Queen’s Speech — Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:30 pm on 15th May 2013.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde Labour 9:30 pm, 15th May 2013

My Lords, the gracious Speech referred to the Government bringing forward measures,

“to improve the way this country procures defence equipment”.

The noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford, has covered to some degree the number of questions that that raises. It is shorthand for government-owned contractor-operated, although for some time the MoD, rightly, was considering various models.

My concern is that we seem to have slipped into the one model—GOCO—on which the MoD is now concentrating its resources and time, in an area that, as has already been said, receives £14.5 billion a year expenditure, with 16,500 people working in it. My concern is that such a large decision should have the proper processes, which must include a debate in the other place and indeed this House. I ask the Minister: is that going to be possible before the Government move to a decision in principle to go out to the OEJU process for inviting bidders, or decide to appoint a preferred bidder; in other words, that we are not faced with a foregone conclusion on which no influence at all will be able to be brought to bear by this House or the other place?

There has been quite a public debate, although there has not been much in Parliament. I initiated a debate in the Moses Room a short while ago but I think the Minister would readily agree that he was not in a position to give answers of any substance to the questions that were asked. The Financial Times has followed this very closely. As recently as last week, on 7 May, it reported that officials in the US Department of Defense were expressing concerns about how a GOCO scheme could affect our close and special relationship with the United States on defence. So it is an important matter and I would welcome whatever information the Minister can give in his winding-up.

There are two other issues I would like to touch on that were not covered in the gracious Speech, although one has been covered in this debate, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown: the interpreters in Afghanistan. We have a real and moral responsibility there. We accepted that principle when we reached arrangements for the interpreters in Iraq and we cannot walk away from the duty of care that we have to the interpreters in Afghanistan. The Prime Minister has not given a definitive answer on this. He says that the Government are looking at it. He said a short while ago that money would be available but in the majority of cases money is not necessarily the issue; it is their future safety and that of their families. I would welcome an answer from the Minister on that.

The third area I would like to cover has not been covered at all in this debate. I have just mentioned our moral duty to the interpreters in Afghanistan. We have an overall moral duty to our Armed Forces. Indeed, in this debate, rightly, due respect and credit have been given to the service they give this country day in and day out, many of them paying with their lives. As a country, we have a contract with our Armed Forces, the Armed Forces covenant. It covers a number of areas. One relates to members of our Armed Forces not being allowed to join a trade union or federation to represent them, the argument being that their officers in the rank system represent them. The previous Government, under some duress—they did not want to do it—set up a Service Complaints Commissioner. She took office in 2008 and since then has published an annual report. Her report stated quite clearly, and backed it up with facts, that the number of complaints was increasing. That may be a good thing—it may be that, because people know that the service is there, they are making complaints—but I would have thought that the fact that 48% more cases were dealt with last year than in the previous year, with 46% of complaints still not resolved at unit level, is something to be concerned about. The Select Committee on Defence in another place is also concerned.

The commissioner has said, “I’m not really as effective as I could and should be in meeting the responsibility to the Armed Forces”. The Armed Forces should have an ombudsman, who would step in almost as a last resort. The concern within the services is, understandably, the rank system—the belief that the officer rank system is what maintains discipline and looks after service personnel. I only wish that that were the case; all too often, that falls down. The Navy has certainly improved its complaints system by saying, “What is reasonable? Let’s not just stick to the rules. Let us sometimes put those on one side and deal with the complaint”. Its list of complaints has gone down. That is not true of the Army, where the number has gone up. There is certainly great resistance within the services to the idea of an ombudsman. I gather that the service chiefs said that they did not understand what an ombudsman did, but they were sure that they did not want one. I think that many of us could picture them saying that.

Earlier this year, the Select Committee on Defence in another place published a report which said that it, too, felt that there needed to be an ombudsman. Like the Service Complaints Commissioner, it did not define what the remit should be; it was something that needed to be discussed between the MoD—taking into account the concerns about rank—and the Service Complaints Commissioner. Although the deadline has passed, the Government have not yet responded to that report but have in any statements that they have made said that they are not in favour of an ombudsman.

I believe that this is an integral part of the Armed Forces covenant. The Armed Forces are entitled to it; we have a responsibility to them. Many of them are leaving the services without their complaint having been dealt with. This may appear a small matter—if the decision was the right one, it would be—but we have a complaints system which is not meeting the needs of our service personnel. If that is part of the Armed Forces covenant—and it is—we are falling down on our responsibility to our own service personnel. I hope that the Minister will be able to give some assurances in response to the questions that have been put on this matter.