With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Clauses 2 to 6 stand part.
“(4A) Guidance under subsection (3)(a) must provide for charges of murder, manslaughter, domestic violence, child abuse and rape to be tried only in civilian court when the offences are alleged to have been committed in the United Kingdom.”
This amendment would ensure that the most serious crimes – murder, manslaughter domestic violence, child abuse and rape - are tried in the civilian courts when committed in the UK.
Clause 7 stand part.
Amendment 1, in clause 8, page 9, line 19, at end insert—
“(aa) a relevant government department;”.
This amendment, with amendments 2, 3 and 4, would place the same legal responsibility to have ‘due regard’ to the Armed Forces Covenant on central government and the devolved administrations as the Bill currently requires of local authorities and other public bodies.
Amendment 39, in clause 8, page 10, line 2, at end insert—
(g) in relation to accommodation provided to service people in England, a requirement for that accommodation to meet the Decent Homes Standard.”
The intention of this amendment is to ensure that all service housing is regulated in line with the minimum quality housing standard which pertains to whatever part of the United Kingdom that housing is situated in.
Amendment 2, in clause 8, page 11, line 18, at end insert—
“(aa) a relevant department in the devolved administration in Wales;”.
See explanatory statement for Amendment 1.
Government amendment 8.
Amendment 40, in clause 8, page 11, line 38, at end insert—
(e) in relation to accommodation provided to service people in Wales, a requirement for that accommodation to meet the Welsh Housing Quality Standard.”
See the explanatory statement for Amendment 39.
Government amendment 9.
Amendment 3, in clause 8, page 12, line 32, at end insert—
“(aa) a relevant department in the devolved administration in Scotland;”.
See explanatory statement for Amendment 1.
Amendment 41, in clause 8, page 13, line 9, at end insert—
(e) in relation to accommodation provided to service people in Scotland, a requirement for that accommodation to meet the Scottish Housing Quality Standard.”
See the explanatory statement for Amendment 39.
Government amendment 10.
Amendment 4, in clause 8, page 14, line 4, at end insert—
“(aa) a relevant department in the devolved administration in Northern Ireland;”.
See the explanatory statement for Amendment 1.
Government amendments 11 and 12.
Amendment 42, in clause 8, page 14, line 27, at end insert—
(d) in relation to accommodation provided to service people in Northern Ireland, a requirement for that accommodation to meet the Decent Homes standard for Northern Ireland.”
See the explanatory statement for Amendment 39.
Government amendments 13 to 15.
Amendment 6, in clause 8, page 18, line 7, at end insert—
“343AG Section 343AF: report
The Secretary of State must lay a report before each House of Parliament no later than three months after the day on which this Act is passed on how the powers in section 343F (Sections 343AA to 343AD: power to add bodies and functions) will work in practice.”
This amendment would require the Secretary of State to set out how powers in the Bill could be used to widen its scope to address all matters of potential disadvantage for service personnel under the Armed Forces Covenant including employment, pensions, compensation, social care, criminal justice and immigration.
Clauses 8 and 9 stand part.
Government amendments 16 to 23.
Clauses 10 to 13 stand part.
Government amendments 24 to 30.
Clauses 14 to 26 stand part.
New clause 1—Waived fees for indefinite leave to remain for serving or discharged member of the UK armed forces—
“(1) The Immigration Act 2014 is amended as follows.
(2) In section 68, after (11) insert—
‘(12) No fees may be charged in respect of a serving or previously serving member of the UK armed forces, or their family members, applying for indefinite leave to remain under Appendix Armed Forces of the Immigration Rules.’”
This new clause would amend the Immigration Act 2014 to waive the fee for indefinite leave to remain applications for any current or previously serving Members of the UK Armed forces, and their families.
New Clause 2—Duty of care to service personnel—
“(1) The Secretary of State must establish a duty of care standard in relation to legal, pastoral and mental health support provided to service personnel involved in investigations or litigation arising from overseas operations, as defined in section 1(6) of the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans Act 2021.
(2) The Secretary of State must lay a copy of the duty of care standard under subsection (1) before Parliament within six months of the date on which this Act is passed.
(3) The Secretary of State must thereafter in each calendar year—
(a) prepare a duty of care update, and
(b) include the duty of care update in the Armed Forces Covenant annual report when it is laid before Parliament.
(4) The duty of care update is a review about the continuous process and improvement to meet the duty of care standard established in subsection (1), in particular in relation to incidents arising from overseas operations of—
(a) litigation and investigations brought against service personnel for allegations of criminal misconduct and wrongdoing;
(b) civil litigation brought by service personnel against the Ministry of Defence for negligence and personal injury;
(c) judicial reviews and inquiries into allegations of misconduct by service personnel; and
(d) such other related fields as the Secretary of State may determine.
(5) In preparing a duty of care update the Secretary of State must have regard to, and publish relevant data in relation to (in respect of overseas operations)—
(a) the adequacy of legal, welfare and mental health support services provided to service personnel who are accused of crimes;
(b) complaints made by service personnel or their legal representation when in the process of bringing or attempting to bring civil claims against the Ministry of Defence for negligence and personal injury;
(c) complaints made by service personnel or their legal representation when in the process of investigation or litigation for an accusation of misconduct: and
(d) meeting national standards of care and safeguarding for families of service personnel, where relevant.
(6) In subsection (1) “service personnel” means—
(a) members of the regular forces and the reserve forces;
(b) members of British overseas territory forces who are subject to service law;
(c) former members of any of Her Majesty’s forces who are ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom; and
(d) where relevant, family members of any person meeting the definition within paragraph (a), (b) or (c).
(7) In subsection (1) “duty of care” means both the legal and moral obligation of the Ministry of Defence to ensure the wellbeing of service personnel.
(8) None of the provisions of this section may be used to alter the principle of combat immunity.”
This new clause will require the Secretary of State to establish a duty of care standard in relation to legal, pastoral and mental health support provided to service personnel involved in investigations or litigation arising from overseas operations.
New clause 4—Report on dismissals and forced resignations for reasons of sexual orientation or gender identity—
“(1) The Secretary of State must lay before Parliament a report on the number of people who have been dismissed or forced to resign from the Armed Forces due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.
(2) The report under subsection (1) must include cases where—
(a) there is formal documentation citing sexuality as the reason for their dismissal; or
(b) there is evidence of sexuality or gender identity being a reason for their dismissal, though another reason is cited in formal documentation.
(3) The report under subsection (1) must include recommendations of the sort of compensation which may be appropriate, including but not limited to—
(a) the restoration of ranks;
(b) pensions; and
(c) other forms of financial compensation.
(4) The report must include a review of the cases of those service personnel who as a result of their sexuality have criminal convictions for sex offences and/or who are on the Sex Offenders Register.
(5) The report must include discharges and forced resignations back to at least 1955.
(6) The first report under subsection (1) must be laid no later than 6 months after the day on which this Act is passed.
(7) The Secretary of State may make further reports under subsection (1) from time to time.
(8) In this section, “sexuality or gender identity” includes perceived or self-identified sexuality or gender identity.”
This new clause requires the Government to conduct a comprehensive review of the number of people who were dismissed or forced to resign from the Armed Forces due to their sexuality and to make recommendations on appropriate forms of compensation.
New clause 6—Duty of care for alcohol, drugs and gambling disorders—
“(1) The Armed Forces Act 2006 is amended as follows.
(2) After section 20(2)(d) insert—
‘(e) the person is dependent on, or has a propensity to misuse, alcohol or drugs.’
(3) After section 20(3) insert—
‘(3A) The Secretary of State has a duty of care to offer a specific pathway for support and treatment for current and previously serving service personnel who experience—
(a) a propensity to misuse, alcohol and drugs,
(b) alcohol or drug dependency, and
(c) gambling disorder.
(3B) The Secretary of State must include in the annual Armed Forces Covenant report—
(a) the number of people accessing treatment and support as set out in section (1), and
(b) the current provisions for rehabilitation facilities for Armed Forces personnel who are experiencing a propensity to misuse or have a dependency on alcohol, drugs and gambling.’”
New clause 7—Indefinite leave to remain payments by Commonwealth and Gurkha members of armed forces—
“(1) The Immigration Act 2014 is amended as follows.
(2) In section 68 (10), after ‘regulations’ insert “must make exceptions in respect of any person with citizenship of a Commonwealth country (other than the United Kingdom) who has served at least four years in the UK armed forces, or in respect of any person who has served at least four years in the Brigade of Gurkhas, such exceptions to include capping the fee for any such person applying for indefinite leave to remain at no more than the actual administrative cost of processing that application, and”
This new clause will ensure that Commonwealth and Gurkha veterans applying for Indefinite Leave to Remain following four years of service will only pay the unit cost of an application.
New clause 8—Armed Forces Federation—
“(1) The Armed Forces Act 2006 is amended as follows.
(2) After section 333, insert—
‘333A Armed Forces Federation
(1) There shall be an Armed Forces Federation for the United Kingdom for the purpose of representing members of the Armed Forces in the United Kingdom in all matters affecting their welfare, remuneration and efficiency, except for—
(a) questions of promotion affecting individuals, and
(b) (subject to subsection (2)) questions of discipline affecting individuals.
(2) The Armed Forces Federation may represent a member of the Armed Forces at any proceedings or on an appeal from any such proceedings.
(3) The Armed Forces Federation shall act through local and central representative bodies.
(4) This section applies to reservists of the Armed Forces as it applies to members of the Armed Forces, and references to the Armed Forces shall be construed accordingly.
333B Regulations for the Armed Forces Federation
(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations—
(a) prescribe the constitution and proceedings of the Armed Forces Federation, or
(b) authorise the Federation to make rules concerning such matters relating to their constitution and proceedings as may be specified in the regulations.
(2) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1), regulations under this section may make provision—
(a) with respect to the membership of the Federation;
(b) with respect to the raising of funds by the Federation by voluntary subscription and the use and management of funds derived from such subscriptions;
(c) with respect to the manner in which representations may be made by committees or bodies of the Federation to officers of the Armed Forces and the Secretary of State; and
(d) for the payment by the Secretary of State of expenses incurred in connection with the Federation and for the use by the Federation of premises provided by local Armed Forces bodies for Armed Forces purposes.
(3) Regulations under this section may contain such supplementary and transitional provisions as appear to the Secretary of State to be appropriate, including provisions adapting references in any enactment (including this Act) to committees or other bodies of the Federation.
(4) A statutory instrument containing regulations under this section shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.
(5) This section applies to reservists of the Armed Forces as it applies to members of the Armed Forces.’”
This new clause would create a representative body for the Armed Forces, akin to the Police Federation, which would represent their members in matters such as welfare, pay and efficiency.
New clause 9—Investigation of allegations related to overseas operations—
“(1) In deciding whether to commence criminal proceedings for allegations against a member of Her Majesty’s Forces arising out of overseas operations, the relevant prosecutor must take into account whether the investigation has been timely and comprehensively conducted.
(2) Where an investigator of allegations arising out of overseas operations is satisfied that there is sufficient evidence of criminal conduct to continue the investigation, the investigator must within 21 days refer the investigation to the Service Prosecuting Authority with any initial findings and accompanying case papers.
(3) An investigation may not proceed after the period of 6 months beginning with the day on which the allegation was first reported without the reference required in subsection (2).
(4) On receiving a referral under subsection (2), the Service Prosecuting Authority must either—
(a) order the investigation to cease if it considers it unlikely that charges will be brought, or
(b) give appropriate advice and directions to the investigator about avenues of inquiry to pursue and not pursue, including—
(i) possible defendants to consider,
(ii) possible explanations to consider for the circumstances giving rise to the investigation, and
(iii) overseas inquiries and seeking the help of overseas jurisdictions.
(5) Where the investigation proceeds, the Service Prosecuting Authority must monitor and review its progress at intervals of three months and must on each review make a decision in the terms set out in subsection (4).
(6) On the conclusion of the investigation, the investigator must send a final report with accompanying case papers to the Service Prosecuting Authority for the consideration of criminal proceedings.
(7) After receipt of the final report, the facts and circumstances of the allegations may not be further investigated or reinvestigated without the direction of the Director of Service Prosecutions acting on the ground that there is new compelling evidence or information which might—
(a) materially affect the previous decision, and
(b) lead to a charge being made.
(8) The Judge Advocate General may give Practice Directions as he or she deems appropriate for the investigation of allegations arising out of overseas operations.
(9) For the purposes of this section—
‘case papers’ includes summaries of interviews or other accounts given by the suspect, previous convictions and disciplinary record, available witness statements, scenes of crime photographs, CCTV recordings, medical and forensic science reports;
‘investigator’ means a member of the service police or a civil police force.”
That schedule 1 be the First schedule to the Bill.
That schedule 2 be the Second schedule to the Bill.
Government amendments 31 to 38.
That schedule 3 be the Third schedule to the Bill.
That schedule 4 be the Fourth schedule to the Bill.
That schedule 5 be the Fifth schedule to the Bill.
It is a privilege to speak to the Armed Forces Bill before a Committee of the whole House. Indeed, it is fitting that the Bill should come before the Committee during Armed Forces Week, when we celebrate and commemorate Her Majesty’s armed forces.
Before speaking to the Bill, I want to express my gratitude to the members of the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, some of whom are here today, and to thank them for their rigorous and professional approach to the work of that Committee. I commend their published report.
In simple terms, the Bill’s primary purpose is to renew the Armed Forces Act 2006—
I thank the Minister for giving way. I wanted to get in early to mention the armed forces covenant, which means a lot to me, as I will explain later.
We have many proud veterans in Wolverhampton who have given so much for this country, and the armed forces mean loads to them. When the diary permits, will my hon. Friend come to Wolverhampton to meet those veterans and hear at first hand what the covenant means for their lives?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I would be delighted to accept an invitation to Wolverhampton. I acknowledge and applaud the magnificent work he does in Wolverhampton to support his veterans. I hope the Bill is well received by them, and we thank them for their service.
The Bill will deliver improvements to the service justice system and, most importantly, it delivers on our commitment to enshrine the armed forces covenant in law.
I thank the Minister for giving way so early in his speech. Unlike Stuart Anderson, I can say that I was delighted to see the Minister when he came to Northern Ireland last week. I am glad that Northern Ireland got ahead of Wolverhampton on the issue—no offence to my colleague.
Will the Minister spell out clearly at this early stage that veterans in Northern Ireland will be treated equally to veterans from any other part of the United Kingdom, and that no impediment will be allowed to get in the way of veterans being treated fairly and equitably across the United Kingdom, which they should and must be? Will he assure us that the legacy issues will be brought before the House before it rises for the summer?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I was very pleased last week to meet several veterans’ groups, both of home service and of overseas service, to hear about their experiences. The Government are committed to driving towards parity of provision for all veterans, whether they be of home service or overseas service. In terms of legacy issues, he will know that work is ongoing within the Northern Ireland Office, and the Government are absolutely committed—and full of resolve—to delivering the closure that our veterans need with honour and finality.
I really appreciate what the Minister is saying. He knows how vital this issue is. I do not underestimate the Government’s commitment, but I am concerned about the dead hand of officials and political activists in Northern Ireland. Will there be finality on this matter in July? Will a statute of limitations be introduced then?
I cannot get into the timing, and it would not be useful for me to do that at this time. I know that work is continuing apace and that it is a top priority for both the Prime Minister and the Northern Ireland Office. I share the hon. Gentleman’s sense of urgent desire to see this delivered.
The covenant was introduced in its current form a decade ago, and it has undoubtedly had an enormous and very beneficial impact for many within our service community. However, too often, the experience of the covenant depends on where someone lives, so more does need to be done. The Bill delivers for our service personnel and veterans by, for the first time ever, creating a duty for relevant public bodies across the whole of the United Kingdom to pay due regard to the principles of the covenant in the areas of housing, healthcare and education. The Bill represents a significant milestone and delivers on a key manifesto commitment to enshrine further the covenant into law.
In the area of housing, the duty will cover those bodies that are responsible for social housing, homelessness policy and the administration of disabled facilities grants, which can be vital for injured veterans. In education, we know that our service families sometimes face challenges due to their mobile lifestyles in accessing suitable school places for their children, including those with special educational needs. The duty will therefore ensure that the needs of service children are properly understood. In healthcare, much has already been achieved, but service families and veterans still sometimes experience disadvantage, often caused by their mobility or by healthcare requirements resulting from service. The duty will apply to all bodies that are responsible for commissioning and delivering healthcare services across the UK. Housing, healthcare and education are the essential areas, but to future-proof the Bill there is a provision to allow the scope of the duty to be expanded beyond those areas.
It does not need to include Government Departments, because that provision is already made. There are Ministers in every Department holding the lead for veterans’ issues, and the Secretary of State is accountable in his annual report. Therefore, the provision for making central Government accountable is already in place.
The Minister says that, but in effect it is not in place, because there is no redress. I must say that I am disappointed with the powers of redress in the Bill even in the areas where they are included. What are the powers of redress against Departments in respect of the covenant—not in respect of any other type of complaint there might be? How would a veteran ensure that the covenant was implemented by the Department of Health and Social Care at a national level, and what redress is there?
The right hon. Gentleman knows that, in terms of all national provision, Ministers are accountable, as I am being accountable right here, right now. What we are dealing with today is the local provision. If individuals feel that they have not had adequate provision and are disadvantaged, they could pursue the route of judicial review in the worst case. We believe that, at the local level, most local authorities want to get this right, and we are just laying out best practice examples for them to follow.
Can the Minister give me the same reassurance when it comes to Departments in the devolved Administrations, such as the Scottish Government?
Absolutely I can, and I am very pleased to.
I turn to the technical amendments. Amendments 8 to 15 relate to the armed forces covenant, amendments 16 to 23 and 31 to 38 amend the service complaints provisions, and amendments 24 to 30 relate to the provision on driving disqualification.
Can the Minister confirm, before he gets technical, that the overriding consideration in all this is that servicemen, servicewomen and their families should suffer no disadvantage by virtue of their military service? There will be test cases arising from the guidance to which he has referred in which people say, “Look, I’ve been disadvantaged because I’m in the armed forces.” The acid test has to be what they would have got from the system if they had not been serving. Surely that is the guiding star in all this.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. That is the fundamental basis of all this, and that is at the heart of the statutory guidance. We are confident that local authorities will bear that in mind in the way they afford provision in the critical areas that I have described, but of course there may be test cases and we will take note of them if they arise.
A number of Opposition amendments and new clauses have been tabled. I want to concentrate on the key ones that specifically relate to the service justice system and the armed forces covenant. Amendment 7 seeks to ensure that the most serious crimes are automatically tried in the civilian courts when committed by a serviceperson in the UK, thereby undermining the current legal position that there is full concurrent jurisdiction between the service and civilian justice systems. The amendment would mean that the most serious offences, when committed in the UK, could never be dealt with in the service justice system, even though the Lyons review recommended that the most serious offences could and should continue to be tried in the service justice system with the consent of the Attorney General.
The Government have a more pragmatic approach. We are confident that the service justice system is capable of dealing with all offences, whatever their seriousness and wherever they occur, bolstered by improvements recommended by the Lyons review, such as the creation of the defence serious crime unit and improvement to the support to victims. The service police, prosecutors and judiciary are trained, skilled and experienced. Victims and witnesses receive comparable support to the civilian system, for example through the armed forces code of practice for victims of crime, which we continue to keep updated in line with civilian practices. The amendment would remove the valuable role of independent prosecutors in allocating cases to the most appropriate jurisdiction.
Clause 7 improves and strengthens the protocol between service and civilian prosecutors to determine where cases are tried. That improvement will bring much-needed clarity on how decisions on jurisdiction are made and will ensure transparency and independence from the chain of command and Government. To be clear, the aim of this approach is not to increase the number of serious crimes being tried in the court martial. The civilian prosecutor will always have the final say. I therefore urge the Committee to reject amendment 7.
Amendments 1 to 4 would create a duty on central Government and devolved Administrations. Clause 8, as it stands, covers public functions in healthcare, housing and education exercised by the local or regional bodies that are responsible for those services. Those are the key areas of concern for our armed forces community. Central Government’s delivery of the covenant is regularly scrutinised, as I referred to in my answer to Mr Jones, and the Armed Forces Act 2006 requires the Secretary of State for Defence to lay an annual report before Parliament. Devolved Administrations and other bodies are given an opportunity to contribute their views to that report. That duty to report will remain a legal obligation, and it remains the key, highly effective method by which the Government are held to account for delivery of the covenant.
Amendments 39 to 42 seek to ensure that all service housing is regulated in line with the local minimum quality. These amendments are unnecessary because, in practice, 96.7% of MOD-provided service family accommodation meets or exceeds the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s decent homes standard. The amendments would introduce an unhelpful disparity across the UK and would not achieve their intended effect, because local authorities that fall within the scope of the current duty are not responsible for the provision of service accommodation, so these amendments should be withdrawn.
The provision of high-quality subsidised accommodation remains a fundamental part of the overall MOD offer to service personnel and their families. Over the past decade, we have invested £1.2 billion in single living accommodation and another £1.5 billion will be invested over the next 10 years. Additionally, we are rolling out the future accommodation model to improve choice, and I am pleased to report that the forces Help to Buy scheme has helped more than 24,000 personnel to buy a new home over the past seven years.
New clause 9 seeks to introduce artificial timelines for the progress of investigations. These are operationally unrealistic. They do not take account of the nature of investigations on overseas operations and could put us in breach of our international obligations, including under the European convention on human rights, to effectively investigate serious crimes. The right hon. Member for North Durham will be aware, following my letter to him on
I thank the Minister for his letter, but let us be honest, we are in this mess because of his predecessor, Johnny Mercer, who promised that the issues around time limits and investigations would be in this Bill. When I address my amendments, I shall read them out at length. I welcome the fact that they have been referred to Judge Henriques, but the question is: when will they then be implemented? Are we going to have to wait another five years for a new armed forces Bill before that happens? Otherwise, the Minister is going to have to find legislative time to implement them. There is an opportunity to do it now and, frankly, we should do it now.
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention. I think we have to wait and see what Sir Richard Henriques reports. It is not appropriate to propose changes while his review is ongoing, so we will wait and see, and we will respond when he formally reports.
I accept what the Minister is saying, but his predecessor promised, when he got into a real mess on the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, that this issue would be addressed in this Bill. It is clearly not going to be, and has now been kicked into the review. My concern is the real issues that will leave members of the armed forces open to vexatious accusations for another five years. The only way to deal with that would be to find legislative time to bring in a new Bill, but I urge the Minister to just do it now.
We have to do it the right way round. We totally acknowledge the central importance of getting investigations right in terms of delivering for our people. We will not seek to reverse-engineer the schedule of work that is before us; we will wait for Sir Richard Henriques to report, then we will calmly consider the best way forward. What I will commit to today is an absolute resolve to deliver a rigorous and sound investigation system, because it is the lack of such provision that has bedevilled our armed forces people over the last 20 years. We do take this very seriously indeed.
Moving now to new clause 2, the Government take very seriously their duty of care for service personnel and veterans under investigation. This was debated at length in the other House during the passage of the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, and I have engaged with Lord Dannatt, who tabled the original amendment. I therefore wish to highlight two brief points. First, service personnel are entitled to receive comprehensive legal support; and secondly, a full range of welfare and mental health support is routinely offered to all our people. This support is available both while someone is serving and through the dedicated support to veterans through the NHS’s Op Courage in England and its devolved equivalents. We are striving for a gold standard of care and the Secretary of State’s written ministerial statement on
In the case of veterans, we continue to deliver further improvements through the veterans’ strategy, so new clause 2 is unnecessary and could result in unintended consequences. A duty of care standard risks becoming a one-size-fits-all approach, leaving personnel without the right support at the right time. The difficulties of drafting such a duty of care would inevitably mean the involvement of the courts and additional litigation. We are clear on our duty to provide the correct support to our personnel, both serving and veterans, and I urge Stephen Morgan to withdraw new clause 2.
It is a pleasure to speak from the Dispatch Box on this important legislation ahead of Armed Forces Day on Saturday. This Armed Forces Week is a chance to recognise and celebrate the service of our nation’s forces at home and abroad, past and present. Up and down the country, physical and virtual events will be held while the Armed Forces Day flag is flying proudly on buildings and famous landmarks around the UK. I was delighted to attend the flag-raising ceremony here in the House on Monday, where Mr Speaker set an example by signing the covenant. I look forward to events this weekend in my home city of Portsmouth, the heart and home of the Royal Navy.
Today is also Reserves Day, so I would like to take the opportunity to celebrate their contribution to our national defence and resilience. This year in particular has seen reservists contribute to the covid support force, providing medical and logistical support, as well as deploying skills from their professional lives. They remain a unique asset, the hidden heroes among us, balancing work and training. It is vital that they are better integrated into our forces.
It is timely that the Bill comes back before the House today. Labour supports our armed forces and welcomes the principles behind the Bill, which provides a rare opportunity for the Government to deliver meaningful improvements to the day-to-day lives of our forces’ personnel, veterans and their families. Its unusual legislative journey means that we have had a chance to consider it in detail and have a genuine cross-party discussion on how improvements can be made. That is the spirit in which Labour has approached the Bill. We have worked with service personnel, veterans, service charities and colleagues from across the House to get the very best for our forces in this once-in-a-Parliament piece of legislation.
I want to pay tribute to the local authorities, service providers, charities and voluntary organisations that are working hard to make the covenant a reality across the United Kingdom. I also want to thank those who served alongside me on the Bill Select Committee and James Sunderland for his leadership in the Chair. Despite that considered and expert input, however, the Government have consistently refused to hear and address fundamental concerns about the Bill. In doing so, they are missing an opportunity to deliver real improvements to the day-to-day lives of service personnel, veterans and their families. Labour’s amendments offer Ministers a fresh opportunity to get that right.
Turning to amendments 1 to 4 and 6, first, evidence from charities such as the Royal British Legion and those delivering services for veterans on the ground has reinforced Labour’s concerns that the Bill is too weak and too narrow. The Bill piles new and vague legal responsibilities to deliver the covenant on a wide range of public bodies, but mysteriously they do not apply to central Government. In practice, this would create a farcical reality where a chair of school governors has a legal responsibility to have due regard to the armed forces covenant, but Government Departments, including the Ministry of Defence, do not. As the Legion itself has pointed out, many of the policy areas in which members of the armed forces community experience difficulty are the responsibility of national Government or based on national guidance. Ministers must not be allowed to outsource the delivery of important promises in the armed forces covenant. Also, the Bill’s limited focus on housing, healthcare and education risks creating a two-tier covenant. This could start a race to the bottom on standards in other areas and will bake in the existing postcode lottery on access to services. Social care, pensions, employment and immigration are among the long list of areas we know will not be covered by this once-in-a-Parliament piece of legislation as it stands.
The exclusion of the Ministry of Defence from the responsible public bodies also means the Bill offers little to actively serving personnel, who have gone above and beyond to support our frontline response to a pandemic in the past year. This Government will thank them by missing this crucial opportunity to make long overdue improvements in the standard of service accommodation and handing most of them another real-terms pay cut this year. Labour’s amendments 1 to 4 would force Ministers to take the same legal responsibility for delivering the promises of the covenant as is placed on other public bodies, and amendment 6 would compel the Secretary of State to set out how and when he plans to use powers granted to him by the Bill to widen its scope.
Turning to new clause 7, the Bill does nothing to address the shameful scandal of visa fees for non-UK personnel. Under current rules, Commonwealth personnel face a fee of £2,389 per person to continue to live in the UK after having served at least four years. To add further insult, they are given just 28 days following their discharge in which to pay it. This leaves many facing financial ruin and feeling abandoned by the country that they served with courage and distinction.
During the Bill’s Select Committee stage, we heard evidence from Citizenship 4 Soldiers, which has been a tireless advocate for non-UK personnel. It described how such personnel have had to get second jobs if they want to bring family members over, or are simply priced out of being able to stay in the UK. Those without indefinite leave to remain have no recourse to public funds, leaving them destitute and desperate. It was aware of at least one case where a veteran was forced to live in his car in a Tesco car park. Others have had to return to their home countries where standards of post-combat healthcare do not match our own. These concerns continue to be echoed in the House by colleagues from all parties, including my hon. Friend Dan Jarvis, among others. It is dishonourable, unfair and certainly no way to repay the bravery and sacrifice of non-UK service personnel.
Disingenuous proposals from Ministers currently under consultation would help just one in 10 of those affected. Figures from the MOD suggest that this would apply to just 20 of the 200 non-UK personnel who left the regulars in 2019-20, with the majority serving between four and 11 years. To put that into further context, if the average length of service for all UK armed forces leavers has been 10 years since 2015, why should non-UK service personnel have to serve two years longer than the average length of service across all forces to earn the right to live in a country for which they have fought? Labour’s new clause 7 would see those who have served more than four years pay only the cost price of their application for ILR—£204, down from £2,389. That is a 90% reduction, and a long overdue step towards ensuring that these veterans can live in the country they fought for.
The new Veterans Minister proudly supported similar proposals as a Back Bencher. In 2019, he signed a letter with more than 60 Conservative MPs urging the then Chancellor to drop the fees. Our new clause 7 gives the Minister the chance to deliver on his promise to veterans, so I wonder whether he and others who I know are sympathetic will keep the courage of their convictions when they come to vote this afternoon.
Amendment 7 is on access to justice for service personnel, and I want to focus on this important part of the Bill. Labour has welcomed efforts to implement key recommendations of the Lyons review, but the Government continue to oppose the recommendation that civilian courts should have jurisdiction in matters of murder, rape and other serious offences committed in the UK. Civilian courts have a much better record of trying such cases, and adopting the Lyons recommendations would align the UK with other comparable service justice regimes in Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
Ministry of Defence figures show that, between 2015 and 2019, the conviction rate for rape cases tried under courts martial was just 10%. During the same period, the conviction rate was 59% in civilian courts, with considerably more cases being tried each year. Almost half the sexual assaults in the armed forces in 2019 took place in the UK and more than three quarters of the victims were women. Almost half the victims held the rank of private. Emma Norton from the Centre for Military Justice, whose advocacy for victims has been inspirational, rightly pointed out the contradiction that sudden-death cases are dealt with by the civilian police while other serious offences remain under the jurisdiction of courts martial. The only group on the other side of this issue are Ministers in this Government and senior figures in the service justice system itself.
Labour’s amendment 6 challenges the Government to recognise the weight of evidence from the figures, the experts and campaigners. Trying the most serious offences in civilian courts would help to improve conviction rates, but Ministers refuse to recognise this reality and seem content with a fudge that will leave personnel vulnerable. Only Labour’s proposals will provide appropriate support, protection and access to justice for all our armed forces.
With regards to reducing the appeal time limits, I draw attention to the proposals in clause 10(4). That provision reduces the time that service personnel have to make appeals in service complaints cases from six weeks to two weeks. Evidence from the survey of armed forces communities, including in the Bill Select Committee’s work plan at Labour’s request, emphatically rejected those proposals. Almost half the 3,307 service community responses to the survey said that the provision would remove the safeguards needed for fair treatment. I note that, since then, Government amendments 10 to 16 have built on those commitments and seem to give Ministers the ultimate responsibility to arbitrate on appeals. I hope that they will be picked up by colleagues in the other place so that we can continue to protect the rights of service personnel.
I turn to new clause 2 on the duty of care to service personnel. While ensuring that we have the personnel we need to keep our country and the world safe, we must protect them as they do so. New clause 2 would establish a
“a duty of care standard in relation to legal, pastoral and mental health support provided to service personnel involved in investigations or litigation arising from overseas operations”.
For too long, forces personnel and their families who have been put through the trauma of long-running investigations have been offered little to no legal or welfare support from the MOD. There is no effective duty of care recognised by the MOD to service personnel who are subject to legal action. The Government’s flawed Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act 2021 failed to prevent the cycle of reinvestigations; it dealt only with prosecutions. Of the more than 4,000 criminal investigations and allegations arising out of Iraq and Afghanistan since 2000, only 27—less than 1%—ever got to prosecution and all 27 were brought within three years. At the same time, of the approximately 1,000 civil claims out of Iraq, only a third were struck out or withdrawn. The rest were settled or are under investigation. That Act would do nothing to help personnel in these cases.
I think that all Members would agree that vexatious claims and repeated investigations against British personnel have become a problem. Labour wants to see that fixed in a lawful and effective way, yet the Government have so far failed to do so. In the meantime, the duty of care outlined in new clause 2 is essential if the MOD is to be a responsible employer.
Does my hon. Friend agree that that provision is vital? In the evidence sessions for the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act we heard moving testimony from Major Bob Campbell, who was reinvestigated over many years. One stark thing that he said was that he felt abandoned by the MOD. Supporting individuals who are going through these investigations is vital, and without what is being proposed, individuals such as Major Campbell will continue not to get the support that they deserve.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that point. He was a tireless advocate for the points that he raised in the Bill Committee and I know that we will continue to work together to make sure that the Government listen to our demands.
I am delighted that the shadow Minister will continue to pursue that matter. Will he ensure that the principle then extends to those who have served at home, to make sure that the commitments that have been made about resolving the legacy issues and addressing these vexatious issues that have arisen from some very contemptible people will be addressed expeditiously? Will he join me in encouraging the Government to get that matter on to the Floor of the House before the summer recess?
I thank the hon. Member for his remarks. I know that he has also been expressing these concerns for quite some time. It is unsatisfactory that we are still hearing from Government that they are thinking about this. We need certainty for those affected, and I hope the Government bring forward proposals as soon as possible.
New clause 4 would begin to repair the damage done by the previous treatment of LGBT+ veterans. The Committee will know that the ban on homosexuality in the British armed forces was lifted in January 2000 by the then Labour Government. During the ban, many were dishonourably discharged or forced from service, losing access to pensions and benefits. Some were also stripped of medals that they had earned during their service.
There are practical impacts from that discrimination, such as the loss of pension and the inability to wear ceremonial uniforms or medals. Those are all humiliations that should not be endured by anyone who has served our country. Some may still be on the sex offenders register, which is simply outrageous, but there will also be untold challenges for mental health and wellbeing. I therefore take this opportunity to thank Fighting With Pride for its compassion and courageous work to support those impacted by this issue and for working with us on the new clause. I also place on record my appreciation for the campaigning of my hon. Friend Dan Carden on this issue.
In February 2020, the Government announced that former armed forces personnel who were dismissed from service on the basis of their sexuality could apply to have their medals restored. That is an important first step towards justice for those who were thrown out of the armed forces simply because of their sexuality. New clause 4 encourages Ministers to continue that work first by setting out the numbers affected, and then by considering the restoration of ranks, pensions and other forms of compensation that would be appropriate. Only then can we be appropriately honouring those who have served our country with courage and distinction.
Finally, new clause 8, titled “Armed Forces Federation”, would establish a representative body for the armed forces akin to the Police Federation. It would represent its members in matters such as welfare, pay and efficiency. It has been clear for some time now that the armed forces need independent advice and representation. Witnesses that came before us on the Bill Select Committee have reinforced that, and we continue to hear shocking stories of abuse within units. We have also heard that continued delays discourage the use of the service complaints system and concerns persist that careers will be under threat if personnel complain.
Most members of the armed forces have endured a real-terms pay cut for most of the last decade. Given the renewed emphasis that Ministers appear to be placing on the value of people as assets to our national defence, the time has come to formalise representation and support for service personnel on issues such as welfare and pay. The federation would not be equivalent to a trade union for the armed forces, in that it would not conduct or condone any form of industrial action or insubordination with the armed forces. The federation would work with the Ministry of Defence to put in place a form of understanding that could deal with such issues. It would also recognise the importance of the chain of command. Although the proposal might be seen as radical or dangerous by some, other nations including the United States and Australia already have similar models embedded in existing command structures. Our armed forces give their lives for us. Ministers should seize this opportunity to give them a real voice.
In conclusion, taken together, Labour’s amendments would truly deliver improvements for our forces personnel, veterans and their families. It would be the height of hypocrisy if the Government were to heap well-deserved praise on service communities to mark Armed Forces Week while voting against their interests in the Commons today. Labour continues to stand squarely behind our armed forces, and we take the delivery of the promises made in the covenant seriously. For us it is not about a performative show of support at a politically convenient moment, but an enduring commitment to honour the promises our society has made to those who serve. The Tories like to talk up their commitment to our armed forces, but it is Labour that is working with colleagues across the House to make sure we get the very best for them, for today and tomorrow.
During Armed Forces Week, this Government should not just celebrate and thank, they must also deliver for our forces communities.
It is appropriate that this Bill has come back to the House in the week in which we celebrate Armed Forces Day. I add my thanks to members of the armed forces who are currently contributing to our fight against covid, and I pay tribute to them for their service. It was disappointing to hear earlier that members of our armed forces are still being deployed overseas without being fully vaccinated.
I take this opportunity to give a shout out to the team from Kayak 4 Heroes, who are currently undertaking a journey of 1,400 km from Land’s End to John O’Groats, by kayak, around the coast of the United Kingdom and along some of our canals and waterways. I am sure the whole House will join me in wishing them the very best of luck in their endeavours.
I have made it clear throughout the passage of this Bill that it lacks the punch required to make a real difference, and the Bill’s commitment to the armed forces covenant falls far short of what it ought to be. Many stakeholders, including the Royal British Legion, have argued that the Bill should go further in strengthening the covenant in law, but many areas have been missed out, such as visas for Commonwealth personnel, pay, DWP issues and proper representation for serving personnel.
I join the shadow Minister in paying tribute to the group from Fighting with Pride, Caroline Paige and Craig Jones, for working so hard to undo some of the injustices of the past. Labour’s proposed new clause 4 is an opportunity to take this further. We have started to recognise that there have been injustices, and we know that many individuals who were convicted of sex offences in the armed forces lost their pensions and continued to have the label of “sex offender” in civilian life, for undertaking a consensual relationship with another person. There are real issues here that still have to be addressed.
Many people were also discharged from the armed forces following spurious allegations that were not related to their sexuality, although their sexuality was the real reason for it. It will be very difficult for us to capture the number of people involved, so I urge the Minister not just to take proposed new clause 4 seriously but to look at how we identify these individuals and put right the wrongs that have been done to them.
Labour’s amendment 7 addresses the service justice system, and the Minister has given us assurances this afternoon that he will be implementing many of the recommendations of the Lyons review. That is good, but I still argue that sexual assaults would be better dealt with in civilian courts, which have far greater experience of such cases. We do people an injustice by continuing to go through a military system, where that experience is not always present. While the Minister is implementing some of the recommendations of the Lyons review, I ask him to undertake an annual review of how it is operating in practice.
The Minister also gave us assurances on service accommodation, but these accommodation issues are repeatedly raised, year on year, by serving personnel. The recent National Audit Office report on single living accommodation describes a litany of neglect, and accommodation for families often falls far below the standards we would expect.
I am listening to my hon. Friend with great interest. Does she agree that those who are dedicating themselves to service should receive a cast-iron guarantee of decent accommodation?
It seems totally obvious that decent service accommodation should form the absolute basis of any agreement and any expectation that personnel have, so I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.
It is incredible that the Bill as it stands will not strengthen the accommodation offer. Our series of extremely modest amendments—amendments 39 to 42—asks that service accommodation matches the standards that are set for civilian housing in each of the four nations of the UK. This should be a matter of straightforward agreement across the House. We should not be asking service personnel to put up with accommodation that we would not ask civilians to accept. I therefore do not see this proposal as being in any way controversial, and I hope that Members will support it.
Many of the veterans and families who contact me do so because of a lack of support from the Department for Work and Pensions on pension issues, including widows’ pensions, but all these things are out of scope of the Bill. In fact, it seems that all the most pressing and difficult issues for veterans are out of scope. This really is a missed opportunity.
The SNP has for a long time advocated a far more comprehensive way of representing the interests of the armed forces. We look at the examples of many of our NATO allies, which benefit from armed forces representative bodies that personnel can use to make sure that their needs are catered for. We are used to hearing arguments from Members on the Government Benches that we could not possibly countenance such a body as it could undermine the chain of command or encourage strike action. However, as Stephen Morgan said, such a federation would be like the Police Federation. It would not allow strikes and it would not impact on the chain of command, but it would give a voice that, at the moment, is sadly lacking. When we are looking at ensuring that the covenant is properly fulfilled, such an organisation would substantively carry out that role. I believe, despite the Government’s arguments, that the real reason for resistance to this is that it would give our forces and veterans a voice. I am pleased that Labour has joined us in our position, and we will support its new clause 8 because it would go a long way towards addressing some of these issues.
The Scottish Government have taken a number of their own initiatives in areas that are covered in the Bill. On housing, they offer funding from affordable housing programmes to deliver homes for disabled ex-service personnel. On employability, service leavers are offered fixed-term appointments in the Scottish Government. On education, Skills Development Scotland is retraining Scottish veterans to address the skills gap, particularly in the nation’s cyber-security workforce. On health, the Scottish Government have committed to ensuring that all personnel and veterans can access the best possible care, and have provided funding to Combat Stress and Legion Scotland for mental health first aid training. Of course there is always more that we can do, but the UK Government should be looking to mirror these examples of good practice.
Giving credit where it is due, I am of a similar opinion that the Scottish Government’s move to offset the bedroom tax by their own hand—from their own money—has been of considerable help to veterans who might not be in the best medical condition, because a loved one can stay overnight and help them out. Would not all of us in Scotland agree that we encourage the UK Government to follow suit?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his recognition of the work that has been done around the bedroom tax. He will understand that it is often vital for veterans who have been injured in service to have an additional supposed “bedroom” that can actually hold equipment that is required for them to deal with their injuries and possibly help with their rehabilitation. Again, it seems a very easy thing to take on to help those who need this support.
We will also be supporting Labour’s new clause 7 on capping fees for Commonwealth and Gurkha veterans. There is great support across the House for this group of veterans. It seems grossly unfair that we should welcome these individuals into our military, ask them to put their lives at risk and then hit them with thousands of pounds of fees, because it is not just about the cost for themselves; if they have family overseas who they want to bring over to the UK, they are suddenly faced with fees of thousands and thousands of pounds. That is simply not good enough. I hope that the Government are learning lessons from things such as the Windrush scandal when looking at people who have come to this country to help and contribute, in whatever way that is. Given that there is such widespread cross-party support for the Commonwealth veterans, I urge the Government to accept the new clause.
The time and effort spent on this Bill should have been an opportunity significantly to improve our offerings to the armed forces, but I am doubtful. Without the ability to enforce—without the teeth it needs—the Bill will sadly fall short. If this is a once-in-five-years or once- in-10-years opportunity, many of us will be disappointed, but we will continue to engage with the Government and the Minister in the hope that we can make a real change for those who are serving. I think it is recognised throughout the House—this is one thing on which we can all agree—that we want to improve the circumstances in which our forces serve and the practical problems that they hit. I thank the Committee for listening and hope we can move forward in as consensual a way as possible.
As many Members will have gathered now, I have a passion for defence, having served as a young soldier in the Army and spent most of my adult life in and around the defence arena. I have also been fortunate to sit on the Armed Forces Bill Select Committee. I pay tribute to all Members across the Committee for the way in which we worked together for the good of our armed forces; it has been an enjoyable and eye-opening experience. Today I want to discuss the amendments relating to the armed forces covenant, which, as hon. Members will see, is very personal to me and I think will massively support our armed forces.
Prior to being an MP, I was an armed forces champion. I got to see the difficulties that regions could have in trying to put forward the armed forces covenant, and how much it would impact different people. Enshrining it in law is a massive step forward. I also have first-hand experience of the benefits of the armed forces covenant, and I think it is right to draw the attention of the Committee to the fact that I received treatment at one of the trauma units that were brought forward through the armed forces covenant.
I have spoken in the House in the past about when I was shot and the after-effects, which ended up in me wanting to take my own life. Having been told that I was no longer the Army’s problem when I had left and had to fund treatment myself, I was not in a good place.
The Committee can imagine, then, how happy I was to hear about the armed forces covenant. I felt that somebody actually cared. Sadly, it came too late for me, because I had to battle those demons for 15 years before I could get away from the problems that I faced. I thank God that I came through that dark period.
I speak about this issue with experience, having come through it, and I wear the scars. I would never have been able to speak about my experience when they were not scars but open wounds. It was too painful. Nobody would have got close to me. I know that many of my friends are now battling with open wounds. Many have sadly lost that battle—some of my friends, who I knew well, are no longer with us. They leave behind family, friends—an empty space that was once filled with laughter, joy, good times and fond memories.
The number of suicides among armed forces personnel and veterans is already a major concern. I have seen it across all the services. The Rifles, which is made up of my former regiment, are seeing a huge number of riflemen lost to suicide—two in the last few weeks. This is just not acceptable.
I pay tribute to General Patrick Sanders, with whom, I have to declare, I served. Not only has he shown his vulnerability by speaking out about his personal battles that he faced after a hard time, but he has written to all the riflemen to say, “Look after each other”. By showing this vulnerability at a senior level, in my mind and according to those in the armed forces community I have spoken to, he has shown true leadership. I want to honour all the service personnel, veterans and anybody who is supporting the armed forces, because they are looking after their colleagues and doing what General Sanders has asked.
I regularly see, on Facebook and in some of the groups I am in, All Call Signs alerts to the vast amount of people who are rallying round their brothers and sisters in desperate times. This is happening on a very regular basis. They do this in the form of things such as veterans breakfasts, one of which I will be attending this weekend in Wolverhampton. There are many, many outstanding organisations, one of which is Elysium Memorial, and I will announce shortly a fundraising event that I will be doing to support its mission to raise awareness of veterans’ suicide.
Let me go back to the beginning of my speech, when I talked about how I felt abandoned. When I was able, through the covenant, to access the healthcare that I needed, that made me feel that people cared. Not only did it give me the treatment that I needed—I had been funding it myself—but it made me feel that I was not forgotten. We need to try to put that into our minds, because we all see what happens when someone is shot or blown up—we see the wounds that they face—but we do not see the battles that people face in the mind when they feel they are forgotten and abandoned and that nobody cares. For a veteran, this can mean the difference between winning and losing that battle in their mind. When they lose the battle, we talk about how they have taken their life, which is a horrible place to be.
To summarise, the armed forces covenant should have been enshrined in law decades ago. It is good to stand up in this place and see that everyone supports our armed forces. I am not talking about a few years ago, while the Conservatives have been in government; this should have been done years and years ago. Every Government have had an opportunity to do this. If we had done it earlier, we would have been in a far better place than we are now to support our armed forces and our veterans. It is a long journey. I thank the Minister and everybody involved in getting things to where we are now. I ask that this is not the destination but merely a checkpoint along the way of making sure that we can honour our service personnel and veterans as they truly deserve.
May I say what a pleasure it is to follow Stuart Anderson? He is a fellow member of the Defence Committee and always speaks with authority and passion. Do I agree with him? Yes, I do. I do not wish to make a party political point, but the genesis of the covenant was the Command Paper from the Labour Government in 2005 and the work that Bob Ainsworth— I pay tribute to his work on this issue—took forward, resulting in the covenant. It was sad that, in respect of one of the Armed Forces Acts—I think it was in the early years of the coalition Government—when we asked for the covenant to be put into statutory law the Government at the time opposed it.
I believe I have served on every Armed Forces Bill for the past 20 years, either as a Minister or as a Back Bencher. Like others, I pay tribute to the members of our armed forces, as we come up to Armed Forces Week. This is an important day in terms of saying thank you, but we should have in our mind every day the work they do for us to keep us safe.
I rise to speak to my new clause 9, and I do so with frustration and disappointment that this issue has not been addressed. I have spoken on many occasions to say that we need to make sure that our armed forces are not faced with these frivolous and vexatious claims, but the Government have made a complete mess of this.
We had the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act, a piece of legislation that was not necessary at all. The issues in it could have been covered in this Armed Forces Bill, but, as with the worst legislation we see in this House, it came out of rhetoric and election slogans and when it came into practice it did not do what it said on the tin. That was a missed opportunity.
When we took evidence in the Committee that considered the overseas operations Bill, it was clear, and not just from Judge Jeff Blackett, a former Judge Advocate General, that we stop frivolous and vexatious investigations and stop the torture—I will use that word—of reinvestigation that people such as Major Bob Campbell went through for 17 years by sorting out the investigation process. That is not—the Minister alluded to this in relation to my new clause 9—to say that we just ignore accusations or wrongdoing. We should not do that, but we have to have a proper managed system, which is overseen by judges, to ensure that there is timely investigation, and those investigations that are not found to be of any veracity should be dismissed at an early opportunity. We could do that through the proposals in my new clause.
I moved similar amendments to the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill—I believe they were new clauses 8, 6 and 7—which would have put time limits on investigations, as I say, not dismissing evidence, but making sure that the investigators need, after a certain period of time, to bring their evidence before a judge to see whether it warrants further investigation. That would have been a way forward. That Bill was oversold to a degree that was obscene at times, with people believing that the Bill would stop investigations and the ambulance chasing solicitors. It did nothing of the sort. It did not get to the root cause, which is investigations. As Judge Jeff Blackett said in evidence to that Committee:
“The Bill is effectively looking at the wrong end of the telescope.”––[Official Report, Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Public Bill Committee,
It was looking at the prosecutions—limiting prosecutions —rather than dealing with the investigations.
I am on record as saying that, like most Members of this House, I would not want members of our armed forces to face vexatious claims or investigations. However, when I moved those new clauses, the Minister at the time, Johnny Mercer, said that those issues, which had been raised not just by Judge Jeff Blackett but by many other campaigners, would be dealt with in this Armed Forces Bill. This new clause today is an attempt to address those issues.
I think that it is worth recapping what the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View said last November on Second Reading of the overseas operations Bill in response to the concerns raised by my right hon. Friend John Healey, who raised the idea of time limits. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View stated that
“time and again the issue of the investigations”— comes up,
“but he knows that they are for the forthcoming armed forces Bill and will be addressed there.”—[Official Report,
He then went on to accuse my right hon. Friend of being disingenuous for raising the matter. I ask the Minister today: when will these matters be addressed? A clear promise was given then that they would be included in this Bill. [Interruption.] Well, they were not, because the Government got into a right pickle. Having not addressed them in the overseas operations Bill, if that was where they wanted to do it, they then set up the Henriques review, which was a good civil service way, as we have seen over the years, of kicking things into the long grass, but it has left a gap. These issues were not addressed in the overseas operations Bill and they are not going to be addressed in this Armed Forces Bill either.
That leaves a real issue: when will that legislation come forward? These are sensible proposals, which were put forward in evidence to the overseas operations Bill by Judge Jeff Blackett and others. As I have said, those proposals would have ensured that we had judicial oversight of investigations to ensure we did not have a rerun of what we have had with the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, or Operation Northmoor. Those allegations went on for years, which meant that armed service personnel who were being accused of torture, suffered, in some cases, long delays while their cases were being looked at. I suggest that Members read the evidence of Major Bob Campbell to the overseas operations Bill, because that poor man not only went through long delays, but reinvestigations, investigations and investigations. That should have gone at an early stage. My new clause would do that. We would have judicial oversight. May I just re-emphasise this point for anybody who is listening carefully? This is not about putting members of our armed forces above the law. The new clause is saying that these matters should be investigated. It is saying not that we should have no investigations, but that those investigations should be timely and dealt with.
We have now got into this mess where we have the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act in place, which does not deliver on most of the hype that went with it. We also have the Armed Forces Bill going through, but, clearly, the Government will resist putting anything in it about investigations as they have kicked it into the ongoing review. Again, we do not know when that review will report. As a veteran of the last 20 years of Armed Forces Bills, I know that they come round every five years. If I am still in the House in five years’ time, I shall no doubt be dragged into the next one. But five years is a long time for people to wait for this legislation. The only other option is that the MOD will secure Government time to bring in a specific Bill on investigations. You will know, Ms Winterton, that Government time is very precious and trying to fight and argue for a Bill will be very hard, so I do not see that this matter will be addressed for another five years. That is just not acceptable.
This leads me on to another issue that was raised earlier, which is the issue around Northern Ireland veterans. One of the worst things that we can ever do in politics is to make promises to people and then not deliver. What has happened both with the overseas operations Bill and the claims that have been made to our Northern Ireland veterans is a disgrace. It is clear to me that the Government will not bring forward a Bill before the summer recess; I struggle to understand how they are going to bring such a Bill forward. That is not just letting people down, but being completely dishonest with people. Brave service men, mainly, from ordinary working-class backgrounds across this country went to Northern Ireland to do their duty, to protect not only the citizens of Northern Ireland but those of the UK, and we are letting them go through this tortuous process. I would have more respect for the Government if they came out and said, “We can’t do it, so we are just going to leave it”, rather than what we have got at the moment.
It galls me to see the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View parading in front of courts in Northern Ireland and talking about defending veterans, when he did very little, or nothing, to advance their cause when he was a Minister. At that time, he had the power and the influence do to something, but he just moaned afterwards that he was not being listened to. Anyone who saw his performance during proceedings on the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill and at the Armed Forces Bill Committee will not be surprised that he was ignored, because frankly he made very little attempt to engage actively with colleagues. He made a lot of promises about listening, but basically sat and read out his civil service brief without taking many interventions from Members on either side of the Committee, who raised quite legitimate concerns. I think it was the laziest performance I have seen from a Minister during the 20 years I have been in this House.
The Government now need to be straight with veterans and say when they will deal with the issue around investigations. It is not going to go away, and it is relatively simple. On Northern Ireland, if they are not going to do anything, they must just be honest with people. I accept that in politics, people sometimes say things in the height of enthusiasm, but I have spoken to some of the Northern Ireland veterans, who were expecting a lot from this Government, and I think they will be sorely let down.
The Armed Forces Bill is always a unique opportunity; I refer to it as a Christmas tree Bill, because we can add things to it. Because of the performance of the Minister who guided the Bill through Committee, however, very few of the sensible ideas suggested by Bill Committee Members were added to it. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne mentioned the effects on members of the armed forces who were dismissed because of their sexuality. There are outstanding issues there, which must be addressed. When the Committee took evidence from Fighting With Pride, we heard that there are people who were prosecuted and still have related offences on their criminal record, or who were put on the sex offenders’ register, and it is affecting their employment today. That cannot be right, and it has to change. There was an opportunity to do that in the Bill Committee, but because the Minister was not prepared to listen to anything that had not been written down by his civil servants and put in front of him, the opportunity was missed.
The other missed opportunity will be around the covenant. As someone who introduced the welfare pathway that led on to the covenant, I think it has been great in engaging local communities. I think the Minister is right; most local authorities and communities want to engage with it and want to do what they can in difficult circumstances. In most cases the lack of finance, which has been cut from local government, is hindering the work that they would like to do.
There is a gap in the covenant when it comes to central Government. It is all very well the Minister saying, “This goes in the annual report,” but I come back to the point—I remember having similar discussions when I produced the Green Paper in, I think, 2010 about how we should implement it in law—that if it is to be meaningful, we have to give it teeth. I do not think it has teeth. We had evidence from the ombudsman in Committee, and I would certainly have liked people to be given the opportunity to take failures through the ombudsman system, rather than through judicial review, as is the case now. I would have applied it also to Government Departments, because without that there is a disconnect. As I asked the Minister in my earlier intervention, how would someone take forward a complaint against a Department about the fact that they were not being given their rights under the covenant? He said, “Well, possibly judicial review.” No, that would be very difficult because the Departments are not covered. It is a missed opportunity. It could have been done easily. I understand why civil servants do not want to be opened up to scrutiny nationally, but, if they are prepared to recommend it for local government and other institutions, why is it not good enough for them?
The Government have got themselves into a real mess of their own making over investigations. I accept that the Minister is new. I have written to him on this matter and asked for a meeting. He clearly has not worked out how to get round his civil servants and insist that something goes in his diary, but he will learn. I have got to say that his intentions are good and he is taking a more grown-up and mature approach to the job. He has a real passion for making sure he does the best for our armed forces, but he must grasp the nettle of investigations. I will ask again for a meeting with him, but I would like to know how the Government propose to legislate when the review is finished. It cannot wait another five years for another Armed Forces Bill.
After that speech, who on earth would be a Defence Minister? It is a great privilege to speak during Armed Forces Week. We have a clear responsibility in this place to support Her Majesty’s forces, so the timing is neat. As Chair of the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, I am familiar with the Bill. It is a good Bill, but may I commend to hon. Members the Select Committee report and the subsequent statement made in this House on
It was remiss of me in my contribution not to thank the hon. Member for chairing the Select Committee. He got thrown in at the deep end at the last minute, but I think all members of the Select Committee thought he did an excellent job and ensured that everyone had their say. May I put on record my thanks, and I am sure that of other Members, to him for the way in which he chaired the Select Committee?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman —my friend—for those kind words. It was a real pleasure to chair that superb Committee. The report was pretty good. I believe it to be a framework for what lies ahead and perhaps even a template for what we do with this standing legislation in five years’ time. We are progressing all the time, and the future looks good.
I want to discuss two areas: the statutory guidance and the latest amendments to the Bill. First, I thank the Minister for his written response to the Select Committee report and for the draft statutory guidance, which we have now got. We must acknowledge that the covenant is already with us. It has been signed by the vast majority of councils all over the UK, including in Northern Ireland. In fact, it has its 10th birthday at this point in time, so what better present could there be than to bring it into statute?
The door is already open for the statutory guidance, and it is a good bit of work so far. I welcome the fact that it places a due regard on the placeholder, that it recognises rightful outcomes, that it reflects the unique sacrifices and obligations on HM forces and that it places a legal obligation on the delivery of health, accommodation and local support from councils. It also provides examples of good practice and pragmatic guidelines on how that is to be provided.
I note that prescriptive performance targets are still absent, but it may be that it is impossible to apply any meaningful metrics and tools to this area. I do not believe that councils are in any doubt about what is expected of them after 10 years, but—it is a big but—it may be that guidance is still needed on how they will be held to account if they do not meet their obligations. I read with interest the line in the guidance that:
“Covenant duty does not mandate public specific delivery outcomes or advantageous treatment of the Armed Forces Community. It only mandates that consideration takes place…when exercising certain functions”.
That worries me, as the local authority complaints process does not cut it in terms of what I believe is still needed. Simply inviting disaffected personnel to contact their MP fills me with horror. I urge the Minister to please look again at this, dig deeper and do the right thing.
I turn to the amendments. I am comfortable with what the Government have tabled, and I want to talk to a handful of the others. New clause 1 would amend the Immigration Act 2014 to waive the fee for indefinite leave to remain applications for any current or previously serving members of the UK armed forces. Similarly, new clause 7 provides that foreign and Commonwealth veterans applying for indefinite leave to remain following four years of service will pay only the unit cost of an application.
I am clear in my mind that the Government have this key issue in hand, and I welcome the consultation recently announced by the MOD and the Home Office. I personally wish to see an amnesty for those F and C personnel who slip through the net, and I agree that it is right to abate the cost of visa fees as a function of time to incentivise longer service. As a former commanding officer of the largest and most diverse unit in the British Army, I say that is the right way to go, even though it may set a precedent for other Departments.
New clause 2 would require the Secretary of State to establish a duty of care standards in relation to legal, pastoral and mental health support provided to service personnel. The MOD takes very seriously its duty of care for service personnel and veterans, and over the years it has established a comprehensive range of legal, pastoral, welfare and mental health support for service personnel and veterans. We have come a long way from the early days of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, with which I am very familiar. The covenant has also been enshrined in law, so I think that the new clause may be redundant at this point.
New clause 3 would require the Government to publish a report on changes to personnel numbers across all services and to detail the impact of reductions on operational capabilities. However, none of that is a closely guarded secret. The MOD recently published its Command Paper “Defence in a competitive age” and noted that the size of the Army would be reduced. I believe that that new clause is also redundant; the information is out there.
New clause 4 would require the Government to conduct a comprehensive review of the number of people who are dismissed or forced to resign from the armed forces due to their sexuality and make recommendations on appropriate forms of compensation. Restorative justice is difficult due to the policies that were legally enforceable at the time, but I am comfortable, for now, that the Government are making strides to tackle this, not least by restoring medals and engaging much more broadly with the LGBTQ+ community. That is absolutely the right thing to do.
As for new clause 6, the duty of care for alcohol, drugs and gambling disorders is already there. It is called good leadership—and also the covenant, which is being enshrined in law.
Lastly, new clause 8 is laudable, but we are not there yet. The new clause would create a representative body for the armed forces, akin to the Police Federation, which would represent its members in matters such as welfare, pay and efficiency. The Government have not been persuaded at this point that there is a requirement or a groundswell of support for a federation along the lines that have been suggested.
The interests of armed forces personnel are already represented through a range of mechanisms, not least, again, the chain of command. Furthermore, the Service Complaints Ombudsman provides impartial scrutiny of service complaints made by members of the UK armed forces regarding any aspect of their service life. However, for the Minister’s benefit, I would, in this case, welcome an independent body to provide additional rigour for service complaints. In my experience, service complaints are very awkward, and it may just be that taking them out of units and out of the chain of command is the right thing to do.
To conclude, one of the main criticisms of the Bill is that it does not go far enough, but as an ex-serviceman I refute that. Any new legislation has to be deliverable, proportionate, pragmatic and responsible, and has to attract the necessary due diligence and analysis, for it needs to consider the effect on those it relates to, and no Government can write cheques they cannot cash, as they have to maintain the fundamental ethos and integrity of the organisation itself. Our armed forces are pre-eminent in their field and must be afforded the autonomy they need to do their job. So this is about evolution, not revolution, and I believe that we will get there in due course through what the Select Committee has recommended.
I say to those who wish to turn this unique organisation into what they would wish it to be by clipping its wings, softening its operational capability and ignoring its hard edge or negating the importance of the chain of command: please be careful what you wish for.
It is a pleasure to follow James Sunderland, and I was privileged to serve on the Armed Forces Bill Committee; he was an excellent Chairman of it and it was a really worthwhile exercise. There are a couple of issues that I took an interest in and hope to talk a little about today. I am also looking forward to joining the armed forces community in Liverpool on Saturday.
New clause 4 seeks to right an historical wrong. Some 21 years ago, the ban on homosexuality and LGBT+ personnel serving in the armed forces was lifted. That ban inflicted staggering cruelty on those men, and some women, who had stepped forward to serve their country. Between the mid-1950s and 1996 the men of our armed forces who were thought to be gay were arrested, searched and questioned by officers trained for wartime interrogation. In many cases that went on for days before they were charged, often without legal counsel or support, and on many occasions arrest was based on little evidence. Heterosexual men were falsely accused by service police officers, losing careers and in some cases homes and families. And after harrowing investigations these men were led away to military hospitals, where they were subjected to degrading and shameful medical inspections conducted in accordance with confidential Defence Council instructions held by every unit of the armed forces. At court martial, in the moments before those convicted were sent down, operational medals and good conduct badges were ripped from their uniforms. They typically served six months in prison for the military criminal offence of being homosexual, and it is staggering that that continued until 1996, and that the administrative dismissal of LGBT+ personnel continued for a further four years, until January 2000.
As these members of the armed forces walked from prison they were dismissed in disgrace with criminal records as sex offenders, which from 1967 had no civilian equivalent. As they left through the main gate they were commonly given letters instructing them to never again use their military rank or wear items of uniform, for example in remembrance at the Cenotaph, and they continued to obey those letters. Their names were erased from the retired lists of the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force as though they had never existed. They were cast out of the armed forces family, outed to their own family and friends, and lost their homes and their financial stability. Their service record cards had the top corner clipped and were marked in red pen with the annotation, “Dismissed in disgrace”, causing many a lifetime of employment issues. And in the past, in their moment of need they were shunned by military charities—something that has now changed.
However, there has been no such remedy from Government or the Ministry of Defence. The Committee heard at first hand from the charity Fighting with Pride—I believe the Minister has met them—accounts of those affected, and how they live today amidst the ashes of their former service careers.
LGBT+ veterans are scattered across the UK, often away from military communities and living a life starkly different from the one they hoped for when they joined the forces. In the 21 years since the ban was lifted, nothing has been done to support those individuals. As Canada, Germany, the United States and other nations prepare, assess, make reparation and put right a shameful wrong, it is long overdue for the UK, which persisted with the ban for longer and implemented it more zealously than many other countries, to do the same.
Those men and women deserve an apology on behalf of the nation from the Prime Minister in Parliament. They must be supported on the pathway to royal pardons, be restored to the retired list and have their medals returned. Prohibitions on their use of rank and on the wearing of berets at the Cenotaph must be revoked. They need resettlement support, which we offer to all other members of the armed forces, and they must be fairly compensated and have their pension reviewed in recognition of their service and the hardships they faced then and now. Until that is done, this will remain a matter of national disgrace, and it will stand in the way of the Government’s stated wish to be a global exemplar for both LGBT+ and veterans’ communities.
New clause 4 would place a duty on the Ministry of Defence to find out where those veterans are and how they have fared, and to make recommendations to Parliament on what must be done to right this wrong.
My own new clause 6, which touches on issues around addiction treatment, would place a duty of care on the Secretary of State. Just this week, it was reported in the Daily Mirror that more than 8,000 UK troops had needed medical support with respect to alcohol in the past six years. Here, I want to thank Stuart Anderson because I know that his talking so openly will help many people who are listening to him.
We know that rates of addiction among the armed forces population are much higher than those among the general UK population. The unique demands of military life, and the serious trauma, violence and loss, make that no surprise. A culture—I say this without judgment—in which harmful drinking rates are considered normal, where vulnerability is a weakness and seeking help is seen as failing to meet the demands of service makes treatment and recovery even harder. Too many veterans end up in mental health crisis, homeless, in prison or committing suicide.
The charity We Are With You provides specialist services for veterans through its Right Turn programme. The majority enrolled in its programmes are those who left service many years earlier, which poses the question for the Government, what more can be done to increase early intervention? For many people, asking for help with alcohol and drug use, however necessary, is incredibly difficult. Denial, fear, pride and shame stop people seeking the specialist support they need, and that is no different for our service personnel, veterans and their families. If anything, those barriers are all the more difficult to overcome.
I met with Adfam—a charity that supports family members of those with substance use problems—and we discussed its 2020 research report, produced in collaboration with the University of York and funded by the Forces in Mind Trust. Families shared the impact of the heavy-drinking culture in the armed forces, with many describing the use of alcohol as frequent, heavy, expected and normalised, and used as part of, and in response to, all situations and occasions. That normalisation means that problems with excessive drinking are not seen as problems.
Aside from the heavy-drinking culture, those families shared their experiences of another culture—the culture of silence. Families say that their loved ones were expected to be stoic, strong and infallible. Veterans and their families are too often left feeling further isolated and vulnerable.
A small number of charities provide specialist support to those veterans and their families. Tom Harrison House in Anfield, around the corner from my office, is the only residential veteran-specific treatment centre in the UK. I have got to know veterans there. I have heard of their experiences and their struggle to get the support and understanding they need. Many have co-occurring mental health diagnoses and complex needs, and have been struggling with addiction for many years. I have not met one person there who has told me that the support they got came with any help from the armed forces.
One veteran told me:
“From the Army, I went straight to prison and did a long spell there. I then went home for a year. I then lived on the streets for 12 years. During that time I was using drugs and drinking, I couldn't stop drinking and became an alcoholic.”
Another veteran told me:
“I gave my life to service, I was trained to lack empathy;
conditioned to survive;
asking for help was a weakness;
encouraged to drink and when there was nothing left for me to give, I was discharged, without any re-conditioning, no support;
Peer support is key in addiction treatment and key to the success of Tom Harrison House, and veteran-specific services are having great successes.
I thank the hon. Member for his kind words earlier. I want to stand with him on Tom Harrison House. One of my friends with whom I served was literally at death’s door and it saved his life. Now, he is helping other people with addictions and the problems that he went through. Credit for having it in your constituency; it is an amazing organisation.
I am delighted to hear that and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making the effort to let us know that in the Chamber.
Armed forces charities provide life-changing services, particularly for those with substance abuse problems, but access remains a postcode lottery. I think it is wrong that the state takes so little responsibility for ensuring that veterans receive the treatment they need. Requiring public bodies to give due regard to the principles of the covenant is not enough. The Bill was an opportunity to set measurable national standards that would end the current postcode lottery through the armed forces covenant. Once personnel have left service, they rely on the NHS and local authorities, and of course on the UK’s third sector organisations which provide excellent help and support. Their work is fantastic, but the MOD has a responsibility to those men and women that it has shirked for too long.
For too many veterans, their service to this country has come at a devastating cost. Drink and drugs are often an escape; a way to cope, a way to manage or medicate mental health conditions and past trauma. One of the worst failings of the system is that many drug and alcohol services simply do not have the competencies to deal with mental health issues in-house and many mental health services are not able to offer support if a patient presents with substance use disorders. Being bounced between services effectively prolongs people’s suffering for longer and longer.
I have listened with interest to the hon. Gentleman talking about veterans. I will make two points if I may. First, of course, not all veterans are mad, bad or sad. The picture you paint is very negative. The vast majority of veterans in this country live very successful, happy, fulfilling lives. My second point is this. I visited Veterans Aid yesterday in London, which is a very impressive organisation focused very much not on alleviating symptoms, but on outcomes. Do you agree that outcomes is the right way to go?
I take the hon. Member’s second point and I would not want to be painting a negative picture. I am speaking on behalf of the people I have met in my constituency who have come through Tom Harrison House and elsewhere, who have suffered a great deal in their lives.
I will finish on some points made by Dame Carol Black in her independent “Review of drugs: phase one report”. She says:
“The number of residential rehabilitation services have reduced significantly, removing a core treatment component for those that need it to support their recovery”, and:
“Some areas are starting to ‘ration’ treatment, setting higher thresholds for those who can access it and/or just offering a minimum service due to workers having such large caseloads.”
The question for the Government is: if mental health services are failing the general population, what use is a law that gives due regard to service personnel and veterans? Regardless of people’s training or dedication to their duty, mental health disorders, including addiction, do not discriminate, and I simply want the MOD to take greater responsibility for and interest in these issues.
Thank you for calling me, Dame Rosie. I am sorry not to be able to contribute to this debate in person, but laryngitis means I have to stay at home in Breconshire, and I apologise if my voice does not last the duration of this speech.
Like many others, I want to start by congratulating the business managers on the timing of this Bill, but in reality every week should be Armed Forces Week. Honouring those who have served as well as those who continue to serve should not be a one-off event. I am excessively proud of the UK armed forces, but in particular of those based in my constituency at Brecon barracks, Sennybridge training area and the Infantry Battle School—not least the soldier I live with, and here I declare an interest in that my partner is a serving member of the British Army.
Like so many this weekend, I will be joining Armed Forces Day events in the constituency. I am looking forward in particular to meeting the daughter of a true British hero in Builth Wells on Saturday. Violette Szabo initially joined the Women’s Land Army when war broke out and the Auxiliary Territorial Service in 1941. She worked for F section in the Special Operations Executive, but during a mission in France she was captured and imprisoned by the Nazis. She was executed in Ravensbrück concentration camp, and she was posthumously awarded the George Cross—the highest honour given to civilians. Walking along the Embankment in London, hon. Members will see a statue of Violette, one of the very few military women to be commemorated. I am deeply excited to be meeting her daughter, who now lives in Cilmeri in my constituency, and to have the opportunity to pay tribute to her mother and to all those who have served and continue to serve.
There is much to welcome in this Bill that will make a meaningful difference to the lives of serving personnel and veterans. However well intentioned they may be or however thoughtfully suggested by the same focus groups that advised the leader of the Labour party to start valuing the military, I will not be supporting the Opposition’s amendments.
I particularly want to single out clause 8 of the Bill, which strengthens the commitment to the armed forces covenant. The covenant is 10 years old this year, and it is something we should all hold dear. I must also declare another interest in that my partner’s mum is the chief executive of the Armed Forces Covenant Trust. His is something of a military family.
Clause 8 compels public bodies to have due regard to the covenant, and I would urge my local authority—Powys County Council—and the Labour-run Welsh Government to pay close attention to it. At present, Powys County Council is proposing to close Llanbedr school, which is a thriving primary school in my constituency. Along with my colleague in the Welsh Parliament, James Evans, I am deeply opposed to the closure of the school, but it is largely because a number of military families will once again find themselves displaced. That is deeply wrong. I spoke to a mum whose partner has recently started a two-year posting in Brecon, and if Llanbedr closes, they will be forced to find yet another school for their three children.
In campaigning against the school’s closure, I have tried to learn more about the Welsh Government’s plans for military families. I was directed to a specialist website, which does not work. People simply cannot find out what the Welsh Government want to do for military families who are searching for a consistent education as they move around the United Kingdom and even abroad. I know the Minister is powerless to keep the school open, but I would be keen to meet his officials to learn more about how the UK Government and Welsh Government could be working together to ensure that military families can rely on an uninterrupted education.
I cannot let the Minister escape without yet another plea for the decision to close Brecon barracks to be reversed. His colleague the Minister for Defence Procurement has kindly heard me a number of times and knows I warmly welcome the commitment to keep 160th Brigade in Brecon itself, but I will have to continue to bang on until this nonsensical decision is reversed. Brecon barracks is an integral part of the defence estate in Wales. It is the home of the Army in Wales and it deserves a permanent home—one that is fit for the future and that honours its history.
The Minister was in Wales this week and I am deeply grateful to him for his visit. It shows his commitment to the armed forces across the Union and his willingness to ensure that Wales is not left behind. However, with the number of service personnel and veterans living and working in Brecon and Radnorshire, I am concerned that the Welsh Government are content for them to be left behind. We have a large veteran population in Wales—around 140,000—but we are still the only nation in the UK not to have a dedicated commissioner for veterans. During this year’s St David’s day debate, the Secretary of State for Wales confirmed that he was actively exploring ways in which the UK Government could establish Wales’s first veterans’ commissioner. However, the ball is now in the Welsh Government’s court, and since February nothing has happened.
In Wales, we have eight armed forces liaison officers, who do fantastic work, but without one overarching commissioner there is no one to ensure that mental health provision, for example, is as consistent for those who live in Ystradgynlais as it is for those who live in Wrexham. At this point, I want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend Sarah Atherton, who has done so much work on this issue. I urge the Minister to continue his engagement with the Welsh Government and to get them to put the interests of veterans in Wales above the need constantly to frustrate the Conservative Government in Westminster.
I was incredibly moved to see a large parade of veterans streaming through Brecon a few weeks ago. They were there to support the former soldiers who face prosecution following their service in Northern Ireland. Although I could not join them in person on the day, I give them my full support. These vexatious prosecutions must end. Without any new evidence, there is no justification for the continued harassment of former soldiers.
The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, of which I am a member, this morning heard from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who confirmed that he will be bringing forward a Bill shortly, but shortly is too slow; we cannot waste any more time. It was not appropriate to include Northern Ireland veterans in the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act 2021 for the very obvious reason that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, but there must be no further obstacles to this legislation. All serving personnel should be treated equally and it is more than time that the Government righted the wrongs done to those who served in Operation Banner.
As we are in Armed Forces Week, I would like to pay tribute not only to the tireless campaigning of organisations such as the Royal British Legion, but to veterans in my constituency of Ceredigion. I pay particular tribute to the efforts of the Ceredigion armed forces community covenant partners, especially to Captain Colin Jones MBE and his work with the Ceredigion armed forces veterans hub. Together, they run regular breakfast clubs across the county and have organised a series of events to raise money for good causes, the most recent of which took place just last Saturday. Colin climbed Yr Wyddfa, the highest mountain in Wales, blindfolded, in aid of Blind Veterans UK—a feat that was followed in the evening by a friendly but very competitive football match between the old boys of Aberystwyth FC and the old boys of the Royal Welsh Regiment.
I support new clause 1, which would amend the Immigration Act 2014 to waive the unjust fee levied on current or former serving members of the UK armed forces and their families when they submit applications for indefinite leave to remain. Such a measure would cost very little. It has support on both sides of the Committee and would have a profound impact on those it affects. It would also, of course, signal the support of this place for service people and their families.
Furthermore, I welcome amendments 1 to 4, and particularly amendment 2, which would require the Welsh Government to pay due regard to the armed forces covenant. This amendment is crucial in ensuring access to housing and other sources of wellbeing for veterans in Wales, while respecting the devolution settlement. It is important because although the armed forces are clearly a reserved matter, many aspects of their care, from housing to healthcare to education—matters that have been discussed by other hon. Members this afternoon —are devolved, with responsibility for implementation lying either with the Welsh Government or at a local authority level.
It is therefore essential to establish what expectations the Bill places on the Welsh Government and local authorities. With that in mind, I hope the Minister will inform us of what discussions he has had with the Welsh Government to streamline access to these services and ensure parity across the four nations, particularly given that not all armed forces charities and support networks have as strong a presence as we would like in some parts of Wales.
Equally, I ask the Minister to respond to the Senedd’s Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee’s report on the Bill and its recommendation that amendments should be pursued requiring the Secretary of State to obtain the consent of Welsh Ministers before issuing or revising guidance under proposed new section 343AE of the Armed Forces Act 2006, as well as before making regulations under proposed new section 343AF. That is particularly important given that the Government are no longer seeking a legislative consent motion from the Senedd. If he is able to refer to those points in his summing up, I would be grateful.
I commend the amendments tabled by my hon. Friends in the SNP that would require accommodation provided to service people in the respective nations of the UK to meet certain standards. It is appalling that, while the Government oversee procurement disasters, trumpet budget increases and laud the sacrifices made by our armed forces, they are still to commit to providing basic standards of accommodation for our service people. These amendments would address that, and I urge the Government to support them.
Finally, I note my support for new clause 2, which would establish a duty of care standard for legal, pastoral and mental health support for service personnel in investigations or litigation arising from overseas operations. Establishing a duty of care in these instances is the responsible and right thing to do.
The new clauses and amendments I have addressed today would make a meaningful impact on the lives of current and former service personnel. They are all considered amendments and have been tabled in good faith, and I hope the Government will use the good will apparent on both sides of the Committee to ensure that the Bill works with the devolved Governments to improve the standards of care and support received by our armed forces community.
It is interesting how, when we listen to a debate, our own speech changes according to what we have just heard. To give credit where it is due, the description provided by Dan Carden of what it was like to be homosexual and serving in the armed services rang a very strong bell with me.
My father had a much-loved cousin—he is dead now —who rose to a fairly high rank in the armed forces. Of course, all his life he was a homosexual. I remember him describing to me, not long before he died, what it was like to live a lie, because he did not dare come out or admit to his sexuality. He eventually came out in his 80s and had a partner before he died, and it was great. That always sticks with me, so I compliment the hon. Gentleman.
What the shadow Minister, Stephen Morgan, and Carol Monaghan said about indefinite leave to remain, which has been mentioned many times in this debate, is very important. New clause 1 stands in my name, and I want to take it as far as possible. I hope the day will come when interpreters or anyone who has served Queen and country, and frankly risked their life, will be afforded the most assistance to become a permanent part of our country.
I have mentioned this several times in the past, and I want to make a point that I do not think other Members have touched on. In doing this sort of thing, word gets back to the countries these people originally come from, and that generates good will. Recruitment is the theme of my speech, and that good will helps us address a problem that I have heard about over and again in my four years in this place: that we are not recruiting the numbers that we need. We should never underestimate the importance of good will when it comes to recruitment.
I would be obliged if the Minister would pass on my thanks to his colleague, the Minister for the Armed Forces, James Heappey, who kindly hosted a most interesting briefing about Mali. The shadow Minister, Stephen Morgan, was there as well. When we heard what was being done by our services personnel in Mali to ensure peace and to do good in the world, it really did sound very good indeed and was very encouraging.
I absolutely get the need for us in this place to be clever in our defence of the country. I understand why we must do what we must do on cyber. I understand the importance of getting into space, an aspect that we are going to have to watch. I understand the importance of hyper-sonic speed and the use of drones in both defence and attack, if we have to use them. Technology and gadgets are absolutely part of what we will have to do in future, yet when I think about the recruitment problem and those soldiers who have been out in Mali—they are about to be relieved by another battalion—I conclude that no matter how clever the gadgets or the science, at the end of the day, if we are going to do jobs such as peacekeeping in Mali or interventions wherever we must in the world, we need boots on the ground. That is why, as I have said before in this place, I am concerned about what appears to be a 10,000 personnel cut in the British Army. I do not believe that that is sustainable, and I say that on the record.
It may be hard for right hon. and hon. Members to believe, but before I ever came near this place I had a career in oil, with a drilling or production company. Not so long ago, I had a briefing with some of the oil firms that are working in the North sea, and they worried me a lot by telling me about the problems they were having with recruiting suitable young people into the industry. Why? It is because, quite unfairly, oil is seen to be a sunset industry, so some of the brightest and best say, “I don’t fancy a job with BP. I don’t think so. I’m going to do something else. I would like to work in the City of London and make squillions.”
My final point is that if we take the British Army below a certain critical mass of numbers, young people who might otherwise make a huge contribution to the defence of this country in our armed services could look at that career option and say, “I don’t see a great future there. It’s shrinking all the time. I think I’ll do something else.” That is a dangerous place to be if we value the defence of this country. It is about boots on the ground—it was hundreds of years ago and it still is today—if we want to defend our realm, which we love so well.
It is a privilege to speak in this debate, particularly on Reserves Day and ahead of celebrating Armed Forces Day on Saturday. It is a pleasure to follow so many excellent speeches, particularly that by my Welsh colleague, my hon. Friend Fay Jones.
The passage of the Bill through Parliament this year is particularly important because it will put the armed forces covenant into legislation. Of course, the covenant is not new, but has been in operation in its current form for nearly 10 years. During that time, significant progress has been made to improve the lives of armed forces personnel, veterans and their families. More than 6,000 organisations and every local authority in the UK has pledged to support it.
However, the covenant is still just a pledge and individual members of the armed forces community still suffer disadvantage when accessing public services. This is often because of a lack of awareness of not just the covenant but the unique contributions that our service personnel make. The Bill will impose a legal duty on relevant bodies to have due regard to the three principles of the covenant. This is our promise to those who are serving or have served: they and their families will be treated fairly.
I come from a service family—my grandparents met in the RAF. I have RAF Valley in my constituency, and I am proud to be on the RAF section of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I understand that going into the armed forces is a unique career choice. People hand themselves and their family over to the service of their country, with all that that entails.
I am fortunate to work closely with RAF Valley. Group Captain Andy Turk’s whole force team at the base is a very close-knit and supportive community, and I hold regular meetings with the service personnel and the private sector organisations based there, including Babcock, BAE Systems and Affinity. I represent both civilian and service constituents and their concerns are my concerns. RAF Valley is one of the largest employers here on Ynys Môn and I am consistently pushing very strongly, both informally and formally, how important these skilled jobs are in my constituency. Indeed, I had a meeting today with the Minister for Defence Procurement, which included an invitation to visit RAF Valley over the summer.
What strikes me most about the whole force team at RAF Valley is not what they do for the country, but what they do quietly in the background for the local community. Yes, training our future fighter and helicopter pilots is what we shout about, but it is their commitment to Anglesey that makes them truly part of our island. The station is as much part of Anglesey life as Anglesey life is part of the station, so my message today is this: when people think of the armed forces covenant, they should not think only of the contribution that our forces make to our national security; they should remember also the huge contribution that they make to our everyday life.
With RAF Valley here on Anglesey, the community enjoys so many benefits. The team helped us to secure hosting of the 40th anniversary of the Island games. They have provided critical skilled volunteers for our Royal National Lifeboat Institution, mountain rescue and local first responder groups. They host award-winning youth outreach programmes such as the Jon Egging Trust, support the learning and mentoring Profi project and partner with Careers Wales and STEM Cymru projects. They provide local junior football and tennis camps, on-site science, technology, engineering and maths activities and events for local schools. Padre Michael Hall of the station charities committee raises vital funds for a range of north Wales charities and organises a Santa drop for the children staying in Ysbyty Gwynedd Hospital over Christmas. They run beach cleans, they are custodians of a stretch of our beautiful coastal path, and they do so much more.
The armed forces covenant is our country’s thank you. It is a thank you for all that our armed forces do, and I take this opportunity to say personally diolch yn fawr—thank you—to RAF Valley for all that it does. I am proud that this Government are enshrining the armed forces covenant in legislation, so that our services personnel and their families receive the recognition that they deserve for their courage and years of commitment to us.
First, let me put on record that my thoughts are with the crew of HMS Defender as they go about their job with the usual dedication and skill today. Let me also say that despite what certain news agencies may have said today, Crimea is in Ukraine, and all on the Scottish National party Benches hope that the Russian Federation ends that illegal occupation as quickly as possible.
Today’s reminder that those members of our armed forces do a job like no other is pertinent and the opportunity that we in this House have through this legislation is a solemn duty, which I do not doubt all who are speaking today approach with the requisite seriousness. That does not mean, however, that we all share the same optimism about the Bill. While the idea of bringing the armed forces covenant into law is a welcome step forward, I still feel that there is going to be little in the Bill that will be genuinely transformative for the lived experience of armed forces personnel and veterans.
My hon. Friend Carol Monaghan and constituency neighbour has already spoken about her amendment on armed forces housing and I will not add much to that, other than to say that it is the type of small change that could make a real difference to the home lives of personnel wherever they are on these islands. More substantively, it is an amendment that makes an important point about how we should see the armed forces personnel not as a special class or caste of a group of our societies that seeks to defend that societies’ values. They cannot do this in substandard housing. The very least we should offer them is that which is available to the rest of society and, in this case, make sure that they are housed safely and warmly. I am determined to say every time these sorts of debates come up that those of us here would do well to think of our serving personnel less as heroes, and more as human beings, with the same needs as the rest of us: fair pay and conditions, the right to private and family life and ready access to secure accommodation. That is taken for granted for every other type of public sector employee, so why is it not for armed forces personnel? In fact, come to think of it, despite being to the best of my knowledge the only group of public sector employees to have a dedicated legislative session every five years, armed forces personnel have demonstrably poorer outcomes on almost every scale. How can that be?
There may be a metaphor in here. We are told that the Armed Forces Bill meets by convention as a Committee of the whole House before Report and Third Reading. Given that the Bill Select Committee was rushed through in a few short weeks, I cannot understand why we are now inserting another stage or, indeed, why the amendments that the Government are bringing today could not have been brought to the Select Committee.
I note with particular puzzlement yesterday’s statement from the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, Leo Docherty. He is a fellow Docherty, with roots in Donegal and Glasgow and with whom I enjoyed working on the Defence Committee. He stated that further scrutiny would
“delay the Bill’s passage, placing undue pressure on the deadline to renew the Armed Forces Act 2006.”—[Official Report,
I would certainly like to think that the next time an armed forces Bill whizzes through the House, we get a wee bit more time to discuss the really important issues at hand.
As the arcane workings of this place continue to baffle both Members and personnel alike, we avoid being able to discuss the type of wide-ranging changes that could make a real difference to the lives of personnel, although that is probably the way that the Government and the Ministry of Defence like it. Maybe I am just being cynical.
My final points are in regard to the Opposition amendments relating to the service justice system, which my hon. Friend Carol Monaghan will be supporting. From my work on the Defence Committee, it is clear that the service justice system needs a radical and profound overhaul, and not just the modest changes proposed in the amendment. With the next armed forces Bill, it is time that we think about bringing together all the service police forces, streamlining the processes and ensuring a more robust service justice system that works for all.
I conclude by thanking all my colleagues on the Bill Select Committee for their work over the past few months —especially the Chair, James Sunderland, because I know it is the first time that a Bill has been considered in a hybrid way—and the Clerks and those in the Public Bill Office who have helped us navigate this legislation. We owe it to service personnel, in whose name the Bill will be enacted, to make it more straightforward in the future.
It is always a pleasure to speak in any debate on the armed forces, but particularly this week, as we recognise the huge contribution they make, today on Reserves Day and Saturday on Armed Forces Day. I also take this opportunity to thank the Armed Forces Parliamentary Trust. Through the scheme that it runs, I have been able to see almost every week the incredible work that our armed forces do day in, day out.
They say an organisation is only as good as its people, and nowhere is that more true than in the armed forces. Through the Bill, not only do we maintain our armed forces on paper, but it means that the hundreds of thousands of men and women who serve in the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, the British Army and the Royal Marines can continue to serve Queen and country. They are the best, the brightest and the most courageous among us.
As we debate clause 1, we must consider why we need the armed forces and why they are still relevant in today’s world. In my view, the argument is stronger than ever before. Turning first to our domestic need, in the fight against covid-19, defence has supported literally hundreds of requests from citizens, the NHS, local authorities and Government Departments. In Lancashire, we have seen that through testing, vaccine deployment, planning, logistics and so much more. They have made a huge contribution, often behind the scenes and always without fanfare. However, this domestic demand has never come at the expense of their core activities. Only last month, we saw HMS Queen Elizabeth set sail as part of the carrier strike group—a huge tasking of personnel from all the services, not just those on board the carrier itself but on the frigates, destroyers and submarines, as well as the aircrew, that go with it.
Our operations have continued around the world, in Afghanistan, in Mali, as we heard from Jamie Stone, and in Cyprus. All these things are vital to the UK’s security. As we saw in the integrated review, the threats are evolving and not reducing. The Euro-Atlantic region has seen a resurgence of Russian activity. The Indo-Pacific region is becoming more strategically important. Cyber will become a domain that is involved in all our military operations. Non-state actors are getting hold of capabilities that have historically been beyond their reach.
But this Bill is not just about our serving armed forces: it looks beyond that at our veterans and at the armed forces covenant. The Bill Select Committee, which was chaired by my excellent colleague, my hon. Friend James Sunderland, welcomed the move to enshrine the covenant into law, and I wholeheartedly agree. It will then be down to our public bodies—the NHS, local councils and more—to put it into practice. In doing that, what we must avoid is a race for everyone to claim just their little bit; through the guidance that will be put out by the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, we need to work together. If covid has shown us anything, it is that when public bodies work together—the police, councils, the NHS and housing providers—so much more can be achieved. I urge the Government, as they draft that guidance, to look at best practice, because everyone wants to do their best; no one wants to just do their little bit. The Government are in a unique position to see the picture nationally and to use that to drive equality of treatment.
I turn to new clauses 1 and 7 on immigration fees, which are of particular concern to some of my constituents. Many of us in all parts of the House agree that we want to see this change. We want our non-UK personnel to be able to reside in the UK after their service has ended. The Home Office and the MOD are actively working on this and there is a consultation that closes two weeks today. Asking that we ignore that consultation and do something today would do nothing to speed up the process but potentially delay it.
This Bill is very welcome. It is vital for our security and it will make an enormous difference to our veteran community.
I pay tribute to the men and women who serve our nation in uniform and our veterans who have selflessly sacrificed so much to protect this great nation. They deserve our utmost respect, gratitude and thanks. I also give thanks to the armed forces and veterans breakfast club in Bury where people work to help veterans, their families and service personnel, bringing the entire community together and reducing social isolation. They meet throughout the week. This should be commended and I put my thanks on record today.
I warmly welcome this Bill. I have the utmost confidence that it will ensure that veterans are treated fairly when accessing key public services, as well as improving the service justice system. As chairman of the all-party group on alcohol harm, I make particular reference to new clause 6 with regard to alcohol disorders. Although I appreciate the reasons that the Government are not bringing forward a measure at the moment, it needs to be explored further so that we do our utmost to ensure that anyone who has a disorder, a dependency or a need—whether they are a recent recruit, still serving or a recent veteran—can be given the help they need throughout their life.
In particular, the Bill will enshrine the armed forces covenant into law, increasing awareness among public bodies of the unique nature of military service and improving the level of service for members of the armed forces community in regard to their healthcare, housing and education. I imagine that every Member of this House is aware of veterans out there who have been unable to access help and services that they desperately need, so I warmly welcome the covenant being enshrined in law.
However, our veterans deserve more than the appreciation of a grateful nation. They have protected and built our country, and they deserve our tireless commitment to advancing their opportunities. We must build a brighter future worthy of their sacrifice and that of their families. That is why I welcome the funding announced in the Budget by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in support of veterans welfare. An additional £10 million will be invested in the armed forces covenant fund in 2021-22, which will deliver charitable projects and initiatives to support veterans’ mental health. This latest funding is in addition to the annual Government contribution of £10 million to the covenant fund.
I welcome the funding announcement, but the veterans community in Bury needs more support. There is currently very little provided for them. Since my election to this House, I have been working with other leaders in the borough, with the council and with my neighbour, my hon. Friend James Daly, to try to bring our own veterans hub to the town of Bury. We are proud of our military heritage; we are a regimental town, looking after the Lancashire Fusiliers. The veterans hub would seek to deliver housing and employment skills, further education, family support and health and wellbeing.
I have visited numerous veterans hub operations across the surrounding areas, and I pay tribute to the services in Wigan and also in the constituency of my hon. Friend Antony Higginbotham. The positive impact that a local veterans hub can have is clear to everyone. Can the Minister tell me what we can do to ensure that veterans receive the support that they need, no matter where they live, and what funding would be available from the MOD to help set up a veterans hub locally in Bury? We must reaffirm our fundamental promise that, just as the military leaves no one behind on the battlefield, we will leave no veteran behind when they come home.
It is a pleasure to follow Christian Wakeford and an honour to speak in this debate in Armed Forces Week and on Reserves Day, especially because I am proud to have the Royal Marine Reserve headquarters in my constituency. Ahead of Reserves Day, I visited them last week and was able to thank them personally for their service. They put in a hard day’s work all over the country, then travel to their reservist centre to train for the Royal Marines, no less. They offer amazing service to our country, and I am very proud of them and grateful to them.
There is much to welcome in the Bill, which will support our armed forces personnel and their families. I echo the words of colleagues on both sides of the House in recognising and celebrating the work of our armed forces and their ongoing efforts to make our country and the world safer. We cannot put a price on safety. Only when our own safety is compromised, or when we do not have it, do we realise how important it is to us every day. I worked with aid workers in Bosnia during the war, and I have seen the difference it can make to a whole community not to have that safety, so I value it very much.
Our armed forces have had to adapt all their work and all their training at speed during the pandemic, and I commend them for that. I am also thankful for the work they have done to support frontline efforts to tackle the pandemic. They really have stepped up when we have asked them to. It is for this reason that, while I support the aims of the Bill, I think it is a huge missed opportunity and could have gone further. It needs to go further if it is to deliver real improvements to the day-to-day lives of our service personnel and veterans and their families.
As a fellow member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill could have gone further in addressing mental health provision for veterans, given the fact that they have to wait 37 days to receive a face-to-face appointment for mental health services, compared with the Government’s own target of just 14 days?
I agree with my hon. Friend: this Bill could have gone further both in putting all aspects of the covenant fully into law, and in its scope.
The Bill does not fully enshrine the armed forces covenant in law. It seems to absolve central Government from responsibility for delivering the covenant, as has been outlined by my colleagues. It does not make sense to place new responsibilities on a wide range of public bodies, from school governors to local authorities, to deliver the covenant, but not to include central Government. Does the Minister agree that the Government are effectively outsourcing the delivery of these important commitments and also evading their own responsibility on issues such as pensions, social care and mental health services? For that reason, I support amendments 1 to 4. They would place the same legal responsibility to have due regard to the armed forces covenant on central Government and the devolved Administrations and remove that glaring discrepancy.
My second point is that the Bill is just too narrow. Service charities are rightly concerned that this Bill contains nothing specific on issues such as service accommodation, employment, pensions, compensation, social care, criminal justice and immigration. The scope of the legislation must be wide enough to ensure that all areas of potential disadvantage are addressed. Our armed forces personnel and their families should not suffer disadvantage in any area. By setting a legal standard that is below existing voluntary commitments in some areas, the Government risk creating a two-tier covenant and a race to the bottom on services for forces’ communities where we should be providing the gold standard.
The Bill, as it stands, does not cover all the commitments made in the covenant, or all the public bodies responsible for delivering them It contains powers for the Secretary of State to expand these, so why not include them? Will the Minister clarify how and when these powers might be used? These issues are why I am supporting amendment 6 this afternoon.
This Bill does nothing to address the shameful scandal of visa fees for Commonwealth veterans. I know that there is support in all parts of the House for addressing this, so I urge Members to vote for the new clause. The Government’s long-awaited proposals, currently being consulted on, will help just one in 10 Commonwealth veterans. We know what the Commonwealth veterans want, need and deserve for their service, so why not just put it in the Bill? The proposed changes do not apply to family members of those who have served or who have been medically discharged, meaning that it will help only a minority of those affected.
Commonwealth service personnel have contributed an enormous amount to our national defence. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude. Extortionate visa fees have left non-UK veterans facing financial ruin and feeling abandoned by the country for which they have potentially laid down their lives. They have served with courage and distinction, and we thank them and then do not give them the rights that they deserve. The Government’s long-overdue proposals are insulting to those personnel and will continue to prevent non-UK veterans from living in the country for which they have fought. Moreover, the proposals will reduce retention and recruitment rates, as has been outlined.
Under new clause 7, Commonwealth and Gurkha veterans who have served four years would pay cost price—they would pay just over £200 instead of £2,389 for an indefinite leave to remain application. Those with families will have to pay nearly £10,000 to apply for a right to remain. We did not ask them for that when they potentially laid down their life for us and for our country. We ask far too much of them, and put far too high a barrier for the indefinite leave to remain application. This is a move that the Royal British Legion and organisations such as Citizenship for Soldiers have long campaigned for, and I pay my respect to them both for their campaigns and for speaking up for so many people. I urge all hon. Members to support the new clause.
The Government like to talk up their support for our service communities, and rightly so, but they are not delivering. It is time for Ministers to deliver the promises of the covenant in full for every member of our armed forces, veterans and their families. I often think that our armed forces personnel lose out because they are not allowed to wear their military uniform out and about, and I absolutely understand the reasons for that. None the less, in countries such as America, armed forces personnel are thanked everywhere they go. They are given special treatment and respect for their service to their country, and rightly so. But our armed forces personnel often do not feel that respect; they cannot because they cannot wear their uniform. The covenant goes a long way to saying how much we respect our armed forces personnel and their families, but it could go a bit further to achieve that. The Opposition’s reasonable and constructive amendments are designed to get the very best for our forces from this legislation, so I urge hon. Members from all sides of the House to support the amendments.
I thank the Minister for the assurances he provided from the Dispatch Box in his opening remarks. I also pay special thanks to my hon. Friend James Sunderland for the diligence with which he conducted the Bill Select Committee. I must also pay special tribute to my friend and colleague, my hon. Friend Stuart Anderson. Whenever he recollects and provides details of his experiences, he never fails to move me and, I know, many other Members in this Chamber. Thanks are also clearly due to the Armed Forces Parliamentary Trust, particularly given the efforts it has put in, and, of course, all the military establishments that have continued with the armed forces parliamentary service during this difficult time of restrictions due to covid. It has been invaluable to me to be a member of the scheme, even with all the constraints that covid imposed.
One of the key messages that I take away from the last 18 months is that our military all do their job with a conviction that I find difficult to equal elsewhere. In fact, calling it a job is probably wrong: it is in fact a way of life. It is not a life of luxury. Indeed, it is not a life with many of the things that most of us take for granted. It is a life that they know might one day put them at risk. I thank all of them and their families and pay tribute to the veterans from my constituency of Dudley North and beyond.
Before I entered Parliament, I chaired an armed forces covenant committee in the Black Country, where I saw at first hand the difficulties faced by our brave personnel and their families—if they had any family—simply because of the nature of their jobs. At that point, the covenant was a voluntary commitment, with inconsistencies across the country. I am therefore delighted that this is being enshrined in law so that the support somebody receives in Dudley will be the same as that given in Portsmouth and, indeed, perhaps in Dover.
While I was chairing the covenant committee, I was never able to find the answer to one simple question: how many people had we helped and were we actually helping? I am a very outcome-focused person, and while I could not doubt the well-meaning and positive intentions of all the partners supporting the covenant—the local council, the local NHS trusts and so many more—I had a hard time quantifying the benefit, even though the covenant is clearly a great step forward. My plea to Ministers is therefore to seek ways to evidence what impact the covenant is having on veterans and their families. That will help partners to improve their offer together and demonstrate the great value in the armed forces covenant.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Rosie. I wish to speak in opposition to new clauses 1, 2 and 3.
I thank my colleagues who served on the Select Committee for the Bill, which was so ably led by my hon. Friend James Sunderland. The Bill as it stands will protect our armed forces not only while they are serving, but once they have completed their service, delivering on the manifesto commitments on which we were elected.
It is fitting that we are debating the Bill during Armed Forces Week. Only this morning, on Reserves Day, I was privileged to attend a flag raising ceremony here in Darlington, attended by veterans, reservists-and youth trainees, in recognition of their service and to express the thanks of the people I represent. In my Second Reading speech, I reiterated the words of those armed forces veterans in Darlington, who support the Bill. The Bill will impose a legal duty on UK public bodies and local authorities to have due regard to the principles of the covenant, ensuring that armed forces personnel, veterans and their families are not disadvantaged because of or by their service when accessing key public services. I am satisfied that, with the Government new clauses, this Bill will right the wrongs of the past to provide the protection our armed forces personnel and veterans need and deserve. That being said, I welcome the Government’s acknowledgement that more can always be done.
With regard to new clauses 1 and 7, the Government have already stressed that they are aware that the current system places financial liability on non-UK service personnel and are currently consulting on a policy to waive fees for personnel at the conclusion of their military service. I look forward to the consultation’s end next month. Similarly, in regard to new clause 2, the Government have already set out their desire to provide gold standard provision for veterans and I am glad that Ministers have stressed the importance of that duty of care. In regard to new clause 3, the Government have outlined at length how the armed forces are adapting to new challenges that we face across the globe.
This Bill enshrines the armed forces covenant in law and impacts veterans in all our constituencies. I am proud to be supporting the Government this evening in delivering an important promise to those who are serving and those who have served us so well.
I welcome the opportunity to pay tribute to all serving armed forces personnel and veterans, thousands of whom are based in my Stockport constituency and across Greater Manchester. We all owe a debt of gratitude to them.
I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) and for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) and the hon. Members for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) and for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) for tabling new clause 7, which deals with
“Indefinite leave to remain payments by Commonwealth and Gurkha members of armed forces”.
It is vital that we recognise the sacrifice that these brave men and women make for our country, and they should be recognised and rewarded accordingly. The very least the UK Government can do is forgo the cost of remaining in our country. I also pay tribute to all Gurkhas, as well as to the work of the all-party group on Nepal and the efforts of my good friend, my hon. Friend Mr Sharma, who has tirelessly campaigned for justice for the Gurkha community.
I am especially grateful to Mr Peter Millns from the Stockport veterans breakfast club for all his work in supporting the veteran community in my town. He has a long and distinguished career in the military, including a tour of Bosnia while serving in the 1st Battalion the Cheshire Regiment during the conflict in 1993. The work he and many like him do is crucial to providing the support and camaraderie that many serving personnel and veterans need.
There are 2.5 million veterans living in the UK, and it is vital that they are not simply forgotten about once they have served our country and put their lives on the line for it. Veterans such as Mr Millns in my constituency require funding for community services such as a veterans hub in Stockport town centre, a place where serving and former personnel can receive support for housing, employment and public services such as healthcare. That is vital in helping many integrate back into society after tours of duty and once they retire. In order to do this, they need Government support in the form of a fair funding package to all local authorities so these hubs in support of our veteran community can be rolled out across the nation. Voluntary organisations do incredible work, but it should not be left to them to make up the shortfall in Government support. Too often, the armed forces covenant is not upheld and the promises made do not match the reality experienced by our service communities, from substandard housing to poor veterans’ mental health and social care.
Earlier this year, a highly critical report by the National Audit Office revealed that tens of thousands of troops live in substandard accommodation, while the Ministry of Defence refuses to pay for £1.5 billion-worth of repairs, meaning that half the rooms in MOD barracks would fail to meet the current building regulations. That is no way to treat those who have put their lives on the line to keep our country safe. The Government also need to reduce the waiting time for access to affordable and social housing and improve the existing armed forces housing stock, much of which is dilapidated and has often fallen into disrepair. The Bill places a legal responsibility on councils to deliver on the covenant in the areas of housing, healthcare and education, but, crucially, without providing any extra funding to do so. The Government must therefore implement the armed forces covenant fully in law and increase its funding.
As I have alluded to already, Commonwealth military veterans who have served with the UK military and put themselves in harm’s way for our nation should be afforded the exact same privileges as British nationals. However, the Royal British Legion has warned that they are facing a “desperate situation” due to visa fees of thousands of pounds for those who want to stay in the UK following discharge from the military. This situation must be urgently rectified, and the visa application fees for military personnel from Commonwealth countries must be abolished urgently. Failure to do so would leave many facing deportation.
The UK aims to recruit 1,350 people from Commonwealth countries each year, up from its previous target of 200. We now have more than 6,000 Commonwealth personnel who currently serve in the armed forces.
Does my hon. Friend agree that those individuals have a huge contribution to make post their military career to British society, whether it be the NHS or other public services, and that by not doing what he says, we are missing an opportunity for the experience that they gained in their service to this country to be given back to the country?
I fully share my right hon. Friend’s views. These people could be invaluable in our society, contributing to all sections of the community, and the Government should urgently resolve this matter. Many of these people are exempt from immigration controls during service, but that is removed immediately on discharge. That is no way to thank them after years of loyal service for our country. We should be rewarding them rather than penalising them.
Thank you, Dame Rosie, for the chance to contribute to this debate on an issue very close to my heart. Let me put on the record how pleased I am to see the Minister in his place. He has been a good friend of mine over the years—a good friend of us all—and we look forward very much to hearing what he has to say.
I declare an interest as a former part-time soldier, having served in the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Territorial Army Royal Artillery for 14 and a half years. That may have given me my interest in this issue, but the armed forces parliamentary scheme, which other Members have referred to, has given me a greater overview of what happens. It has given me an opportunity to see what the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy do, and to have a more strategic overview of what it all means, so it really has been good to do that.
New clause 3 refers to a report on personnel numbers in the armed forces. I have to put on the record, as others have—Jamie Stone referred to it—my disappointment that the personnel figure for the forces has dropped. In 2004, under Labour—that was long before I came here; I was in the Assembly at the time—there were some 207,000 personnel. That has dropped dramatically.
I worry that, as others have said, we have come to the stage where viability becomes a key issue and there is a question about whether we are able to respond to all the places in the world where there is conflict. We have heard reference—it may have been from Carol Monaghan on the SNP Front Bench—to Mali. We know that British soldiers have a key role to play there and elsewhere in Africa. The level of terrorism in central Africa—Gabon, Nigeria, Mali and other areas in that part of Africa—is rising, and we have a role to play. We have a role to play in the far east as well. I do have great concern about that.
In Northern Ireland over the years, we have been very fortunate to have had a good level of recruitment. We never needed conscription in Northern Ireland, because people volunteered in great numbers in the first and second world wars and in every conflict since. Perhaps Ministers—maybe not this Minister, but another Minister or the Secretary of State—would confirm that the number of TA personnel has been increased in Northern Ireland. The recruitment of TA personnel in my constituency of Strangford and in Newtownards, the town where the two regiments are located, shows great improvement.
Moving on to the amendments that have been selected, I support my colleagues who brought forward new clause 1 regarding waived fees for indefinite leave to remain for serving or discharged members of the UK armed forces and, similarly, new clause 7. We have much to be thankful for historically because those Commonwealth members who joined our ranks served with courage and dedication. Many paid the ultimate price in the service of democracy and freedom while wearing the uniform in service to our royal family and to Queen and country.
That debt is not simply historical as our numbers remained swelled at this very moment owing to Commonwealth service personnel, and it is right and proper that our debt to them is cleared and discharged. Under the immigration rules, those who have served for four years or more are entitled to apply for indefinite leave to remain or to remain in the UK on discharge and to sponsor applications for their partner and children. However, the fees—I must express great concern about the process, as others have—have not risen in line with inflation or with the rate of pay of service personnel. Instead, they have risen steeply.
I believe that issue must be addressed. The Government have suggested that that will happen, and Antony Higginbotham referred to it, and others have done likewise.
Although I said that fees were the biggest issue, we have heard from a number of Commonwealth veterans that they were not made aware of the requirement to apply at the appropriate point and that they have found themselves in a difficult situation over their immigration status. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is an awful lot of work to be done here, particularly when veterans are discharged from the armed forces?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and wholeheartedly agree that there are things to do. I hope the Minister will respond to her, and also to me, because I endorse what she has said. It is obvious to me that whenever issues are brought to the attention of Ministers and the Ministry of Defence, things do happen—for instance, the status of the Afghan translators has been changed owing to perseverance and lobbying inside and outside the House—and I suggest that if there is an anomaly to be addressed, we should do that. The way to do it is for our Minister to respond, and I hope he will do so.
Let me return to the fee, which stands at £2,389 per person, despite the unit cost to the Home Office of processing an application being just £243. I always try to be respectful in the Chamber, but when I see figures of £243 and £2,389, I wonder to myself, “Where’s the money going?” For a family of four, the fee would be £9,556. People do not move on their own; they move as part of a family, so I believe consideration should be given to all the family.
I agree that the Government have found some way to acknowledge the debt in that they have proposed dropping fees for personnel who have served more than 12 years, but that does not include any provision for the families, I understand. If the Minister is able to reassure me on the matter, I will be more than happy to respect that.
This must change, and I fully support new clauses 1 and 7 with respect to those who fight to protect these shores. We cannot refuse entry by way of fees, which could take years to save, and perhaps more years to pay off. This small step could change lives and bring working families to enjoy what they have served to uphold. When someone serves, it is not simply their life that is changed; it is the life of the entire family. That is the issue. During the urgent question on vaccinations earlier today, I made a point about families to the Minister for the Armed Forces, James Heappey. It is not just one person who is involved, but a family, and often a family of four or more. The immediate family must be part of the equation at all levels.
I welcome some of the work that has been done in relation to veterans. I have a deep interest in veterans owing to the service rendered by my Strangford constituents. Many people have joined over the years and some have lived with the problems of post-traumatic stress disorder. I see James Sunderland in his place. I thank him for his recent report, which has gone some way to addressing those issues.
I want to make a point about a charity called Beyond the Battlefield. It started 10 years ago in my constituency. There are many charities, but I want to speak about this one. Last year, it looked after 850 veterans. Whether it is benefits issues, social housing, health issues, family issues or legal advice, the help that it gives is incredible. Many people that the organisation helps are those who have fallen under the radar; other charities do not pick them up and they face real problems. In particular, I commend Annemarie Hastings and Rob McCartney for the work they have done through Beyond the Battlefield.
The charity organises a walk at the end of May called “A Big Dander”. If someone goes for a walk or a long run, somewhere at the bottom of that is what we call a dander—just take it at your leisure. Connor Ferguson and Ian Reid covered 430 miles in two days, crossing seven peaks and raising some £15,500. I commend them for that. Beyond the Battlefield survives on contributions and volunteer charity events like that one, and it does tremendous work.
I turn to the armed forces covenant. Fay Jones referred to her wish—it is my wish as well—to have the armed forces covenant in situ, not just here on the mainland, but for the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and in particular Northern Ireland.
In the background information, I see that the Committee “welcomed the Bill’s proposals” and referred to
“the areas of housing, healthcare and education in the last 12 months…the effectiveness of the legislation and comment on future scope…a memorandum to the Defence Committee two years after the legislation is enacted to enable the Defence Committee to conduct post-legislative scrutiny into how the Act has worked in practice.”
I want that covenant for my constituents in Strangford and all those across the whole of Northern Ireland who have served Queen and country in uniform, so that they have the same rights as they would here.
In the same spirit, I lend my support to amendments 39 and 40 on the standard of housing in the armed forces. Family units sacrifice to serve and it is vital that we do right by them. How can we expect a man or woman to serve with focus if they are worried about the housing in which their family reside back home? How can they serve with focus if they are concerned that their child’s asthma—this is one issue that has come to my attention—is worsening because of damp in their housing? The answer is that they cannot. It is their duty to sacrifice for us and they do so willingly. We in this House must do the same for them and address the issue of decent housing for families. It is sad that we need to legislate in this way, but the fact is that some Army housing is not fit for purpose and funding must urgently be allocated for those family homes. I am coming to the end of my contribution, Madam Deputy Speaker.
In my constituency, I have an Army couple—one person from Northern Ireland and one from England—who refuse to put their five-year-old into Army housing, so they private rent. It is not because they want to be better than anybody else. It is because the rented accommodation that they were offered just was not suitable for their child or for them; indeed, I would suggest that it is not suitable for anybody. Given that they have had to private rent, their decent wage is taken up almost in its entirety by rent and childcare.
When we ask people to serve, we take them away from the support of siblings and parents who might be able to mind their children, yet—with great respect—we do not provide enough for them to live comfortably when doing so. It is little wonder that many families choose to split their time by keeping a base in one town to which they travel on weekends and when on leave, and another only for work. One step towards a good working family is providing housing that is fit for purpose that families can live in together and save the money that they can while working on base, and doing away with the use of very costly private rentals.
I am immensely proud of our armed forces, as we all are in this House. We stand in awe of those who serve in uniform, whether in the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force or the Army. We are so proud of what they have done for us, and I believe that we in this House have to do our best for them, with gratitude for their service and for their families, who are part of that service. We need to give them the best; unfortunately, we are not there just yet.
I thank all Members who have spoken today for their thoughtful and sincere contributions, and I wish to put on record again my gratitude for the effective chairmanship of the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill by my hon. Friend James Sunderland. I also wish to thank Stephen Morgan for the constructive tone of his remarks today. He rightly spoke at some length on the historic hurt suffered by those dismissed from military service purely for their sexual orientation—this related to new clause 4. We also heard welcome remarks on that from Carol Monaghan, Mr Jones, my hon. Friend Dan Carden, who made a moving speech, and Jamie Stone. So I want to put clearly on the record the fact that the historical ban on homosexuality in the armed forces was absolutely wrong and there was horrific injustice as a consequence of it. We will go all out to address that injustice. We are resisting new clause 4 today because we believe that if we accepted that, it would complicate our efforts to address at pace this injustice. But getting after this historical hurt and delivering justice for these people is at the heart of our veterans’ strategy, which I will be announcing later this year. I have met Fighting with Pride already to that end. So we will address this injustice with compassion and deep urgency.
Many Members mentioned settlement fees in relation to new clauses 1 and 7. New clause 1 stood in the name of the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, but other Members spoke to it, including my hon. Friend Ben Lake, my hon. Friend Antony Higginbotham, the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), my hon. Friend Peter Gibson, and the hon. Members for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who also mentioned the cases of Afghan interpreters. I am pleased that they are now coming to our country for the sake of refuge. Let me be clear again that the provisions for settlement fees are out for public consultation, which will conclude on
The right hon. Member for North Durham returned to the familiar theme of investigations, and I am pleased to confirm to him this afternoon that Justice Henriques will report by the end of the summer, at which point we will consider with sincerity and rigour the recommendations within that report. I have no doubt that we will communicate further on this subject.
I am pleased to confirm that that means summer this year, not summer next year.
I was pleased to hear from a trio of Welsh MPs: my hon. Friend Fay Jones, Virginia Crosbie. The hon. Member for Ceredigion questioned whether or not we should have had a legislative consent mechanism in relation to this Bill. I am happy to confirm to him that that is not required—we have taken legal advice on that. My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire referred to my recent visit to Wales, when I was very pleased to meet veterans and members of the armed forces and to hear about the very important work of armed forces liaison officers in relation to the local delivery of the armed forces covenant. We had discussions about whether or not there is a need for a veterans commissioner for Wales, and I would hope that all three Welsh Members who spoke today would support that notion, because it would, in addition to the armed forces liaison officers, deliver some value for our defence people and our veterans. I urge the Welsh Government, as I will do in future meetings, to look at that very seriously.
We were pleased also to hear from Martin Docherty-Hughes, who brought his usual good cheer and sincere interest in defence affairs to the Chamber virtually. My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley referred, quite rightly, to the valued work of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, through the trust. He spoke about the centrality of people to everything we do in defence, and I thought that was very apposite.
My hon. Friend Christian Wakeford spoke about the breakfast club in Bury, and about the challenges faced by veterans and servicepeople when it comes to alcohol. I have noticed a discernible shift in the drinking culture in the armed forces: it is becoming much less of a thing. During my visit to Wales, I met serving members of 1 Para, who said that the gym is the new bar. That is quite interesting, compared with my experiences as a young soldier 20 years ago. Of course I spent a lot of time in the gym, but I was also committed to time in the bar. I think that culture may be shifting. I will be happy to support my hon. Friend’s efforts in Bury South—if he was in his place, I could give him that personal commitment—and the work of my hon. Friend James Daly to support veterans at the local level.
The hon. Member for Putney made a fitting tribute to the magnificent Royal Marine reserve unit in her constituency. I can confirm that if she comes to Aldershot, she will see a lot of armed forces personnel cutting around in public, in the garrison and in Tesco. She would be very welcome to do that.
My hon. Friend Marco Longhi also mentioned the Armed Forces Parliamentary Trust. My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington and the hon. Member for Stockport mentioned the valuable work that veterans do to support their local communities.
I think we were all moved by the contribution of my hon. Friend Stuart Anderson. His moving testimony of his personal experience of the armed forces covenant, both as someone in despair following service and then as an armed forces champion, caught the House’s attention and was very welcome.
Ten years ago, the covenant was relaunched to set out our nation’s promise to honour the immense contribution and commitment of our armed forces people. Ten years on, we are going further still. Anyone who has served their country knows that they should never face disadvantage because of their service. Today, we honour our servicepeople and our veterans. This Bill delivers, and I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 2 to 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.