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Armed Forces Bill - Third Reading

– in the House of Lords at 12:13 pm on 5th May 2016.

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Moved by Earl Howe

That the Bill do now pass.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, in moving that the Bill do now pass, I express my appreciation to all noble Lords, noble and gallant Lords, and noble and learned Lords who have taken part in what have been some very well-informed and constructive debates during the passage of the Bill through your Lordships’ House. I shall refrain from singling out any noble Lords by name, if they will forgive me, but I thank them all for their support for the Bill’s provisions and for the positive engagement that we have had on a range of issues of central relevance to the well-being of the Armed Forces and the service justice system. I also express my gratitude for the advice and support provided by my Bill team, which has at all times been first class. Finally, I pay tribute to our Armed Forces. We are immensely proud of their work, their courage and their dedication. This Bill is for them.

Photo of Lord Touhig Lord Touhig Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, I am sure that the entire House will join the Minister in his last remarks. We are always indebted to the Armed Forces of our country: we are free people because of their dedication and commitment.

I will be brief. When I spoke at Second Reading on February 11, I said that I had a feeling of déjà vu, having taken the 2005 Armed Forces Bill through the other place. I have to confess, as I did then, that I never saw the Act through to its completion because the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, phoned me and awarded me the DCM—“Don’t Come Monday”—and I was no longer a Minister. So in one way I feel a sense of achievement having seen this Armed Forces Bill through all its stages in your Lordships’ House. We have had some first-class debates and many powerful arguments on the Bill, with notable contributions from distinguished Members too numerous to mention.

The Government have shown throughout our deliberations that they were willing to listen to the arguments on all sides. More than that, thanks to the Minister and his excellent Bill team, the Government have been willing to engage in discussions, and for that all noble Lords are in his debt. I believe that our discussions aimed at improving it mean that the Bill leaves this House better than when it arrived with us in February. That has been achieved not by contests, votes or amendments but by frank and open exchanges on all sides, involving colleagues all around the House. The undertakings given by the Government on a range of issues, from publishing statistics on sexual assault and rape to a review of support for those who have mental health problems as a result of serving in our Armed Forces, have made a real difference to the Bill.

On this side, we would have hoped for a similar undertaking on the matter raised by my noble friend Lord Judd in relation to providing an annual report on military service by those aged between 16 and 18, but I feel sure that we will come back to that at some time in the future, and we on this side of the House wish the Bill well.

Photo of Baroness Jolly Baroness Jolly Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, from these Benches I also want to pay tribute to our Armed Forces. It has been a small and not quite perfectly formed Bill, but a very interesting Bill on which to work and I thank the Minister and his team for being ready to talk to us and to listen to our proposals and our views. I also thank the Opposition for a certain amount of joint working and collaboration on some issues. Indeed, it has been a very good-spirited and incredibly well-informed Bill. There will be another Armed Forces Bill in five years, but in this one we looked at the usual government tidying-up, the issue of child soldiers, the issues of courts martial and justice, mental health and sexual offences. The Government resisted the amendments very effectively, but I rather feel that they will be revisited in five years’ time and I look forward to discussing them in future with the noble Earl. In the mean time, we on these Benches are more than happy to support the Bill.

Photo of Lord Craig of Radley Lord Craig of Radley Crossbench

My Lords, I join in commending the noble Earl the Minister for the way he has handled the Bill, and the Bill team for supporting him. I have one regret, as I am sure he understands, in that there has been no dealing yet with the problem of the impact of the Human Rights Act on operations. We have had assurances from the noble Earl and from other members of the Government that this is being actively pursued. I hope that it continues to be pursued and that we do not have to wait for the next Armed Forces Bill in five years’ time. I hope that whatever is introduced, by a Bill of Rights or in another way, will be as an amendment to the Armed Forces Act and not standing within its own Act, because the problem we have faced is that the Armed Forces Acts and the Human Rights Act are incompatible. This would have been avoided if we had not treated the problems of the Armed Forces and human rights in the way they have been treated in the past.

Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP

My Lords, this Bill is on a much smaller scale than the one introduced five years ago, which dealt with the whole concept of the covenant and included very complicated and very necessary commitments. I am very pleased that even this week the Minister has pursued those issues by engaging with the House and making us aware of developments in that area. Frequently, pieces of legislation are rushed through and their implementation sometimes leaves much to be desired. So while the provisions in this Bill are not on the same scale as those of the previous Act, nevertheless they are significant.

As I understand it—perhaps the Minister can clarify this—as well as provision every five years in an Act of Parliament, the actual Armed Forces also need to be renewed on a regular basis. That seems rather a peculiarity because it is very difficult to envisage circumstances where we would not need them. I do not know whether a more permanent mechanism is required in a future Bill so that that provision does not have to be renewed.

I place on record my thanks to the Minister for the manner in which he engaged with noble Lords, dealt with our concerns and gave us an opportunity to participate fully and follow up our queries, some of which may have been better informed than others. Nevertheless, I am happy to see the Bill pass.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, I was not going to intervene, but the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said something that worried me slightly. I think that annual renewal by order of the Armed Forces Act is an absolutely essential control on the operation of the Armed Forces and the Ministry of Defence.

Bill passed and returned to the Commons with amendments.