Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:36 pm on 22nd April 2021.

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Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill 12:36 pm, 22nd April 2021

Today, the Armed Forces Bill Select Committee publishes its special report on the new Armed Forces Bill. It is my privilege to present it to the House. Getting to this point has taken significant effort right across Westminster, so it is my duty to express my gratitude to several key stakeholders. I thank first the Backbench Business Committee for the opportunity to make this statement, and the Speaker’s Office and the Ministry of Defence for all their staff support and advice, notably on the content and scope of the Bill. I also thank the 16 right hon. and hon. Members of the Committee for their contribution, humour and hard work. We broke new ground as the first Committee of the House to conduct line-by-line scrutiny of a Bill by virtual means and worked intensively in the build-up to that before Easter and during recess to hear from many witnesses. I humbly thank them for putting their trust in me by electing a new MP as Chair. I am proud to represent the 2019 intake at this statement.

I know that I speak for all Members by expressing my gratitude to those who contributed to our inquiry. Their depth of knowledge and professionalism was inspiring. Last but not least, I thank the Committee staff and wider technical teams for their support in the past few months, which has proved invaluable through both virtual and hybrid working. I make no apology for mentioning Ms Yohanna Sallberg and in particular, the presiding Clerk, Mr Matthew Congreve, whose contribution and guidance at the age of 24 have been truly outstanding.

The report, published earlier today, is the key output of the ad hoc Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill. For those interested in the history, the requirement is a procedural anomaly harking back to the 1689 Bill of Rights. Every five years, a Bill must pass through Parliament thereby renewing the Armed Forces Act in statute and enabling the maintenance of standing forces in peacetime. Since 1961, the Bill has led to the creation of a unique hybrid Committee: technically a Select Committee with the power to summon witnesses and hear evidence, but also acting as a Public Bill Committee by scrutinising the legislation line by line. The Bill is not only essential to retaining and resourcing our armed forces but has come to serve as a checkpoint for what works and what is needed in statute.

The Committee was therefore appointed to scrutinise this important legislation. It has done so throughout the past few weeks, and it reported the Bill, unamended, back to the House last week. We inquired into specific areas of the Bill, focusing on the armed forces covenant, the service justice system and the service complaints system. We also explored additional areas, including diversity in the armed forces, healthcare and housing.

From the outset, the Committee welcomed the requirement to incorporate the armed forces covenant into law and noted that this change is important for service personnel, veterans and their families. We recognised some concerns on how the duty to have due regard to the covenant will work in practice, the current lack of prescribed outcomes for those entrusted with delivering it, and how the visions in the Bill apply to some areas of the covenant but not others. We also heard concerns about it only applying to some public bodies but not others. We therefore look forward to seeing the statutory guidance, which will be essential for informing public bodies of what is expected of them in applying the duty of due regard. We recommended that the Government conduct a review after two years on how this duty is operating in practice and that the annual report for the armed forces covenant should review its effectiveness and comment on future scope. We also recommended that the Defence Committee, chaired by my right hon. Friend Mr Ellwood, should conduct post-legislative scrutiny.

On the service justice system, the Committee found that the Bill demonstrates a commitment to improving the system. This, combined with non-statutory measures being implemented following the Lyons review, should ensure that it has the confidence of those who are subject to it, and also the wider public. We therefore welcome the efforts to reform the service justice system but recognise that some concerns linger on concurrent jurisdiction. We recommended that the Ministry of Defence work quickly to introduce the defence serious crime capability and ensure that clear protocols are in place to allow effective co-operation with civilian police forces and to agree jurisdiction.

Turning to the service complaints system, we welcome the efforts to speed up the process provided that the necessary safeguards remain in place to ensure fair and equal access to all. We found that the current processes do attract criticism, particularly in tackling delays to resolve cases, and we remain cognisant of the heavy workload being placed on individual officers and staff. We also supported the findings of the Wigston review and advised that the Ministry of Defence implement all of its policy recommendations.

On our additional areas of scrutiny, the Committee heard encouraging evidence that the experience of armed forces personnel with protected characteristics has vastly improved, but recognise that there is still more to be done. We welcomed the former Minister for Defence People and Veterans, my hon. Friend Johnny Mercer, committing to

“find a mechanism of restorative justice” ––[Official Report, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, 31 March 2021; c. 94.]

for veterans dismissed due to their actual or perceived sexuality during the years of the ban on homosexuality in the armed forces. We asked that he report back to the House on progress within three months. We also support the important work of the Defence Sub-Committee on women in the armed forces, led by my hon. Friend Sarah Atherton.

Furthermore, the Committee inquired into the provision of healthcare for veterans, particularly in mental health, and found it encouraging that the provision is getting better but recommended improvements in a number of areas and services. We sought to build on the important work of the Public Accounts Committee on service accommodation and found that the level of satisfaction for personnel and families living in service housing is still low. While work has been undertaken to improve this, we argued that better accommodation is an area that still needs prioritisation within the Ministry of Defence.

On the appointment and remit of our Committee, we found that the convention of committing the Armed Forces Bill to a Select Committee in addition to its usual Committee stage grants the Bill additional scrutiny. Our inquiry was, however, rather rushed due to compressed timelines, and we recommended that future Select Committees on armed forces Bills be given more time to complete their work. Overall, it was a real pleasure to work with hon. and right hon. Members from both sides of the House to deliver this important report. Consensus was achieved in most areas—no easy feat—and we recommended that the appointment of a Select Committee continues to be the convention for future armed forces Bills. I am grateful, again, to all my colleagues from all parties. Consensus is always persuasive and politics is far better for it.

Before I finish, I wish to remind Members of the underlying purpose of all this hard work. This House’s aspiration should be for Britain to maintain the best armed forces in the world and for this to be the best place in the world to be a veteran. Although there is much more to do, I believe we are getting there. We therefore pay tribute to our armed forces for their work, service and sacrifice, and this Bill is a vital part in our meeting our obligations to them. I look forward to working with all Members during later consideration of the Bill in this Chamber, and I commend this special report to the House.