Defence

Part of Points of Order – in the House of Commons at 5:07 pm on 18th February 2019.

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Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence 5:07 pm, 18th February 2019

I will not give way. I need to make progress because I am getting that look from Madam Deputy Speaker—other hon. Members want to participate as well.

It is important to recognise where we are and to have a more real debate with the public. There is a Russian proverb that says that it is better to be slapped in the face by the truth than kissed with a lie. Without being too provocative, I believe that we are trying to sell a capability of the armed forces, which we are very, very proud of, but that the nation is in denial about the real threats appearing over the horizon. It is our duty as the Executive, as the Government and as parliamentarians to express that to a nation that, if it fully understood the picture, would be more willing to say, “Yes, let’s spend more money.” I hope that message will come through in the spending review.

I turn to the Armed Forces Act (Continuation) Order 2019. We seek the consent of the House through the annual consideration of the legislation governing the armed forces: the Armed Forces Act 2006. The draft order we are considering this afternoon is to continue in force the 2006 Act for a further year, until 11 May 2020. This reflects the constitutional requirement under the Bill of Rights that a standing Army, and by extension now the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, may not be maintained without the consent of Parliament.

I am sure the House will be familiar with the fact that the legislation that provides for the armed forces to exist as disciplined bodies is renewed by Parliament every single year. That is what we are doing here today. The requirement for annual renewal can be traced back to the Bill of Rights 1688. Time prohibits me, Madam Deputy Speaker, from going into detail on that, but I am happy to write to hon. Members if they would like further information on that front.

Every five years, renewal is by an Act of Parliament. The most recent was in 2016 and the next will be in 2021. Between each five-yearly Act, annual renewal is by Order in Council. The draft order that we are considering today is such an order. The Armed Forces Act 2016 provides for the continuation in force of the Armed Forces Act 2006 until the end of 11 May 2017 and for further renewal thereafter by Order in Council for up to a year at a time, but not beyond 2021. If the Armed Forces Act 2006 is not renewed by this Order in Council before the end of 11 May 2019, it will automatically expire. If the 2006 Act expires, the legislation that governs the armed forces and the provisions necessary for their maintenance as disciplined bodies will cease to exist. Discipline is essential. It maintains the order necessary for the armed forces to accomplish their mission to serve our country, whether at home or abroad.

The Act contains nearly all the provisions for the existence of a system of command, discipline and justice for the armed forces. It creates offences and provides for the investigation of alleged offences, the arrest, the holding in custody and the charging of individuals accused of committing an offence, and for them to be dealt with summarily by their commanding officer or tried in a court martial. Offences under the 2006 Act include any criminal offence under the law of England and Wales and those that are peculiar to service, such as misconduct towards a superior officer and disobedience to lawful commands. We should not forget that the Act applies to members of the armed forces at all times, wherever they are serving in the world.

If the Act were to expire, the duty of members of the armed forces to obey lawful commands, and the powers and procedures under which this duty is enforced, would no longer have effect. Commanding officers and the court martial would have no powers of punishment for failure to obey a lawful command or other disciplinary or criminal misconduct. Members of the armed forces would still owe allegiance to Her Majesty, but Parliament would have removed the power of enforcement. Service personnel do not have contracts of employment and so have no duties as employees. Their obligation is essentially a duty to obey lawful commands. The Act also provides for other important matters for the armed forces, such as their enlistment, pay and redress of complaints.

In conclusion, the continuation of the 2006 Act is essential for the maintenance of discipline. Discipline, in every sense, is fundamental to the existence of our armed forces and indeed, to their successes, whether at home in supporting emergency services and local communities and protecting our fishing fleet and our shores; playing their role in counter-terrorism or in combating people and drug smuggling; distributing vital humanitarian aid; saving endangered species; or defeating Daesh in Iraq and Syria.

We owe the brave men and women of our armed forces a sound legal basis for them to continue to afford us their vital protection. I hope that hon. Members will support the draft continuation order.