The House knows that this Bill is vital: it renews the Armed Forces Act 2006, so that the armed forces can continue to operate and enforce a system of discipline, and it also fulfils our commitment to further enshrine the armed forces covenant into law.
On Lords amendment 1B, we have been listening to hon. Members here and in the other place. The Government recognise the fact that all Members of this House want to do the best for our armed forces and to ensure that criminal wrongdoing is robustly addressed for the sake of our forces and for the victims of crime. We are particularly mindful about the prominence that statistics have recently played in this debate. The Government have always welcomed scrutiny of our own performance and the role that parliamentarians have in performing that scrutiny. We should ensure that the statistics that we use are clear, transparent and cover the most serious offending that Parliament is concerned about. I am happy to confirm that we will therefore commit to an expansion and an improvement of our existing annual statistical update on sexual offending in the armed forces to include other serious offences.
Our bulletin in spring 2022, in addition to reporting on rape statistics, will now include granular data on cases of murder and manslaughter, and, for sexual offending, those cases involving personnel serving in the armed forces who are under 18 at the time of the offence. Furthermore, from January 2022, we will start to record separately information about domestic violence and child sexual abuse in the service justice system, so that those, too, can be reported on in our spring 2023 bulletin.
These bulletins will include information relating to police investigations, as well as court martial proceedings, meaning that all data related to the categories of serious offences referred to in the amendment of Lord Thomas of Gresford will be included. This will include: the number of reported incidents; how many cases are referred from the service police to the service prosecution authority; how many cases the service prosecution authority are able to prosecute; how many cases go to court martial; and how many cases result in a guilty verdict. We believe that this will increase the transparency of, and the confidence in, the service justice system, and we welcome this scrutiny. Greater reporting will demonstrate the good work that we are doing through this Bill, not least the establishment of the defence serious crime unit, and it is right that data is available to hold Government to account.
I have been listening very carefully to what my hon. Friend has to say. He has talked about the need for transparency, and, clearly, that is demonstrable and welcome. On the reports to which he now refers, he obviously hopes that they will make his case for him as they are published. If they do not, what happens then, other than just becoming tomes to gather dust in his or his successor’s office or in the Secretary of State’s office? In practical terms, what will be done to change the policies?
I reassure my hon. Friend that we will keep this under review. We are prepared to be judged by our performance.
I tell my children that I keep a lot of things under review, knowing full well that I will never acquiesce in what they are asking for—I hope they are not listening this evening. I know that my hon. Friend understands that this is a serious point for many of us. Keeping something under review, to ask us now to support the Government’s line, is laudable, but we need a bit more flesh on the bones as to what happens if the data in this report does not land where he and I—let us be frank—would hope that it would. One can keep something under review, but if there is no promise to come back with changes to the legislation, that is a pie-crust promise.
I expect the data to justify our confidence in the service justice system. My hon. Friend knows that the Government believe very strongly that the SJS needs to retain the full complement of capability because our armed forces are expeditionary by design and our justice system also needs to be expeditionary. He may not mean it sincerely when he deals with the children, but he will see that in my remarks this evening we certainly are sincere in our position.
My hon. Friend makes the point that we are expeditionary by design. I understand that, but I do not see how that links to the issue addressed by Lords amendment 1B, which is essentially that, where the offence is committed in the United Kingdom, unless there is a compelling reason to the contrary, which might involve an expeditionary issue, there should logically be a presumption that the starting point is dealing with it in the civilian system. What contradiction is there between the expeditionary nature of our armed forces—under certain circumstances, but not all—and a rebuttable presumption that the civilian system should hear offences committed in the United Kingdom?
My hon. Friend makes the case for flexibility, and I am pleased to confirm that we retain that flexibility through the protocol we have legislated for. The bottom line is that the civilian prosecutor will always have the final say, and it is principally for that reason that I urge hon. Members to reject Lords amendment 1B.
I understand what the Minister says about the civilian prosecutor’s ultimately having the final say, but an issue was raised last time about the role of the Attorney General, and whether there was a dangerous jurisdictional aspect in the Attorney’s consent being involved. The amendment removes that stumbling block. With that removed, and given what the Minister has said about flexibility, what now is the objection to the amendment in lieu, as opposed to the original Lords amendment?
The objection principally is about our need for an expeditionary system that should not be salami sliced. If we start to take components out of our service justice system, it would undermine the confidence that those serving should have. That is an additional reason for us to reject the amendment this evening.
The Minister is discussing an incredibly important issue, but in terms of “doing the right thing for the armed forces”, does he share my belief that it is also important that the Ministry of Defence resolve with the Home Office the outstanding question of the free visa applications for servicemen and women who are of non-UK nationality? Does he share my belief that the current proposal of 12 years’ service before such a free visa is available is too long a period for those involved, for us and for the wider public?
I am very pleased that my hon. Friend has raised such an important question. We are hugely grateful for the amazing contribution that our foreign and Commonwealth servicepeople make. I cannot pre-empt the Government announcement on the results of the consultation, but return of service is an important principle and I think it will be at the heart of the Government’s policy when it is announced in due course.
I am glad to be such a cause of pleasure to my hon. and gallant Friend. I am not a lawyer, so this might be entirely irrelevant, but I do not think so: before he leaves this first amendment, could he say whether those serious cases of murder abroad, such as has been reported in relation to an incident in Kenya some years ago—I appreciate that that case may still be live—are affected by this tussle between the upper House and this House on the question of whether such matters should be considered by court martial or civilian court? In other words, where there is a failure of the local police in another country, is it the Government’s case that the court martial system or the civilian legal system is better able to deal with it?
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s contribution; that is a very good case in point, and points to circumstances—although the numbers may be very small—in which the British military has to deploy to ungoverned spaces, let us say. Of course, that is not the case with regard to Kenya, but there are definitely advantages to the expeditionary capability of our service justice system.
I move now to Lords amendment 2B, which would require a report to be laid within six months of this Bill’s receiving Royal Assent, setting out the implications of not applying the new covenant duty to central Government. The Government have already committed to reviewing the operation of the covenant duty to inform us on whether other policy areas or functions could be usefully included. Having listened carefully to the issues that have been so vigorously raised, and recognising the strength of feeling across both Houses, I can now commit to going further.
Indeed, we are going further than Lords amendment 2B in the scope of the review we have in mind. We will review the operation of the new duty across the UK and will consider whether it would be beneficial to add to its scope. That will include specific consideration of whether central Government and any of their functions could usefully be added. The Government will report on the review as part of the covenant annual report in 2023, 18 months after the new duty is expected to come into effect. That timescale is more realistic than the six-month timeline from Royal Assent suggested by their lordships, which in our judgment is too short a period for any meaningful review to take place.
Given that we expect to see the new duty standing up in law by the middle of 2022 at the earliest, we also need to allow for an implementation period to give local authorities time to adjust to their new responsibilities. We therefore believe that to conduct and publish a review at the 18-month point of the new duty having been in operation is most appropriate. However, given the level of interest in the new duty, we will provide an interim update in the covenant annual report in December 2022, some six months after the duty is expected to come into effect. At that point, we will be able to say more about the scope and methodology for conducting the review, and MPs will have the opportunity to assess and comment in the 2022 covenant report debate.
The Government are committed to ensuring that parliamentarians from both Houses can contribute and give their views as part of the review process. I put on record my thanks and appreciation for the contributions of Lord Mackay of Clashfern and Lord Craig of Radley. They, like us, want to see good law put in place to support our armed forces. In the light of the commitment that I have given, I urge the House to support the Government in resisting Lords amendment 2B.
In February, my right hon. Friend John Healey, the shadow Defence Secretary, set out the Labour party’s core principles for our defence and national security, which are based not on party politics but on Britain’s strategic national interest. They are: an unshakeable commitment to NATO; non-negotiable support for our nuclear deterrent; a resolute commitment to international law, universal human rights and the multilateral treaties and organisations that uphold them; and a determination to see British investment directed first to British industry not just because of how we think about defence and national security but because we seek to build a more resilient economy and a country that can stand more firmly on its own two feet. At the heart of those four principles lies a commitment to our armed forces personnel: the men and women who are the lifeblood of our defence and national security; those who serve to protect us.
The Conservative Government have been complacent when it comes to our armed forces and our national security more widely. Just as threats against the UK are increasing, the Prime Minister decided to break an election promise and cut the size of the Army by 10,000. Under the Government and this Prime Minister, our country is becoming less safe and our brave service personnel increasingly undervalued and under-rewarded.
I was only recently appointed to the shadow Defence team, but standing at the Dispatch Box to highlight the weaknesses that sit at the heart of the Bill is already starting to feel like groundhog day. The Bill is a missed opportunity. It was a one-in-a-Parliament opportunity to ensure that our world-class armed forces are supported by world-class legislation, but glaring gaps at its heart mean that it will fall short and fail to live up to its full potential. If the Government had chosen to support the Lords amendments, we would have been guaranteed a more robust approach to dealing with serious crimes committed by service personnel, and we would have had clear accountability and transparency about the role of central Government in delivering the armed forces covenant.
Labour supports the Bill, but we have consistently pressed the Government to ensure that its content matches the ambition. As I set out last week in this Chamber, the Bill is a missed opportunity to deliver on the laudable promises made in the armed forces covenant for all personnel and veterans, and their families. To that end, we have worked closely with hon. Members in this place, noble Lords in the other place and service charities to amend the Bill in the interests of our service personnel.
Can the hon. Member help the House by explaining what he thinks the Government might be able to do but could not if the Bill had the protections that he wanted over central Government action?
As I will address a little later in my remarks, the huge disconnect here is between the level of accountability that local government will be held to compared with that for central Government. So we end up in an absurd situation where a school governor has a greater level of accountability for the covenant than the Defence Secretary. I am not sure what John Redwood thinks about that, but it appears to be a bizarre state of affairs.
I pay particular tribute to Lords Mackay, Thomas and Craig for their efforts in working with us in our attempts to improve this legislation. Mr Deputy Speaker, you will know that the Labour party has been pushing the argument strongly that the most serious crimes, including murder, manslaughter, domestic violence, child abuse, rape and sexual assault with penetration, should be tried in the civilian courts when committed in the UK. The case for that is overwhelming, because the investigation and prosecution of those crimes within the service justice system simply does not work.
The latest Ministry of Defence figures show that between 2015 and 2020 the conviction rate for rape cases tried under court martial was just 9%, whereas the latest data suggest that the conviction rate was 59% for cases that reached civilian courts, with considerably more cases being tried each year. Moreover, more than three in four of the victims were women, and seven in 10 held the rank of private. By rejecting Lords amendment 1B in lieu, the Government are not only letting down women in the lower ranks, but undermining their own policy of seeking to recruit more women to the armed forces. The Army has committed itself to a 30% target by 2030 for female recruits, but has not yet produced a clear plan of how that will be achieved. The Government therefore need to think carefully about the message they are sending by resisting this amendment, because until there is fairness, transparency and justice in these cases, the actions of a minority will continue to tarnish the reputation of our world-class armed forces and will continue to have a chilling effect on female recruitment.
We do, however, welcome the fact that the Minister has today acknowledged the need to publish data on all the offences listed in this amendment—murder, manslaughter, domestic abuse, child abuse, rape and sexual assault with penetration; for that data to include under-18s for the first time; and for that data to cover both investigations and prosecutions at all stages of the service justice system, including reports of incidents, how many are referred from service police to service prosecution authority, how many the service prosecution are able to prosecute, how many go to court martial and how many convictions there are. But I must tell the Minister that Labour remains committed to moving these serious offences into civilian courts, and we will continue to push the Government on this issue.
This matter is not closed; our concerns have not been allayed. There remain many unanswered questions, so I ask the Minister: what will the Government do if conviction rates for one or more of those serious crimes is concerningly low? Will the Government reconsider this approach? Why will they not commit to a performance review, based on this data? We view this issue as unfinished business, and we know where the weight of opinion lies in this House. As Johnny Mercer clearly stated last week in this Chamber:
“Conviction rates for rape are lower in military courts than they are in civilian courts. That is a fact…The MOD accepts that the contested conviction rate at court martial is significantly lower than it is in the Crown court.”—[Official Report,
We therefore hope that Ministers will reflect again on the recommendations from the Government-commissioned Lyons review, as well as the proposals made by Sarah Atherton in her Select Committee on Defence Sub-Committee report, “Protecting Those Who Protect Us”. We must improve conviction rates, and moving these offences into civilian courts offers us the best chance of doing so.
Perhaps the most unfathomable aspect of this Bill is the Government’s decision to offload responsibility for the armed forces away from central Government and on to overstretched local authorities—it is utterly illogical and indefensible. The Bill piles new and often vague statutory responsibilities to deliver the covenant on a wide range of public bodies, so it is impossible to understand why on earth those responsibilities should not apply to central Government. We are faced with a farcical situation whereby the chair of school governors has a statutory responsibility to have “due regard” to the armed forces covenant, but Government Departments, including the Ministry of Defence, do not.
As the Royal British Legion has pointed out, many of the policy areas in which members of the armed forces community experience difficulty are the responsibility of national Government based on national guidance. Organisations such as Help for Heroes, Cobseo and other service charities, alongside Members from both sides of this House and in the other place, have lined up to criticise Ministers for shirking their responsibilities.
The Bill was an opportunity for the Government to lead by example and to demonstrate that credible leadership depends on accountability and on practising what they preach, but they appear to be intent on palming off all the responsibility to local government. Social care, pensions, employment and immigration are on the long list of areas not covered by the legislation, and the exclusion of the Ministry of Defence from the responsible public bodies means that the Bill offers little to actively serving personnel. The Government are already hitting many servicemen and women with a real-terms pay cut this year.
As I said at the Dispatch Box last week, we are left with a Bill that will not deliver practical action for the squaddie in dilapidated living accommodation who is without basics such as heating and hot water; the veteran struggling with their mental health and waiting times for treatment that are more than twice as long as Government targets suggest they should be; or the dispersed service family who struggle with the cost of childcare and getting into work. Central Government must be held to the same measurable, enforceable national standards that local authorities and agencies are held to. Only then can we truly end the postcode lottery on the armed forces covenant.
The Government’s concession of a review of the operation of the duty and whether central Government should be added is welcome, but ultimately, it is a recognition that the Bill is drafted too narrowly. How will parliamentarians be involved in the review? I recognise that the Minister mentioned that, but we need a clear assurance about it. Knowing the strength of feeling on the issue, I encourage him to ensure that parliamentarians from both Houses and the Chairs of relevant Select Committees are involved in and can give evidence to the review. We will keep a close eye on the review process, but we still believe that the due regard principle should be broadened to cover all areas of potential disadvantage for servicepeople.
The Opposition have been clear throughout the process that the Bill must become statute, not least because we must provide our armed forces with the solid and stable legal basis that they require to be able to operate. Although we welcome the concessions that the Minister has promised today, we remain profoundly disappointed that the Government have continued to resist the Lords amendments, thereby running the clock down. Let me be clear that it is unfinished business.
The Minister knows full well that there is deep unhappiness about the way that the Government have handled the process and profound concern about the way in which the weaknesses in the Bill will ultimately lead to it failing to serve the best interests of our services personnel. I therefore assure the House that Labour, as the party of the armed forces, will robustly hold the Government to account. I put the Minister on notice that he has not heard the last from us on these matters.
I am pleased to speak in this important debate. The Armed Forces Act 2006, which the Minister mentioned, needs to be upgraded, so the Bill needs to pass in this House. It was introduced in January and here we are, almost at Christmas. I will stand corrected—perhaps he can clarify—but if we do not pass it, the armed forces are not beholden to Parliament. Given the experience of Parliament and Government in recent weeks, it would be unwise to have an untethered armed forces at this juncture.
Bills often ping-pong backwards and forwards between here and the other place, but we should bear in mind who it was in the other place that actually scrutinised this Bill. They are senior figures in the justice system, but they are also ex-senior military, who understand the very issue in detail. This has not been thrown back to us just to test the will of this House; it has been thrown back, now for a second time, because there is something serious going on here. I think the Government now find themselves in isolation, and on their own compared with all the charity groups, the Opposition and indeed—dare I say it—the Defence Committee. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Sarah Atherton, who has taken through, over the last 18 months, the women in the armed forces inquiry, which reported only last week. The Minister has very kindly responded to that—not least here in this House, but also in a Westminster Hall debate—but we know all the arguments and what is on either side of this.
The Minister mentioned salami slicing, saying that if we were to go down the road of allowing the civilian courts to deal with murder, manslaughter, domestic violence, child abuse, rape and sexual assault, it would somehow dilute our ability to hold the armed forces to account. By their very nature, our armed forces are expeditionary in what they do, but he knows perfectly well that the yellow card, and indeed the rules of engagement, work extremely well overseas. This is to do with what happens here in the UK, and there is a disjunction between those who actually go through the civilian courts and those who go through the military courts. I am afraid that there is an absence of military experience in dealing with such difficult cases, which is why we are seeing such a disconnect between the conviction rates for civilians and those for the military.
I look to the Minister and say thank you for moving this far, but time is running out and we need to get this Bill through. I do hope that he will hear the concerns not just of this House and of the Committee, but of Justice Lyons. He did a service justice review for the armed forces when I was in the Veterans Minister’s shoes. When I was sitting on the Front Bench as Minister for the Armed Forces, I asked Justice Lyons to consider where this should go and what was his conclusion. His recommendation was exactly what we are calling for today. So I ask the Minister to recognise the wealth of encouragement, and also to recognise that this is nothing to do with salami slicing. This is to do with services for our armed forces personnel, and that is what we are calling for today.
There is a debt of gratitude that we owe to members of the armed forces, and we have seen that acutely over the last few days as they mobilised to help with the vaccine booster campaign. I received my booster on Friday, and there was certainly a large armed forces presence there. As well as thanking members of the NHS, I would like to extend my gratitude to members of the armed forces who are contributing to that campaign over the next few weeks.
As we renew the Armed Forces Act, it would have been great if we had done so with some provisions that delivered a real impact for members of the armed forces. I suppose the litmus test for this is: will members of the armed forces notice any real difference as a result of this legislation? I think that for the majority the answer, sadly, is no, and that is disappointing.
The Lords amendments today are a final attempt by those in the other place to flesh out the provisions of this Bill, and to attempt to improve what had been billed as a great opportunity to improve our offerings to those who serve. It is disappointing that the expertise of Members of the other place, which was mentioned by the Chair of the Defence Committee, Mr Ellwood, has essentially been disregarded. That is not how this should work. I am not a great fan of the other place myself, but I must admit that there is real legal and military expertise there that was not listened to or paid attention to, which is disappointing.
What would we have liked to see? We would have liked to see improvements in service accommodation. As the Bill progressed, the SNP put forward very modest amendments on this, such as asking that the basic standards of accommodation for social housing should also apply to members of the armed forces. That was a reasonable amendment, but it was thrown out. We saw no movement on visa fees for Commonwealth service personnel. There was the idea that they should serve for 12 years before we even consider this, but that is utterly unrealistic; it is not a reasonable position for us to take.
Most disappointingly, there is very little improvement to service justice, particularly for rape or sexual assault. I pay tribute to Sarah Atherton, as I did last week, for the superb work she did in the Defence Sub-Committee report on the experiences of women in the armed forces, and I echo some of the comments already made. If we really want to increase the number of women who serve—as we should, because diversity is positive—we must look at their experiences as they go about their duties.
To give the Minister his due, he has acknowledged that there have been failings in service justice in the past. It is important that that has been recognised. Conviction rates remain disappointingly low—a point I shall return to—but it is not just about conviction rates: it is also about those who made complaints and reports who were subsequently asked to withdraw those complaints. How are we going to deal with that? The data the Minister talks about will certainly shine a light on the issue, which is important, but we need to see what happens, because there are too many reports of people being asked to withdraw complaints.
As I mentioned in last week’s Westminster Hall debate, some of these amendments, particularly on service justice, are so reasonable that many Members on both sides of the House question why they have been rejected. I am concerned that the Government are worried about the visibility of these issues, whereas I feel that the public spotlight must be shone on them, because that would be beneficial. We need to accept and admit what is going on before proper change can take place.
Last week, the Minister said he would be
“making non-legislative changes and enhancements in procedure so that the experience of the victim in the civil or military system has parity.”—[Official Report,
That is positive. I also welcome his remarks today about the statistical data on serious crime in terms of reports, prosecutions and convictions, but I echo the concerns already raised this evening about what we will do if this data shows no improvement. I ask the Minister to accept that it is not enough just to publish the data, and to commit to making a regular statement to the House, preferably annually, based on the data, so that Members are able to scrutinise it and discuss how it is going to be used. Data on its own is of no use if we have no plan in place to actually use it.
The Scottish National party will of course support the Bill, but as the Minister knows, this is a missed opportunity. Ultimately, it fails to deliver the changes required for those who serve.
The debate finishes at 6.29 pm and we would like to hear from the Minister at the end, so I ask everybody to be conscious of the need to get everybody in.
I shall be brief, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I welcome my hon. and gallant Friend the Minister’s tone. He has sought to be constructive. I appreciate that he has made a number of concessions, and I am glad the Government have done that. In particular, I welcome his tribute to the noble Lord Mackay and others. Anyone who knows anything about the law and Government does not lightly mix with James Mackay, and I am glad that has been recognised. I also welcome and endorse the comments made about the work done by my hon. Friend Sarah Atherton in this regard.
On defence justice issues, I rather agree with my right hon. Friend Mr Ellwood, the Chair of the Defence Committee. There has been movement and I am glad about that, but I am still not convinced by the salami-slicing point. I cannot for the life of me see how Lords amendment 1B creates any difficulty.
My real concern—the additional point I was going to make beyond the interventions I have already made—is about the way the defence serious crimes unit will be structured. Hopefully, there will not be a large number of cases to prosecute, but those involving rape and serious sexual offences in particular will almost invariably require great sensitivity in handling the investigation and the presentation in court, both in prosecution and in defending. Inevitably, such cases—where a member of the forces is either a complainant or a victim, or perhaps both—will by their nature, very properly, engage the highest level of public interest in the broadest sense. The concern is whether a small prosecuting body will ever be able to gather the critical mass of expertise to adequately do justice in those cases, whatever the good intentions.
Does the hon. Gentleman share the other concern raised regarding the gender composition of courts martial? Unless we have gender parity, it is very difficult for all-male or majority male courts to understand properly the experience women may have had in that situation.
I understand the point, and I am sure that as more women advance into the senior ranks of the armed forces that will be dealt with. In fairness, however, I should say that if those cases were to be dealt with by a jury in the civilian justice system, there is not a quota on gender parity in juries either. So while I take the thrust of the hon. Lady’s point, I do not think there is an exact comparison to be made.
My bigger concern is that I hope the Minister will accept that the sensible thing to do would be for the service system, at the very least, to bring in expertise from the independent Bar, from the independent legal sector, to deal with these cases, rather than try to do something and not admit that we may not have the capacity to do it effectively ourselves. There are plenty of experienced people who could do that, and that would be an important step forward.
There are also other bits of unfinished business. It would be helpful if the Minister committed to bringing forward the remaining items of the Henriques review that are not covered in the Bill. That would give us a comprehensive approach. Nobody wants to delay the Bill, but I hope the Minister will reflect on my regret that we have not taken up one of the key points of the review by His Honour Judge Shaun Lyons. Just as one does not trifle lightly with Lord Mackay of Clashfern, it is difficult to think of anyone who has had more experience, both as a naval officer—as a lieutenant commander and so on for a number of years—and then as a senior circuit judge licensed to try all cases relating to murder, rape and serious sexual offences. I do not know of anyone else in my legal career who combines the two in a greater degree than Shaun Lyons. I am therefore disappointed that, having accepted so much else, we have not followed through on the final and critical element of his report. I hope the Minister will accept that the Ministry should not be too grand as to close the door to that, because I have not yet heard a convincing argument as to why that element of Judge Lyons’s recommendation was not taken forward.
The Bill is excellent and much needed. It will improve the lives of service personnel while modernising our military for the future. I support the Bill and commend the Minister for getting it through so far.
I want to focus on Lords amendment 1B, which would see murder, manslaughter and rape with penetration tried in a civilian court. The House is aware that the Defence Committee’s inquiry into the experiences of women in the armed forces opened up a catalogue of harrowing evidence around sexual assault, rape, gang rape, poor standards of investigation, and the manipulation of power to deliberately disadvantage servicewomen in complaining or seeking justice. Indeed, the Committee concurred with the recommendations of the Government-commissioned, judge-led Lyons review, which stated that rape should be heard in civilian courts. Given the evidence, I do not believe the proposed concurrent jurisdiction protocol will be good enough to cut through the laddish culture that is entrenched in the military system as it stands. I welcome the Minister’s comments on transparency, but I fail to see how collecting even more data on serious offences, as proposed by the MOD, will translate into improved outcomes for victims of rape. As my hon. Friend Simon Hoare explored, I would like to see how we will improve the lot of women in our military based on collecting data, but I am pleased with the establishment of the defence serious crimes unit, which is a mammoth step forward for the MOD.
Last week the House rejected an amendment that would have mandated all rape cases to be heard under civilian jurisdiction except in extraordinary circumstances, as determined by the Attorney General. The MOD rejected the amendment on the basis that it would have politicised the process. Lords amendment 1B accepts and rectifies this by leaving responsibility for the decision to the Director of Public Prosecutions, after consultation only with the Attorney General. This removes the MOD’s objection, and I am not convinced by the argument of expeditionary salami-slicing. The amendment means that cases of rape perpetrated in the UK would primarily be heard in civilian courts unless there are exceptional circumstances. I know that the 4,200 women who contributed to the Defence Committee’s inquiry and people across the country—both military and civilian, and both men and women—who believe in British values of fairness and justice will want the MOD to consider this point.
I will be supporting the Government, as they have made welcome progress on creating better conditions and support for our armed forces, but I would like to press the Minister on housing. When we wish to recruit and retain the best people in the future as we have in the past, it is important that we provide something better on housing than we traditionally have. It is a disgrace if armed services personnel, after providing substantial service to our country, cannot afford to buy a house of their own, and instead have to scramble to get rented accommodation, which they often find difficult.
I hope the MOD can do more through its potential and current schemes to promote home ownership, and to promote buying property nearer home base, for example, so that people leaving the armed forces have a property of their own. If service personnel are not able to do that, a surrogate scheme is needed so that when they leave the armed forces after holding important jobs and earning reasonable money, they are not debarred from the private housing market and they do not come to see their service career as a gap in making those contributions and building up savings in a house of their own. They should have as much opportunity to own their own property as the rest of the community.
Yes of course we need an expeditionary service and service personnel may need to serve in a variety of places abroad, but that should not get in the way of either having a home of their own with their family or having the wherewithal to have a home of their own when they leave the armed services. I hope my hon. and gallant Friend the Minister will sympathise and do more to make sure it can be true. I do not think we need a legal requirement, but we need a firm pledge of intent from the Government.
This is the first time I have contributed to this Bill. There are a number of experts in the Chamber on both the legal processes and the military who have far more to say than I do, but as an assiduous parliamentarian I have kept up with proceedings as best I can. As I watched last week’s debate on almost exactly the same amendment, a couple of questions struck me as a layperson that I hope the Minister may be able to answer.
First, it would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend Sarah Atherton, who last week was unfortunately put in the impossible position of either having to defend and vote with the recommendations of her own inquiry or lose her Government job as a Parliamentary Private Secretary. I commend her for her integrity and fortitude in doing what she thought was the correct thing.
As I said, I speak as a lay person. I do not have any of the legal background of my hon. Friend Sir Robert Neill or the military background of my right hon. Friend Mr Ellwood, who speaks very eloquently on these matters. When I was watching last week, I could not help but think what would happen if Cressida Dick were to write to the Home Secretary and say, “We’re going to set up a new court and a new system whereby if police officers are accused of rape with penetration and manslaughter or murder, we’re not going to put them in civilian court any more—we’re going to have our own internal process.” There is a zero per cent. chance that the Home Secretary would agree to that process, a zero per cent. chance that this House would agree to it, and a significantly less than zero per cent. chance that the general public would be anything other than disgusted at the thought of somebody like Wayne Couzens, who murdered Sarah Everard, being tried somewhere other than the criminal court where he was tried and convicted. That is my only question regarding the Government’s objection to Lords amendment 1B. There is no way in the world that we would set up that process with, for example, the police, so how on earth can it be justifiable that we would continue with it in other circumstances?
I am grateful for the constructive contributions from Stephen Kinnock, my right hon. Friend Mr Ellwood, Carol Monaghan, my hon. Friend Sir Robert Neill, my hon. Friend Sarah Atherton and Rob Roberts. I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Aberavon will hold the Government to account and help to mark our homework alongside us. That scrutiny is welcome.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East rejected the notion that there was a risk of salami-slicing the service justice system. He rightly paid tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham, and I join him in that. The hon. Member for Glasgow North West suggested that there should be more women on the boards of courts martial. That is good, because that is exactly what the Defence Secretary has committed to. That is a very important commitment and he will be held to account on it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst made some interesting remarks about the defence serious crime unit and made an appeal for independent expertise to be drawn into it. That is exactly what will happen. He paid a fitting tribute to Justice Shaun Lyons, who is, I entirely accept, an extremely credible voice with regard to matters of jurisprudence. However, we also have huge regard for Justice Henriques, and his support for the maintenance of concurrent jurisdiction guided our thinking in this regard.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham reflected on her own inquiry. Again, I put on record our gratitude for that hugely important piece of work, which we will use as a lever to accelerate institutional change to ensure that women can thrive in military careers, given that since 2018 every single role has been open to women to serve in. She questioned the validity of increasing and expanding our reporting on data, but that will be a mechanism for holding the Government to account, and we welcome that.
My right hon. Friend John Redwood asked a good question about housing. I can give him absolute confirmation that that is at the heart of the covenant provision. That is why, along with education and healthcare, it is one of the pillars of the statutory obligation in the statutory guidance. We are putting a huge injection of cash into accommodation provision not just for service families but for single servicemen and women. The highly successful Forces Help to Buy scheme has helped thousands of service personnel to buy their own homes. The Government have put more than £400 million into that. I do not need to tell the House that the military has been an engine of home ownership and social mobility for some 400 years. We look forward to maintaining that magnificent and deeply honourable tradition.
Rob Roberts attempted to draw an analogy with the Metropolitan police. He ignored the fact, however, that our armed forces are designed to go around the world and defeat the nation’s enemies, which the Metropolitan police is not required to do.
We have listened and we will be judged by our performance, which is why we have set up an admirably transparent system for reporting on our data, and we welcome that scrutiny. We should say very clearly that we have confidence in the provisions in the Bill and in what it delivers. Ultimately, it will deliver a tangible, practical benefit for those serving and for our magnificent veteran community. It is a Bill for the armed forces; we owe them an enormous debt of gratitude and we should be very proud.
Question put and agreed to.
Lords amendment 1B accordingly disagreed to.
Lords amendment 2B disagreed to.
Ordered, That a Committee be appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their amendments 1B and 2B;
That Leo Docherty be the Chair of the Committee;
That three be the quorum of the Committee.
That the Committee do withdraw immediately.—(Andrea Jenkyns.)
Committee to withdraw immediately; reasons to be reported and communicated to the Lords.