New Clause 1 - Duty of care to service personnel

Armed Forces Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:05 pm on 13th July 2021.

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‘(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.—(Stephanie Peacock.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 2—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 3—Armed Forces Federation—

‘(1) The Armed Forces Act 2006 is amended as follows.

(2) After section 333, insert the following new clauses—

“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 4—Armed Forces Mental Health Care review—

‘(1) The Secretary of State must publish a report containing a review of the mental health treatment provided to Armed Forces personnel through the—

(a) Defence Medical Services,

(b) Departments of Community Mental Health and the Veterans Mental Health and Wellbeing Service, and

(c) Reserves Mental Health Programme.

(2) The report under subsection (1) must be laid before Parliament within three months of the date on which this Act is passed.”

This new clause would require the government to conduct a formal review of the standards of mental health care available for serving personnel.

Amendment 1, page 4, line 27, clause 7, at end insert—

“guidance under subsection (3)

(a) must provide for charges of murder, manslaughter, domestic violence, child abuse and rape to require specific consent by the Attorney General to be tried in court martial when the offences are alleged to have been committed in the United Kingdom, and

(b) if the Attorney General has not granted such consent, guidance under (3)(a) shall provide that charges as set out in section 4A(a) to be tried in civilian court only.”

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 unless the Attorney General has specifically consented for such crimes to be tried under courts martial.

Amendment 7, page 16, line 1, clause 8, leave out subsection 5

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to obtain the consent of Ministers in the devolved legislatures before issuing or revising any guidance under section 343AE relating to the duties imposed by sections 343AB(1), 343AC(1), and 343AD(1).

Amendment 8, page 17, line 34, clause 8, leave out “consult” and insert “obtain consent from”

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to obtain the consent of Ministers in the devolved legislatures before widening the scope of the duties in sections 343AA(1), 343AB(1), 343AC(1) and 343AD(1) when exercising this power in devolved contexts.

Amendment 2, page 18, line 28, clause 8, at end insert—

“343AG Section 343AF: report

‘(1) 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, and thereafter must make a report at least once in every calendar year.

(2) The report in subsection (1) shall set out how the powers in section 343F (Sections 343AA to 343AD: power to add bodies and functions) will work in practice.

(3) Any report published under subsection (1) after the initial report made 3 months after this Act is passed must include—

(a) a statement detailing how the powers granted through section 343F (Sections 343AA to 343AD: power to add bodies and functions) have been used since the last report was issued,

(b) a review of the relevance of the listed bodies and functions in section 343F (Sections 343AA to 343AD: power to add bodies and functions) in relation to the Armed Forces Covenant Annual Report under section 343A of AFA 2006, and

(c) the outcome of a consultation conducted by the Secretary of State with the Armed Forces Covenant Reference Group on the bodies and functions listed in section 343F (Sections 343AA to 343AD: power to add bodies and functions) in regard to their appropriateness and relevance as part of the Armed Forces Covenant Annual Report.”

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.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Shadow Minister (Defence)

Labour stands firmly behind our armed forces and our brave service personnel who serve our country. It is a privilege to be speaking on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition on this important legislation. From their work across the country on the frontline of the pandemic to operations around the world, Britain’s armed forces deserve our admiration and gratitude. My granddad, who would have been 100 this year, served with the RAF during the second world war. Nearly all of us will have loved ones whose service we look back on with pride, and I am sure that we would all hope they were given the support they needed and deserved during their service and afterwards.

Labour supports our armed forces and the principles behind the Bill. It presents a once-in-a-Parliament opportunity to bring about meaningful improvements to the lives of our service personnel and veterans and their families, and I want to take this opportunity to thank all the organisations—local authorities, service charities and voluntary organisations—that have contributed to this legislation.

It is the duty of any and every Government to look after their people, and there are welcome steps in the Bill, which we support—the creation of a legal duty to the principles of the covenant, and the implementation of key elements of the Lyons review—but we believe the Government can and should go further. Our forces communities cannot afford for this Bill to become a missed opportunity, and that is why Labour has put forward our amendments in good faith to strengthen the Bill and offer the support and protection that are needed by many of our service personnel.

Turning first to amendment 1, currently serious crimes, including murder, manslaughter, domestic violence, child abuse and rape cases that are committed in the UK by service personnel are prosecuted in the service justice system, the SJS, not the civilian courts. Victims and their families often do not get the justice they deserve, and quite often sexual abuse cases are tried as “disgraceful conduct” and other service offences, meaning those who commit the offences are not put on the sex offender register.

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party, Foyle

I greatly welcome the shadow Minister’s commitment to the rule of law in amendment 1. Almost 50 years ago 14 unarmed civil rights marchers were murdered on the streets of Derry by the Parachute Regiment. Five of those victims were shot by David Cleary, otherwise known as soldier F. For 50 years he has been granted anonymity; now the Government want to give him an amnesty. Does the shadow Minister agree that nobody—none of the perpetrators involved in murder during our troubles—should be granted an amnesty?

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Shadow Minister (Defence)

The Labour party is committed to the Stormont House agreement and the leader of the Labour party, my right hon. and learned Friend Keir Starmer, made it clear in Northern Ireland last week that the rule of law must be central to our approach to legacy in Northern Ireland.

Returning to amendment 1, last week I met with the charity Salute Her at Forward Assist, who shared with me statistics showing that up to six out of 10 women serving in the military have experienced some form of sexual harassment or abuse. This is an issue that disproportionately affects women of lower ranks; it is a harrowing issue, and these women deserve real justice. This amendment would ensure the Armed Forces Bill provides appropriate support, protection and access to justice for our forces. Serious crimes will be tried in civilian courts when committed in the UK unless the Attorney General has consented for such crimes to be tried under courts martial.

Moving on to amendment 2, a significant part of this Bill relates to the armed forces covenant and the introduction of a legal duty for public bodies to have regard to its principles. I am proud that my local authority, Barnsley Council, is not only one of the leading signatories of the covenant but has achieved the gold award in the defence employer recognition scheme. More needs to be done to end the postcode lottery of support and introducing a legal duty in this Bill is a welcome step, but we believe it can go further not only in the duties themselves—currently limited to healthcare, housing and education—but in who they apply to as well.

While the Bill creates new responsibilities for a wide range of public bodies, from school governors to local authorities, central Government are not included. The Government are notable by their omission from these legal responsibilities; they should show leadership in at least holding themselves to the same standard they are asking others to follow. Our amendment would place the same legal responsibilities for the armed forces covenant on central Government as their current drafting requires of local authorities. Twelve of the UK’s leading military charities wrote an open letter to MPs last week sharing their concern that the new legal duties in the Bill do not cover the “full range of issues” currently affecting our armed forces community. They are urging the Government to widen the Bill’s scope to make sure that greater protections are given in areas such as employment, pensions, social care and immigration. I hope that the Government will today listen to those charities and support our amendment.

Through new clause 1, we are calling on the Ministry of Defence to recognise its duty of care to British service personnel who are subject to legal action arising from overseas operations. It simply cannot be right that so many families have been put through the trauma of long-running investigations with little to no legal or welfare support from the MOD. Labour repeatedly attempted to resolve this issue with amendments to the Bill that became the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act 2021, but Ministers did not accept this important duty as part of that Bill. We are asking the Government to reconsider this issue and ensure that they deliver on their responsibilities to members of our armed forces.

New clause 2 would establish a comprehensive review of the number of people who were dismissed or forced to resign from the armed forces because of their sexuality, and to consider appropriate forms of compensation. The institutional and cultural discrimination against the LGBT+ community is a shameful feature of our not-so-distant past and remains a serious issue today. I am proud that the last Labour Government abolished the ban on homosexuality in the armed forces in 2000, and I believe the Government’s new policy of medal restoration for those veterans is a very welcome first step. But it simply cannot be right that so little further work has been undertaken to seek to right this wrong, so we ask Ministers now to consider the restoration of ranks and pensions, and other forms of compensation to appropriately honour those who have served our country with courage and distinction, irrespective of their sexuality.

New clause 3 is calling on the Government to create a representative body for our armed forces. It has been clear for some time that the armed forces need independent advice. There are many issues on which members of the armed forces need representation, in matters such as welfare and pay, which is why Labour is calling for a representative body for the armed forces, to work with the MOD to further support service personnel. The US and Australia already have similar models embedded in military command structures, and the model is used successfully in this country in the police force, through the Police Federation. Our armed forces give their lives for us. Ministers should seize this opportunity to give them a real voice.

Finally, new clause 4 calls on the Government to conduct a formal review of the standards of mental health care available for service personnel. The Government are currently missing a range of targets on mental health care for people who have served. Forces personnel face a wait of 37 days for a face-to-face appointment to be offered through the transition, intervention and liaison service. The target is 14 days, so that is a wait of more than double the target time period. They then face another unacceptable wait for treatment. The latest figures available to us show an average wait time for treatment of 70 days, which is a jump from 57 days in 2018-19. After six months of having left the service, veterans then access mental health support through the responsibilities of the NHS, which of course face serious pressures and considerable waiting times. Ministers cannot ignore this issue or seek to outsource accountability and responsibility on matters such as these. Action needs to be taken nationally to deliver, and we believe the review established by new clause 4 would form a key basis for turning around the crisis in mental health services.

There are welcome steps in this Bill, but in delivering on the special responsibility we have to our armed forces personnel, we believe the Government can and should go further with this legislation. Labour believes that the armed forces covenant represents a binding moral commitment between the Government and our service communities. This legislation is an opportunity to strengthen and improve it and, through Labour’s amendments, to go further and ensure that we tackle all areas of disadvantage.

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill 4:15 pm, 13th July 2021

It is a great pleasure to follow Stephanie Peacock, the new shadow Minister, and I wish her well in her new role. I also empathise with much of what she said this afternoon, but of course the Government position is quite different, and I will explain why.

As Chair of the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, I am probably more familiar with this Bill than most, and it is a good Bill. As before, with the armed forces covenant, I welcome the fact that it pays due regard to the placeholder, recognises rightful outcomes, and accurately 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 provides examples of good practice and pragmatic guidelines on how this is to be provided.

I note, with the Minister in his place, that prescriptive performance targets are still absent from the statutory guidance, but it may just be impossible to apply any meaningful metrics and tools to this area. I just do not believe that councils are in any doubt about what is expected of them after 10 years, but it may be that guidance is still needed on how they will be held to account if they do not meet their obligations, so I await that with interest.

I want to talk to just a handful of the amendments, if I may. New clause 1, as mentioned, is on the duty of care. It would 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”.

While this duty of care is one of the most important aspects of the Bill, and of the armed forces of course, applying a one-size-fits-all approach could lead to difficulties in the future. Tailored welfare and mental support for those who have served is already very effective and is already offered to all personnel.

New clause 2, on dismissal for sexuality, requires the Government to conduct a comprehensive review of the number of people who are dismissed or forced to resign from the armed forces because of their sexuality or perceived sexuality, and to make recommendations on appropriate forms of compensation. As before, while there is no validation of this practice and the Government do see it as an absolute wrong, the Government have resisted this clause at this point in time, as indeed they did in Committee, owing to its complicating the MOD’s efforts to address at pace this injustice. However, for the record, this does need to be done in due course, and I believe that the Government will do it.

New clause 3, on a representative armed forces body, would create a representative body for the armed forces, akin to the Police Federation, that would represent their members in matters such as welfare, pay and efficiency. But, once again, the Government have not been persuaded 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, of which I was one, are already ably represented through a range of mechanisms, not least the chain of command. Furthermore, the Service Complaints Ombudsman provides independent and impartial scrutiny of all service complaints.

I would talk to some more amendments, but actually my opinion of all of them is the same as it is of the new clauses: while they are laudable on their own, there are good reasons why the Government are resisting every one—reasons outlined at length in Committee, and indeed during the Select Committee stage. In the interests of time, let me just say that this Bill has been subject to repeated scrutiny at various stages. It is a good Bill, it remains fit for purpose in terms of what can be achieved now, and I will be voting it through tonight.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education)

I start by paying tribute to members of the armed forces both for the work they do in ordinary times and for the work they have done over the last 15 or 16 months with their support for services during the pandemic. I also want to pay tribute to the organisations that have taken time to engage with Members during the passage of this Bill to ensure that we are fully informed about as many areas and as wide a range of issues as possible.

The Bill started its passage with Members on all sides keen to see real change for personnel in the armed forces. From that start with the very best of intentions, we have ended up with a disappointing conclusion, with non-controversial amendments being rejected without, I believe, any real attempt to make meaningful progress. We therefore find ourselves at this stage with a Bill that will make very little, if any, practical difference to those who serve. Of course, I do hope that I am proved wrong about this, but I have my suspicions that if, in a year’s time, we were to ask personnel whether they knew of any difference this has made, the answer unfortunately would be negative.

As I have made clear throughout the passage of the Bill, it lacks the punch required. 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 other areas have been missed out, such as visas for Commonwealth personnel, pay, Department for Work and Pensions issues, and proper representation for serving personnel.

For veterans who have suffered humiliation, dismissal and loss of pensions because of their sexuality, the Bill simply does not deliver. The Armed Forces Minister has previously spoken of his intention to make real progress in this area, so I look forward to working with him to deliver a just outcome for those individuals who have been affected in that way. This is an example of an issue that the Bill fails to address, and the SNP will be supporting Labour’s new clause 2 on that.

The Armed Forces Minister has previously given us assurances on service accommodation, but accommodation issues are raised year on year by serving personnel. The recent National Audit Office report on single living accommodation describes a litany of neglect. Accommodation for families also falls far short of the standards we expect. It is therefore disappointing that the Bill as it stands will not strengthen the accommodation offer. The SNP’s series of modest amendments, Nos. 3 to 6, asks that service accommodation match the standards set for civilian housing. This should be a matter of straightforward agreement across the House. We should not be asking service personnel, or indeed their families, to put up with accommodation that would be deemed unacceptable to non-military families. If we are talking about non-detriment, basic housing standards would be a good place to start. I am not expecting the Government to accept the SNP amendments on that today, but I hope this issue can be properly considered in the weeks and months ahead.

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. We are used to hearing arguments from Members on the Government Benches about how it could not possibly work, because it could undermine the chain of command or encourage strike action. However, an armed forces representative body would be a federation 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 to our personnel that, at the moment, is sadly lacking. I am therefore pleased to see Labour bringing an amendment forward again. If we are looking to ensure that the covenant is properly fulfilled, such an organisation would substantively carry out that role. It could advocate on housing, pay, terms and conditions and so on. However, I think the real reason for the Government’s resistance is that it would actually give our armed forces and veterans a voice.

The time and effort spent on the Bill should have been an opportunity to significantly improve our offerings to the armed forces, but I am doubtful. Without the ability to enforce—without the teeth the Bill needs—the Bill will sadly fall short. If this is a once-in-a-Parliament opportunity, many of us will be disappointed, but the SNP will continue to engage with the Government and the Armed Forces Minister in the hope that we can make a real change for those who are serving.

Photo of David Simmonds David Simmonds Conservative, Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner

The substance of the Bill before the House today is access to justice and welfare and our wider responsibilities in the context of the military covenant. In supporting this Bill, I would like to draw the House’s attention to the excellent work of some local authorities in relation to our service personnel and veterans, including the many who reside in Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner as a consequence of the numerous nearby military bases, including HMS Northwood, RAF Northolt and some of the historic ones in the area .

I very much commend my hon. Friend James Sunderland for the work that he has done. I know that he was a resident of my constituency during his Army career. I am sure that, like me, he would commend the work of the London borough of Hillingdon, led by our armed forces champion, Councillor Sir Ray Puddifoot. For many service personnel, access to housing and to school places for their children can be a challenge. Hillingdon has, through its approach to the military covenant, sought to make that as straightforward as possible. Its housing allocations policy enables returning service personnel to be treated as though they had never been away from their home area. They are absent in service when it comes to applying for social housing. Targeted support has enabled a Gurkha community to settle and to play a fantastic part in the life of the local area. Support to enable the children of service families to secure school places quickly is also prioritised, ensuring that those who serve their country do not face having to sacrifice their family interest.

I very much encourage the Government and all those involved in the debate about the Bill to highlight these and many other examples of best practice within the military covenant, which are entirely in line with the aspirations that are set out in the Bill, to ensure that our service personnel are treated with the priority that they deserve. It seems clear to me that many of these things are not so much matters of law or of Government targets, but of ensuring that we have the relationships at a local level, the political will and the effective management so that the expectations set out in the military covenant, and set out with local authorities, health bodies and others, are fulfilled. I strongly encourage the Government, in supporting this Bill, to publicise the work of the best as the example to which others may aspire to ensure that we all fulfil our obligations.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham 4:30 pm, 13th July 2021

I join other Members in thanking the Committee Clerks who have supported this Armed Forces Bill and in paying tribute to all the Members who have taken part in it, as we are now on the final stage. I was also going to pay tribute to the Minister’s predecessor, Johnny Mercer, but I do not think that I can because he is absent again today. He has taken such an interest in this Bill and in standing up for veterans that he cannot even be bothered to get off his beach in Devon to come to speak on their behalf when he has the opportunity to do so, but we will leave that there for now, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I rise to support Labour’s new clauses. As I think I have said on a previous occasion, I have been on every single Armed Forces Bill for the past 20 years either as a Minister or a Back Bencher. As has just been said by Carol Monaghan, these Bills come round every five years. The Department does not deal with much legislation, so it is very important that, when we do have these five-yearly Bills, we ensure that we try to address all the issues that we can. Sadly, I do not think that we have done so with this Bill. As I have said before, that has partly been down to the intransigence and attitude of the previous armed forces Minister. The new Minister for Defence People and Veterans has been left to pick up the pieces at the end. One issue that has been left unresolved—I was tempted to table an amendment today, but I decided against it—was around investigations. It is outside the scope not only of this Bill, but of the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act 2021. If, as I understand it, the review is complete later this summer, when will those amendments and changes be put in place, because I do not think that we can wait another five years for the next Armed Forces Bill. As I have said before, this is a missed opportunity. Such changes would have improved this Bill and certainly vastly improved the 2021 Act, which is a disappointment to say the least in terms of promising a lot, and delivering very little. It actually takes away rights from veterans, which is disappointing.

I wish to speak to some of the amendments before us, beginning with new clause 2. One great thing about the way proceedings on Armed Forces Bills are constructed is that we can take evidence from a wide range of individuals. I pay tribute to the people from Fighting With Pride for their evidence to the Select Committee on the Bill. They shone a light on something that has not been highlighted: the effect on those individuals who were dismissed from service because of their sexuality. Many of us thought that because the ban was overturned, that was somehow the end of the issue and things had moved on, but what shocked me and, I think, many Members on the Committee was the fact that those individuals who served their country with dignity and bravery but were then dismissed because of their sexuality still suffer the legacy of that. We heard evidence about an individual who, because it was classed as a sexual offence, is on the sex offenders register, and today, 20 years afterwards, that still affects his ability to get a job as, for example, a school caretaker. That urgently needs to be addressed.

I do not doubt that the Minister is committed to looking at the issue, but without new clause 2 the Ministry of Defence will go into its usual mode of thinking, “We don’t need to bother about this and how we’re going to do it for the next few years.” A study of the effects clearly needs to be done and the issue of criminal records needs to be addressed straight away. There is no justification for these individuals having a criminal record when if they had “committed the same acts” in civilian life they would not have a criminal record. That cannot be right.

I note the change from the Government in terms of asking about medals and making sure that people can apply for the medals that were stripped from them when they were dismissed from service, but we need clear guidance. People have to apply; some people have asked why the MOD cannot take a proactive stance and offer the medals out. For some unknown reason the data is not there, which makes me wonder whether a hard-enough effort has been made to find out about these individuals and address the situation. All three services must have records on the individuals who were dismissed. It is important that those medals are reported. As I say, I do not question the Minister’s commitment, but I think that without the new clause he will come up against what we all do—as you know, Madam Speaker—in terms of the civil service system: the issue will just get pushed back and back. We have to make sure that that does not happen, and the only way we can do that is through the new clause.

New clause 3 would establish an armed forces federation. This idea always sets off end-of-the-world notions in some in the military and some on the Conservative Back Benches, as though somehow if we had an armed forces federation, the world would stop. If it is good enough for our main allies—the United States, Australia and many European countries—it is good enough for me. People ask whether we are arguing for a trade union; the hon. Member for Glasgow North West was correct to say that it is not about having a trade union for the armed forces. I understand the conservative—with a small c—nature of the military, but we are reaching the point where a federation is going to have to come in sooner rather than later.

Along with other members of the Select Committee on Defence, I have just undertaken an inquiry, ably chaired by Sarah Atherton, into women in the armed forces. I will not say what is in our report, but when it is published, which I think will be next week, I think that people will be utterly shocked at the evidence and at what we have found.

A key point that comes out loud and clear is people’s reluctance to come forward and make complaints, and the chain of command’s reluctance to address the issues. We are not talking about employment disputes; in some cases we are talking about serious sexual assault and other issues that are just not being addressed. It is like a pressure cooker—we need something to let the steam out, but there is no system there at the moment, so all it does is build up. In some cases, that is because people in the chain of command are ignoring the issues.

There is still a cultural issue, particularly in the Army, that means that people’s issues are not being addressed, and I do not see any way of changing it other than what would seem a radical change. I would not support any sort of federation that could affect the operational effectiveness of our armed forces in terms of strikes—I would not go there—but what the ordinary man and woman in our armed forces need is a voice, and frankly I do not think they have one. People ought to read the Committee’s report; it saddened me that after all the changes in wider society, some of the old attitudes are still there. It will come round to such a change—whether it will be in the next Armed Forces Act, I am not sure—because those people need representation.

New clause 4 is about the provision of mental health. Has a lot of progress been made in the area? Quite clearly it has, but the same thing is happening now that came up when I was dealing with the matter in the Ministry of Defence: the transition and the disconnect between the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Health. I know that the present Government have tried, as I certainly did, to ensure a joined-up, seamless service, but it is still not working. Veterans are still falling through the gaps in provision, and the only way we can address that is to ensure a seamless, joined-up service. It has to be patient-led, and it has to be about the individuals.

To reiterate something that the Minister has said on numerous occasions, I do not want to portray the average veteran as a victim, because they are not. Most of them are very active, constructive members of society who have no problems whatsoever, but we have a duty to care for individuals who do not have that positive life post service. How do we break down the barriers for them? Without a joined-up service, we will not have the proper system that I think we all want, across the House, and which is best for our veterans.

I turn to amendment 1. Hon. Members will have seen The Times this morning; the figures on rape and serious sexual assault are not pretty. Is that an issue with lack of commitment or resources? Possibly, but having worked on the Defence Committee’s recent report, what saddens me is that some of it is down to cultural attitudes that have no place in a modern society and that need radical change.

The other issue addressed by amendment 1 relates to my earlier comments about investigations. With matters such as serious sexual assault and domestic violence, we cannot expect the military police to have the level of expertise that most forces would have because of their volume of cases. If someone is dealing with one case a year, their level of expertise in terms of being able to make it a priority, to gather the evidence and to make sure they have the strongest case possible is not going to be there. I am sorry, but this has to be taken out of the military justice system.

Another issue I would like to touch on has been present throughout the Bill’s passage, and that is the jurisdiction of the armed forces covenant. On the areas that have been excluded, the obvious ones for many veterans are pensions, employment, compensation, social care and criminal justice and there are others. Those are completely excluded from the legislation. We tried in Committee to work out why the Government wanted to just stick to quite a prescribed area. I have to say I am not really sure why, apart from that it was a good way of limiting things. If we really want to make the covenant meaningful in practice, it has to go wider.

The other thing that I am still not happy with in the Bill relates to the redress system and the idea that people can take a judicial review if they are not satisfied. What we needed in this Bill—it would have been the obvious thing, and we took evidence from the local government and social care ombudsman, who suggested it—was the right for people to take complaints to the ombudsman if they do not get what they think is redress; without any redress, this is going to be pretty meaningless. I do not want to see the armed forces covenant being seen as a label that is thrown around, but does not actually do anything in practice for our veterans community.

With that, I will draw my remarks to a conclusion. Is this a good Bill? No, it is not, really. We have missed opportunities. To be honest—I will end where I started—if we had had the present Minister throughout the passage of the Bill, we would have had a lot more changes. Ministers cannot be in a situation whereby they just will not accept anything and frankly treat Committee members and colleagues with contempt; that was not just to the Opposition but to Members on the Government Benches as well. It is an opportunity missed. I look forward to the Minister replying. If we have missed these opportunities now and we have to wait another five years for the next Bill—if I am still a Member of the House, I will no doubt be on the Committee—I look forward to some of those things being put in. However, in the meantime, there are opportunities missed that will affect veterans and our armed forces community.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 4:45 pm, 13th July 2021

I find myself making a mental note to be fairly worried if Mr Jones praises me, but we will gloss over that. I, too, would like to extend my thanks to the Minister. I was delighted to receive a telephone call from him to discuss this Bill a few days ago. I would have been much more surprised had I received a telephone call from his predecessor.

I will give credit where it is due. In our conversation, we discussed the fact that I would be very pleased, forgetting political boundaries, if the Minister or one of his colleagues would care to come to witness NATO’s Exercise Joint Warrior, which takes place off the north-west of my constituency and in other parts of Scotland. It would be a tremendous shot in the arm for our military personnel to see a ministerial presence. I do not think we have actually seen a Government Minister there—certainly not in the lifetime of this Government. I cannot speak for previous Governments; I was not here. It would also be churlish of me not to express my thanks to all the organisations that have been in touch with me during the whole process of this Bill.

We are rather short of time, so I will keep my comments very brief. I want to talk about two things. The first is to say that my party will be supporting amendments 1 and 2. Further to the remarks of the right hon. Member for North Durham on amendment 1, the general public do not really understand why, if a member of the armed forces commits a truly terrible crime—murder or rape—they should be tried and dealt with differently from how someone not in uniform would be dealt with, in a civil court. As an MP, if I were to commit a crime, I would not have the right to be tried by my peers in this House. I would be up in court, in the dock, the same as any other citizen of this country. There seems to be an impeccable logic in amendment 1.

The right hon. Member for North Durham is correct, in that the military police do not have the resources to investigate in the depth that would get to the bottom of some of the most serious allegations that can be made in this land.

Finally on amendment 1, let me turn it around. If the Government cannot support the amendment, are they saying that, in fact, the civil courts are in some way inferior to military courts? Why would they not trust the civil courts and the civil police to get it right?

Secondly, I do not want to weary the Chamber on this, but it is a point I have made a number of times and, for the sake of the record, I repeat it. I have talked at some length about my concern that reducing the size of the Army will lead to the Army, and possibly the other armed services, being seen as not a terribly desirable career option for young people.

We have a massive recruitment problem. Going around the highlands of Scotland, going to the Black Isle show, the Dornoch show and my local Tain highland games, in years gone by there would be a stall set up by the Army, the Navy or the Air Force, or perhaps two or three of them. The stalls were very popular, an attraction to the general public. They were one of the many reasons why people would go to these events, because people like to see the weapons on display and meet the armed forces personnel. Those events were excellent for recruitment.

I leave Members with a final thought. My thanks again to the Ministry of Defence, as I and others, including Stephanie Peacock, went to the Ministry to be briefed on what we have been doing with the United Nations in Mali. It was a most interesting briefing. One message came out. When a young person in my constituency says they are thinking of joining the Scots Guards, the Royal Regiment of Scotland, the Royal Air Force or the Royal Navy, if I can say, “If you opt for that career, you might get yourself involved in something like the peacekeeping effort in Mali,” I guarantee it will be a tremendous attraction. It is very different from doing an ordinary job—I do not want to do down ordinary jobs—a non-services job. That is one way of augmenting recruitment.

All of us in this place, regardless of our political persuasion—if we care about the defence of the realm, if we care about our armed forces, which I am sure everyone here does—have a duty, as Members of Parliament, to do everything we can to encourage recruitment by talking to our constituents and talking to what we call modern studies students in Scottish schools, to say, “Here is a career option you might like to think about.”

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Industries of the Future and Blockchain Technologies), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (PPS to the Westminster Leader)

I associate myself with some of the remarks of Mr Jones, especially those about the work he and Sarah Atherton have been doing in the Defence Sub-Committee on women in the armed forces.

As we discuss the Bill’s remaining stages, it is unfortunate to reflect that at no point in its journey has it received the attention I would hope for such an important piece of legislation, especially in a week in which we see the inevitability of the external factors that always pop up and seem to push armed forces welfare down the pecking order.

Today, unfortunately, it is international aid. I often wonder whether there are some in the defence establishment who see the aid budget as a golden goose whose slaughter would provide some sort of bounty for the armed forces, solving any funding crisis in the equipment budget. Although I do not want to say it, even if we were to cut the entirety of the aid budget, defence would still need reform.

That is particularly pertinent when it comes to the lack of progress on service justice in the Bill. I have seen it throughout my time on the Defence Committee, especially each year when we hear from the ombudsperson for the armed forces about how their role is stymied by a lack of investment and interest, and by byzantine regulation. Although excellent work is being done across the board by a plethora of armed forces charities, I cannot help but feel each time that the hugely divergent range of lived experiences of the 170,000-odd people in uniform—their geographical spread and divergent socioeconomic circumstances—means that charity, however well intentioned, often does not reach those who need it most.

In the case of both service justice and access to services for those in need, which are included in amendments this afternoon, we see a continuation—at least from my perspective and that of my party—of a two-tier system that enshrines class and social privilege, and ensures that the organisation itself will be unable ever to realise its full potential. The deficit in both service justice and access to services brings us to the case of Lance Corporal Bernard Mongan. This week, the Army’s report into his death in January 2020 was brought to wider attention. It admitted

“failings in the proper management of personnel”, meaning that Bernard lay dead—undiscovered, in his bed, in his room in his barracks—for three weeks. I wrote to the Secretary of State about this case last year, and I have no doubt that the Ministry and the Army feel that his death was unacceptable and profoundly regrettable. However, there are other unsettling aspects of the case that speak to some of the challenges that we face in this Bill.

Lance Corporal Mongan came from a Traveller background. Although I do not want to go into whether that was a contributing factor in the bullying that may or may not have led to Bernard’s death, we must ask ourselves why it is that, time and again, those from our most marginalised communities are failed in this appalling fashion. This is precisely the moment when we should be ensuring that equality of opportunity and an armed forces who are representative of all communities on these islands become a reality. I can only, sadly, come to the conclusion that that is an opportunity that has been missed.

Although enshrining the armed forces covenant into law is welcome progress, a real legislative framework for armed forces personnel in this political state is, quite simply, long overdue. We can call it a bill of rights for the armed forces or an armed forces representative body, as has been my party’s policy for many years. I could even call it a trade union; I do not have a problem with the words “trade union”. We could at least start by giving members of the armed forces a contract that clearly states the obligations that their employer has to them and vice versa. Until we do, it is unlikely that we will be able to address the underlying issues that so many armed forces personnel face.

Finally, I feel that I should touch on something that is in a way connected to this legislation and which illustrates the knots into which the UK Government tie themselves to keep up appearances. I am currently chairing the Defence Sub-Committee on the subcontracting of MOD staff, which held its first evidence session yesterday. We will hear Ministers and other Members today make references to things such as “defence family”, “defence people” and “whole force”, but the demonstratable experience of many of those who make up the whole force, including my own constituents, is one of worsening conditions, lack of security and increasing alienation with the picture that is painted, I am afraid, by those who come to the Government Dispatch Box, including the Minister. We will undoubtedly hear all about the increase in the capital budget from the Government Benches today. I only wish that we might hear more about the day-to-day spend that is to remain stagnant over the next five years and what the Government intend to do to ensure that it is not the poorest paid in the armed forces who bear the brunt of this fiscal restraint.

I have always believed that in life, just as in politics, the key measure of our character and our beliefs is how we treat those with the least power and agency. It is high time that we enshrined the rights and responsibilities of all members of the armed forces, and, indeed, all those who support them. I will never tire of saying in these debates, Madam Deputy Speaker, let us speak of them less as heroes and more like you and me, entitled to everything that you and I would expect. It is the very least that we can do.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 5:00 pm, 13th July 2021

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and hear such welcome contributions from the right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken so far. This Bill is something that is close to my heart, as a former Ulster Defence Regiment and Territorial Army soldier, and as an elected representative who has seen the way in which some of our troops have fared after service. I will make some comments in relation to the regular force: Jamie Stone referred to recruitment issues, which I also mentioned last time we spoke on this topic in the House, and I want to reiterate some of those comments if I can.

I believe that we must improve recruitment and retention. Each time numbers are cut, morale is dealt a blow, recruiting drops, and the three services become undermanned, which has a detrimental effect on those who are serving and those who maybe would wish to. I make these comments gracefully and try to do so in a respectful fashion, but we have two aircraft carriers, yet we only have crew for one. We have fewer tanks than most third-world countries, and we have a few highly complex fighter jets, but little ability to conduct expeditionary air warfare other than a reliance on Cyprus as a base. Future investment must be about growing the capability and capacity of the regular force. I know that the Minister is keen to do that, and we are keen that he should be supported in doing so, from both the Opposition side of the House and his own side.

If our regular forces can no longer punch at or above our new weight as an independent post-Brexit global player, I believe that we must reinvest in soft power. The last debate we had, which was on overseas aid, was about soft power: how we use it better to influence and help countries in which the potential for terrorism and extremism abounds, and how we get a reasonable level of GDP boost in those countries to ensure we can still bring some influence to bear in places where we cannot put boots on the ground, or indeed jets in the air.

When it comes to the reserve forces, I make a plea to the Minister directly: I know that he is interested in this matter and will wish to respond, but we continue to believe that Northern Ireland could make greater contributions to the whole force concept through greater opportunities in the reserve forces. Again, I urge the Minister to review the current reserve forces footprint in Northern Ireland, and consider expanding it to recruit a greater number of reservists from a wider footprint.

For example, Enniskillen uniquely gives its name to two very fine British Army regiments, the Inniskilling Dragoons and the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, both formed in the Williamite wars of the 1690s to defend the town against Jacobite rebels. Today, that loyal town is only being asked to provide a few medics and an infantry company. Northern Ireland is able to, and wants to, provide more reservists, so how can we make that happen? This comes back to the issue of recruitment, which the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross referred to and which I want to speak about today, particularly in relation to Northern Ireland. May I remind the Minister, hon. and gallant Member that he is, that at the height of the cold war and in the midst of the so-called troubles there were 11 UDR battalions, two TA infantry battalions, an artillery regiment—which I belonged to as a part-time soldier—a signal regiment, an engineer regiment, logistics regiments, medical regiments, yeomanry regiments, military police and so on? Today, we are being asked for a fraction of that, yet the world is still a dangerous place. If we have the potential to recruit in Northern Ireland, we should be taking every step and every action to make sure that happens.

Very quickly, I will turn to veterans. I put on record the work of Danny Kinahan, the Northern Ireland veterans commissioner, and thank him for the impact that that post will no doubt have in due course. However, for some veterans in Northern Ireland, there is still precious little evidence of the impact of the armed forces covenant, or of other initiatives for veterans such as rail cards, guaranteed interview schemes and the veterans ID card. May I remind the Minister that this is a far cry from the desire to make the UK the best place in the world to be a veteran?

Respectfully, I make the point that Westminster can impose abortion laws and Irish language Acts from Westminster, but there is a real lack of pressure from London on Belfast when it comes to supporting our veterans. I would love to see more emphasis put on that if at all possible. I remain concerned about the scrutiny of the delivery outputs that flow from the armed forces covenant, so can the Minister be sure that all the promised action is being taken so that veterans are being housed, getting treatment with the priority they need, getting access to jobs and training, being supported by local and regional councils, and getting the recognition they are due?

Who are the eyes and ears at local and regional levels that are ensuring that all that can be done is being done? I urge the Minister to increase the assistance and get on with empowering the Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committees in order that they can fulfil their remit of ensuring that the armed forces covenant is being delivered across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in its entirety.

I appreciate the sentiment behind new clause 4, to which Mr Jones referred, regarding the duty of care on mental health. That is vital, and never has it been more important. I work closely with a charity in Northern Ireland called Beyond the Battlefield, which provides counselling, as well as practical aid for veterans. It has recently leased a property in my constituency, in the village of Portavogie, which provides en suite accommodation for 10 people. The intention is to use it as a respite facility for veterans from throughout the Province. It will be the first of its kind in the whole of the Province, and after the closure of the Royal British Legion facility in Portrush we will have dedicated facilities available for our veterans.

This venue will provide space for individual reflection, as well as having communal rooms and therapy areas. The charity has fundraised and done so much work, and there is much more to be done with this facility—it has been targeted by vandals in the past, so there is some refurbishment work to do. I know that the Minister will be keen to hear more, and I will be anxious to see how the MOD can sow into this facility that is designed to pick up the slack left by the Department. On behalf of Beyond the Battlefield, I extend an invitation to the Minister to visit when the refurbishment is completed, as we would be very pleased to have him over for that purpose. If he is able to do so at a time convenient for him and us, we will do that.

Another clause that has struck me is that on the armed forces federation. Martin Docherty-Hughes has referred to this regularly. It is one of the subjects he never misses on, and he did not miss on it today either. There is a principle at stake there that should be considered. I work with a wonderful charity called SSAFA—the armed forces charity, the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association. It is probably known to everybody in this House, and it is often called on to step into scenarios that an armed forces federation would be designed to step into. If this Bill is aimed at addressing the years of neglect, this is an important aspect of it. I also commend my hon. Friend Gavin Robinson for the work he has put into this Armed Forces Bill, and I thank him for it. Our party will be supporting amendments 1 and 2 if they are put to a vote.

I conclude by saying that the Bill has many pros and many cons, one of which is that soldiers who served in Northern Ireland are treated differently. That must be made right. I know the Minister wishes to do that, and it would be good to hear in his response that that will be the case. I anxiously await the Government holding to their word to ensure that every service personnel member, regardless of where they served, deserves the same treatment. I still believe we miss out on this. This Bill is to be welcomed, but improvements can and must still happen. I look forward to hearing from the Government, and from the Minister in particular, whom I look upon as a friend, as to whether these new clauses and amendments which would enhance the Bill will be acceptable.

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (jointly with the Ministry of Defence)

I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions, particularly Stephanie Peacock; I am grateful for her sincere and constructive tone. I think the whole House is united in our desire to support our armed forces, and I am confident that the Bill delivers for our armed forces. It renews the Armed Forces Act 2006, it improves the service justice system, and it delivers on the Government’s commitment to further enshrine the armed forces covenant in law.

I turn first to new clause 1. As I said in Committee, the Government take very seriously our duty of care for service personnel and veterans under investigation. This amendment was debated at length in the other place during the passage of the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act 2021. Our servicepeople are entitled to receive comprehensive legal support, and a full range of welfare and mental health support is offered to all our people, as laid out in the Defence Secretary’s written ministerial statement of 13 April 2021. We have made clear our intent to provide a gold standard of care, and we will not deviate from that.

We resist the new clause because a one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate. People have different needs, and we want to ensure bespoke provision—the right support at the right time. Furthermore, the difficulties of drafting such a duty of care would inevitably mean the involvement of the courts and additional litigation.

Turning to new clause 2, I am pleased to remind the House that the Government accept entirely that the historical policy prohibiting homosexuality in the armed forces was absolutely wrong, and there was historic injustice suffered by members of the LGBT+ community as a consequence. We are committed entirely to addressing that with urgency and humility, and our priority now is to understand the full impact of the pre-millennium ban. We are committed to finding an appropriate mechanism to address this injustice, but we resist the new clause because it may complicate or constrain the work already under way.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

As I said in my contribution, I do not doubt the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to righting this wrong, but he is going to come up against a lot of resistance from his Department when it comes to issues around compensation in terms of pensions and everything else. I just stress that he must push back, and push back hard.

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (jointly with the Ministry of Defence)

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s encouragement. I hear it, and I reassure him that we will address this matter with absolute resolve. It will be at the heart of the veterans strategy, which I will announce this winter.

Turning to new clause 3, let me reassure the House that the interests of armed forces personnel are already represented and protected through a range of mechanisms, including the Service Complaints Ombudsman, the pay review bodies, the annual continuous attitude survey, and more than 50 diversity networks operating within Defence at various levels, run mostly by volunteer members, with senior officer advocates and champions—and, lastly but most importantly, there is the chain of command. We therefore resist the new clause.

I turn to new clause 4. In June 2021, the annual UK armed forces mental health bulletin showed that the overall rate of mental ill health is actually lower among service personnel than in the general population, but of course we are never complacent. We are constantly striving to improve our mental healthcare support for service personnel and, indeed, veterans. We resist the new clause because it lacks utility and would merely add to the administrative burden of those seeking to support our service personnel. Indeed, a duty on the Secretary of State to report annually on healthcare provision already exists as part of the armed forces covenant.

Amendment 1 would give the Attorney General the role of deciding whether the most serious crimes are prosecuted in the service courts. We have already considered this issue carefully as a recommendation of the Lyons review, but we believe that enhancing the prosecutors protocol is the most effective way to improve decisions on concurrent jurisdiction, because it allows decisions to be made early on, by independent prosecutors who have close working relationships with civilian and service police.

If the AG had to give consent, the process would be slower. The AG would effectively be asked to endorse decisions that had been made very early in an investigation, and it is hard to see what the AG would be adding. However, if the AG were to disagree with those earlier decisions and veto the trying of a case in the service justice system, there would be no easy way to transfer that case to the civilian system. That may have the undesired effect of making it difficult or impossible to prosecute the case in either system.

For that reason, we resist the amendment. We have a more pragmatic approach, because we want a workable, transparent and rigorous process for decisions on jurisdiction. We want cases to be heard in the right system, and we are confident that the service justice system is capable of dealing with all offences, whatever their seriousness and wherever they occur. We must bear in mind that the civilian prosecutor will always have the final say.

Turning to amendments 2 to 8, the covenant duty covers public bodies delivering healthcare, housing and education, because those are the key areas of concern for our armed forces community. We have ensured that the legislation can adapt to the needs of the armed forces community in future by making provision to allow the Government to widen the scope of the covenant by way of affirmative regulations. The Bill is evergreen, and if we need to expand it in future, we will.

On amendments 3 to 6, they seek to ensure, again, that all service housing is regulated in line with the local minimum quality standard. That is unnecessary because, as I have said previously, 96.7% of MOD-provided service family accommodation meets or exceeds the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government decent homes standard. The amendments would introduce an unhelpful disparity across the UK and would not achieve the intended effect, as local authorities that fall within the scope of the covenant duty are not responsible for the provision of service accommodation. We therefore resist those amendments, but I can reassure the House that the provision of high-quality subsidised accommodation remains a fundamental part of the overall MOD offer to service personnel and their families.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 5:15 pm, 13th July 2021

I asked specifically about recruitment in Northern Ireland and what we could do with reserve forces. Can I have an assurance that recruitment is necessary in Northern Ireland to fill the gap for soldiers who can help the British Army? If we can do it in Northern Ireland, let us make it happen.

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (jointly with the Ministry of Defence)

I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance and put that on the record.

I thank the team of magnificently resolute and tenacious MOD civil servants in the Bill team, including Jayne Scheier, John Shivas, Caron Tassel, Tim Payne and Ben Bridge. I call on the House to reject the amendments. The armed forces always stand up for us; we must stand up for the armed forces, and I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Shadow Minister (Defence)

It has been an incredibly thoughtful debate, and I thank all hon. Members who have taken part, including the Minister. Having listened carefully to what he said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw new clause 1, but I will seek to press new clause 4 to a vote, as well as amendments 1 and 2.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.