Clause 8 - Armed forces covenant

Armed Forces Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:15 pm on 13th July 2021.

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Votes in this debate

Amendment proposed: 2,  page 18, line 28, 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.” —(Stephanie Peacock.)

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.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 52 Armed Forces Bill — Clause 8 - Armed forces covenant

Aye: 272 MPs

No: 358 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

The House divided: Ayes 272, Noes 358.

Question accordingly negatived.

The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.

Third Reading

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (jointly with the Ministry of Defence) 5:41 pm, 13th July 2021

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

I want to reiterate my thanks to all hon. and right hon. Members for their thoughtful and constructive contributions today. I have been honoured to lead on this Bill that further enshrines the armed forces covenant into law. Ultimately, the Bill is for the armed forces, its serving personnel, veterans and their families, and I pay tribute to them for their bravery, stoicism and unflinching professionalism. We owe them an enormous debt of gratitude and this Bill is for them.

Our armed forces stand up for us and we must always stand up for them, and I commend this Bill to the House.

Photo of Stephen Morgan Stephen Morgan Shadow Minister (Defence) (Armed Forces and Defence Procurement), Shadow Minister (Defence) 5:42 pm, 13th July 2021

Labour has said from the start that this Bill offered a once-in-a-Parliament opportunity to make meaningful changes to the day-to-day lives of our forces personnel, veterans and their families. During Armed Forces Week, I had the privilege to bring together veterans of D-day, the Falklands and the Gulf war with Royal Navy and Royal Marine cadets from across Portsmouth. This celebration of service past and present was a powerful reminder of our collective responsibility to keep society’s promises to our nation’s service personnel. That is why Labour worked with service charities, veterans and personnel, and colleagues from across the House, to get the very best for our armed forces from this legislation.

The increased scrutiny the Bill has received means the Government have had many opportunities to listen to the fundamental concerns raised, but Ministers have steadfastly refused to do so at every turn. The Government have let themselves off the hook in delivering for Her Majesty’s forces. The provisions in the Bill do not apply to Government Departments, including, laughably, the Ministry of Defence itself, so while the Government claim the Bill will enshrine the armed forces covenant into law the reality is that they have outsourced the delivery of its important promises to others, and without any extra resource with which to do it.

Service charities continue to raise concerns about the Bill’s narrow scope, which risks creating a two-tier covenant and a race to the bottom on standards in service areas left out. In practice, this means that long-standing issues facing forces communities, and frequently raised by service charities, will not be addressed. Employment, pensions, compensation, social care, criminal justice and immigration are all on the long list of areas we know will not be covered. Labour’s amendments forced Ministers to take responsibility and widen the scope of the Bill. Twelve of the UK’s largest service charities, including the Royal British Legion, Help for Heroes, Cobseo and SSAFA, all wrote to Ministers last week backing these proposals, but the Government still voted them down.

On service justice, we welcome the creation of an independent Service Police Complaints Commissioner, and we hope to see Ministers get on with implementing this to ensure greater oversight and fairness in service justice cases. However, the Government refuse to improve access to justice for service personnel by trying rape and serious offences in civilian courts when they are committed in the UK. These proposals are backed by the Deepcut families, who have used their powerful and first-hand experiences of poor service justice investigations to call out the double standard of sudden deaths being handled by civilian police while rape and other serious offences are not.

Almost three quarters of sexual offences in the armed forces in 2020 took place in the UK, and between 2015 and 2020 the conviction rate for rape cases tried under courts martial was just 9%. The latest data available suggest the conviction rate was 59% in the civilian courts, with considerably more cases being tried each year. This issue is disproportionately affecting women of junior rank: more than three quarters of the victims were women, and seven in 10 victims held the rank of private. Ministers refuse to recognise the weight of evidence from these figures, the experts and campaigners, and instead have relentlessly backed a fudge that will leave personnel vulnerable. That will be on their watch.

Finally, the Government have rejected the golden opportunity provided by Labour to end the shameful scandal of eye-watering visa fees for non-UK service personnel. Ministers cynically cite the long-awaited and underwhelming plans currently under consultation as proof of progress on this disgraceful injustice, but we know that they will help just one in 10 of those affected. The truth is that Ministers are content with making these decisions, but personnel will pay twice to stay in the country they have fought for.

In summary, this is an Armed Forces Bill that provides absolutely nothing for actively serving personnel. It fails to address long-standing and well-known issues facing service communities. It willingly ignores the recommendations of a judge-led review on the service justice system. It reduces appeal time limits for serving personnel brave enough to make a complaint, and it does nothing to end the shameful scandal at eye-watering visa fees for non-UK veterans. The Tories will talk this up as a manifesto promise fulfilled, but by any measure this Bill does not match the high standards our armed forces display in their service and in what they demand of themselves. Tonight, personnel, veterans and their families will rightly be questioning whether this Government really are on their side.

It is Labour that has been working in the interests of service communities. The Tories have dogmatically opposed these efforts, but we will continue to support this Bill, despite its many faults, as the intentions and principles underpinning it are positive. However, we will do so knowing that this Government have fallen far short of delivering the very best for service personnel. This will not be the end of Labour’s efforts to secure improvements for our armed forces communities. We will continue to champion them, and we will work with others in the other place to ensure that the Government deliver on the covenant and in full for every member of our armed forces, veterans and their families. They deserve nothing else.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

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

I will now suspend the House for two minutes to make the necessary arrangements for the next business.

Sitting suspended.