Moved by Lord Thomas of Gresford
1: After Clause 5, insert the following new Clause—“Majority verdictsFor section 160 of the Armed Forces Act 2006 (decisions of Court Martial: finding and sentence) substitute—“Majority verdicts(1) The finding of the Court Martial need not be unanimous if—(a) in a case where there are not less than seven members of the court, five of them agree on the finding;(b) in a case where there are five members of the court, four of them agree on the finding;(c) in a case where there are three members of the court, two of them agree on the finding.(2) The judge advocate shall not vote on the finding.(3) Where the finding of the Court Martial is guilty, the judge advocate shall not accept the finding unless the President has stated in open court the number who respectively agreed to and dissented from the finding.(4) The judge advocate shall not accept a non-unanimous finding under subsection (1) unless it appears to the judge advocate that the members of the Court Martial have had such a period of time for deliberation as the judge advocate thinks reasonable having regard to the nature and complexity of the case.””
My Lords, the issue raised by Amendments 1 and 2 is whether a serving member of the Armed Forces is a citizen in uniform and entitled to the same protection of his rights and freedoms as any other citizen, or indeed as a member of any other disciplined service, such as the police, or whether, as a matter of policy, he and his family should, if they come with the character of persons subject to service law, be subject to a fundamentally different judicial procedure in respect not just of breaches of the disciplines inherent in his trade or calling, but, under Section 42 of the Armed Forces Act 2006, of the entire body of criminal law, including the most serious charges.
The system of jury trial probably predates the Norman Conquest. It involves the trial of serious criminal charges by 12 members of the public. It has been like that for the best part of 1,000 years. From at least 1367, unanimity was required, whether the verdict was guilty or not guilty. Six hundred years later, by Section 13 of the Criminal Justice Act 1967, majority verdicts were allowed in the ordinary criminal courts. With the consent of the trial judge, after a period of appropriate deliberation and directions, a verdict by a majority may be received. Where there is a finding of guilt, the vote has to be stated in open court. Where there is an acquittal, no majority is stated.
The criminal standard of proof is guilt beyond reasonable doubt: the jury has to be sure. Sir Patrick Devlin said, in his famous book Trial by Jury:
“The criminal verdict is premised upon the absence of reasonable doubt. If there were a dissenting minority of a third or a quarter that would of itself suggest to the popular mind the existence of a reasonable doubt and might impair public confidence in the criminal verdict”.
That was in 1952, when majority verdicts might suggest that a reasonable doubt existed.
Public confidence is everything. I do not propose to repeat everything that I said at Second Reading and in Committee but it is obvious, by the series of media storms that we have endured and the public demonstrations that have taken place, that the verdict of a court martial does not command public confidence. To draw a very topical parallel, it is inconceivable that if police officers involved in the Hillsborough disaster were to be tried for gross negligence and manslaughter by a panel of senior police officers, the outcome would be acceptable.
The system of courts martial has its origins in a statute of Edward I in 1279, which enacted that, by virtue of the royal prerogative, the sovereign of England has the right to command, and thereby the power to regulate and discipline, the military forces of the nation. The Court of the Constable and Marshal administered military law, although the office of constable was effectively abolished when Henry VIII beheaded the then Lord High Constable—so the right to try military offences devolved to an ad hoc committee of officers, known first as Marshal Courts and then as courts martial. The authority of courts martial later derived from a succession of Mutiny Acts passed between 1678 and 1878, then subsequently by the Army Act of 1881 and its successors, which will shortly include this Bill. So the two systems of civil and military law had quite different origins and it is only very slowly that they have converged—but converged much more rapidly since the European Court of Human Rights delivered a devastating verdict upon the system back in about 1989.
Every move has met with resistance from the military and the civil servants advising them. For example, I read with interest today a debate of 1926 in the other place where Ernest Thurtle, the Member of Parliament for Shoreditch and the son-in-law of George Lansbury—later leader of the Labour Party—sought the abolition of the death penalty for cowardice or desertion. The same old familiar arguments were produced: that it was bad for discipline and would reduce the determination of soldiers to fight if the death penalty for cowardice were abolished. The Government of the day had no answer to the argument that the Australians were under no such constraint when their bravery and discipline at Gallipoli and elsewhere could not be doubted. That Bill eventually got through in 1930 under a Labour Government but was rejected by the House of Lords, notably led by Lord Allenby and other retired generals. The House of Commons had to insist upon it for it to go through.
My Amendment 1 seeks to replace the current Section 160 of the Armed Forces Act 2006 to take another step towards convergence. In the third edition of Rant on the Court Martial and Service Law, edited by the current Judge Advocate-General, Judge Blackett, paragraph 5.126 states:
“An undisclosed simple majority decision in a serious case where the defendant is at risk of a significant custodial sentence might be perceived as being inherently unsafe, since the outcome rests on a knife edge … This provision is a legacy from the past, which represents a significant weakness in the Service justice system and a striking contrast with the much more secure arrangements in the Crown Court. When there is legislative opportunity the law should be changed”, in a court martial, said the Judge Advocate-General,
“to require either a unanimous verdict, as, for example, is the case in the Court Martial system in other Commonwealth countries such as New Zealand or at least a significant and disclosed majority”.
When I put forward this amendment in Committee, the Minister argued as follows. First, he said that, “The great advantage” of a simple majority,
“is that it avoids a ‘hung jury’: there is no need for a retrial”.—[
That puts the cost and expense of a retrial ahead of justice—and is a court martial swift and final? Judge Blackett said last week, in the Ellement case:
“This case should have been heard five years ago”.
Talking to the family, he said:
“I apologise to you that it has taken so long to resolve this issue. The extreme delay … prejudiced the defendants, Anne-Marie and justice generally”.
That is a current case with five years’ delay; and there are other cases in the pipeline where there are long delays from the date of the alleged offence.
Secondly, the Minister said in Committee that,
“there are no lingering doubts outside the court”, if it is not,
“apparent whether the verdict is unanimous or by majority”—
I repeat, “no lingering doubts”. But my amendment expressly provides that only when there is a guilty verdict would there be an announcement that it is by a majority, which is what happens in the Crown Court. Nothing is said when it is an acquittal.
The Minister asked whether a defendant can return to his unit after an acquittal without murmurings. Of course he can, as much as if he were acquitted under the current system. Thirdly, the Minister said that,
“the deliberations of the lay members of the court”, would be exposed and that confidentiality is an,
“important safeguard of the independence of the lay members”.—[
and an ingredient of a fair trial which would be destroyed. But majority verdicts are accepted in the Crown Court and nobody says that the deliberations of the jury are exposed—they never are—or that the jury lacks independence.
The forces need to recruit and to retain their recruits. They may be prepared to be disciplined and trained, but will they or their parents be prepared to subject themselves to a system of justice in which the public generally have no confidence? In the case of Sergeant Blackman in the Court Martial Appeal Court the Lord Chief Justice, having found against the appellant, nevertheless commented that there would be an opportunity for Parliament to legislate on the question of majority verdicts. That was the main point of the appeal against conviction by Sergeant Blackman: that it was a simple majority that had convicted him.
The purpose of Amendment 2 on sentencing is so that the judge advocate should be the sole sentencer after consultation with the panel. At the moment it is the panel which decides the sentence, with a judge advocate having a vote on that decision. The Minister rejected that argument in Committee and said that the change would be,
“an erosion of an important difference between the civilian criminal justice system and the service justice system”.
It is my case that they should be brought closer together and that no question of erosion should arise.
Secondly, the Minister said:
“The military context and service experience should be considered during sentencing as well as in findings of guilt or innocence”.—[Official Report, 1/3/16; col. GC 53.]
My amendment says that the judge should sentence after consultation with the panel and that any input can come from the panel about service issues.
Thirdly, the Minister said that the court martial was part of an overall system of justice and discipline and that the statutory principles as set out in the 2006 Act—the maintenance of discipline and the reduction of service offences—meant that there had to be the direct involvement of the panel in sentencing. I am suggesting the direct involvement of the panel in sentencing, but not to make the decision. In any event, said the Minister, the judge will advise and has a casting vote.
Let us take a panel of seven. If the judge is added to it, eight people are deliberating on a sentence. That means that the professional judge with experience of sentencing can be outvoted seven to one, six to two, five to three. It is only if the panel is split four-four that he has the casting vote. My case is that sentencing is an art. It requires a great deal of training. Judges of great seniority still go for training in sentencing. I have been out of the criminal courts for about three years but I would hesitate very much to go into court now and suggest what a sentence should be.
Crime has come down but prison numbers have gone up. Why? It is because prison sentences are longer. There are different types of criminal sentences. Some involve custody and some do not. Sentencing is a professional job. The panel members are individual officers or warrant officers who come and sit on one case. They may never have had any connection at all with the criminal justice system. They sit on one case and have the responsibility of deciding the sentence. It should be the judge who decides, with the advice and help of panel members who have military service and experience. I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall say something about the Scottish system of justice. If one is talking about convergence, which part of the United Kingdom one comes from may be relevant to a consideration of the issues. I did my national service in a Scottish regiment and I live in Scotland. The Scottish system of justice differs from the English in relation to verdicts.
The Scottish system at the moment depends on the simple majority. There is a jury of 15 and someone can be found guilty so long as eight on the jury are in favour of guilty. Verdicts are from time to time returned by a simple majority as narrow as that, although most majority verdicts are much more in the area of 13 to two. The fact is, however, that a simple majority verdict is enough for a conviction to be recorded.
So far as the question of lingering doubt or confidence in these verdicts is concerned, my experience as a prosecutor and a judge in Scotland is that that system is accepted without question. There is, of course, an additional element in the Scottish system in that there are three verdicts, not two, and a jury of 15, not 12. I am not concerned to explore the size of the jury or the use of the not proven verdict. The important point is that a simple majority verdict is good enough.
The system has one feature that I think is absent from the proposal in Amendment 1. There is never a question of a failed trial because no verdict has been reached. A Scottish jury always reaches a verdict. There is no question of a failure to reach the required majority because a simple majority will do. If it is not achieved, there is an acquittal. It may be that an acquittal is good enough. When the jury comes to return its verdict, it is either not guilty or not proven. If it is guilty, the jury is then asked, “Is that unanimous or by a majority?” and the foreman will say whether it is a majority or unanimous verdict. The real point and the value of the system for the Scots is that retrials are not required because there is a failure to reach a verdict. If the required figure is not reached, acquittal follows. There is some value in that.
I do not know how far one takes the principle of convergence, but it might be relevant to consider how it applies to those who come from Scotland to serve in any of the three services, who in their domestic system do not have the system which applies in England and Wales, and in Northern Ireland.
My Lords, I worked out before this evening that Amendments 1 and 2 were, in fact, Amendment 3 in Grand Committee on
“I am putting a burden on the Government, today and perhaps in subsequent meetings and in writing, to argue the case for why we should not move in the general direction of these amendments and make the whole process for the defendant more analogous to that of a civil court”.—[Official Report, 1/3/16; col. GC 48.]
I still cleave to that general direction. The Minister then made a spirited defence, stretching from col. 50 to col. 54, which I read and also found persuasive in the sense that making small changes is likely to have unforeseen consequences which might be difficult. I have heard nothing today to change my general direction of travel. The Government should consider examining in the Ministry of Defence, perhaps in concert with the Ministry of Justice, whether the decision-making process where the citizen is on trial—the member of the Armed Forces becomes a citizen at this point—should not be closer to the civil system.
Moving in that direct would create some significant change and there may well be some significant consequences. I am not convinced that today’s amendments would not have unforeseen deleterious effects. Accordingly, these Benches will not be able to support them. We ask the Government to think seriously about the arguments that have been brought forward in Committee and on Report, and to look at the extent to which there should be some movement towards the citizen when on trial having much closer rights and a similar process to the civilian courts.
My Lords, I remind the House that I am still a commissioned officer in the reserves, although I am not training. This is my 60th year of life, so I will not be doing it for much longer. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, suggested that both the general public and those in the Armed Forces do not have confidence in the system of discipline in the Armed Forces. My experience is different. I have never had members of the Armed Forces come to me and say that they lack confidence in the system of military discipline. I have to admit that it is a robust system.
I have also never heard a member of the public—someone who is not in the Armed Forces—say that there is something seriously wrong with the system of military discipline, apart from when one reads articles in the Daily Mail, some of which are not very well researched.
One of the problems with what the noble Lord suggests is that we do not understand the dynamics of how the court martial panel works. In Committee, I suggested to the Minister that we need to do research, along the lines proposed by the Opposition Front Bench, to understand what the effect would be. We need to war game it before we start altering the system. I suggested to my noble friend that he keeps this under review and makes sure that we are going in the right direction.
Amendment 2 is on sentences. I have done two or three courts martial, for very minor offences, and my experience is that the judge advocate explains in great detail about the tariff and whether the offender is at the high or low end of it. I do not see that the panel can go outside the guidance given by the judge advocate without running the risk of a successful appeal because it has gone outside the sentencing guidelines.
The noble Lord referred to the need for training in sentencing. I agree, but that input and experience comes from the judge advocate advising the other officers on the panel. You cannot say that the officers and warrant officers on the panel do not have training, because they have been trained for many years in military matters. I do not really understand why the panel would want to deviate very much from what the judge advocate has suggested—that was certainly not my experience. These are interesting amendments, but not ones we should accept.
My Lords, I am still on the active list. I have been for 50 years now, and will remain on it until I die, unlike the noble Earl. I have been president of a court martial and on a court martial board, and have been court-martialled myself. I have also read Hansard from the previous debate. Although the system is not broke, we do need to look at possible changes, but we need to be very wary about how we move forward. I thought the arguments deployed by the Minister in Committee were very convincing.
My Lords, as so often, noble Lords have taken a great interest in the operation of the courts martial, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss the subject today. I am grateful for the careful thought that the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, has given to the changes that he believes would improve the system and increase public confidence in it. Before turning to the detail of the amendments, I should emphasise a couple of important general points.
First, we must not lose sight of the fact that the service justice system has some carefully constructed differences from the civilian justice system for a particular and important reason, which is the maintenance of operational effectiveness. I will elaborate on that a little later.
Secondly, although he did not emphasise this today, I note that the noble Lord himself has stated in this House that he has confidence in the service justice system. If I read his concerns correctly, his main one is about public perception. He explained in Grand Committee that his proposals were intended to give the public more confidence in the findings the court martial makes. My noble friend Lord Attlee made an important point on this, because it would also appear that members of the Armed Forces have confidence in the system: some 67% of those who responded to the Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey for 2015 think that the service discipline system is fair. This is comparable with—indeed a little better than—the level of confidence in the fairness of the civilian criminal justice system, for which the most recent Crime Survey for England and Wales recorded a figure of 64%.
Amendments 1 and 2 seek to change three important aspects of the court martial system: the system of majority verdicts; the confidentiality of the votes of the lay members of the court martial on guilt or innocence; and the role of the lay members in deciding sentence. Amendment 1 would change the law governing decisions of the court martial on findings of guilt or innocence.
As I explained in Grand Committee, the system of simple majority verdicts in the court martial is long established—the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, took us through the history. The service discipline Acts of the 1950s, which preceded the Armed Forces Act 2006, also provided for simple majority verdicts. The system allows conviction or, notably, acquittal by simple majority of the lay members of the court martial. Before the lay members consider their verdict in a case, the judge advocate directs them, if at all possible, to reach a unanimous verdict, but they are not obliged to return a unanimous verdict. The judge advocate’s direction provides a considerable safeguard against the lay members moving too easily to a majority decision. However, if they cannot reach a unanimous verdict, a simple majority is enough to convict or to acquit. An equality of votes results in acquittal.
The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, reminded us that I said in Grand Committee that the great advantage of reaching a decision by majority is that it avoids a hung jury. I also pointed out that there is no need for a retrial in the event of a lack of unanimity or a qualified majority. I was grateful for the insights into the Scottish system given to us by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope. Where there is a hung jury in the Crown Court, the accused is in limbo until they are retried or the case against them is dropped, and there could be a period of several months between trials.
The benefits of the court martial system are not simply those I have indicated—nor incidentally, are they about cost, which I think the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, implied. It has been accepted by the European Court of Human Rights that there are good reasons why, in a system of military justice, it is necessary to avoid a hung jury. The period of limbo between trials could have a negative impact on the unit concerned: there has historically been a clear military imperative to deal with transgressions swiftly to restore discipline. Further, if an accused is tried twice and then acquitted, all of their unit are likely to know that they were acquitted only second time around. The concern has always been, and remains, that this and the period of limbo between trials could ultimately affect operational effectiveness.
I understand that there are those who have questioned the fairness of simple majorities. But I remind the House that the Government have been successful in establishing, both in the European Court of Human Rights and in the civilian courts, that the court martial system is in principle safe, independent and impartial. The current system for majority verdicts has been considered twice in the last five years by the Court Martial Appeal Court—including the case of Sergeant Blackman, incidentally—and was on both occasions held to be fair and safe.
The Court Martial Appeal Court, which is made up of the same judges who sit on the civilian Court of Appeal, has held that there is no ground for deciding that a verdict by simple majority of the lay members of a court martial is inherently unfair or unsafe. The court noted, among other points, that the overwhelming majority of criminal trials in England and Wales are decided in magistrates’ courts and the process of simple majority verdicts is long established in those courts.
I note that the noble Lord’s amendment would appear to concede that simple majority verdicts are not unfair or unsafe in principle, because it would continue to allow a court martial panel with three lay members to return a simple majority verdict of two to one. I accept that the most serious cases may not be tried by a court martial panel of three lay members, but it is important to note that the Court Martial Appeal Court took the view in the Twaite case that there is no reason to conclude that a simple majority finding is safe for minor offences but not safe for serious offences.
The second aspect of the court martial system which Amendment 1 would change is the confidentiality of lay members’ deliberations. Subsection (3) of the proposed new clause would require the president of the lay members to state in open court the number of panel members dissenting where the majority finding is that the defendant is guilty. Under the existing rules, where there is a majority verdict in the court martial, whether for guilt or acquittal, neither the absence of unanimity nor the voting figures are recorded or announced. This avoids the problem of a dissenting minority calling into question the verdict of the majority in any particular case.
In the Crown Court, although it will be known that a defendant has been convicted by a majority verdict, and how many jurors dissented, the number of those dissenting can only ever be very small. Were there to be the same transparency in respect of verdicts of the court martial, the dissenting minority would always be more significant, proportionally, than the dissenting minority in a Crown Court verdict. The concern is that this could lead to the verdict of the majority being called into question.
The second concern about exposing the deliberations of the lay members of the court martial is that one of the important safeguards of their independence is the confidentiality of their deliberations. This safeguard is in place to produce a fair trial process. For that reason, the Armed Forces Act 2006 makes it an offence to disclose information about the confidential deliberations of members of the court martial. I explained those in some detail in Committee. In the Government’s view, the confidentiality of lay members’ deliberations should not be compromised unless there is a compelling case to do so. We are not convinced that there is a compelling case for requiring voting figures to be disclosed.
I hope that noble Lords will appreciate that there are good reasons for maintaining the current system. However, the Government are always keen to consider carefully whether improvements could be made to it. With that in mind, I can reassure the noble Lord that the Government are prepared to review the current arrangements for majority verdicts, with a careful look at the implications of doing anything differently and taking into account the views of key stakeholders, including the single services, the Service Prosecuting Authority and the Judge Advocate-General.
We will need to consider a number of options; indeed, the noble Lord himself has identified two. The suggestions he made in Committee differ from those made in this debate. Should it be considered necessary to amend legislation, we would seek to find an early opportunity to do so. I will report back to the House on the outcome of the review, which is likely to be in the new year.
I turn to Amendment 2 and the very significant change it would make to the role of lay members of the court martial in sentencing. I should explain that there is an important difference between the role of a lay member in the court martial and that of a juror in the Crown Court. In the Crown Court, the jury’s role is limited to findings of fact, and sentencing is a matter solely for the judge. In the court martial, the lay members determine innocence or guilt and, together with the judge advocate, vote on the most appropriate sentence. In the case of an equality of votes on sentence, the judge advocate has a casting vote.
Lay members vote on sentence in the court martial because the military context, and service experience, are highly relevant to sentencing. Judge advocates are civilian judges. They are the experts on sentencing law and practice and accordingly give directions to the lay members about sentencing law. The role of the lay members in voting on sentence reflects the fact that the court martial is part of an overall system of justice and discipline for the Armed Forces. The lay members of the court are serving members of the Armed Forces with command responsibility. They have a very important role to play in sentencing because they are the experts when it comes to applying the special statutory sentencing principles that apply to service courts. Those principles are closely based on the civilian sentencing principles but, in addition, include “the maintenance of discipline”, and the reduction of “service offences”, by which I mean service discipline offences such as looting and absence without leave, and criminal offences.
As I previously explained in Grand Committee, these principles reflect special aspects of the service justice system. For example, military context may be relevant to sentencing: an assault against a person of superior or inferior rank may make an offence much more serious; and what might otherwise be a relatively minor case of theft may in fact have a very significant effect on morale and discipline—as with “mess deck theft” in the Royal Navy.
It is for these reasons that lay members need to have direct involvement in sentencing. Because the maintenance of discipline is fundamental to the Armed Forces, it is vital that those considering what punishment to award should have a comprehensive understanding of the effect on discipline and good order of various kinds of offending. That is why the panel is comprised of service personnel with experience of command and the exercise of service discipline at a sufficiently high level to assess the actions of those who appear before it in the court martial, in the appropriate command and disciplinary context.
The Government therefore continue to believe that the views, advice and experience of the judge advocate and the panel blend very well together so that the most appropriate sentence can be delivered; and, further, that the role of the lay members of the court should not be limited to mere consultation with the judge advocate—they should continue to vote on the sentence.
I should add that there is no evidence at all that sentencing in the court martial is wayward. The number of appeals against sentences of the court martial is very low indeed. In 2014 there were six appeals, which represented less than 1.5% of court martial cases. By contrast, Ministry of Justice statistics indicate that an appeal is brought in around 18% of civilian cases heard at the Crown Court.
In conclusion, the Government’s view is that these amendments, for the reasons I have explained, would seriously erode fundamental aspects of the court martial system. However, as I have mentioned, we are committed to reviewing the system of majority verdicts, and I will report back to the House on that matter. On that basis, I hope the noble Lord will agree to withdraw his amendment.
Before the Minister sits down, he has indicated that the Government are going to conduct a review, but there is a conflict between what the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, are saying with regard to the public confidence issue. I personally have never been confronted with that issue. As a serving officer, the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, is in the same position. It might be helpful if the Government carried out some inquiries into the level of confidence. I am unaware of any problem. Clearly, as the noble Lord indicated in proposing this amendment, there is a lack of confidence, but I do not know the basis of that or where it is to be found.
The noble Lord makes a very important point. This is certainly one of the factors that will need to be looked at in detail. If there is justification for changing the system, we will need to look at all the reasons that have been advanced for such changes. I agree with the noble Lord that we need to get to the bottom of whether there is a lack of public confidence in the way the system currently works. I can undertake that that will be part of the scrutiny we will conduct.
My Lords, on that point, I gave a whole series of instances in Committee, which I have not repeated this evening. Let me give just two. I was involved in the Baha Mousa case, and as a result of the acquittals the Government set up an inquiry that lasted three years and took a lot of evidence, at great cost, in order to find out what went wrong.
I happen to have a room overlooking Old Palace Yard, and I hear every demonstration that takes place outside. During the Sergeant Blackman case, there were demonstrations in Old Palace Yard by serving as well as retired military people. I have never come across such a public demonstration against the result of a trial, even in very controversial cases. In Committee, I cited the case during the miners’ strike involving the murder of a taxi driver with a concrete block, in which I prosecuted. There was no public demonstration after that; but there seems to be a public demonstration after every controversial military decision. That includes newspapers beyond the Daily Mail, which of course carried out—and is carrying out—a campaign in the Blackman case.
The argument that the system is for the maintenance of discipline, and that we should have courts martial for that purpose, was the argument used in 1926 in the debate, to which I referred, to try to retain capital punishment for cowardice. The same arguments were advanced—that if you do not have the death penalty hanging over you, you will never go over the top or face military confrontation.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, referred to the Scottish system and the fact that there are no retrials. Personally, I think it is an argument for another day to weigh whether a not proven verdict is more satisfactory than having a retrial. To my mind, a not proven verdict leaves individual defendants in limbo.
Having made those comments, I welcome the fact that the Government are prepared to carry out a review of the current arrangements, and I shall await its results with considerable interest and anxiety. In my view, something has to be done. I have personal experience of courts martial and what happens as a result of them.
On sentencing, I would not be arguing the point if we were concerned only with service discipline, such as absent without leave charges, desertion or even mutiny. The trouble is that Section 42 of the 2006 Act brings into the purview of courts martial murder, manslaughter and rape—the most serious cases imaginable. To my mind, it is wrong that there should be a divergence from the rest of society in the way that a small but important group are tried and treated, particularly given that there are groups in the rest of society that require precisely the same discipline as the Armed Forces. However, I do not propose to pursue these matters to a vote, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Amendment 2 not moved.
Clause 10: Review of sentence following offer of assistance
Moved by Earl Howe
3: Clause 10, page 11, line 16, at end insert “(but this is subject to subsection (10A)).(10A) Regulations under subsection (10)—(a) may not make provision corresponding to provision which may be included in regulations made by the Lord Chancellor under section 31A, 33, 33A, 46A or 47 of the Court Martial Appeals Act 1968;(b) may confer power to make regulations corresponding to the power in section 31A, 33, 33A, 46A or 47 of the Court Martial Appeals Act 1968 only if they provide that a statutory instrument containing such regulations (whether alone or with other provision) may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.”
My Lords, I shall also speak to Amendment 4 in my name. These amendments deal with a matter raised by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee of your Lordships’ House in its 21st report. That matter concerns the regulation-making powers in new Sections 304D(10) and 304E(9), which are inserted into the Armed Forces Act 2006 by Clauses 10 and 11 of the Bill. These powers allow regulations to be made in relation to appeals against reviews of sentence.
It would perhaps be helpful to remind the House that Clauses 10 and 11 of the Bill are part of the statutory framework that we are creating for offenders assisting investigations and prosecutions. New Sections 304D and 304E provide that a person who has been sentenced by the court martial may have their sentence reviewed to take account of the assistance that they have given or offered to give to an investigator or prosecutor, or a failure by that person to give the assistance that they offered to give to an investigator or prosecutor, and in return for which they received a sentence that was discounted. A person whose sentence is reviewed under new Sections 304D or 304E may appeal against the reviewing court’s decision on sentence. The Director of Service Prosecutions may also appeal against a decision. New Sections 304D(10) and 304E(9) allow regulations to be made in relation to the conduct of proceedings on such appeals. Both provide as follows:
“In relation to any proceedings under this section, the Secretary of State may make regulations containing provision corresponding to any provision in Parts 2 to 4 of the Court Martial Appeals Act 1968, with or without modifications”.
Such regulations are subject to the negative procedure.
The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee noted in its report that most provisions of the Courts-Martial (Appeals) Act 1968 are provisions governing proceedings before a court, and that it is reasonably common for such provisions to be set out in subordinate legislation, subject to the negative procedure. However, the committee noted that the 1968 Act includes provisions about the recovery of costs and expenses in appeal proceedings, the effect of which may be modified by the Lord Chancellor by regulations, subject to the affirmative procedure. For example, under Section 31A of the 1968 Act an appeal court is prevented from directing the Secretary of State to pay legal costs to a successful appellant except where affirmative procedure regulations made by the Lord Chancellor provide otherwise. The committee is concerned that it would be possible for regulations under new Sections 304D(10) and 304E(9), which are subject to the negative procedure, to make provision corresponding to the costs provisions of the 1968 Act but with modifications that, if made to the 1968 Act by the regulations under that Act, would be subject to the affirmative procedure. The committee takes the view,
“that as a matter of principle the powers conferred by sections 304D and 304E should be limited so that they do not allow the making of modifications which under the 1968 Act would require the affirmative procedure”.
I therefore propose to amend Clauses 10 and 11 to limit the regulation-making powers in new Sections 304D(10) and 304E(9) so that they may not be used to make provision corresponding to a provision that may be included in regulations made by the Lord Chancellor under Sections 31A, 33, 33A, 46A or 47 of the 1968 Act, and that they may be used to confirm regulation-making powers corresponding to the powers in Sections 31A, 33, 33A, 46A and 47 of the 1968 Act, only if the powers are, like the powers in the 1968 Act, subject to the affirmative procedure.
It may be helpful if I give one example of the effect of the proposed amendments. As mentioned previously, under Section 31A of the 1968 Act, an appeal court is prevented from directing the Secretary of State to pay legal costs to a successful appellant, except where affirmative procedure regulations made by the Lord Chancellor provide otherwise. The effect of the proposed amendment is that regulations under new Section 304D(10) could not make provision allowing an appeal court to direct the Secretary of State to pay legal costs to a successful appellant, but could confer a power on the Lord Chancellor to make regulations providing that an appeal court may direct the Secretary of State to pay legal costs to a successful appellant, but only if the Lord Chancellor’s regulations are subject to the affirmative procedure.
This is somewhat complicated but I hope noble Lords will accept that the amendments address the committee’s concerns regarding the parliamentary procedure to which regulations under new Sections 304D(10) and 304E(9) of the Armed Forces Act 2006 are subject. I therefore hope noble Lords will support the amendments. I beg to move.
My Lords, discharging our responsibility as the Opposition, I have carefully read the Minister’s letter of
Amendment 3 agreed.
Clause 11: Review of sentence following failure to assist
Moved by Earl Howe
4: Clause 11, page 12, line 23, at end insert “(but this is subject to subsection (9A)).(9A) Regulations under subsection (9)—(a) may not make provision corresponding to provision which may be included in regulations made by the Lord Chancellor under section 31A, 33, 33A, 46A or 47 of the Court Martial Appeals Act 1968;(b) may confer power to make regulations corresponding to the power in section 31A, 33, 33A, 46A or 47 of the Court Martial Appeals Act 1968 only if they provide that a statutory instrument containing such regulations (whether alone or with other provision) may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.”
Amendment 4 agreed.
Moved by Lord Touhig
5: After Clause 14, insert the following new Clause—“Removal of Commanding Officer’s discretion to investigate allegations of sexual assaultIn Schedule 2 to the Armed Forces Act 2006 (“Schedule 2 offences”), in paragraph 12(at), omit “except one under section 3, 66, 67 or 71”.”
My Lords, this amendment would remove a commanding officer’s discretion to investigate allegations of sexual assault. Here, as is so often the case, there is a temptation to repeat many things that were said in Committee. I intend to resist that, but I recall that the amendment caused some concern among noble and gallant Lords and I want to assuage their fears about this if I possibly can.
In Committee, the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, who is not in his place, gave us the benefit of how he sought to resolve these matters as a commanding officer. It was very important that he did so because we were able to better understand how a commanding officer can act in such circumstances. I felt then that his fears that the integrity of the chain of command was put at risk by this amendment were ill founded, and I still am of that opinion. What is at risk is the reputation of the Armed Forces if we continue to place a duty of deciding whether or not to investigate a complaint of sexual assault on the shoulders of officers who, in the overwhelming number of such cases, will have no experience of dealing with such matters. Far from diminishing the role of the chain of command, this amendment will give it full support by involving highly trained investigative officers who are knowledgeable about dealing with complaints of this nature.
Having had the opportunity of speaking to the Minister since Committee, I am hopeful that his reply will show us a way forward. My own view is that if the Government took a long, hard look at this issue and held a review before coming back at a later stage with some conclusions, this would be the way to reconcile the right and proper concerns expressed by colleagues, such as the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, and those of us on these Benches who want to see change.
Turning now to Amendment 6, I am sure all noble Lords will agree that we had a very good and well informed debate on this matter in Grand Committee and I have no wish to repeat what was said then. In that debate the Minister set out the existing arrangements for the collection and publication of crime statistics. In particular, he was referring to the Service Police Crime Bureau records for all three services and these covered allegations of rape and sexual assault that are made to the service police. The Minister said:
“That information is released regularly in response to Parliamentary Questions and freedom of information requests. In the case of the latter, the information is uploaded to the MoD’s online publication scheme where it can be freely accessed”.—[Official Report, 1/3/2016; col. GC 73.]
As I spent 27 years in newspapers and publishing before entering the House of Commons, the journalist in me needed to check if it was easy to actually find that information and I asked one of my colleagues in the Opposition Whips’ Office, Hannah Lazell, to search for the statistics. She did and I received the following email:
“To find the statistics I googled a number of terms and looked on the Ministry of Defence website, including in the publications and news sections. However, I could only find these statistics when I eventually linked them to the Service Police—so I typed ‘Military Court Service sexual assault’ into Google and found the following link”.
I will not read out the link but it was there. She went on:
“This has been published as a result of a Freedom of Information request and includes all offences prosecuted in the military court. It’s hard to find sexual offences within it—you have to search for sexual offences such as sexual assault—then scroll through them one by one. So while the information is on the web, it’s hard to find and is in a format that doesn’t make it easy to find different types of offences. The government could certainly make it easier to find on the internet and present it in a format that makes it easier to find all types of offences”.
And here it is. It is 148 pages long and there are 1,224 offences listed. It does take some work to find the things that we were seeking to explore. It took many hours to search through and for each one you have to find details of the sexual allegation of assault and rape. The plain fact is that it is difficult to find this information.
My noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe and I were very pleased, however, to have had the opportunity to discuss this matter further with the Minister following Committee. We were very encouraged by what he had to say, and more so when we received a letter setting out the Government’s new thinking on this matter.
I could say a lot more but I would be testing the patience of noble Lords if I did so, knowing, as I do, that the Government have taken this matter very seriously indeed and have sought to address the concerns expressed by noble Lords in Committee. I look forward to the Minister’s reply and I feel sure it will be as full and as comprehensive as the detail he set out in his letter to me which I have already referred to. I beg to move.
Looking at Amendment 6, I was trying to find a new angle last Wednesday and I happened to look at the newsreel. Three articles that came up. One was about Private Cheryl James, the next one was about the Anne-Marie Ellement case, and there was an article about the British Army moving on from previous problems and being named in the top 50 employers of women. There seemed to be a disjoint there.
Last summer the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, said that the Army has an overly sexualised culture in which inappropriate behaviour is deemed acceptable. It is not acceptable; young people and parents of young people find it unacceptable, as do the public. The culture needs to change and it is much easier for the Army or any of the services to look at culture change if it is measured. The measuring of behaviour can indicate trends—where there is success, where there is failure, and where work needs to be done. The Minister in the other place, Mark Lancaster, said in Committee there that he was minded to publish statistics. I asked the Minister where we were with that and I wonder whether there has yet been any decision on how and when these statistics will be published.
My Lords, I support both these amendments. I have huge admiration for the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, and I looked again very carefully at what was being proposed. I have to say, I feel that there is no damage to the chain of command and absolutely no damage to the status of the commanding officer, because these are very special circumstances. I think his concerns in this specific instance are not necessarily valid and I therefore feel that this is the right way to go and it will not have any impact on chain of command or the CO’s position.
My Lords, I have been listening with great interest to this debate and been persuaded by what has been said on all sides of the Chamber, but one thing occurred to me when we were debating Amendment 2. The Minister said he was not really aware of a lack of confidence in the system but I have to say that the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, is right. It is not just in the Daily Mail. Whenever you read about Deepcut or any of these scandals, the people whose families are affected do not have total confidence in the system. They think there are cover-ups. Only on the radio on the way here, I heard the families of people who were at Hillsborough saying they were let down and a chief constable has been sacked because there was a cover-up. It really is not good enough to say that the public have trust and the Minister is not aware of mistrust. I can assure noble Lords that there is mistrust among the general public, who feel that organisations that inspect themselves when there is a problem are deeply suspicious. I am not saying that the military does not often do things very well—or the police or any other organisation—but the general public are concerned about this issue.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, just mentioned Deepcut. I urge anyone who has the slightest worry about Deepcut to read the Blake report, which explains what happened.
I agree with the general thrust of these amendments, particularly the sensible approach from the noble Lord, Lord Touhig. In Committee, the Minister was sympathetic to our concerns but he has rather too much faith in the commanding officer. Yes, commanding officers are extremely experienced and they are specially trained to be commanding officers. There is a course for commanding officers-designate. My experience is that with every level you go up in terms of promotion, you get more information about what your responsibilities are and what the difficulties are.
Nevertheless, the power of the commanding officer can be delegated to more junior officers, so quite often—in terms of discipline, for instance—minor offences can be dealt with by a major or a lieutenant-commander. These cases are exceptionally difficult for the commanding officer to investigate. Clearly he will not be able to investigate them personally. He may even be out of the country when the allegation arises. The commanding officer or the acting or delegated commanding officer will have to appoint someone else in the unit to carry out the investigation, and that person will not be any better trained. Furthermore, the fact that someone else in the unit may have to be appointed to carry out the investigation may deter someone from making an allegation in the first place.
Amendment 5 covers only sexual assault; it does not cover inappropriate contact, by which I mean touching. However, this can also be a problem and it can be a precursor to more serious problems. As I said in Committee, my belief is that the service police should keep records of allegations of sexual assault and inappropriate contact. They would then know whether a person had made this type of complaint before and could ask whether they could be a serial complainant, and they would also have records of someone who had had a similar allegation made against them before and they might even know the MO, so they would understand whether the allegation was likely to be true or malicious. If the service police keep records, investigations can be facilitated, and it is better to achieve this through a policy change rather than through the amendment, which, as I said, has the defect of not covering inappropriate contact.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, referred to the culture in the Armed Forces as a reason for publishing the statistics. She will be aware that the Armed Forces carry out continuous attitude surveys that measure changes. She made the important point, from her own background and experience, about measuring changes. In Committee, the Minister explained what information is already released and the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, told us how difficult it is to access it. However, my concern is that the media—particularly the print media—will use these statistics to produce an easy story. It is easy to quote a horrendous number of incidents without comparing them with the number of such incidents in civil society.
In conclusion, I feel very strongly about the need for record-keeping by service police to facilitate investigations. These are very difficult matters for officers and warrant officers in a unit to investigate. Frankly, I do not think they relish it; they would rather hand it over to the service police, who have the relevant experience.
I hope the Minister can say something helpful to us, but I am also happy to join noble Lords later in keeping up the pressure on my noble friend the Minister, because I know that he enjoys getting pressure from me.
Schedule 2 to the Armed Forces Act 2006 lists the offences that a commanding officer is required to report to the service police for investigation. There is a long list of offences, including, in paragraph 12(at), any offence under Part 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003,
“except one under section 3, 66, 67 or 71”.
Section 3 is a very important part of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. It relates to sexual assault, which of course can vary from a very serious sexual assault to the sort of touching that the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, referred to a moment ago. That provision means that the commanding officer is not required to pass on for investigation to the service police a complaint of sexual assault. I imagine that he most certainly would pass on an allegation of serious sexual assault, but there is a great loophole there because commanding officers differ. Some may have one view on what a sexual assault is and another may have a completely different view, in effect telling the complainant to go away and not be silly. So there is a problem there. At the moment it is an unexploded bomb within the system.
The important point is that over the last 10 years since 2006 we have become more and more aware that sexual assault exists widely but that women and men report it and make a complaint with difficulty. If they summon up the courage to go to the commanding officer and make a complaint, it really should be passed on for investigation and not be dealt with by the commanding officer. Sections 66, 67 and 71, which are referred to in this amendment, relate to far less serious matters, but sexual assault can be very serious and must not be taken lightly. Therefore, I support the amendment.
As for the publication of statistics, as I mentioned in Committee, I was involved in the inquiry into sexual assaults in Washington, for which there were statistics. In the region of 32,000 sexual assaults were thought to have taken place in the United States forces, of which 5,000 were reported and some 400 or 500 followed through to a court martial. It is not enough to have to look through more than 1,000 pages simply to find out what cases went to court. More important is what complaints are made, how wide the problem is and how we can deal with it. It should not be left simply to a commanding officer without the training, and without necessarily the sensitivity required when a complaint is made, to decide what to do about a complaint.
My Lords, I fully understand the concerns that lie behind these amendments but I hope that my response will explain why we do not think it necessary or appropriate to press them.
The first amendment in the group, Amendment 5, concerns four offences: sexual assault, exposure, voyeurism and sexual activity in a public lavatory. The amendment would require a commanding officer to refer to the service police for investigation every allegation which would suggest to a reasonable person that one of these offences may have been committed by someone under his or her command. It would therefore remove from commanding officers the ability which they currently have in very limited circumstances to ensure that an allegation or circumstances are appropriately investigated without involving the service police.
It is the first of the offences covered by the amendment—sexual assault—and how allegations of that offence are investigated and handled within the Armed Forces which has been the main focus of attention in this debate. For the avoidance of doubt, I make it clear that the Armed Forces Act 2006 provides that a commanding officer does not have any role in investigating allegations of almost all the sexual offences on the statute book, including rape and assault by penetration. Allegations or circumstances which indicate to a reasonable person that any of these offences may have been committed by someone under their command must always be reported by a commanding officer to the service police. That is an absolute rule.
I also make it clear that commanding officers are already under a statutory duty to ensure that all allegations which indicate that a service offence may have been committed, including the offences covered by this amendment, are properly investigated. This means that, where a commanding officer becomes aware of an allegation of any of the offences covered by this amendment, he or she must consider whether it would be appropriate to report it to the service police. If it would be appropriate to report it, it must be reported.
The statute, however, should not be our only source of reference. The manual of service law makes it very clear to commanding officers that if there has been an allegation of one of these offences, they must take legal advice about whether it would be appropriate to call in the police. Access to legal advice is available 24 hours a day and seven days a week. The manual also makes it clear that there is a presumption that allegations of such offences will normally be reported to the service police. This duty on commanding officers to ensure that allegations are investigated appropriately means that it will rarely be appropriate—I stress rarely—for the commanding officer not to report an allegation of sexual assault to the service police.
The reason why the Armed Forces Act 2006 did not go further and require commanding officers to report to the service police every single allegation of sexual assault, or the other offences covered by this amendment, is that those offences cover such a wide range of conduct. For example, the offence of “sexual assault” makes any sexual touching without consent a criminal offence. “Sexual” can include conduct that may not in some circumstances be sexual but which, in the particular circumstances of the case, a reasonable person would consider sexual; for example, an arm around the shoulder may fall within the offence. The provision in the 2006 Act recognises that, given the width of these offences, there may be cases involving the most minor infringements that may be better handled other than by automatic police investigation. The 2006 Act recognises that this may also be the case for offences other than those covered by this amendment. For example, an investigation other than by the service police will in many cases be appropriate for disciplinary offences under the 2006 Act.
I hope that noble Lords will therefore understand that it is because of the very wide range of conduct that these offences cover that it may be appropriate, in limited circumstances—I underline that phrase—for commanding officers to investigate allegations. Those circumstances are, in practice, further limited by the fact that the service police can and do act on their own initiative—for example, where they are approached by a victim or a witness, where they come across an offence while patrolling, or where the civilian police have been involved and pass the case to the service police.
Other proposals in the Bill, in Clauses 3 to 5, will mean that in future, where the service police investigate an allegation of, for example, sexual assault, they will have to refer the case straight to the Director of Service Prosecutions for a decision on whether to bring charges and, if so, what those charges should be. That is a change from the current position, under which charges are instead referred back to the commanding officer. However, I recognise that, for some, our existing policies and procedures do not go far enough. They argue that we should use the opportunity presented by this Bill to amend Schedule 2 to the Armed Forces Act 2006 so that all allegations of sexual assault, and the other offences covered by this amendment, must be referred to the service police. In fact, the 2006 Act provides a mechanism for amending Schedule 2. Section 113 of the Act provides that the Secretary of State may amend Schedule 2 by secondary legislation, subject to the affirmative procedure, so primary legislation is not needed to make the change proposed in the amendment.
Against that background, I inform the House that the service justice board, chaired by the Minister for Defence Personnel and Veterans, has decided that the time is right for a fresh look at this issue, taking on board the arguments for the existing position and the views expressed in both Houses and by external organisations such as Liberty. The necessary work has been set in hand. My noble friend Lord Attlee made some very valid observations, and I assure him that the points that he raised under this heading will be addressed in the review. Any changes to Schedule 2 that may be needed can be made through secondary legislation, subject to the affirmative procedure. The review is likely to take until the end of the year, and I will report the outcome to the House in due course.
The second amendment in this group, Amendment 6, would create a legal obligation to publish data about allegations of sexual assault and rape. It would impose an obligation which is not currently imposed on other civilian authorities—although they publish such information on a regular basis. As noble Lords may be aware, in Committee of the whole House in the other place, the Minister spoke on this subject and made it quite clear that he wanted improvements in the data that we publish and that he was considering how best to publish the data as an official statistic. That is very definitely the Government’s intention. Given that commitment, I reassure noble Lords that the work to achieve this is well in hand. I have recently written to the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, on this subject, and it may be helpful if I share the information in that letter with the rest of the House.
In my letter, I explained that the Government aim to publish, by the Summer Recess, statistics about sexual offences that have been dealt with by the service justice system during the 2015 calendar year. The statistics will cover those cases where the service police have been the lead investigating agency and where the service justice system retained jurisdiction of the case throughout. To meet the standard for formal publication of these statistics, we clearly must put in place the necessary policies and procedures to ensure that the data are robust and consistent as we move forward. That work is in hand and encompasses three main components of the service justice system: the service police, dealing with the investigation of the crime; the service prosecuting authority, dealing with the cases referred; and the military court service, which lists the cases and reports on outcomes.
With regard to investigations, the crime statistics and analysis cell within the Service Police Crime Bureau will provide information on all sexual offences investigated by the service police. This will be broken down by service and will further detail the offence type, the gender of the victim or suspect, the location by country and the outcome of the investigation, such as whether the suspect was referred to the service prosecuting authority. To ensure greater consistency with Home Office police forces and assurance of data, the service police will have a crime registrar. The responsibilities of that post will include the development, implementation and monitoring of crime-recording policies, procedures and programmes and their application, to ensure high standards of data integrity and accuracy.
On prosecutions, the service prosecuting authority will provide data relating to the numbers of referrals that it has received for all sexual offences, which will again be broken down by service and offence type. The service prosecuting authority will also provide information on the numbers of those then charged with the offence referred, whether the person was charged with an alternative offence, or whether the case was discontinued.
Finally, the military court service will be responsible for providing information on the numbers of cases heard at court martial which involve sexual offences. This will again be broken down by service and will include both pleas and findings.
We intend to publish all these data on an annual basis. They will be supported by explanatory information to provide the reader with an understanding of the SJS and some context for the information. As mentioned earlier, we aim to produce the first set of these statistics by the Summer Recess, and they will be hosted on the GOV.UK website in a format that is easy to read and print.
In the light of this and my assurance to return to the House on the matter raised in Amendment 5, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, will feel comfortable about withdrawing his amendment.
My Lords, we have had a short but very good debate, with some very well-founded comments. The comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, about confidence were very important. In my view, the best way to get confidence is transparency. The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, raised wider issues about the complaints covered by the amendments. He is right, and the Minister has indicated that the review that will be carried out will cover the kind of things that he is concerned about. We certainly welcome the Minister’s response to this debate. It has showed, from Committee to Report, that the Government have listened, taken on board the views of colleagues all around the House, and are prepared to act. They should have our full support, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 5 withdrawn.
Amendment 6 not moved.
Moved by Lord Judd
7: After Clause 14, insert the following new Clause—“Enlistment of minors(1) The Armed Forces Act 2006 is amended as follows.(2) After section 343B (interpretation of Part) insert—“Part 16BREPORT ON THE ENLISTMENT OF MINORS343C Report on the enlistment of minors(1) The Secretary of State must in each calendar year—(a) prepare a report on military service by minors; and(b) lay a copy of the report before each House of Parliament.(2) The report must evaluate the effects on the individual, and on the armed forces, of the enlistment of persons under the age of 18.(3) In preparing the report the Secretary of State must have regard in particular to—(a) the principle that the best interests of minors must be paramount in all policy relating to them;(b) participation by service people under the age of 18 in accredited education relative to the statutory standards of participation that apply to civilians of the same age under the Education and Skills Act 2008; and(c) any implications for the armed forces, including financial implications.””
My Lords, at the outset I declare an interest: I had a short service commission in the RAF and later in life—I always feel nervous about remembering this, with my noble friend sitting right in front of me—I had the joy, privilege and excitement of being Minister for the Royal Navy when we had such service Ministers. I thank my fellow sponsors, who have stayed throughout all the debates to be here, which I appreciate. I also thank most warmly all those who have helped me to prepare my input for these deliberations and, of course, not least, Child Soldiers International. I do not always agree with it on all its objectives but, my goodness, it does some first-class work, as I think everyone who has come across it would agree. I also thank my own Front Bench for the co-operation, advice and discussions we have had together.
The Minister has been most courteous throughout, which I will refer to in a moment. I also want to put firmly on record my appreciation of the committed—and on occasion inspired—work done by those within the armed services who have had responsibility for putting into effect the arrangements which are in place in the three services. What I have to say is in no way a criticism of them but simply a matter of how we can get things better and right.
The Minister has, quite rightly, from time to time emphasised the importance of substantiated evidence. This very day, I came into possession of a letter sent by a very distinguished former serving officer in the Royal Navy, Commodore Paul Branscombe, who was the deputy controller of the well-established Armed Forces welfare service, SSAFA. He has given evidence both to the Defence Committee and the Armed Forces Select Committee in the other place. He writes:
“I served in the Armed Forces for 33 years and have worked in Armed Forces welfare organisations for 15 more years. During this time I have become convinced that 16 is simply too young to be recruited. At this age recruits are not emotionally, psychologically or physically mature enough to withstand the demands placed upon them. Furthermore, the developing nature of the adolescent mind in regard to risk-taking behaviour makes it questionable whether their consent in this is fully informed in a genuinely meaningful rather than purely technical manner. This mental immaturity also makes them highly vulnerable to malign influences and culture. Many of the welfare issues I have encountered amongst Armed Forces personnel during and after service have been related to enlisting too young, not just in terms of the immediate impact on individuals but also in the transmitted effect upon families, which can continue long after service ceases”.
That is an important comment to share as we discuss this matter.
My own position on the issue of 16 or not is ambivalent. I can see arguments in favour, but there are huge challenges, which we must all take very seriously indeed. Those who discard the validity of 16 must also face up to the fact that we are talking more and more about engaging the young in full responsibility for citizenship with the vote at 16—this is widely advocated—and that has implications for what we are debating. I also realise that it is very easy for middle-class people like me to be concerned about an issue, but when you look at the social conditions from which many recruits come—the real social conditions and the real culture within which they grow up—it is necessary to ask what alternatives we are proposing that give some opportunity for preparing for stability and responsibility in life. That is an important issue.
In addition, if we come down, even on points, as in my own case, in favour of the present system, we have very heavy duties of care. We were pioneers of the UN convention on children—not just participants and signatories but pioneers in framing and drafting that convention. We need to live by what we were advocating, and that needs to operate in all spheres. My noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe put it very well in Committee when he quoted from Article 1 of the convention:
“‘For the purposes of the present Convention, a child means every human being below the age of 18 years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier … In all actions concerning children … whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration’”.—[Official Report, 3/3/16; col. GC 162.]
Therefore, they are in the services—there can be no doubt about that, and we have been discussing many of the things that will affect them there. However, we cannot, especially in Parliament, escape our responsibility of care for them as children. That just will not go away, and nor should it.
These amendments are not about eliminating recruiting at 16, although, as I have said, I have great respect and time for those who believe that we should take this course. These amendments are about taking our responsibilities of care seriously. Here, I hope I will be forgiven if I quote what I said in Committee. I was very struck by what happened back in September 2011 when the Minister speaking for the Government, the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, said that,
“the noble Lord, Lord Judd, seeks to include service personnel under the age of 18 as being within the group covered by the Armed Forces covenant report, which is a laudable objective. However, the guidance accompanying the Armed Forces covenant, which we published on 16 May, is quite explicit. It states that: ‘Special account must be taken of the needs of those under 18 years of age’. I can assure noble Lords that we will not forget this aspect of our responsibilities for service personnel. The Armed Forces covenant report is to be a report about the effects of service on servicepeople, so as regards Amendment 6, minors under the age of 18 are already within the definition of servicepeople in the clause. I hope that the noble Lord will accept that”.—[
I accepted it, and I looked forward to seeing what the response would be. I was therefore somewhat surprised, as I indicated to the Grand Committee, that in the covenant report last year there was not a mention of this particular group of young people in the armed services. I just do not believe that that is fulfilling the spirit of what the Government—I am sure in good faith—said on that occasion. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond more reasonably and positively today.
Since the Committee, the Minister has written me a long letter. It would take far too long at this stage to go through it all, but I think it raises, in many ways, more questions than it answers. I hope, therefore, that he will put a copy in the Library, together with his other correspondence to me, so that those who are concerned about this issue can see it—it is quite important.
I will conclude my arguments tonight—time is running out—by saying that I do not doubt the Minister’s good intentions. However, duty of care means duty of care. We spend many hours in this House discussing this issue. It affects, for example, the police and society as a whole, and we cannot simply shove the very real responsibility in the armed services to one side. My amendments seek that Parliament should be kept fully informed by reports, and I cannot for the life of me see why the Government are not in favour of this. The amount of information that the Minister has given me in correspondence spells out that they accept that there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed. I rather thought when I put the letter down, “Thank you; that is a very good case for an annual report”. We could build a very interesting annual report on this which could then be debated and disputed, as it would be in some respects in the form of the letter the Minister sent to me. Therefore, I urge the Minister to think very carefully about why this would not be helpful, and so that we are not only doing what we should be doing but are transparently doing it for all to see. Then, when corrections and improvements are necessary, we can all set about constructively achieving them. I beg to move.
My Lords, I should perhaps declare an interest, as I have quite recently acquired two grandchildren who seem to be aiming their way into the armed services.
I am very happy indeed to support Amendment 7 from the noble Lord, Lord Judd. The UK has long been a champion of children’s rights internationally. To retain its integrity and credibility, it really is essential that the UK maintain the highest possible standards in this area. The minimum age for enlistment in the UK armed services, at 16, is the lowest legal limit in the world. The UK shares this policy with fewer than 20 other countries. No other state in Europe or on the UN Security Council does this; in fact, no other major military power sets its age for recruitment so low. Globally, we are seeing a positive trend towards adult-only armed forces, and two-thirds of states now set the age of 18 in law as the minimum for voluntary enlistment. It is commendable, certainly, that the Government actively encourage this trend internationally, but rather regrettable that they set a lower standard for themselves.
The Minister will no doubt want to remind the House that the Convention on the Rights of the Child does not prohibit enlistment under the age of 18. However, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which oversees the convention, has called on the UK to raise its enlistment age to 18, and so has our own Joint Committee on Human Rights. The Defence Committee has also queried the policy. A rise in the enlistment age to 18 enjoys the support of many NGOs that work with children and young people. Early last year, the Children’s Commissioners for all four of the UK jurisdictions called for the policy to be changed. In a few weeks’ time, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child will conduct its periodic review of the UK’s record on children’s rights and will be looking to see progress on its recommendations since the last review in 2008. In that review it noted serious concerns about the enlistment process and the targeting of children from socially deprived backgrounds for recruitment. These points are as relevant today as they were then.
The Minister has said that the Armed Forces place great importance on education and aim for all soldiers to attain at least level 1 literacy and numeracy standards within three years of joining. However, these standards are lower than the minimum standards applied in civilian education. There is also no evidence that these targets are being met as the MoD does not keep routine records of how many attain these qualifications in service. The amendment seeks to address this omission by requiring the Government to report annually on whether recruits are meeting the standards they set in relation to both the Armed Forces and civilian education. Reporting on educational attainment among the youngest recruits would provide the MoD with categorical evidence of its claims for the benefits of early enlistment, or identify what needs to change.
For as long as recruitment of minors continues, it is essential, surely, to ensure that their well-being and long-term educational and employment prospects are prioritised. This cannot happen when basic data are lacking. Failing to collect and analyse objective data on standards and attainment among the youngest recruits risks causing them serious long-term disadvantage, and cannot be justified. If the UK cares about the welfare of young people and of Armed Forces personnel, it must double the efforts to ensure the well-being of young soldiers. The amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Judd, would help to achieve just this.
My Lords, I apologise for speaking at this late stage of the proceedings on the Bill but I have been fairly busy on other Bills. However, I want to support my noble friend Lord Judd, who has been pressing this issue consistently and has done much to keep it on the agenda of this Bill.
Whatever one’s views about the principle of the enlistment of under 18 year-olds, the amendments raise two important issues. The first we have just heard about from the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. This clearly is a children’s rights issue, a fact which was also underlined in Committee. Despite the considered response of the Minister in his letter of
As already noted, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has called on the UK to raise its enlistment age to 18, as have the UK Children’s Commissioners. The Joint Committee on Human Rights questioned current policy in a report a few years ago and, in its most recent report on the UK’s compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child—I was a member of the committee when it published its most recent report—expressed hope that its successor committee would scrutinise the issue in the light of the UN committee’s concluding observations, to be delivered this year.
As my noble friend said, these amendments are not aimed at changing the age of enlistment. However, the concerns of the human rights and children’s rights lobbies underline their importance in helping to protect the rights and best interests of children who are enlisted.
My second point concerns children’s life chances. In his letter, the noble Earl states that there is no reliable evidence that those who serve in the Armed Forces while under the age of 18 suffer any significant disadvantage compared with their peers in the civilian population. I have not done any research into this matter but certainly, the evidence provided by Child Soldiers International questions that statement. It suggests that in too many cases there is a detriment rather than a benefit from early enlistment.
Given the concerns raised and the Government’s confidence that all is well, what is to be lost by accepting my noble friend’s amendment? All it does is require a regular report so that the position of children in the Army can be kept under review. If it shows that the situation is as the Government say it is, then good, all is well. However, if it confirms the concerns raised by my noble friend and by organisations outside, I am sure the Government would want to take appropriate action, not least as part of their overall life chances strategy, the importance of which the Prime Minister emphasised in his life chances speech earlier this year.
On Amendment 8, the Government surely want to ensure that under-18 recruits have the necessary literacy skills to, at the very least, read and understand their enlistment papers. It is not too much to ask, and I hope the noble Earl can give the House some assurance on this matter.
I support the amendments. As the noble Baroness has just said, what is there not to like?
Children joining the services at 16 and 17 come in all shapes and sizes: from those embarking on technical or engineering careers to those joining the infantry and, possibly, the Royal Marines. Their wish is to be physically rather than mentally active, and they are required. The first group, at the start of an apprenticeship, will continue their education and will require a high standard of literacy and numeracy. The second group will not require such high standards and will not be comfortable with reading formal documents. There needs to be awareness that currently, these recruits do not study the same GCSEs as the technical recruits, but another curriculum. There is an issue here, because young men and women who enlist under the age of 18 can leave the Army at any stage up to 18, but if they have dipped out of the standard curriculum and are not studying a GCSE curriculum, their life chances will be affected. We need to be aware of that.
If the Minister cannot answer this question perhaps he will write to me. When was the readability of the documents the amendment refers to last examined? If the required reading age is greater than 10, as is being suggested—bearing in mind that the average Sun reader has a reading age of between eight and 10, so it is nothing unusual—perhaps these documents should be revised.
I support the recruitment of people under the age of 18 into the Armed Forces. It provides a fabulous opportunity for them.
I have no problem with Amendment 7 but I do not expect my noble friend to accept it. It would be a seriously good news report. I would certainly like to write the section on evaluating the effects on young service people. I would be able to write lovely case studies about youngsters coming from disadvantaged circumstances with poor employment prospects. These people will obviously be young, fit, able to read and write, intelligent and have potential. They can join the Armed Forces and have a fabulous career, whereas for their contemporaries in certain areas of the country the prospects are not very good.
The education and training they will receive will, generally speaking, be far better than they get elsewhere. They may leave the Armed Forces fairly soon but, by that point, if they are not in a highly skilled trade, they will probably have a vocational driving licence. As to the financial effects, it is a win-win situation. These youngsters will have an income their contemporaries will not have, so that is a win for them. They will be on the pathway to a decent career. When they become 18, they will be fully trained members of the Armed Forces and deployable.
To be charitable, Amendment 8 is unnecessary. It suggests that a young person recruited into the Armed Forces is practically illiterate. The reality, as my noble friend will tell us, is that a guardian’s consent is needed. More importantly, a young person who is illiterate to the extent that they cannot read and understand the recruitment papers would not be able to pass the service entrance tests. Their potential would be so poor that they would be of no use to the Armed Forces and would not be able to get in on that route. Therefore Amendment 8, to be charitable, is unnecessary.
My Lords, I have a certain sympathy for the amendment of my noble friend Lord Judd but I feel that allowing people to enter the services at 16 is a good thing. I tried to join when I was 14, which was slightly too young in my mother’s and the Navy’s opinion, but I joined at 17. As my noble friend said, a number of the people who join the services at that age come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and what the military does to those people is quite remarkable. If we were able to show that, everyone would see it, but there is no need to do so. It is right that we still take people into the services at 16. They gain a great deal and it is a useful and good thing for our society, in the same way as the cadet forces add a great deal to our society.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 7 and 8. Whether we like it or not, this is a fundamental debate about whether young people of 16 should be recruited into the Armed Forces. We have to respect that this is a serious debate and that both sides believe with conviction that their position is right. I respect the work of Child Soldiers International and I recognise the persuasive nature of the arguments it makes. It refers to issues of morality, welfare, economic and even diplomatic issues.
But there is the other side of the debate, which is that for many young people the great start they are given in life by being recruited at 16 provides them with opportunities that no other direction would give. They have the best start to adulthood. We believe that on balance, the argument for the opportunities provided is stronger than the argument that there should be no recruitment until the age of 18. We also believe that there should be the maximum practical protection for these young people.
We debated this issue in Committee on
“We are very careful to ensure that we comply with the relevant children’s legislation, and of course, the Ministry of Defence contributes to the Government’s periodic reports and provides evidence about the recruitment of under-18s to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, particularly in relation to the Optional Protocol on Children in Armed Conflict”.
There is a little more on this, but I shall go on to the next paragraph:
“I wish to reassure you that we take our duty of care for under-18s joining the Armed Forces extremely seriously; we recognise their care and welfare requires particular attention. Our safeguards are therefore robust, effective, and independently verified. For example: Ofsted inspect the training environment and use the ‘Common Inspection Framework’ (the national framework for inspection of post-16 education and training) to comment on the standard of initial training in the Armed Forces; and the MOD has an established Safeguarding Children Board (chaired by a person independent of the MOD) whose remit includes ensuring appropriate Safeguarding processes are in place for under-18s”.
I found the letter as a whole perhaps a little more reassuring than did my noble friend—until I came to the penultimate paragraph, where the noble Earl rejects reporting specifically on under 18 year-olds in the annual covenant report. He concludes the paragraph by saying:
“To report on under 18s as a specific group risks diluting the Government’s whole-hearted commitment to address disadvantage for every member of the Armed Forces”.
That is a sad response.
I would have quoted from the Committee debate we had on
I hope the Minister will reconsider his response in that letter with regard to reporting. We support the general spirit of Amendments 7 and 8 and we ask him to accept their spirit and direction. Since we basically support the recruitment of 16 year-olds, we believe that it would be inappropriate to divide the House on the issue. Nevertheless, we plead with the Minister to meet us half way by accepting the value of including a report on under-18s in the annual covenant report or some other appropriate document.
My Lords, I welcome the continued interest of the noble Lord, Lord Judd, in the recruitment of under-18s into the Armed Forces and I hope that I can now provide a considerable measure of reassurance to him and other noble Lords who have spoken. Let me start by addressing Amendment 7.
As I said in Grand Committee, we are very clear in our belief that junior entry offers a range of benefits not only to the Armed Forces and society but to the individual, providing a highly valuable vocational training opportunity for those wishing to follow a career in the Armed Forces. The provision of education and training for 16 year-old school leavers provides a route into the Armed Forces that complies with government education policy. I strongly maintain that it also provides a significant foundation for emotional, physical and educational development throughout an individual’s career.
The majority of under-18s recruited into the services are recruited into the Army. Without in the least belittling the concerns raised by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and other noble Lords, to which I shall turn in a moment, the Army needs to attract school and college leavers at the earliest opportunity and in sufficient volume. They fulfil around 15% of the Army’s inflow requirement. Junior entry provides a suitable training route for these younger recruits, most of whom attend junior entry courses at the Army Foundation College, Harrogate. The training offered is viewed as attractive to both potential recruits and their parents, delivering vocational education, leadership and initiative training as well as the core military syllabus.
A number of noble Lords stressed the importance of promoting the life chances of young recruits. That is exactly why we would not wish to deny young people the chance to start training for a career in the Armed Forces when they are of school-leaving age. To do so might deprive them of the opportunity they need to get away from difficult social circumstances and acquire new skills and social discipline before it is too late to adapt.
On the subject of life chances, noble Lords may be aware of the recent media story about Danny Cousland. Danny applied to join the Army at 16 and attended the Army Foundation College at Harrogate. At 19 he served in Afghanistan and was later recommended for officer training. Earlier this month, on completion of his training at Sandhurst, he was awarded the Sword of Honour at the Sovereign’s Parade as the top-performing cadet. It is important to note that on the eve of his passing-out ceremony, this fine young officer said that had it not been for joining the Army he would be dead or in prison.
Of course we recognise that not all those recruited under the age of 18 find that they are suited to life in the Armed Forces. This is why the Armed Forces regulations enable a person under the age of 18 who is serving in the Armed Forces to leave as of right.
Amendment 7 implies a concern that under-18s are disadvantaged in terms of education in comparison to their civilian peers. I really cannot agree with that. The junior entry route fully complies with the Education and Skills Act 2008, and it offers young people another avenue to meet the requirement to continue in education, start an apprenticeship or traineeship, or work while in part-time education or training.
The Army places great importance on education, as does each of the services. It is committed to enabling all its personnel to improve their literacy and numeracy skills, and to ensuring that they have the literacy and numeracy skills needed to undertake training, be operationally effective and be well placed to take advantage of professional and career opportunities. All soldiers are required to reach minimum literacy and numeracy standards for promotion: national level 1 standard for promotion to the rank of corporal, and level 2 for sergeant and above, and for selection for an LE officer commission. The Army’s target is for all soldiers to have attained at least level 1—GCSE grade D-G equivalent—literacy and numeracy standards, ideally within three years of joining the service. Attainment of these standards is measured through holding the appropriate national functional skills—English and maths—qualifications or their recognised equivalents.
To repeat what I said in my letter to the noble Lord, Lord Judd, we are very careful to ensure that we comply with children’s legislation, and, of course, the Ministry of Defence contributes to the Government’s periodic reports, with evidence about the recruitment of under-18s, to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The noble Lord raised concerns about our duty of care for under-18s, and, again, I would like to put my written comments on the record. We take our duty of care for under-18s joining the Armed Forces extremely seriously: we recognise that their care and welfare require particular attention. Our safeguards are therefore robust, effective and independently verified. For example, Ofsted inspects the training environment and uses the common inspection framework—the national framework for inspection of post-16 education and training—to comment on the standard of initial training in the Armed Forces.
The first amendment in this group, Amendment 7, would require the Secretary of State for Defence to report annually on military service by under-18s. Such reports would have to evaluate the effects on the individual, and on the Armed Forces, of the enlistment of under-18s. Let me say something about the Armed Forces covenant. Its principles state that those who serve in the Armed Forces, whether regular or reserve, those who have served in the past, and their families, should face no disadvantage compared with other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services. This is the basis on which the Defence Secretary provides an annual report to Parliament.
The difficulty I have with the noble Lord’s proposal is that there is no reliable evidence that those who serve in the Armed Forces while under the age of 18 suffer any specific disadvantage compared with other service people, or indeed to their peers in the civilian population. The amendment would oblige us to treat those who joined under the age of 18 as a separate category, possibly throughout their service. I continue to maintain the position that that is not an appropriate distinction to build into legislation. I am sorry to disappoint the noble Lord on that count.
The second amendment in the group, Amendment 8, deals with the enlistment process. It would introduce a formal literacy test as part of the criteria for enlisting those under the age of 18. I am pleased to be able to assure noble Lords that such changes to the Armed Forces Act 2006 are unnecessary. There are two reasons for this. The first is that great care is taken to explain the terms of enlistment and to ensure that the precise nature of the commitment is fully understood by potential recruits. This is in the best interests both of individuals seeking to join and of the service in which they have chosen to serve.
I would like to make it clear that in the case of those aged under 18, the process includes ensuring that the parents or guardian of each potential recruit also understand the nature of the commitment. Throughout the recruitment process, parents or guardians are given comprehensive written and oral guidance on the terms and conditions of service as well as the rights of discharge. It is only after this process has been followed that written consent from a parent or guardian for their child to enter service will be requested.
Selection for the services does not rely just on the completion of forms. Individuals undergo a series of interviews and practical tests, including in numeracy and literacy. All Army applicants without level 2 literacy and numeracy qualifications or their equivalents undergo an assessment of their reading, writing, speaking and listening, and mathematical skills as part of the recruiting and selection arrangements. Those candidates assessed as being below the Army’s minimum recruit entry standard may be deferred and directed to local further education colleges or similar organisations to improve their skills.
The second reason why we do not need to change the 2006 Act is that legislation is already in place to safeguard the enlistment of persons into the Armed Forces, and it makes special provision with respect to the enlistment of under-18s. Under Regulation 7 of the Armed Forces (Enlistment) Regulations 2009, a recruiting officer is unable to enlist any individual, including those under 18, unless that officer is satisfied that the individual understands the terms on which they are to serve and is fit to be enlisted. If an enlisted person thinks that their enlistment was invalid, the regulations allow them to apply to the Defence Council for a determination that their enlistment was invalid. Where the enlisted person was under 18 at the time of enlistment, such an application may be made by a parent or other appropriate person. On that basis, I hope that the noble Lord will agree to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, of course I thank the Minister for his very full reply. I listened to his admonishments about the things that he believes I have got wrong. I am afraid that I do not accept those admonishments and suggest that a report would give him the opportunity to set out in more detail for all to see the evidence behind what he keeps emphasising is the commitment to education. In saying that, I will again put on record how much I admire the dedication and work of many of those doing what is required of them. But even at this stage of the debate, and within all the constraints of practice, I wish to comment on the important points which the Minister has made before I close.
Functional skills provided by the Army are not the equivalent of GCSE grades D to G, as the Wolf Review of Vocational Education made clear. GCSE courses are longer and much more involved than functional skills courses, despite their notionally comparable educational level. They are an interim qualification only, designed to lead to GCSEs. In a House of Commons debate on
These are just some of the facts which do not altogether substantiate the fulsome position that the Minister likes to take. I hope that he will forgive my drawing this to his attention. A report would give him an opportunity to refute in detail, with evidence, the criticisms and to establish his case.
There is much I could say about complying with all relevant children’s legislation. However, I will just point out that the Armed Forces are exempt from most relevant legislation. As an employer, the forces, for example, are not required to ensure that all staff who work in direct contact with children have criminal record checks, despite living alongside recruits in training camps. No sixth form, public school or state school would be allowed to do that.
The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, was a little concerned by what I said about the recruitment process. I wish that the reality of the experience bore out what he claimed. There is no obligation on recruiters to meet parents or guardians at any stage in the process. Minors can be enlisted without their parent or guardian having attended any meeting with Army staff or any selection event. A signed consent form is required at the very end of the process but the Armed Forces have no way of verifying that the signatures are genuine. Neither parent nor guardian—
My Lords, my point is that the Minister supported his particular concern by stressing that it was impossible to think that anyone coming into the Army was so illiterate that they could not read the material. The facts and figures produced by the Army itself do not altogether substantiate this. That is why, again, it is so important that we have this report regularly, which would enable us to see how fully—and, we hope, how well or how much better—this provision is being made. I really cannot see why the armed services would resist this.
I just say, in response to my noble friend Lord West, that I joined the cadet force at 14 and thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, I remember getting credits on some of my courses for doing things relatively well because I was enjoying them. But my point is not about all that. The point is about the vulnerability of some of the children who are coming in and our need to take double care that we are looking fully at what they are letting themselves in for—because they are letting themselves in for things. For example, the majority of these young recruits coming into these schemes do not have the ability to provide the technical services that are becoming an important characteristic of the modern Army. They therefore, inevitably, predominantly end up in infantry regiments, which, as we saw in Afghanistan, have seven times the death rate of the rest of the Army. These youngsters are taking big decisions with huge implications. I do not want to discourage them—I take much pride and excitement in reading about VCs to youngsters in the 1914-18 war and I take great pride in hearing about the other examples that the Minister keeps, rightly, citing, such as the youngster who ended up with the sword of honour. On all this I agree, but there are lots who do not.
Of the youngsters on these courses, 36% drop out. What do we do to follow up on that? The British Legion has done research that demonstrates that the unemployment rates and the difficulties faced by these youngsters are greater than those of their peers in the same age group. In discharging our responsibilities we must face these facts and, to be able to take these stats seriously, we need to have systematic reports and information available. I just cannot see why the Armed Forces are not prepared to do this. I hope that the Minister, whom I have come to respect over the years, will listen to the plea by my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe. In the hope that he will, I withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 7 withdrawn.
Amendment 8 not moved.
Moved by Lord Touhig
9: After Clause 14, insert the following new Clause—“Special provision for sufferers of mental health conditions(1) Part 3 of the Armed Forces and Reserve Forces (Compensation Scheme) Order 2011 is amended as follows.(2) After article 28 insert—“28A Special provision for sufferers of mental health conditions(1) In the event of a diagnosis of a mental health condition that has been caused by serving in the armed forces, an immediate lump sum payment shall be made, as defined under article 17 (amount of lump sum and supplementary award).(2) Upon commencement of treatment of a mental health condition that has been caused by serving in the armed forces, retrospective payment of the determined compensation shall be made, dated back to the date on which the diagnosis was made.””
My Lords, Amendments 9 and 10, covering the special provisions for sufferers of mental health conditions and the Armed Forces covenant report on mental health parity of esteem gained a degree of support in Committee and, for that reason, the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, and I believed it was right to come back with these matters on Report. I shall confine most of my remarks to Amendment 9 as I know that the noble Baroness will cover Amendment 10.
I am especially grateful to the BMA for the advice and case studies that it has provided to me in support of this matter. Amendment 9 would ensure that, in the event of a diagnosis of a mental health condition that had been caused by service in the Armed Forces, an immediate lump sum payment would be made to the individual affected. Amendment 10, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, with our full support, would create a specific obligation on the Government to have particular regard to parity of esteem between mental and physical health in the Armed Forces covenant. Again, we have had some very useful discussions with the Minister since Committee, and he wrote to me on
In his letter he also refers to late-onset illnesses but does not set out to what extent the Government believe that this is a problem. We might understand this better if the Government produced statistics demonstrating how long it takes for veterans to receive compensation after a mental health diagnosis. In my discussions with the BMA, it has persuaded me that the Armed Forces compensation scheme does not reflect that mental health is not diagnosed immediately. Again, it would help if the Government considered looking at the commencement point of mental health illness, not simply the point of diagnosis, and awarding compensation on that basis.
I understand that there is to be a further review of the Armed Forces compensation scheme. Indeed, judging by the Minister’s letter it has already started. The Minister has indicated that the review will consider the scheme’s coverage, in particular those seriously injured, including mental health cases. That is a step in the right direction and has once again demonstrated that we have found common ground on how to take this matter forward. I await the Minister’s response. I would feel more supportive if, in that response, he read out the key points from his letter and put them on the record. I beg to move.
My Lords, these two amendments had a slightly chequered path to the Marshalled List. The noble Lord, Lord Touhig, and I sat down after Committee and wondered whether we could somehow incorporate the two ideas into one. We took our resulting amendments to the Table Office, which said that it would not do. They were then split out again. Once marshalled, the two amendments were tabled in Lord Touhig’s name with my support, whereas in fact the first was in his name and the second in mine with his support. The Table Office has apologised, but I felt I should set the record straight.
The Minister has just given the House a very eloquent account of the role of the Armed Forces covenant, and in Committee he brought out the fact that there was no need to worry about parity of esteem for mental health because it all linked in with the Armed Forces covenant, which took into consideration things such as the NHS mandate, and therefore there was no concern.
I had decided that I would do a bit of work to see what the statistics showed. There is a wealth of statistics on the MoD website. I commend the MoD for increasing awareness of, and taking action on, mental health over the last few years. However, when looking at parity of esteem I needed to compare mental health with physical health, and there were no similar statistics on physical health to enable me to weigh one against the other. The Minister said in Committee that parity would not be required because parity was implied in the covenant, as in the NHS mandate, as I have just said. Clearly, however, this is not evidenced and I would like the Minister to reflect on that when we come back for Third Reading. Will the Minister also explain how physical and mental health services are commissioned, in particular where services are not delivered by service personnel, and why this might be deemed acceptable?
I certainly do not intend to push this inclusion in the amendment but fine words butter no parsnips and the evidence is not there. Parity of esteem is not transparent and for the men and women with mental health conditions, it is not good enough—I do not mean the services that they receive but the fact that they cannot be clear whether they are being treated within the same sort of timeframes or scales as for physical health. I would certainly welcome a rethink before Third Reading.
My Lords, I do not have any strong views on the merits of Amendments 9 and 10. However, I am extremely concerned about how long we have been engaged in very difficult operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. We were engaged in operations there for year after year; thankfully, that level of engagement has ceased. Many service people were doing multiple six-month operational tours in their career and we simply do not know what the long-term effect of that will be.
If mental illness arises in a veteran, it will be extremely difficult to be certain as to what caused it. Amendment 9 refers to it being “caused by” military service, but I am sure that in many cases the clinicians will not know what caused it, even though they will be sure that the patient is mentally ill. My great fear is that, because of the amount of operational tours that we have undertaken—with people undertaking multiple tours, as I said—we could have a much worse problem in future years than we thought we were going to have. So, looking longer term, we need to be careful about carrying out military operations that last a very long time.
My Lords, both these amendments seek to address provision for the care and support of members of the Armed Forces who suffer from mental health conditions caused by service. The health of our Armed Forces community is hugely important to us all and I welcome the opportunity to set out the Government’s position again.
Turning first to Amendment 9, as I said in Committee, the Armed Forces compensation scheme—AFCS—already makes awards for injuries and disorders predominantly caused by service, including mental health conditions. The scheme is tariff-based and aims to make full and final awards as early as possible, so that individuals can have financial security and focus on getting on with life and living. Claims can be made while in service or when the individual has left. In cases where a disorder is not in steady state, prognosis is uncertain or treatment is ongoing or not yet begun, legislation allows an interim award to be paid at the most likely level. This award is then reviewed and usually finalised within 24 months of notification. Where, exceptionally, matters remain uncertain at review, the interim award may continue for a maximum of 48 months. If the disorder has improved and a lower tariff now applies, no recovery of benefit takes place, while if a higher tariff award now applies, the difference between the interim award and the final award is paid.
The AFCS tariff has nine tables of categories of injury relevant to military service—and they include mental health disorders. While the scheme has time limits for claiming, there is also a provision for delayed-onset conditions, including mental health diagnoses. The Ministry of Defence recognises that, owing to stigma and perceived impact on career, people may delay seeking help. The practical effect of this is that if a person who has left the Armed Forces some time ago is diagnosed with a mental health problem as a result of his or her service and makes a claim under the AFCS, a compensation award will be paid as soon as the claim is accepted. As a result of the recommendations made by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, in his review of the AFCS, the Ministry of Defence increased the maximum lump sum award for mental illness from £48,875 to £140,000. This was to better reflect the impact of the most serious mental health conditions.
Broadly, the same mental health disorders are found in military personnel and veterans as in the general community—an exception being a lower rate of the most severe and enduring conditions such as schizophrenia.
Evidence-based effective interventions are now available for the common disorders, including PTSD. The treatments apply to both civilian and military contexts, with a high expectation of improved function, including return to work—especially if people are seen early.
In addition to the AFCS lump sum, the most serious conditions with likely limitations on civilian employability receive a tax-free guaranteed income payment—GIP. While in service, regardless of medical employability grading or being on sick leave, personnel retain their military salary. The GIP is paid for life and comes into effect on discharge from the services or from the date on which the claim is accepted. A lump sum of £140,000 attracts a GIP based on 75% of military salary, with enhancements for service length, age, rank and lost promotions.
Also as a result of the recommendations of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, we established the Independent Medical Expert Group—the IMEG. The group—a non-departmental public body—includes senior consultants and academics and UK authorities on specialities relevant to military life, including mental health. It advises Ministers on the scientific and medical aspects of the scheme.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, also identified the need for further investigation into mental health. The IMEG therefore conducted a review that involved literature search and discussions with civilian and military experts and veterans’ organisations. The findings were published in its second report on
The House will be interested to know that this year sees a further planned review of the AFCS, which began recently. The review is currently in the stakeholder engagement phase and has been approaching charities, claimants and other government departments. This quinquennial review will consider the scheme’s coverage and levels of awards, in particular for those most seriously injured, including those with mental health conditions. It is expected to report at the end of 2016.
The second amendment in this group would create a specific obligation on the Government to have particular regard, in their annual report on the covenant, to parity of esteem between mental and physical healthcare. The Government are absolutely committed to meeting the healthcare needs of the Armed Forces community. The Secretary of State has a statutory requirement to include in his annual Armed Forces covenant report to Parliament the effects of membership, or former membership, of the Armed Forces on service people in the field of healthcare under the covenant.
The healthcare we provide to our service personnel, both at home and deployed on operations, is truly world class. Last year, the principles of the covenant were enshrined in the NHS constitution for England. This gives a commitment to ensure that, as well as those serving in the Armed Forces, reservists, their families and veterans are not disadvantaged in accessing NHS health services in the area in which they reside.
Since 1953, priority access to NHS specialist services in Great Britain has been provided for service-attributable disorders, with no-fault compensation awards. In 2009, this was extended to include treatment for any disorder where a clinician recognises a causal link to service. Priority is decided by the clinician in charge, subject only to clinical need.
I should also mention further work on mental health. For mental health disorders, stigma and perceived discrimination in employment can act as barriers to access and engagement with care. This is not unique to the Armed Forces but common among men. In 2004, led by the Health and Social Care Advisory Service, the MoD, UK health departments, NHS and Combat Stress explored features of an effective veterans’ mental health service, piloting various service models in locations across the UK.
The evidence showed that while some veterans were not comfortable with clinicians who had no military experience, others were equally anxious to see only civilian health professionals. What seem to work best are multifaceted services, including healthcare, social support, benefits advice et cetera, delivered in an environment of cultural sensitivity and empathy. The pilots also confirmed that best-practice interventions work, with high rates of improved function and a return to a full life with contribution to family, community and work.
As a reflection of these findings, and of Dr Andrew Murrison’s Fighting Fit report, since 2010, a network of veterans’ mental health services has been established in England and Wales with special arrangements for veterans also established in Scotland. The Armed Forces covenant gives a commitment that veterans should be able to access mental health professionals who have an understanding of Armed Forces culture, and NHS England is currently completing an audit of veterans’ mental health services.
In service, there has also been increased focus on good mental health and well-being, with emphasis on prevention and protection through a chain of command lead. Mental health awareness is part of a through-life training strategy starting at basic training, with self-awareness and with annual refresher courses. There are then specific courses for those with leadership responsibilities. The courses cover: raising stress management; reduction of stigma; building resilience; early detection of problems in self and others; and specific pre-deployment, deployed and decompression measures. Trauma incident management teams and mental health nurses are now considered essential parts of a deployment package, and mental health first aid training to service personnel is being delivered by SSAFA in collaboration with Combat Stress, Mental Health First Aid England and the Royal British Legion.
I should add that there is no evidence of an epidemic of mental problems in military personnel—rather, levels of the common mental health problems in regulars and reservists are broadly similar to those of the matched general population, while levels of PTSD in some groups, and in relation to combat, are slightly but not markedly increased. Where service personnel become ill, help is available in primary care with, as required, referral and outpatient support from the 16 departments of community mental health across the UK. When, rarely, in-patient care is necessary, it is provided in eight dedicated psychiatric units, again located around the country.
I therefore assure noble Lords that the Government are committed to meeting the health needs of the service community. We will continue to report on the provision of healthcare in the Armed Forces Covenant Annual Report, and our work to address mental health needs will be an integral part of that report.
The principles of the covenant are to ensure that the Armed Forces community is treated fairly in comparison to the civilian population. Parity of esteem is there to ensure that all health services treat mental health with the same importance as physical health, and it applies to everyone accessing NHS services, not just the Armed Forces community. For this reason, I remain firm in the belief that it does not need to be legislated for under the covenant.
I shall write to the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, on any of her specific questions that I have not addressed. However, given our clear commitment to support those who suffer from mental health conditions, and the tangible steps that we are taking, I hope that the noble Lord will agree to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, this has been a short but very useful debate and I thank the Minister for his response. It is positive and is taking us down the right track to try and resolve these matters. He mentioned that the review of the Armed Forces compensation scheme is now at the stakeholder engagement stage, and I am sure he would welcome it if I passed on to the organisations that have been briefing me that they might have an input into this aspect.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, was quite right to point out that Amendment 10 was in fact proposed in her name, with me as a supporter, although that is not how it appears on the Marshalled List. I note that the Minister has invited us to his department on
Amendment 9 withdrawn.
Amendment 10 not moved.
Moved by Lord Thomas of Gresford
11: After Clause 14, insert the following new Clause—“Extra-territorial jurisdiction for sexual offencesIn section 42 of the Armed Forces Act 2006 (criminal conduct), after subsection (1) insert—“(1A) If a person subject to service law, or a civilian subject to service discipline—(a) does an act in a country outside England and Wales, and(b) the act, if done in England and Wales would constitute a sexual offence under any of sections 1 to 12, 14 to 19 and 30 to 37 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003,that person or civilian is guilty in England and Wales of that sexual offence.””
My Lords, the courts of this country have long had extra-territorial jurisdiction to try in this country offences of murder, manslaughter, piracy, treason and certain other, more obscure offences. However, they do not have extra-territorial jurisdiction for sexual offences. Amendment 11 would give the courts of this country jurisdiction to try somebody in the ordinary civil courts, if that person is subject to service law or is a civilian subject to service discipline, who commits an act in a country outside England and Wales that would be a sexual offence. Various sections from the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which I have quoted, relate to serious sexual offences. That would mean that a sexual offence committed abroad would be subject to the protocols in this country that now exist between the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Director of Service Prosecutions and could be tried in the ordinary civil court, as opposed to the courts martial. Courts martial are now established courts, with centres at Bulford, Catterick and Colchester. A person who commits a sexual offence who is subject to service law abroad now could be brought to this country and tried for the sexual offence by way of court martial but could not be tried in the ordinary courts. That is the purpose of Amendment 11: to extend extra-territorial jurisdiction to cover sexual offences.
As for election for trial in the UK, my amendment suggests that such a person, who is subject to service law and has committed an extra-territorial offence that could be tried by a court martial at Bulford, Catterick or Colchester, could elect to be tried in the ordinary courts if he or she so wished. Of course, he or she would have to take advice on what was more appropriate, but it would mean that he or she would have the opportunity to be tried not by officers but by 12 ordinary jurors in this country. I beg to move.
Will the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, clarify one thing? I am a member of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee and this past week we have been looking at the agreement with the Government of Kenya for the provision of two training areas. There are various changes taking place within that, and one is that all Armed Forces personnel going there will have to obtain visas in future. How, then, does what the noble Lord proposes tie in with the provisions of Kenyan law for people who are in that country? Does our military discipline law come ahead of Kenyan domestic law, and how does that tie in with what he is proposing in terms of its extension and its further extra-territorial application?
When British service personnel operate abroad and are stationed abroad, there is an agreement made with the Government of that particular country. A protocol is brought about whereby decisions can be made according to the machinery agreed in that protocol about whether a person committing an offence in, for example, Kenya, should be tried by the local courts or by court martial. Obviously, that would apply to all cases of offences that are committed in Kenya which would be contrary to its law. In all probability, as has happened in Germany, very much would depend on whether the local population was involved. For example, under a protocol with the Kenyan Government, the rape of a Kenyan woman would almost certainly be tried in a Kenyan court. On the other hand, if it involved personnel who were on duty there together, it would almost certainly be dealt with under the protocol by the service disciplinary system. I am proposing that if it amounts to a serious sexual offence, or an extra-territorial offence such as I have described, it could be heard in this country.
Amendments 11 and 12 were Amendments 15 and 16 in Committee. I have reread the debate and do not note anything, other than Kenya, that has been added to them tonight. They go to the essence of the scope of military law. We were not persuaded to support them in Committee and we will not do so now.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to restate the Government’s position on the further changes to the service justice system that the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, proposes. His intention with Amendment 11 is to extend the jurisdiction of civilian criminal courts in England and Wales by giving them jurisdiction to try members of the Armed Forces and civilians subject to service discipline for overseas acts that, were they committed here, would constitute sexual offences under the Sexual Offences Act 2003.
I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, because I confess I am not clear what advantage the amendments would confer on the system as a whole. Noble Lords may be aware that service courts are already able to exercise jurisdiction in respect of acts committed overseas. Section 42 of the Armed Forces Act 2006 provides that a member of the Armed Forces is guilty of an offence under service law if they commit an act outside the UK that would constitute an offence under the law of England and Wales were it done here. If it is necessary to have a further conversation with the noble Lord after Report to clarify any misunderstanding that I have, I will be happy to do that.
Amendment 12 would give members of the Armed Forces accused of committing certain crimes overseas the right to elect to be tried by a civilian criminal court in the UK instead of a court martial. The crimes in question are those that the civilian criminal courts may try even if the event in question took place overseas. Those offences include murder, and would also include sexual offences if Amendment 11 were accepted as well. I note that Amendment 12 does not appear to propose that a member of the Armed Forces should have a right to elect civilian criminal trial in a case concerning conduct in the UK, where both the civilian courts and a court martial would have jurisdiction to try the case. I confess it is not immediately apparent to me why such cases should be treated differently.
Taken together, the effect of Amendments 11 and 12 would appear to be that while a service person who committed a sexual offence overseas could choose to be tried at a Crown Court rather than a court martial, a service person who committed the same offence in the UK would have no such choice. It is not clear why the amendment makes provision for electing civilian court trial only for conduct outside the UK, not in the UK.
The noble Lord may again not be too surprised to hear that we do not support these amendments. I said in Grand Committee in response to two very similar amendments tabled by the noble Lord that making the changes proposed would appear to imply that there may be reason to doubt the ability of the court martial to deal with sexual offences. I would make the same point about Amendments 11 and 12. Yet, as I said in Grand Committee, the service justice system has been scrutinised by the UK courts and by Strasbourg and it is now well recognised that the court martial system in the UK ensures a trial that is fair and compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, both for investigations and prosecutions in respect of acts in the UK and for investigations and prosecutions in respect of overseas acts where the civilian police may not have jurisdiction. The Government believe that the service justice system, including the service police, the Service Prosecuting Authority and service courts, is capable of dealing with the most serious of offences and should be able to continue to do so.
The amendments would significantly undermine existing arrangements designed to ensure that cases are dealt with in the most appropriate court jurisdiction. In the case of offences which both the civilian criminal courts and service courts have jurisdiction to try, it is recognised that it is necessary to consider in each case whether the offence is more appropriately tried in the civilian criminal courts or in a service court. This applies not only to those offences committed overseas in respect of which the civilian criminal courts have jurisdiction, but also to offences committed in the United Kingdom which both the civilian criminal courts and service courts have jurisdiction to try. However, a decision on appropriate jurisdiction is rightly a matter for service and civilian prosecutors rather than the accused person.
There is a protocol between service and civilian prosecutors which recognises that some cases are more appropriately dealt with in the service system and others are more appropriately dealt with in the civilian system, particularly those with civilian victims. The principles of this protocol have the approval of the Attorney-General for England and Wales, and the Ministry of Justice. The protocol recognises that any criminal offence can be dealt with by the service authorities. The main factor in decisions on whether an offence is more appropriately dealt with in the civilian criminal justice system or the service justice system is whether the offence has any civilian context, especially a civilian victim. The protocol therefore provides for cases with a civilian context to be dealt with by the civilian criminal justice system. Where a case has a service context, it is important that the service justice system, which is specifically constructed to deal with that unique service dimension, is able to deal with the case.
Creating a right to elect of the kind contained in this amendment would override the existing protocol and could seriously undermine the service justice system. Many offences which involve conduct outside the UK will have a service context such that both service and civilian prosecutors would consider that they would be more appropriately dealt with in the service system. However, the proposed right of election could mean that a person accused of such an offence could make an election that led to their case being dealt with instead by the civilian criminal courts. We do not think this would be right. This is significant because the court martial is part of an overall system of justice and discipline, and the existing statutory provisions in the Armed Forces Act 2006 governing sentencing in the court martial reflect this. They are closely based on the civilian sentencing principles but include in addition, as I mentioned earlier, the “maintenance of discipline” and the “reduction of service offences”, which reflect special aspects related to the service justice system. In my response to Amendment 2, I touched on a number of these special aspects.
Allowing a case with a purely service context to be dealt with in the civilian system on the election of an accused therefore risks undermining the system of justice and discipline in the Armed Forces which the Armed Forces Act 2006 was carefully constructed to underpin. And where the prosecutor’s protocol indicated that a case should be dealt with in the civilian system—for example, a case in which the victim is a civilian—would the accused service person be able to override that and instead elect trial by court martial? We do not think that would be right. Furthermore, a right to choose which court should hear the case would open up the possibility of any co-accused making different elections, resulting in split trials in different systems with obvious implications for the efficient administration of justice.
There is another aspect to this, which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, identified in Grand Committee and which it may be helpful for me to repeat here. The amendments are concerned with conduct overseas which is likely to be criminal under the local law as well as under service law. However, the authorities in states visited by our Armed Forces are commonly prepared to allow service courts to exercise jurisdiction rather than assert their right to try a case before their own civilian courts. A good example is Germany, where there is a very active and much-respected criminal justice system, but under the arrangements we have in place the German authorities are prepared to allow our service courts to exercise jurisdiction over cases with a service context.
There is a risk that jurisdictions around the world which are prepared to do that may be concerned about allowing our civilian courts to exercise jurisdiction. We would need to be absolutely sure that those jurisdictions were prepared to allow this when they could perfectly well assert their right to try a case before their own civilian courts.
In conclusion, I strongly contend that the service justice system is capable of dealing effectively with the most serious of offences and should be able to continue to do so. It is therefore not appropriate to limit the jurisdiction of the court martial; nor is it necessary or appropriate to make changes which may have that effect—changes which would appear to imply reason to doubt the ability of the court martial to deal with sexual offences. Although I know that the noble Lord will find my reply disappointing, I hope he will agree to withdraw his amendment in the light of what I have said.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for his detailed and considered reply, and indeed for the very helpful conversations I had with the Bill team earlier this week. I am persuaded by the Minister’s argument and therefore beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 11 withdrawn.
Amendment 12 not moved.
Moved by Baroness Smith of Newnham
13: After Clause 14, insert the following new Clause—“Reporting obligation on overseas deployments (civilian casualties)(1) The Commander responsible for review of reports on civilian non-combatant casualties submitted to the Ministry of Defence in connection with UK deployments overseas shall report to the Minister for the Armed Forces, at least once every quarter or at any more frequent intervals as the Secretary of State may specify, on—(a) the number of reports on civilian non-combatant casualties submitted by independent bodies during the period since his or her last report;(b) the number of reports on civilian non-combatant casualties submitted by the civilian casualties tracking unit in that period;(c) the number of reviews on civilian non-combatant casualties carried out in that period;(d) the sum and allocation of funding for any awards made as a result of the civilian casualty review procedure in that period.(2) A report under subsection (1) shall include—(a) a copy of the relevant civilian casualty review procedure;(b) the relevant part of the standard operating procedures in place to enable review of reports of civilian non-combatant casualties.(3) In this section “UK deployment” includes but is not limited to any airstrikes carried out by UK personnel operating manned or unmanned aircraft remotely from the United Kingdom or United States.(4) On receipt of any report under subsection (1), the Minister for the Armed Forces shall—(a) lay a copy of the report before Parliament, and(b) lay a copy of the Government’s response to the report before Parliament, making particular reference to the operation of the civilian casualty review procedure, and any relative increase in reports, reviews or awards.”
My Lords, in Grand Committee I welcomed a probing amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, which referred to a duty to report on civilian casualties. At that point I raised certain questions. In particular, the noble Lord’s amendment sought working definitions of “civilians” and “combatants” every three months. It almost suggested that there would be rolling definitions.
At that time, the Minister undertook to write to me to explain the Government’s working definitions of “civilians” and “combatants” in the context of wars in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. I am not sure whether the letter got lost in the post—there are rather a lot of Smiths in your Lordships’ House—but I certainly have not received a letter of that sort. Therefore, I should again like to ask the Government to explain how they define “combatant” and “civilian”. It may appear that they are definitions that can be produced from a dictionary, but the point is that some of our partners—particularly the United States—may have a rather looser definition of a combatant than one might expect in ordinary civilian life, and that it might include young men who are adjacent to conflicts but who may be seen as combatants. Therefore, I would very much welcome an explanation of how Her Majesty’s Government understand the term “combatant”, particularly as there appears to be a marked discrepancy in the figures. Eleven of the 12 partner countries have said that they have not caused any civilian deaths. The United States has acknowledged 41 deaths, yet Airwars has said that there have been 1,118 civilian casualties in the war against Daesh. Therefore, there is some disparity there and I wonder whether it is due to a difference in the definitions.
I do not intend to test the patience of the House by testing its will or by detaining your Lordships for very long, but one point to bear in mind is that the Armed Forces Minister in the other place, Penny Mordaunt, committed in defence Questions on
The purpose behind Amendment 13 is again to suggest a type of reporting system. But, given the difficulties with definition, we could tighten the wording slightly and suggest that there should be reports on civilian non-combatant casualties, which is belt-and-braces wording. Clearly, this is not something we are expecting to take to a vote, but we believe that it is very important that the people of the United Kingdom and our coalition partners in the fight against Daesh have certainty on what we believe to be civilian casualties, and that the belief that we have not caused any civilian casualties is actually correct, on an ordinary definition of “civilian”.
My Lords, with these issues, it is always difficult to measure casualties. That is not necessarily an argument against the amendment from the noble Baroness. Just to be really helpful to the Minister, of course, there are lawful combatants and there are unlawful combatants. So that is another issue.
My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, kindly said, I tabled a similar, rather less focused, amendment in Committee on
In his reply to the debate, my noble friend’s argument for being unwilling to consider the amendment rested, I think, on two major planks: on the one hand, the inflexibility resulting from enshrining this sort of requirement in primary legislation; and, on the other, operational confidentiality. These two arguments were backed by a statement of general good intent on transparency. My noble friend will appreciate that I absolutely accept his sincerity on these matters, but operational confidentiality could become an elastic concept, capable of being interpreted to cover a pretty wide range of situations. When backed only by a statement of intent without any statutory teeth, this elasticity could be increased still further.
My concern about civilian casualties arises from two points. The first is the long-term fabric of the society. If women and children are traumatised by violence, it may take a generation to rebuild a stable society and it must be in this country’s interests to establish and maintain stable societies wherever possible. Secondly, and no less importantly, civilian casualties must be one of the best recruiting sergeants for extremists. If I see my village wrecked and my family and community blown apart, I am unlikely to be sympathetic to the people who have caused my world to be turned upside down.
At the core of my concern are the figures given by the noble Baroness about the discrepancy between what Airwars has said about coalition casualties, excluding the Russian casualties, of which I think there are a great deal more—some 3,000 or more. This leads me to believe that somewhere something must be going wrong. Airwars has got its figures wrong, or the coalition members are looking the other way, or the procedures for identifying and recording civilian casualties are faulty. This country, which has now carried out some 600 air strikes in Iraq and Syria and flown more than 2,000 combat missions against Daesh, should surely have a keen interest in ensuring that the truth is established and publicised. Our international reputation demands no less. This amendment, if accepted, would help in that process.
I conclude by saying that I hope my noble friend will forgive me if I gently chide his department. As a result of the issues raised in that earlier debate in Grand Committee, I referred to, which are also the raw material of our discussion this evening, I wrote to him raising a series of specific questions. My letter was dated
My Lords, I will be very brief. When we considered an amendment very similar to this in Committee, I said that on this side we certainly welcomed the aspirations that motivated it—the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, tabled it at that time—but we certainly had doubts that it was the best way of dealing with reporting on civilian casualties. I fear that although this amendment is much more focused, as he mentioned, those doubts remain.
Of course it is right to report on civilian casualties caused by air strikes, but we should also be made aware of all civilian casualties, including those caused by the actions of ground forces. I can only repeat a key point I made in Committee when I stressed that reporting on civilian casualties is not an Armed Forces role alone but needs to involve the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development. This is a matter for a cross-government approach that seeks an agreement on how to report on civilian casualties caused in a conflict in which our Armed Forces are involved. However, it must be done in a way that that gives everybody confidence, and such an approach must also ensure that we maintain operational security. That is important; I am not sure whether the noble Lord who has just spoken feels it is quite that important, but certainly that point was made, rightly, by the Minister in Committee.
We do not need primary legislation to achieve the aims of this amendment, but if the Government were minded to consult on finding a better way to embrace the aims of the amendment and to consult so that we could find a solution which we could all support on properly reporting on civilian casualties, we would certainly want to co-operate with them on that. However, this amendment is not the solution and we will not support it.
My Lords, I begin by offering my apologies to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham. If I have been guilty of failing to fulfil an undertaking to write to her on the questions she raised in Grand Committee, I will certainly look into that as a matter of urgency. I must also apologise to my noble friend Lord Hodgson for the delay in responding to his letter of last month. I can, however, tell him that a reply was dispatched to him today.
This amendment would create a legislative obligation on the Ministry of Defence regarding civilian casualties following military operations, including sharing the details of any investigations with Parliament. This would be inappropriate for several reasons, not least that each military operation is different, so respective arrangements are likely to vary, depending on which forces are involved. It also risks prejudicing the operational and personnel security of our Armed Forces.
First and foremost, I re-emphasise that the Government take the utmost care to avoid civilian casualties when planning and conducting any form of military operation. Every care is taken to avoid or minimise civilian casualties and our use of extremely accurate, precision-guided munitions supports this aim. By way of an example, the authorisation process for air strikes is extremely robust. All military targeting is governed by strict rules of engagement in accordance with both UK and international humanitarian law.
I will make absolutely clear that we will not use UK military force unless we are satisfied that its use is both necessary and lawful. This tried and tested process brings together policy, legal and targeting experts—and, of course, the men and women of our Armed Forces are highly trained, including in the law of armed conflict. After a strike has been carried out, we conduct a full review to establish what damage has been caused, specifically checking very carefully whether there are likely to have been civilian casualties.
The Government have always taken very seriously any allegations of civilian casualties. We have thorough processes in place to review such reports and will launch investigations where appropriate. We will continue to consider all available evidence to support such reviews, and the Defence Secretary has made a personal commitment that the department will review all claims.
In the event of a credible allegation of a civilian casualty, an independent service police investigation would take place. The department has a process in place to inform Ministers on a case-by-case basis, but this has not been necessary to date, given that we have had no confirmed incidents of civilian casualties in Iraq or Syria caused by UK action. We are also committed to updating Parliament with information regarding any confirmed civilian casualty caused by UK military action in Iraq or Syria.
I assure the House that the Ministry of Defence is committed to transparency as far as possible. However, I hope that noble Lords will agree that it is also paramount that we maintain personnel and operational security. This includes not revealing details about our targeting processes, which may endanger personnel and our ability to operate. To disclose that information, even in part, would prejudice the capability, effectiveness and security of the UK Armed Forces.
A requirement in primary legislation to publish data on a regular basis may seem to be a way of holding the current and future Governments to account, but it would impose an unnecessary and inflexible burden. For example, we would have had nothing to report thus far on our operations in Iraq and Syria. The care that we take on operations means that civilian casualties are a rare occurrence. It is far more effective and timely for the department to notify Parliament by exception, which allows for proper due diligence to be paid to individual cases, rather than to have it imposed as a regular reporting obligation.
As I have made clear, the MoD has clear processes and procedures to minimise civilian casualties. The principle of openness on this issue is something which we strongly support and which we have demonstrated during our current operations in Iraq and Syria. We have been very open and transparent about the air strikes that we are conducting in Iraq and Syria: reports are posted online two or three times a week. These reports explain where a military operation has taken place and what effect has been achieved in the fight against Daesh. Where information is not disclosed, it is for very good operational reasons. In the light of what I have said on this matter, I hope that the noble Baroness will agree to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for his very thorough response, and in particular for reiterating the care that is taken with the precision of UK targeting. It is very clear that the Minister and the Secretary of State have committed to informing us of any civilian casualties should they arise. Therefore, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 13 withdrawn.