Moved by Lord Coaker
3: Clause 8, page 9, line 17, at end insert—“(d) a relevant employment function,(e) a relevant pensions function,(f) a relevant compensation function,(g) a relevant social care function,(h) a relevant criminal justice function, or(i) a relevant immigration function.”
My Lords, it is good to be back. In moving Amendment 3 in my name, I will speak to Amendments 5, 6 and 7. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, for signing those amendments. I also thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, for tabling Amendment 4, which is extremely important, and the same as an amendment tabled in my name in Committee.
As I said in Committee, we support the aims of this Bill, but at present believe that there is a missed opportunity to deliver real improvements in the lives of our service personnel, veterans and their families. Like all noble Lords, we believe that the Armed Forces covenant represents a binding moral commitment between the Government and service communities, guaranteeing them and their families the respect and fair treatment their service has earned. In Committee, the Minister argued that central government in the Bill is unnecessary. She said:
“The Government are already subject to a legal obligation to report on the delivery of the covenant.” —[Official Report, 27/10/21; col. GC 194.]
But we all know that a reporting function is very different to a statutory provision ensuring that Ministers are subject to the duty of due regard. Ministers are arguing, as noble Lords will see in the Bill, that it is unnecessary for them, but necessary for local authorities, for NHS trusts, for NHS governors, and for a range of other public bodies to have a statutory duty to have due regard for the covenant. As said by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, it is not only many of your Lordships who are dismayed that the Government seem determined to stand against ensuring that the due regard principle applies to central government, but the Royal British Legion and many others. They believe that the due regard principle should apply to central government in the way it applies to others. I am very supportive of the amendment in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay.
Service charities, including Help for Heroes, the Royal British Legion and the Army and Naval Families Federations are also concerned about the narrow scope of the covenant, concentrating as it does on education, housing and healthcare. Service charities have pointed out that this narrow focus could, in their view, create a two-tier Armed Forces covenant. That is why we have retabled Amendments 3, 5, 6 and 7, extending the scope of the covenant in the Bill to include employment, pensions, compensation, social care, criminal justice and immigration.
The Minister has explained that the new covenant reference group will evaluate the new duty. That is very welcome, and I thank her for that concession, but it is clear that the narrow scope of housing, healthcare and education does not go wide enough to stop all areas of potential disadvantage against members of the Armed Forces, veterans and their families. As the covenant reference group will have that new duty to evaluate how the covenant is working, how will the process of evaluation take place? For example, will it have to report to the Defence Committee on an annual basis?
Not extending the scope of the covenant is a missed opportunity by the Government, and I very much look forward to the Minister’s further justification of why they are resisting that. I also look forward to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, speaking to his Amendment 4, which I think is particularly important as it would extend the “due regard” principle to central government as well as the other public bodies mentioned in the Bill.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, will not be taking part in these proceedings because she is double-booked in Grand Committee.
My Lords, I have much sympathy with these amendments. Back in 2010, when I served in the Committee on the Bill, I proposed similar amendments, so noble Lords may ask why I now express some hesitancy about extending the remit. I suppose it comes from my experience as Minister for the Armed Forces and Minister for Defence Veterans, Reserves and Personnel. When we roll back the clock, if I am entirely honest, in the early days of implementing the Armed Forces covenant we struggled to get traction. It took some time to convince all the local authorities within the United Kingdom to sign up and indeed to get employers to sign up. I am delighted that now we have close to 2,000 signatories to the Armed Forces covenant.
My concern really lies around the fact that, as we continue to extend the width, we may struggle to get buy-in into this if we create yet more of a burden for local authorities in particular. Especially after Covid, as they have had a difficult couple of years, they might not see the benefit of this if we simply overburden them with yet more categories. My suggestion in Committee was not that we should not extend the categories but that we should do it incrementally over a period of time. In many ways, had that been suggested today, I would have been happy to accept this amendment, but that is not the case, which is a shame. During that early stage of the process, we also struggled to demonstrate the benefits of this to veterans.
It is a shame that we have an Armed Forces Bill only once every five years because I do not want to have to wait another five years to slowly extend the remit of the covenant. However, I simply feel that at this stage such a step would be a bit too much too soon, for the reasons that I have tried to explain.
My Lords, I think it might be convenient for me to speak to my amendments in this group, Amendments 17 and 4. Something about Amendment 4 has been said already and I will not repeat that, but I shall attempt to elaborate on it somewhat.
On Amendment 17, when I was trying to consider this issue more carefully after the Minister’s argument in Committee, I happened to notice that this clause has a curious provision at the beginning: it is the same as the opening clause that was in the 2011 Bill on the Armed Forces covenant report. The only reference to “Armed Forces covenant” here is by dropping the word “report”. That struck me as rather strange in a Bill dealing with the Armed Forces covenant.
My noble friend may be able to put me right on this, but I have not found a definition of that covenant in the Bill. It is true that there is a definition on the website, but the website is not yet by law an Act of Parliament. We have to distinguish between these two. I am happy to think that what I have proposed in Amendment 17 is not very different from what is on the website, but it would at least be in the statute—in the part on definitions and principles that apply to England—and would apply through it.
My main argument, of course, is in relation to Amendment 4. It is right that central government in the form of the Secretary of State, who is responsible to Parliament for the Armed Forces, should be responsible for respecting the Armed Forces covenant. If he does not have a duty to respect it, it is difficult to put that duty on local authorities, health authorities and so on. In Committee, I referred to what I regard as an important example of where this was really necessary. In the first Gulf War, there was a feeling early on—of course, I have no detail on this that I could go into—that there might be poison gas coming from the opposition in Iraq. A possible protection against that gas was provided to some of our Armed Forces. Needless to say, I do not know what it contained, and I do not think local or health authorities knew either. Importantly, therefore, the illnesses of a neurological character contracted by some veterans were thought to be possibly connected to the protection against the poison gas.
As it happened, I do not think the poison gas ever emerged, but some veterans had had this protection and there was a question about that. I sent the Minister a copy of the Library report on this; there was an inquiry into it by one of my judicial colleagues. The eventual opinion expressed by Her Majesty’s Government was that the illness was not sufficiently definite to be called Gulf War syndrome—it was probable that it was due to a variety of things and, therefore, it was not to be classified in that way.
I cannot see how anybody other than the Secretary of State could be responsible for carrying out an investigation of that kind. It is therefore vital that he should have regard to the principles; of course, the areas that he has to have regard to are in the Bill now and not subject to the extensions of Amendment 3 and the other extensions that the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, referred to. It is a simple case of three zones, as it were, in which the Secretary of State has to have regard to the principles. If anybody has to have regard to the principles of the Armed Forces covenant, I should have thought that the Secretary of State responsible to Parliament for the Armed Forces would be the leading person in that capacity.
It is for this reason that I tabled Amendment 4—having benefited from the copyright very kindly given. I look forward to what my noble friend the Minister has to say. I am sure she will have a good answer which will not be good enough. Unless this is accepted by the Government, or some provisional point of view for the future is accepted, I therefore intend to test the opinion of the House on this matter.
My Lords, I support the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, on Amendment 4, and I support his Amendment 17. He has brought to your Lordships’ attention an example of where due regard is necessary from the Secretary of State. When he did so in Committee, I said that I had another one, and I would like to take the opportunity to spell that out, because this cannot be devolved or left to local authorities to be dealt with.
Some servicemen recruited in Hong Kong were full members of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, having taken the oath of allegiance and paid full UK taxes on their pay. They held British passports; some trained in this country or elsewhere to fit them for their role in Hong Kong; some were involved in jungle-style warfare training in Borneo; one large unit was sent to Cyprus to release further UK armed personnel for Operation Granby, the first Gulf War in 1991. Many in the Royal Navy Hong Kong Squadron served worldwide on Her Majesty’s ships. Now retired, they are still rightly classified as UK veterans and deserve fair treatment under the military covenant. But a few who served in those units that disbanded in 1997 missed out when allocations to retain their British citizenship were made in 1984. Some but not all of these servicemen were indeed allowed to retain their British passports and citizenships. Those that were missed out and overlooked have long been campaigning for a return of this right, which has been replaced by BN(O) status without the benefit of full British citizenship. This injustice occurred when they were still serving.
Their case was first raised in this House in 1986, over 35 years ago. It has been recommended by the Hong Kong LegCo and was strongly supported by Lord MacLehose, drawing on his long and distinguished tour as governor of Hong Kong from 1971 to 1972. The Minister who wound up that debate about Hong Kong replied:
“I hope that your Lordships will recognise that there are some complex issues to be considered here … But, again, I can assure your Lordships that we shall give this the most careful consideration.”—[Official Report, 20/1/1986; col. 102.]
Note that promise of careful consideration. Nothing happened. Nothing further was said or done. Regrettably, repeated assurance of careful, active consideration by the Home Office to this day still produces no decision. Surely these few veterans deserve better—a definitive answer, not just prevarication and stalling behind a misleading false promise of active consideration. How many more years of consideration do the Government require? Are the Home Office hoping that when the veterans are all dead the problem will be forgotten?
Following the enactment of the convenant in 2011, a small association, of which I am privileged to be honorary patron, was formed by some former members of the Hong Kong Military Service Corps to press their case again. I myself have repeatedly raised it in debates and Questions for Written Answer and written to the Prime Minister to support representations by those affected in Hong Kong. I am far from alone. Over the past nine years or more, many Members of both Houses have approached Ministers, Home Secretaries and Prime Ministers on behalf of these veterans, but over the past decade the response has been increasingly incredible and ridiculous—that is, that it is under active consideration.
Over 18 months ago, at their request, I forwarded 64 individual applications from those Military Service Corps veterans to the Home Secretary. None has been answered. There has not even been an acknowledgment from the Home Office. Understandably, the present situation in Hong Kong has strengthened the wish for this matter to be resolved and for those now few remaining individuals to be treated as full citizens. Will this Government at last do the right thing for these veterans?
Surely this is a further extreme example of the reason for a duty of care and due regard to be placed in statute on the Secretary of State. I am sure in future other issues affecting a group of veterans, not just individuals, will arise, which cannot be dealt with at devolved or local authority level. The Royal British Legion and other service charities have provided cogent arguments why it is not right to exclude central government from a statutory duty of due regard for veterans. I endorse that view based on their detailed and dedicated experience helping the veteran community. I strongly support this amendment.
My Lords, I am very pleased to support Amendment 4, in the names of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, and my friend the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, told us, his amendment gives us the opportunity to address specific injustices experienced by our ex-servicemen and he is absolutely right in telling us that the lead on this should not be local authorities but national government. That is why not only are we right to hang specific cases on this amendment, but the purpose of the amendment itself is also clear and right.
Over the past decade, my noble and gallant friend and I have knocked on the doors of Ministers and raised questions on behalf of Hong Kong veterans. I know how greatly he is admired and respected by that cohort for his dedication and commitment to their cause. We have also worked with Mr Andrew Rosindell, the Member of Parliament for Romford, who has put great energy into putting right what is a clear injustice. The treatment of Hong Kong ex-servicemen has not been commensurate with the Armed Forces covenant, and the noble and learned Lord and others are seeking to put it right.
I also pay tribute to Roger Ching, the chairperson of the HKOR Benevolent Association, and who says of the treatment of Hong Kong’s ex-servicemen that
“The attitude of successive Governments towards servicemen and women and veterans is appalling.”
In 2014, my noble and gallant friend and I met with the late James Brokenshire when he was a Home Office Minister. He was characteristically courteous, but neither he nor a series of successive Home Secretaries have been able to correct the signal injustice faced by Hong Kong’s ex-servicemen.
It is worth recalling that, from 1857 until 1997, more than 40,000 Hong Kong men lost their lives protecting our interests and the interests of the Crown. In the Great War, 100,000 British-Chinese soldiers served on the Western Front, and by the time of the Armistice the Chinese Labour Corps numbered nearly 96,000 men. In subsequent conflicts, they served alongside British servicemen: in the Second World War, in Korea, in the Malayan anti-communist campaigns and elsewhere, as the noble and gallant Lord has told us. In this month of all months, we should not only honour that contribution but do something practical to show that with memory of past sacrifice comes contemporary engagement with a long-running failure to honour the past.
In July 2006, the United Kingdom granted full British citizenship to all British Gurkha soldiers and their dependants who had served in Hong Kong. It was a generous and good decision. But why has there been such a different treatment for all but a handful of Hong Kong veterans? When Hong Kong was handed back to the Chinese Communist Party in 1997, a points- based system meant that only 159 of the 654 soldiers who applied to live in the United Kingdom were successful.
Campaigners responded to that clear injustice, and one group, 38 Degrees, even set up a petition which gathered more than 117,000 signatures. Yet the response since right of abode was set up in 1997 has failed to bring a settlement, with successive Home Secretaries repeating the mantra of which my noble and gallant friend has reminded us this afternoon: that the applications are “under consideration”. For how much longer are we to be given this unsatisfactory, stalling response?
Last year, Rosie Laydon, a presenter and reporter for Forces TV, was in touch with me. She said:
“British Hong Kong veterans do not feel the current Government offer of visas to those with BNO status offers adequate recognition of their service. They have told me that they believe they should be granted British citizenship unconditionally”— and I agree. They also told her that, as former members of the British Armed Forces, under Chinese national security laws, now imposed on Hong Kong, they are liable to be charged with spying for the United Kingdom Government.
Here I should declare that I am a patron of Hong Kong Watch, a vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong and sanctioned, along with the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, by the CCP after taking part, in my case, in an international team monitoring the district council elections in 2019. Since then, we have seen the enactment of the CCP’s draconian national security law, and I should like to hear from the Minister, for whom I have enormous respect, as she knows, what assessment she has made of the implications of loyal service to the Crown for the safety of our ex-servicemen in Hong Kong. We need to see this matter is a question of honour, but we also need to see it as a question of safety and security.
Recently, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, told me in a Parliamentary Answer:
“The National Security Law is being used to systematically stifle rights and freedoms, not protect public security.”
He also wrote:
Perhaps when the Minister replies, she can tell us when the United Kingdom is going to do anything more to hold the People’s Republic of China to account for the destruction of the basic freedoms of Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, I point out to your Lordships’ House that the Times has reported that the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, says that the CCP is “committing genocide” in Xinjiang—something that the House will return to on Thursday. In the context of Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan, I may add that there have been more than 150 sorties trying to intimidate Taiwan in the course of just five days. In Xinjiang, we have heard the United States Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, say that
“the forcing of men, women and children into concentration camps”— his words—
“trying to, in effect, re-educate them to be adherents to the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party, all of that speaks to an effort to commit genocide.”
Is it any wonder, then, that loyal servants of the Crown fear for the consequences of being abandoned in Hong Kong? The CCP has imprisoned lawyers, dissenters, pastors and journalists, such as the young woman, Zhang Zhan, tortured and jailed for four years for shining a light into the origins of the Covid pandemic in Wuhan. On Friday last, concerned for her deteriorating health, the United Nations called for her release.
In this context of arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, torture and re-education—even genocide—who can seriously doubt that Hong Kong’s ex-servicemen, like Afghan interpreters or judges, will be primary targets as “two systems, one country” becomes “one system, one party, one ideology”? Recall that this is the same CCP responsible for the massacres in Tiananmen Square and for the enormities of the Cultural Revolution—and the deaths of 50 million Chinese people.
Through the Armed Forces covenant, we have the opportunity to demonstrate that we will not abandon loyal servants of the Crown, that we do not forget our debt of honour and obligations and that Parliament will go on supporting my noble and gallant friend until this wrong has been put right. It is for those reasons that I strongly support the amendment placed before your Lordships’ House by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern.
My Lords, I support these amendments, in particular Amendment 4, tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. I have special reasons for doing so. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, said that, when he was in office, it took a long time to persuade local councils and devolved powers to agree to implement the covenant. I dispute the fact that he got them all to agree; I come from Northern Ireland and there is a particular problem there. For that reason, Amendment 4 is even more important.
In Northern Ireland, the devolved Government and many of the councils do not support the covenant. Therefore, where do we go for support? The only place we can go, without, if you like, disfranchising our veterans, is to a Secretary of State. I am sure the Minister will say that this amendment comes in the part of the Bill that affects England and that it therefore does not affect the other nations and cannot stand on its own. However, it would take just a stroke of a pen to add this for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland issue is colossal. We do not have more veterans than anywhere else but, because of our Troubles and the local security forces, we have an awful lot more in relation to our size. Of course, we have veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well. The number is significant, and these people have nobody at all to be their champion as far as the covenant goes.
At the moment—one does not need to go into the detail—the covenant is actually being administered quite well at a different level, below the radar, and we do not want to bring that up as a subject. However, on the idea of having a final place or person that people can go to, I support Amendment 4 because it brings a Secretary of State into this. It should therefore be written throughout that the Secretaries of State in the devolved areas have responsibility for this and are just quietly overseeing it. It is not necessarily a devolved issue and can be retained through the Secretary of State. He would have an influence on our veterans being supported as they should be. I certainly support these amendments.
My Lords, I also support Amendment 4. I ask your Lordships to reflect on the origin of the Armed Forces covenant, which we find in the Armed Forces Acts, going back to 2011. It was not a new idea dreamed up by the Government of the day but the beginnings of the codification of something that had existed for quite some time as an informal covenant or agreement between those who serve and the Government who require them to carry out certain operations.
The covenant is effective when the balance between the requirements placed on the Armed Forces community and veterans is itself in balance. In the days and years leading up to 2011, when the Armed Forces covenant went into law, and particularly during the most difficult period when operations in Iraq and Afghanistan were being conducted together, the balance was definitely out of kilter and we were out of balance as far as the informal aspect of the covenant was concerned.
Who could better personify and embody the government side of the balance between the Government who require the Armed Forces to carry out operations and the servicepeople who conduct those operations than the Secretary of State? I fully support Amendment 4. I support the further codification of the covenant and any moves to increase its scope, but particularly the amendment in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, which would make the Secretary of State a pinnacle and personification of the Government’s side of the covenant. That is absolutely critical.
My Lords, I too support Amendments 4 and 17. What brings me to this conviction is a case in which the widows of four soldiers from the Royal Marines were asked to leave their houses within three months of their deaths. They had nowhere to go. Another soldier who survived the same battle came to see me in Bishopthorpe, together with four other members of the Royal Marines, to say that we had to protest about the way widows were treated. There was talk about the covenant, but it had not yet come through. To raise the profile of this issue, they wanted me to join them in a parachute jump. At my age, this is quite serious business, but I thought that yes, I would join them. We were up there, at 14,500 feet, and, thank God, I survived; there was no real trouble, and I landed properly. Do you know what happened? People who saw this and learned what had been done donated a lot of money, and those four widows were housed in new builds, supported by a landowner who gave them a place to build houses.
That is what the covenant is about in the end: that we should look after anybody who has done their duty for the service of the Crown and the nation. The Bill is right to require local authorities and other places to have due regard to the covenant, but I would have thought that the Government should be first in line to have due regard to it, because the Secretary of State is answerable to Parliament, unlike local authorities. We could have some junior Minister reporting on what is happening and what is not happening, but the issue of democracy at the heart of this is that members of the Government are answerable to Parliament and can therefore be asked questions. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, is right to include the Secretary of State in Amendments 4 and 17. If they were agreed, the covenant would no longer be given to people of good will to try to do whatever they want—the Government would actually be answerable, and we could ask them questions.
This amendment is timely. I hope we will all support it and that the Government will see it as an improvement, not an attempt to create more jobs and work for the Secretary of State. In the end, our soldiers ultimately look to them for a voice, for help and for support.
I did that parachute jump and was very glad to see the covenant a few years later, but it still did not quite do what this amendment is trying to do. I say to the Government: do not come back to this again—include the Secretary of State.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 4, which I have co-signed, and Amendments 3, 5, 6 and 7 in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and my noble friend Lady Brinton. We have already seen this afternoon one of the slight peculiarities of our system, which is currently not quite hybrid: we had a long delay on the first Division, because somehow the technology did not quite work. At the moment, the technology does not quite work either for noble Lords who seek to be both in Grand Committee and in your Lordships’ House, in the main Chamber, simultaneously. For those of us here physically, it can be possible to move very quickly between the Moses Room and the Chamber. Our colleagues appearing virtually have to log on half an hour before an item of business, so my noble friend Lady Brinton apologises for not speaking on this group.
I will speak to the amendments she has co-signed with the noble Lord, Lord Coaker. There is one aspect in particular which ought to be mentioned: paragraph (i) of Amendments 3, 5, 6 and 7, which mentions an immigration function. If we are going to talk—as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, have done—about Hong Kong service personnel who served with our Armed Forces, initially as citizens and then losing that citizenship and perhaps having only the right to BNO status, I fear that we need to think about immigration questions and the Home Office.
I am aware that the Minister will be responding on behalf of the MoD, even though obviously she is also responding on behalf of the Government as a whole. I am therefore aware that some of the things we will ask might not be within her gift, but I very much endorse the impassioned calls from the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, and my noble friend Lord Alton about the situation for Hong Kong veterans. They served for us. We owe them a debt of gratitude and the citizenship rights they expected.
If the Minister cannot commit, as I suspect she will not, to changing this piece of legislation in the way that some of us might want, can she at least undertake to go and talk to her colleagues in the Home Office and discuss ways in which we can look at veterans—not just the Gurkhas or Commonwealth veterans, who will appear in later groups of amendments, but the Hongkongers? This is vital, in part to demonstrate that the United Kingdom respects those who have worked with us. We have a moral obligation. Can we trust the Government to live up to it?
We heard the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, suggest that he actually had some sympathy with this group of amendments, particularly Amendments 3, 5, 6 and 7. He would like to bring in these additional functions, alongside healthcare, education and housing, but thinks it is too much, too soon. But, as we have heard, we will not have another full Armed Forces Bill for five years. Would it not be appropriate to bring forward and approve these amendments now, acknowledging that maybe they will not all be brought in on day one? Indeed, if they were all brought in on day one, that would be nothing short of a miracle—but, if they are enshrined in the Bill, it means that the Government will have a duty to look at these additional functions, and even the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, who appears to be most sceptical about the amendments, acknowledges that these functions should be considered. So I ask the Minister to think again about these functions and whether they should be added to the Bill.
I particularly want to speak to Amendment 4, to which I added my name. It seems quite extraordinary for a Government to say, “We are so committed to the Armed Forces covenant that it has to have statutory status, yet it should not place a duty on us. We ourselves should not have to pay due regard to it, but we will ask local authorities, local health authorities and housing associations to do so”. Why are we not asking the Secretary of State for Defence to have a duty? Why are we not asking the Secretary of State responsible for levelling up, houses, communities and whatever else is now part of that portfolio?
We have heard from the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, that it would also be important for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to play a part. As he pointed out, the amendment refers only to England. It would be very simple to have additional lines that would give it validity in Northern Ireland, and indeed Scotland and Wales. If the Minister were to say, “We can’t do something that’s for England only”, could she perhaps consider bringing back at Third Reading some amendments that would deal with this?
From the letter that the Minister sent to us last week, we know that she will say that the Government are out of scope of the Bill because, actually, it is at local level that we see problems. Well, if it is only at local level that we see problems, surely it would be of no difficulty whatever for the Secretary of State to find himself in the Bill and for the Government to have a duty enshrined in this piece of legislation. The Government should be leading, not simply setting duties for other—lower—levels of local government. The Government themselves should take responsibility and the moral lead.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for a genuinely interesting and thoughtful debate. I will focus on the amendments that comprise the grouping: Amendments 3 to 7 and Amendment 17. To that end, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, for tabling his well-intended—I know that that is what they are—Amendments 3, 5, 6 and 7, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, for supporting them.
I was aware during the debate that some contributors made fairly wide-ranging speeches, not least focusing on citizens of Hong Kong and former Hong Kong military service personnel. These are important issues, but I would rather deal with them under Amendment 26, which seems more relevant to that particular area of concern. So, in addressing the amendments in group 2, I will confine my remarks to the issues covered by them.
The purpose of these amendments is to widen the scope of the new covenant duty to the areas of employment, pensions, compensation, social care, criminal justice and immigration in all four home nations. As I made clear in Committee, the new duty created by the Bill is designed to initially focus on the three core functions of healthcare, education and housing. This quite simply reflects those already in statute that are the most commonly raised areas and where variation of service delivery across localities can inadvertently cause disadvantage to the Armed Forces community.
Importantly, future areas of concern can be addressed as and when they arise through the powers in the Bill that allow the Government to widen the scope of the covenant duty, if needed, through secondary legislation. We are working with key stakeholders to establish an open and transparent process by which the scope of the legislation can successfully adapt to address the changing needs of the Armed Forces community.
As a number of your Lordship have indicated, our plan is to use the covenant reference group as the focus of this work. It has a broad representation from the Armed Forces community, service charities, families’ federations, the Local Government Association and senior officials from both central government departments in Westminster and the devolved Administrations. I suggest that the covenant reference group is therefore ideally placed to be closely involved in the future development and running of this process. It will bring the necessary expertise and representation together to best consider suitable additions to the scope of the duty.
I wish to make clear—I am not being evasive or trying to elude or escape responsibility—that we have to be very careful about what we are creating with the Bill, understand how it will work in practice, make assessments, and then have a clearer sense of what may be needed and may require to be added in the future. This will also provide an opportunity for areas of concern to emerge and be highlighted, and it may be possible that these can be addressed through other means.
In adopting this approach, we considered the practicalities of extending the covenant duty to further policy areas, and the timelines involved. Any addition to the scope of the duty will require extensive consultation with stakeholders and the devolved Administrations in order to identify the appropriate bodies and functions to bring into scope and to work through any issues arising as a result of different procedures and legal frameworks in devolved policy areas.
I suggest that a better way forward lies in first working through and resolving any practical implications arising as the new covenant duty in the Bill is implemented. This will give us a good indication of where amendments may be required to better meet the changing needs of our Armed Forces community in the future.
By retaining the flexible nature of the legislation, the Government hope to establish a firm legal foundation for the covenant while avoiding any unnecessary administrative burden. The new duty builds on the existing widespread commitment to the covenant, thereby contributing to a further strengthening of covenant delivery across the entire United Kingdom. That is not in any way dodging the bullet. I am not trying to be evasive; I am trying to explain why I think this a sensible and cautious way to proceed, and I therefore ask the noble Lord not to press these amendments.
I turn to Amendment 4, tabled by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern, and supported by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham. The purpose of Amendment 4 is to make central government departments subject to the new covenant duty. This new duty arises when a specified public body exercises a relevant function. Those functions, which are specified in the Bill, are exercised by local authorities and other public bodies, and are not matters for which central government has day-to-day responsibility.
The problem with the amendment as drafted is that it would not, as I far as I can see, serve any identifiable meaningful purpose. I can understand the enthusiasm among opposition Members of this House to land anything they possibly can on the Government. I know that my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay is not motivated by these sentiments and that he genuinely believes that there is an omission here that should be addressed, but I am trying to explain that I am not quite clear what the omission is, and I am certainly not clear how the amendment would address it.
It occurred to me that, in addressing the principle of this amendment, it would be useful to explain the Government’s thinking behind the design of the new covenant duty and how we see it establishing a firm foundation from which to build into the future. I hope noble Lords will indulge me: I will go into this in some detail because my noble and learned friend raises an important issue, and I believe it merits serious discussion and a considered response. I will attempt to give due attention to his amendment.
As I have outlined before, in considering how to take forward our commitment to further strengthen the covenant in law, we looked first at what the covenant has already achieved without being brought into any statutory provision. The considerable number of successful covenant initiatives across many different policy areas shows how the covenant provides a framework through which the widespread admiration and support for our Armed Forces community can flourish, allows scope for innovation and permits future growth. That is why we designed the new covenant duty around the principle of “due regard” as a means of building greater awareness and understanding of the lives of the Armed Forces community, which will bolster, rather than weaken, this support.
We considered carefully which functions and policy areas the covenant duty should encompass, including those that are the responsibility of central government. This required an assessment of the benefits arising from their inclusion, focusing on the purpose of the duty: to raise awareness among providers of public services of how service life can disadvantage the Armed Forces community, and so encourage a more consistent approach across the UK.
We were mindful that central government is responsible for the overall strategic direction for national policy, whereas the responsibility for the delivery of front-line services and their impact generally rests at local level. The Government are fully aware of issues impacting on the Armed Forces community. Indeed, we work with other departments and organisations to raise awareness across all service providers. The inclusion of central government in the scope of the duty was therefore not seen as necessary.
The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, raised a particular issue with reference to Northern Ireland. The key front-line services we wish to target are generally devolved issues. They are not the responsibility of the Westminster Government, so any additions to the scope of the duty in respect of central government would not address the concern he has but would cause a greater disparity in covenant delivery if the—
I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. I remind her that when we found that the Executive were not operating on things that they should operate on, as in this case—I am talking about abortion—this Government, from here, overrode the Assembly. Therefore, there is a precedent for doing so.
The noble Lord refers to a very difficult and sensitive issue, and I think he is referring to the time when the Executive were not functioning in Northern Ireland. This Bill is concerned with the actual delivery of services that exist at the moment. It is the responsibility of Northern Ireland’s devolved legislature to deliver health, housing and education, although it may not directly be doing any of these things. That is why bringing in central government does not address the noble Lord’s concern. Indeed, there is an argument that, if you brought in the Westminster Government but not the devolved Governments, there would be an even greater disparity in covenant delivery. The reason the devolved Governments are not in this Bill is that it would seem to be beyond its scope.
I have previously explained that, as we look to the future, the vital element in our approach rests with the new powers granted to the Government in the Bill to add to the scope of the duty. This will allow it to effectively adapt to the changing needs and concerns of the Armed Forces community. We are engaging with government officials and covenant stakeholders to establish an open and transparent process, by which possible additions to the new duty can be thoroughly considered and evaluated, and we expect issues of concern to be raised, as they are now, by members of the Armed Forces community, by service charities and by other stakeholders through our existing networks. So, to be clear, we see no restriction to the nature of any issue raised, including those that fall within the responsibility of central government.
My noble friend Lord Lancaster asked wisely whether it would not have been better to approach this incrementally. I think that is exactly what would be better, and that is what the Government are intending to do. His other words, I think, were about being very wary of doing too much too soon. The reason the Government are being cautious about this is that we are breaking new ground. We are going where Governments have not gone before in relation to the covenant. We hope it will lead to improvement right across the United Kingdom, but we have to assess in practice how this will all work once this legislation has gone through.
The plan, as we look to the future, is for the work to be focused through the covenant reference group, which, as a number of your Lordships are aware, is made up of independent representatives from service charities, such as the Royal British Legion, the War Widows’ Association and the families’ federations, and, as I said earlier, includes senior officials from central government departments at Westminster and from the devolved Administrations. That group plays an important role in working with the Government to set out the overall direction of the covenant. It ratifies the grant-awarding priorities of the Armed Forces covenant fund trust, as it is recognised as having a clear understanding of the issues of most concern to the Armed Forces community.
I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, who asked about the covenant reference group and its terms of reference. The covenant reference group feeds into the ministerial covenant veterans board, chaired by the Defence Secretary and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and that board last met on
In my opinion, the covenant reference group is ideally placed to be closely involved in the evaluation process, both in terms of its development and the conduct of its work. Where there is evidence to support the inclusion of new bodies and functions, a recommendation will be made to the Secretary of State for Defence, who will then consult with relevant stakeholders. Where a decision is made to exercise the power to extend the scope of the duty, further consultation will be required with key stakeholders before making regulations, which would need to be approved by both Houses of Parliament.
Crucially, any evaluation process must also ensure that extending the scope of the new duty would help to address any perceived problem, as it may not always be the appropriate response and there may be other methods of addressing the areas of disadvantage required under the covenant that do not necessarily require statutory powers.
I am aware that the attraction of trying to attach an obligation to central government is, in the minds of your Lordships, a convenient way of addressing a raft of perceived deficiencies and shortcomings, or issues that have not been addressed. Actually, there is a very good litany of achievements under the covenant that has not required any legislative status as such. I am thinking of things such as the inclusion of veteran-specific care pathways for mental health and prosthetic care in the NHS in England, and of Operation Courage, which brings together all three veterans’ mental health services—the transition, intervention and liaison service, the complex treatment service and the high-intensity service. I am thinking also of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which requires the Secretary of State to refer members of the regular Armed Forces in England to a local housing authority if they believe that they may be made homeless or threatened with homelessness within 56 days. We have the Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Act 2018, providing flexible working opportunities for the modern service family. We have a new schools admission code for England, which came into force in September of this year, specifically to ensure that service families are not disadvantaged by the mobility requirement when applying for school places. The Department for Education allocates additional funding in the form of the service pupil premium to state-funded schools in England with service children. The strategy for our veterans lays out our—
I do not disagree with all the good things that the noble Baroness is describing, which the Government have brought about, but I have not heard her address the central argument of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern: that it might be easier for the Government to persuade others to go on doing good things if the Government bound themselves in the same way as they are seeking to bind others. I suppose the noble Baroness could say that the Government feel bound already, but if so, why not spell it out in the Bill?
I am sure the noble Lord has been listening carefully to the argument that I have been advancing, but I have been trying to distinguish between identified, critical core services—in this case housing, education and health, which the Armed Forces community said mattered most to them—and how we address the delivery of these services. In the main, these services are not delivered by central government but by a range of other agencies, and may be the responsibility of devolved Administrations, in turn delivering them through their agencies. The point I am making is that adding an obligation to central government does not seem in any way to address the need that we have identified that has to be addressed: the current disparity in the delivery of services across the United Kingdom. That, quite simply, is what the Bill is seeking to rectify. That is why trying to attach a covenant obligation to central government is something of a red herring—I do not actually see what it is going to deliver.
Before the noble Lord interrupted me, I was simply explaining, by way of illustration, the point I have just been making: exactly what it has been possible for the Government to do without attaching any statutory obligation on them, and I am not even halfway through my list. At the risk of being tedious with your Lordships, I was also going to mention, finally, a new holistic transition policy that co-ordinates and manages the transition from military to civilian life for service personnel and their families when they leave the Armed Forces. The Defence Transition Services also supports those in that position. We have the Career Transition Partnership, and a range of initiatives and support packages covering a wide range of activity, all of which benefit our Armed Forces personnel. I merely adduce that list to illustrate how alternative processes allow areas of concern to be brought to light more readily and addressed more quickly through other means, if necessary, including action to be taken by central government departments and devolved Administrations, where appropriate.
I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, who specifically raised the evaluation process. This would feed into our existing commitment to review the overall performance of the covenant duty as part of our post-legislation scrutiny. That review will be submitted to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee and will also be covered in the covenant annual report. This is in addition to regular parliamentary scrutiny, such as Parliamentary Questions and regular reviews by the Select Committee, or whatever form of inquiry Members of the other place and of this House may wish to undertake. The detail of the evaluation process is still being worked on with our stakeholders, but I hope that this background and the outline of the process provides reassurance that it represents a better way forward and that we are committed to continuing our work to mitigate the impact of service life on the Armed Forces community, wherever it may occur.
Listening to some of the contributions, it occurred to me that there may be a misunderstanding of the role of the Armed Forces covenant. My noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern recalled an interesting and arguably disturbing situation, in which it is possible that Armed Forces personnel suffered harm. I undertake to look at that instance in detail; he provided a reference for where I can find more information.
However, I say to my noble and learned friend that central government, and the MoD in particular, are directly responsible for the Armed Forces, and the MoD has always looked after the welfare of service personnel. During the Bill’s passage through this House, we have heard how the support provided has improved, expanded and developed over time, particularly in relation to issues such as mental health. Central government and the MoD answer to Ministers, are held to account in Parliament, and may be held to account by the courts of this land. But the covenant is a separate concept: it is a promise by the nation as a whole to the Armed Forces community that they will not be disadvantaged because of their service. It brings in other organisations, such as health providers and local authorities, who are not directly responsible for the Armed Forces community but whose decisions undoubtedly affect them. It is this new duty that will ensure that these organisations consistently apply the principles of the covenant and can be confident of the legal basis for doing so. Based on this fairly lengthy explanation, I hope that my noble and learned friend will not press his amendment.
I turn to Amendment 17, also tabled by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern. I know that he is motivated by the best and most honourable of intentions, but I am somewhat unclear about its purpose. The new definition contained in the amendment adds nothing to the duties already set out in the Bill. Indeed, perhaps disquietingly, it seems to decrease the scope of that duty, which I know is not my noble and learned friend’s intention.
We are clear that the Armed Forces covenant is a promise by the nation to support our Armed Forces community. The amendment characterises the scope and character of that promise as an agreement between the Secretary of State and servicepeople. But, with the greatest respect to my noble and learned friend, in doing so, it fails to capture its essence: it is a much broader and more widely embracing concept.
The covenant was framed during a time of great pressure on the Armed Forces community. As I have described at some length, it has been delivered highly successfully in the succeeding decade because it captures the spirit of appreciation and voluntary support for that community from people of every walk of life across the United Kingdom. This voluntary spirit is why it is called a covenant and framed as something far greater than the more transactional approach that this amendment could engender. To express the covenant in the way proposed by this amendment goes against the spirit of the covenant and the many successful initiatives that it has produced, built on the widespread admiration and support to which I have referred.
The Armed Forces covenant is described on the government website for the Armed Forces, and on the front of the annual report, as
That definition is not in statue, but the principles of the covenant appear in the Armed Forces Act 2006. That is why this Bill has been taking forward greater detail, to try to assist the delivery of vital services for our Armed Forces community.
The description I have just given of the covenant far better captures its nature, which provides the framework through which support for our Armed Forces community can thrive and grow. I thank your Lordships for indulging me with patience and courtesy, as these were important points which had to be addressed at length. In view of the explanation I have given, I hope my noble and learned friend will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her very detailed answer to my amendment. It was clear to me, from the beginning of this provision titled “Armed Forces Covenant Report” in the 2011 Act, that all that had been done to make any references to the Armed Forces covenant in this was to delete the word “report”. But it seemed to me that, in the ordinary course of statutory interpretation, you need to know what you are talking about, and I was surprised—I thought I must have missed something, though the Minister now confirms that I did not—that there was nothing in statute to define the Armed Forces of the Crown covenant. A covenant is a contract, and it is obvious that the people of the United Kingdom are represented in this agreement by the Secretary of State. Therefore, it seems to me odd that the Secretary of State is not prepared to have regard to the principles given at the opening of this provision. Of course, the term “Secretary of State” includes the Secretary of State for Defence and other Secretaries of State as well, if that is relevant to the provision in question. I find it hard to have the Government of the United Kingdom say that they are not prepared to be bound to have regard to the principles of the covenant.
If I should by any chance be successful, this will go back to the House of Commons, and the Commons will have to ask themselves whether it is reasonable that the Government of this country should refuse to be bound to have regard to the principles of the Armed Forces covenant. I do not think the Government intend that, but that is the effect of leaving this out. Having this on a website is not equivalent, as yet, to having it in law—the statute book is still distinct from a website. It rather comforts me that the definition on the website includes the Government. I think that something of this kind is necessary, and I had rather hoped that the Minister might think of Third Reading as a time to put in a definition, but there is no offer of that kind, and I understand why she is not a position to do that.
I thank all who have supported me, as I think all who have spoken apart from the Minister have, which is a very good situation so far as I am concerned. I am not concerned about anything except that the Armed Forces covenant should be as effective as possible in law in our country. I do not subscribe to the other extensions that were being suggested in amendments because I can see that there is power to do that and, as and when resources are available, it would be right to bring that in by regulation.
In the meantime, I very much regret to tell my noble friend that in all conscience I do not feel able to withdraw the amendment. It is a matter that has to be faced by those who are responsible for this if they are not prepared to subscribe to having regard to the principles of the Armed Forces covenant.
My Lords, I believe that in order for the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, to move his very important Amendment 4, I need to withdraw my Amendment 3 as the lead amendment in that group. In doing so, I thank the Minister for her response, which tried to address some of the concerns that I raised about the covenant reference group and the fact that the group could make suitable additions in future. That takes on board the point of the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, about incrementalism perhaps being a better way forward than the “all in at once” approach in my amendment. I thank the Minister for her reply but, in withdrawing my amendment, I want to say that I very much support Amendment 4.
As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay—and all noble Lords across the Committee apart from the Minister—said, at the end of the day, whatever the rights and wrongs of this, the people of this country would be incredulous to find that the due regard principle was applicable to local authorities, public health authorities and so on, but not to central government. I think people would find that incredible, and that is why it is so important for us to support Amendment 4 in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 3 withdrawn.