of members of the armed forces. It seems astonishing that it was ever thus.

Finally, I pay tribute to the Minister for the progress the Government have made and their ongoing work on compensation for mesothelioma. It is another great example of the Government doing the right thing by our service personnel, to whom we owe an enormous debt of gratitude and appreciation. I thank them all for their service.

Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans) 6:11 pm, 11th January 2016

The Scottish National party supports the Bill and the immense work of our armed forces. It was a privilege to sit on the Select Committee, helping to move this vital Bill forward and make it the best it could be. The Bill is the thread running through all that we ask of our armed forces personnel, to whom we owe it to give proper consideration to the mechanics of what could seem like a dry topic. It is the means by which we put in place proper provision for our service personnel and veterans and continually review and, where appropriate, improve matters.

We must use the opportunities we have in this place, including in Committee, to continue to modernise the governance of our armed forces and to consider how properly to treat those who enter the services. In so doing, it is particularly important that we understand and act on our responsibilities to those who suffer as a result of their service and their families—for instance, in relation to their housing and education needs. In that regard, the Scottish Government’s funding for supported housing in Cranhill is very welcome, as are the progressive education provisions, including the links with the curriculum for excellence and the provision for free tertiary education, which provide positive benefits to our service personnel and their families.

It is interesting that we are here, a century after some of the most significant battles of the first world war, debating our armed forces and seeking to improve the provisions we have in place. I mentioned at a previous stage of the Bill that a war memorial was being built entirely funded by public subscription and organised by volunteers in Neilston in my constituency. I applaud their tireless work on what is now a dedicated memorial at the centre of the community. It did not take me long, when looking at the list of those from Neilston who had lost their lives, to see that many of them died 100 years ago this year, in battles whose names are still familiar today—Verdun, Jutland, the Somme—and it was poignant to see among them, aged only 17, Private James Path, of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who was killed in action in 1916.

It is right that we do not deploy 17-year-olds to the front line these days, but we do, as we did then, expect extraordinary things of ordinary people. We send our forces into the most dangerous situations, so they should expect us to make every effort to structure our armed forces in the best way possible. It was therefore heartening to hear in Committee about the progress being made, such as the developments in the leadership culture of our Army, as detailed eloquently by General Sir Nick Carter. These changes will represent a continued and welcome development in how Army personnel can develop their careers and how issues of bullying, harassment and discrimination are dealt with.

I was also pleased to hear such interesting and compelling evidence from Liberty on the importance of repealing the outdated and discriminatory laws on homosexuality. It is scarcely believable that we need to discuss this, but I am pleased there was such universal and enthusiastic support in Committee and here for the repeal of these provisions without delay. There is no place for such discrimination in our armed forces. The outlawing of homosexual behaviour could at best be described as Victorian, and more accurately as grossly offensive and directly discriminatory, so we are very pleased that these provisions will now be changed.

It was interesting to discuss in Committee the simplification of the service justice system and how issues of sexual assault are dealt with in the armed forces. We heard interesting and useful evidence from a number of sources, and it was heartening to hear the willingness of our service witnesses to engage in progressing these discussions. It is vital that we make progress. The Minister has outlined the fact that he intends a voluntary system of publication to ensure that appropriate data are published and in the public domain. I hope that this turns out to be the case. As we have discussed in earlier stages, it is vital that the data be reported fully, consistently and in a uniform format, so that we can accurately assess the situation in all our forces and whether the desired progress has been made.

We have a duty of care to our service personnel, and it is vital that we see publication of allegations of sexual assault as part of this suite of statistics, so that we can clearly understand all aspects of this issue. The Minister has made positive assurances about progressing this matter without the need for legislation, and I will be keen to assess what progress is made. The SNP wants to see guarantees on the publication of sexual harassment statistics and a positive improvement in the 2017 survey regarding sexual harassment as against the 2014 survey. I am keen for the House to retain a focus on the retention and monitoring of these statistics.

I concur with the Minister about firefighters and the need to extend the powers available to MOD firefighters to act in an emergency to protect life or property, in line with powers available to civilian fire and rescue authorities. This will provide welcome clarity. It will be important, however, to continue to review the operation of this provision and to ensure that our regular firefighters also have a voice in this respect.

Our ex-service personnel—our veterans—have featured heavily in our discussions in this place and in Committee, which is as it should be, and I am pleased that Scotland is leading the way in supporting our veterans, with the appointment of our Scottish Veterans Commissioner. This reinforces the Scottish Government’s commitment to supporting the 400,000-plus ex-servicemen and women living in Scotland and to the capacity-building funding to Veterans Scotland that will allow the organisation to develop and improve support for our veterans over the next two years. I was encouraged by the Committee’s unified view on the importance of making progress on issues that affect our veterans. It is vital that we continue to make progress and that we consider carefully how best to fulfil our obligations under the military covenant. The covenant cannot simply be fine words; it is a call to action for us in the House to fulfil our obligations and continue to strive to do the right thing.

Regrettably, we have not always done the right thing by our veterans. Since I arrived in this place, I have spoken most about one subject—veterans suffering from mesothelioma—and mine has certainly not been a lone voice. It is scandalous that we have allowed ex-service personnel suffering from this terrible, terminal condition to be treated so much worse than their civilian counterparts. The Minister’s commitment in December, and his comments today, about resolving this unfairness are therefore welcome indeed. His announcement that veterans diagnosed with mesothelioma on or after 16 December will have choices in relation to their levels of compensation will help to resolve matters and to close the gap. However, I must mention again the excellent campaign work undertaken by the Royal British Legion and echo its call for the Government to go further and agree to deal fairly with the small group of about 60 veterans currently in receipt of a war disablement pension by allowing them to access the new lump sum compensation.

Veterans and our service personnel rightly expect the House to use the Armed Forces Bill to examine all the issues and to do so regularly. I hope that on this occasion we have done that.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham 6:19 pm, 11th January 2016

I think this is my third Armed Forces Bill, and I have to say that it was a minnow, certainly compared with the 2006 Bill, which, as the Minister described, was a major piece of legislation reforming our armed forces law as it applied to the three services. However, this Bill is important because, as has been said, it is the means by which we maintain a standing Army and also—this is an important point for this House—a way to ensure clear scrutiny of our armed forces. That is something we take for granted in this country, but in many parts of the world people do not.

I join other colleagues in thanking Jack Lopresti for his chairing of the Committee. I also thank and pay tribute to the Clerks and civil servants who helped the Committee in its deliberations. This was a small Bill, but we took some major steps forward. Mesothelioma has already been mentioned, and I pay tribute to the Minister, because he has taken a pragmatic and consensual approach to the proposals that were put forward. It was his tenacity in taking these things forward that ensured that we secured the changes. The mesothelioma changes will make a real difference to the individuals affected. I also pay tribute to the Royal British Legion for its campaigning work on this issue.

There is also an historic issue, in that tonight we are finally removing from our statute book a piece of legislation that discriminated against the LGBT community. As I said earlier, that will send a clear message to young men and women who want to join our armed forces—that they are joining services that I know, certainly from working with them, are not prejudiced in any way against people because of their sexuality, and that goes right from the top through the ranks of the services. I pay tribute to General Nick Carter, who gave evidence to the Committee, who embodies that new approach in our armed forces. They want to be inclusive and welcoming. Not only do they want to be an effective fighting force when needed, but they want to give great opportunities to many of our young people throughout this nation of ours.

We also had many discussions about sexual assault. I do not quite want to correct my hon. Friend Toby Perkins, but the Minister gave a clear commitment in Committee and on the Floor of the House that the sexual assault statistics would be published. That is a good and meaningful step forward, and I look forward to their being published in the next annual report.

I also welcome the changes made to the war pensions committees. I pay tribute to the individuals who volunteer for war pensions committees. They do not get paid; they are volunteers. They give advice free of charge, and a lot of their time is dedicated to ensuring that veterans get the advice they require. The changes made, which will ensure they can now cover not just war pensions but the other compensation Acts, are welcome.

Our armed forces do not have trade unions or representatives—I think it was my hon. Friend Mrs Moon who made this point earlier—so they are in a unique position. They rely on this House to ensure that, when this Bill comes forward, we make the changes that look after their interests. This Bill will not make major changes, as the 2006 Bill did, but it takes us a step forward and is a way of ensuring every five years that this House can scrutinise what our armed forces are doing in applying the law to themselves.

I would like to finish by paying tribute to the men and women of our armed forces. I had the privilege in government of working with them. They are dedicated to unselfishness. They are individuals we ask to do remarkable things—things that we would never do. I pay tribute to the men and women from my constituency who serve—not just now, but in the past. I also pay tribute to a group who sometimes do not get mentioned: the families, who support our servicemen and women. Without them, our servicemen and women could not do the job.

With that point, I would like to say one thing to my own party. These people are a very important part of our society. We value them; we entrust them with huge responsibility; we need them. They keep us safe when we are threatened. That is something my own party should never forget.

Photo of David Anderson David Anderson Labour, Blaydon 6:24 pm, 11th January 2016

I want to pick up the point about families, which my hon. Friend Mr Jones closed on. One of the realities of the mesothelioma debate is that the people who have been diagnosed will quite possibly die before April. However, there is a precedent in other compensation schemes—in particular, the mineworkers compensation schemes for diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease—for widows to claim on behalf of their partners and vice versa. I plead with the Minister to see whether it is possible to find a way to help those who at the moment look like being excluded because they served before 1987, along with others who might have fallen through the net. If, sadly, they are not here when the law comes into force and the arrangements are put in place, please do not let it end there. The widows and the families will still be there and they still deserve to be looked after, because these people have made sacrifices on our behalf. I plead with the Minister to look at that.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.