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John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): In a statement given to this House in December, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), circulated a list of courts to be closed which stated that the county court services in Worksop would transfer to Worksop magistrates court. To clarify that that was the case, I asked him a question from these Benches, and he confirmed to the House that it was so. It has subsequently come to light not only that that information provided orally to the House and in writing was inaccurate, but that exactly the opposite is happening, and that the county court services are to transfer away from Worksop court. I am sure that this was not an attempt to mislead the House but a bureaucratic cock-up of some kind by civil servants. Will you advise me, Mr Speaker, on how the Minister can best rectify this situation whereby his civil servants have clearly not carried out his instructions as outlined to the House?
Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for his giving me notice of it. From that notice-the letter that he sent to me before Christmas-I am well aware of his concern on this matter, which he has reiterated forcefully this afternoon. There is a mechanism for the correction of ministerial replies where necessary. That observation will have been heard by those on the Treasury Bench and, I trust, in the relevant Department. The hon. Gentleman can seek advice from the Table Office on how to pursue this matter, and I rather imagine that he will. I note that Ministry of Justice Ministers are answering oral questions tomorrow. I hope that that response is helpful.
Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You will be aware of the serious riots in Ford open prison during the parliamentary recess. The Government have set up an inquiry to consider the causes and what lessons can be learned. I would be grateful if you could ensure through your good offices that when the inquiry comes to a conclusion, Ministers come to the House to make an oral statement on the findings, and do not simply rely on a press notice or leaks to the newspapers.
Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. The means of communication of Government conclusions is a matter for the Government-that is to say, it is not for me to specify that there be an oral rather than a written statement. Her plea will have been heard by those on the Treasury Bench. More widely on this important issue, I reiterate a point that I made in response to the previous point of order, namely that Justice questions will be answered tomorrow. I doubt that it will be beyond the wit and dexterity of hon. Members to raise this matter if they so wish.
Mr Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West) (Lab):
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I in no way seek to challenge your ruling, but wish to explain to you and the House that I was delayed by seeking to speak to a constituent who is a double infectee of hepatitis C and AIDS, who has suffered greatly and who has been very active in the campaign, to discuss the very issues that
were the subject of the statement by the Secretary of State for Health. I will be in touch with the Secretary of State in writing to raise the points that I would like to have raised.
Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. There is a good deal of disquiet over the proceedings against six demonstrators. The case has been dropped because the police were very reluctant to give information about an undercover agent. It is not unknown, of course, for police officers to act as undercover agents, and in many cases it is perfectly justified, such as in terrorism cases that safeguard our country. It appears that the police constable in this case was not just an undercover agent; he has more or less admitted that he was acting as an agent provocateur-there is no other way to describe it. Is there any way in which the Home Secretary can be asked to make a statement on this case, which as I said is creating a good deal of disquiet?
Mr Speaker: It is up to a Minister in the Home Office or another relevant Department to decide whether to make a statement. On the face of it, this seems to be good material for a business question. The hon. Gentleman might want to raise the matter at the appropriate slot on Thursday. That is the best that I can offer him at the moment.
Stewart Hosie (Dundee East) (SNP): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Has the Business Secretary asked to make a statement on Royal Mail's deployment of what it calls the "Way Forward" system of working? Its roll-out in my constituency has been shambolic for nearly two months, with many constituents receiving mail late or not at all. What powers do you have to compel the Secretary of State to take questions on that matter before the system is deployed elsewhere in the country?
Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I think he well knows that I have no such powers, but it is decent of him to think that I might be granted them. I say to him that the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and his colleagues will, if memory serves me, answer oral questions on Thursday. I look forward with interest and enthusiasm to seeing him in his place on that occasion.
Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On 20 December, the day before the House rose, the Secretary of State for Transport made a statement on the route of the high-speed rail network and said that the main interchange would be at the Old Oak Common depot in my constituency. He visited that depot before coming to the House. Although that is the largest ever civil engineering project in the area, he did not inform me of that visit. He did, however, inform the press, to which he made statements; the local Conservative party, which then publicised the visit; and the local authority. Given that that appears to have breached not only the custom of informing Members but those of not making statements before coming to the House and of not using announcements to party advantage, can you help me understand how it can be prevented from happening in future?
Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point of order, and I appreciate the importance of the issue to his constituency and a great many others. Major announcements should be made first in the House. The exact mechanics by which Ministers inform all the interested parties are not necessarily a matter for the rules of the House, but I suggest that he draw the matter to the attention of the Procedure Committee, which is considering ministerial statements.
More widely, if I have understood the hon. Gentleman correctly, I simply reiterate what I think most colleagues understand and try to apply, namely that there is a convention that a Member, including a Minister, visiting the constituency of another Member notifies the Member whose constituency is being visited in advance, and preferably in a timely way so that that Member has proper notice of it. I hope that that is helpful.
Before we start today's debate, the House will want to pay tribute to Corporal Steven Dunn from 216 (Parachute) Signal Squadron, attached to 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment Battlegroup; Warrant Officer Charles Wood from 23 Pioneer Regiment Royal Logistic Corps; and, from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 5th Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland, Private Joseva Vatubua, who all died following actions in Afghanistan. My thoughts and prayers, and I am sure those of the whole House, are with their families and friends at this very distressing time for them.
The Ministry of Defence usually brings forward an armed forces Bill once every five years, so this is a relatively rare parliamentary occasion for the Department. Many of us who have been involved with defence for some time remember the last Armed Forces Bill, now the Armed Forces Act 2006, which established a single system of service law for the first time. Hon. Members will remember that it was a very large Bill. I remember it well, as Second Reading was three days after my appointment as shadow Defence Secretary and I spent three frantic days coming to terms with its complexity. Feedback from the services following its implementation has confirmed that it was a good Bill and is proving a good Act in practice. I pay tribute to those on both sides of the House who worked on the Bill through its long and difficult process and helped to introduce the changes that have made it so successful.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this Bill is considerably smaller. In its own way, however, it too is an important piece of legislation. It continues a series of armed forces Bills that stretch back to the Bill of Rights of 1689, which enacted that the keeping of an Army in time of peace shall be against the law
"unless it be with consent of Parliament".
As the Ministry of Defence normally has a Bill only every five years, there is a tendency to aggregate proposals that require primary legislation until the next one comes along. Consequently, armed forces Bills sometimes cover a much wider range of topics than service discipline, which is traditionally the main subject. The Bill is an instance of that practice. It contains eight main groups of clauses.
The first group of clauses deals with renewal, and the second with the armed forces covenant. I will speak about those groups in a few moments. The third group covers the service police forces and the Ministry of Defence police. The fourth relates to powers of entry, search and seizure. The fifth provides for testing service personnel, in specified circumstances, for alcohol and drugs. The sixth relates to punishments and other court orders. The seventh makes a small number of changes to the Armed Forces Act 2006. The eighth makes amendments and repeals other primary legislation.
Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): The Secretary of State knows that there are no provisions to deal with the closure or realignment of military facilities, which are currently considered by the Ministry of Defence, in secret, or to support communities after bases are closed. In contrast, the United States, through legislation, has a transparent process, which is managed by a commission. There is a vote on Capitol hill, and an agency that helps communities that are affected by closures and realignment. Why does the UK not emulate that? Will the Government consider including provisions to achieve that in the Bill?
Clause 1 provides for renewal of the legislation, which would otherwise expire in November. It allows the legislation to be renewed each year through an Order in Council, which must be debated and approved by both Houses of Parliament. However, the clause also provides that renewal by Order in Council may be done for a maximum of only five years, after which the Act must once again be renewed by primary legislation. The effect is that the legislation governing the armed forces will expire no later than 2016, unless it is renewed before then by primary legislation. That rightly provides for parliamentary scrutiny. In effect, it is the mechanism whereby parliamentary control over our armed forces is exercised.
I wish to focus on four topics: the armed forces covenant; the independence of the service police forces; testing for drugs and alcohol, and the appointment of civilian prosecutors. I believe that they are likely to be the subjects of greatest interest to hon. Members during the Bill's passage.
I should like to begin with the clause that refers to the armed forces covenant. Since coming to office, the coalition Government have confirmed their commitment to rebuilding the covenant, to do the right thing by the men and women who have joined our armed forces, today and in the past, together with their families.
The Secretary of State will know that I put a question to the Prime Minister only a few weeks ago about whether it was fair for war widows to pay tax on their war widows' pensions. Will that requirement be removed as part of the covenant?
Dr Fox: No, not as part of the Bill. However, while the Bill sets out the framework for the covenant, there are ample opportunities in Parliament to change any of the rules and regulations that relate to the armed forces in several ways, through the usual procedures available to the House.
As the House will know, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has spoken of the Government's desire to enshrine the covenant in law. We have been considering the best way to do that. Our starting point is that the armed forces covenant is fundamentally a moral obligation on the Government, the nation and the armed forces. It is an agreement between the armed forces and the whole
nation, not just the Government. It can never be defined by a host of rules and regulations, designed to tell everyone exactly what to do in every circumstance. Certainly, as I have just said to my hon. Friend, when rules need to be changed, we will do so. However, generally the people of this country know how service personnel should be treated, and our task is to create the right framework for that to happen.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): The Secretary of State will know that I entirely agree with him about the moral imperative behind the covenant. Some 9% of the armed forces personnel come from Wales, yet only 2% of the armed forces personnel are based in Wales, and that is one of the things that makes it more difficult to have continuity of care for those people once they have left the armed forces. Will the Secretary of State look carefully at basing more of the armed forces personnel in Wales so that that continuity can be maintained, and how will he ensure that the relationship with the Welsh Assembly Government, who have responsibility for health care, education and housing, is maintained?
Dr Fox: I will come on to the issue of the devolved bodies in a moment, but the hon. Gentleman is trying to get me on to the basing debate again. The primary duty of the Government is to ensure that the armed forces are laid out across the United Kingdom in the way that is most beneficial to the defence of the country. However, if the hon. Gentleman is looking for a champion of the cause of the armed forces being tied to the whole concept of the Union, he does not have to look much further. I believe that as we have units that represent the whole of the United Kingdom, we should look, where possible, to ensure that we have basing across the whole of the United Kingdom; but, as I say, the primary responsibility of the Government is to ensure that bases are allocated in a way that makes the greatest sense in terms of the wider defence of the country.
The armed forces covenant is of such importance that it needs to be brought properly to the attention of Parliament. We propose to do this not through long and complex legislation, but through the mechanism of an annual forces covenant report. The relevant clause in the Bill will require me to lay a report before the House every year on the effects that membership of the armed forces has on service people. I have no doubt that the House will wish to take notice of that annual report and undertake whatever scrutiny it considers appropriate.
Mr Elfyn Llwyd (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC): During evidence-taking with the Howard League for Penal Reform, one ex-chief of the armed forces suggested it might be a good idea if there were a Minister within the Cabinet Office with cross-cutting responsibilities dealing with veterans, because the issues involved here are far broader than health, education and so forth. Will the Government consider that at some point?
The Government are certainly considering better cross-departmental working on these issues. To be fair to the previous Government, they did begin some of this work to see how there could be better co-ordination across Whitehall. We have a number of pieces of work under way, not least from my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), looking at how we can better co-ordinate what is happening in
health and social services, for example, with what the Ministry of Defence intends to do. The hon. Gentleman is proposing the same end as that which we seek, but the means by which we achieve it may be open to some debate between us.
Mr Bob Ainsworth (Coventry North East) (Lab): The Secretary of State will be aware that the Royal British Legion has written to some, if not all, Members about its concerns about the process he is putting in place. When we undertook the service personnel Command Paper, we were anxious not only to improve the relationship between the armed forces and different Government Departments, but to put in place a mechanism that made sure that that did not fall into disrepair and that the situation was independently updated. The RBL is worried that the mechanism the Secretary of State is proposing effectively takes over from that, and does away with the independent reporting mechanism brought in by the Command Paper for the reference group to report on an annual and a five-yearly basis on the need for improvements to what we might call the covenant. Will the Secretary of State respond to that, because it is of concern to the British Legion as well as to me?
Dr Fox: I believe the concerns set out in the letter from the British Legion that all Members will have received are unfounded. We intend to build on that independence in respect of the external reference group, and I will be happy to discuss exactly how that will feed into the new process with the British Legion throughout the passage of the legislation. We all want the same thing: we all want there to be proper scrutiny of what Government, across the whole of government, do in terms of our service personnel. I hope we can maintain that independent element, and we can discuss with the British Legion how that feeds into the report that will ultimately come to this House. I am very open-minded about how we do that, but I do want to maintain this element of independent reporting so that when the House receives the report from the Secretary of State it is able to access as much information as possible not just from the Government, but externally sourced as well. I think that any belief that seems to have come from the legion on that is misplaced. The Government intend to be as open as possible during the entire process, and will certainly be happy to discuss the matter during subsequent stages of the Bill, and to discuss with the bodies involved how we can best make this happen.
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): While we are on the subject of cross-departmental responsibilities, will my right hon. Friend say a word, in particular, about mental health issues, about which I know he is concerned? I believe that I am right in saying that the average time for serious post-traumatic mental health issues to emerge is about 14 years after leaving the service, which inevitably means that Departments other than his own will have to be involved in care and welfare. Does he have any observations to make on that?
I would like gently to correct my hon. Friend's statistics: complex post-traumatic stress disorder can emerge up to 14 years afterwards; 14 is not the average figure, and in fact it is often much earlier than that.
However, he is correct that there is a time spectrum involved here, which is why it is essential that we have in place mechanisms to deal not only with those who present acutely, but with those who present at a much later date. We shall be undertaking further work and research to ensure that the mechanisms we put in place to deal with that are fully informed by the objective evidence of the science of the day.
I reiterate what I have said in the House before: we are seeing a modest increase in the number of cases of PTSD. We have seen them related to conflicts as long ago as the Falklands; we have seen them from the Gulf war; and we are bound to see them from Iraq and Afghanistan, and if we are not able to deal with those issues and put in place the mechanisms for dealing with them adequately, we will let down not only those who have put themselves at risk for our country's security, but the country itself. As I said before, I believe that still in this country mental health is too much of a Cinderella service in health care in general. We must not allow that to happen in the armed forces, especially for those who have been willing to sacrifice themselves for us.
Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD): I am most grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way; he is being characteristically generous in doing so. He will be aware that the Bill places upon him a duty to lay a report before the House of Commons on health care, education and housing, and that he has a discretion to go beyond those topics-that is expressly provided for. In view of what he has just said about health care being a Cinderella subject, would it not be appropriate to put it in the Bill as a topic upon which he has a duty, like other duties, to report in express terms to the House?
Dr Fox: It is clear that the Government intend such a report to include health care, housing and education. However, my right hon. and learned Friend will not be surprised to hear that I would happily be tempted into other areas within the discretion that the Bill allows. That is an absolute minimum. The country would expect us to look at wider and interrelated issues, if we are to offer the degree of scrutiny that the House and the country would want on this subject.
Clause 2 provides for what the Secretary of State must cover in his report, and as my right hon. and learned Friend said, effects on health care, education and housing will normally be addressed in it. There are perennial issues that I believe will always be important to the service and ex-service community, and those are among the foremost. Other issues will emerge at the time, so the Bill provides for flexibility, and I will want to consider other issues as they emerge.
There is also the question about who is covered in the Bill. The Bill refers to a broad span of people. The total number of serving and former personnel and their families is about 10 million-one in six of the population of this country. For ex-service personnel, the Bill specifies an interest in those who are resident in the UK. Again, that does not prevent a Secretary of State from covering relevant issues for those who live abroad, although many aspects of their lives would be matters for their own Governments.
The Bill-rightly in the Government's view-says little about how the annual report will be prepared, but as I said in response to the right hon. Member for
Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), we intend to consult widely and to ensure that there is rigour and independence in the information that is ultimately put before the House through the Secretary of State's report. My intention, as Defence Secretary, will therefore be to consult widely with interested parties, inside and outside Government, in preparing a report. Charities and devolved Administrations will have much to contribute, as too, no doubt, will Members of the House of Commons.
I also believe, however, that the report will evolve over time. We are breaking new ground, and we will learn from experience, listen to comments and move forward together in a positive way. I am clear that that is the right way to proceed, rather than making the legislation excessively prescriptive.
The Bill also contains a group of clauses that will further buttress the independence and effectiveness of service police investigations. I am delighted that shortly before Christmas the High Court gave a strong endorsement of the ability of the service police to investigate, under the Armed Forces Act 2006, the most serious allegations. Nevertheless, we want to be sure that the independence and effectiveness of service police investigations have all the safeguards we can reasonably provide.
The first clause in the group places on each of the three provost marshals-the heads of the service police forces-a duty to ensure that service police investigations are carried out free from improper interference. The second clause provides for the service police to be inspected by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary. The inspectorate has previously inspected the service police on a voluntary basis, but the clause places an obligation on it to carry out inspections of the service police and lay its reports before Parliament. The third clause provides that the three provost marshals will in future be appointed to their positions by Her Majesty the Queen. Once again, that recognises and reinforces their independence from the service chains of command when carrying out investigations. In making these changes, we seek to ensure that the service police will continue to carry out to the highest standards their role as a part of the armed forces but one that is independent of the main chains of command, and I believe that the provisions in the Bill will do just that.
Mark Lancaster (Milton Keynes North) (Con): Given the harmonisation of military law across the three services, does the Secretary of State feel that perhaps the time has come to be bolder? Why do we still need three separate police forces within the armed forces? Why can we not have one military police force, given that all these forces now undertake training together?
I know that this issue was examined by the previous Government, as it has been by this Government. The view that has been taken is that because there are differences between the three services this approach is culturally the best way to go about things. If my hon. Friend has very strong views on this, I am sure that he will be willing to bring them to the House, perhaps in the form of an amendment, during the passage of the Bill. That would give us a chance to debate the merits and demerits of this approach further. There are undoubtedly arguments on both sides and the Government
have just decided that, out of due respect for the differences between the services, this was the best way for us to continue to proceed.
Other provisions in the Bill introduce a new regime under which service personnel commit an offence if they exceed an alcohol limit while carrying out certain duties. The limits and duties will be prescribed in regulations subject to the affirmative resolution of both Houses. The Bill also contains provisions allowing commanding officers the flexibility to test on a case-by-case basis in two circumstances. One is where they have reasonable cause to believe that a service person's ability to carry out a prescribed duty is impaired due to drugs or alcohol. The other is where they have reasonable cause to believe that such a person is in breach of a limit on alcohol specified in regulations in relation to particular duties.
The main reason behind those changes is to increase safety and to act as a deterrent, and I wish to explain to the House why that is. When Parliament approved the Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003 and regulations were made under it, the provisions were not extended to the services because they were considered to be too restrictive, given that so many service personnel are engaged in potentially dangerous activities in the course of their employment. That exemption had wide cross-party support at the time. Against that background, the then Government gave an undertaking that a bespoke scheme would be created for the armed forces. Policy development was too immature for proposals to be included in the last Armed Forces Bill and progress had since stalled due to a lack of a legislative vehicle, so I am pleased that such a scheme is included in this Bill. The provisions in this group are important, because they are aimed at creating a safer environment when service personnel are carrying out safety-critical tasks in the course of their employment, both generally and when on operations. Rather than limiting commanding officers to acting after an incident has taken place, as happens at present, the changes in the Bill will allow commanding officers also to act earlier in the future. One of the concerns that I expressed during the passage of the previous Bill was that it might reduce the freedom and discretion of commanding officers. A number of changes in this Bill go to redress that in some way.
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): As a past commanding officer, I think that it is an extremely good thing that more power be given back to commanding officers, including discretionary power. I think particularly of warrant officers who offend. It has been mandatory to reduce such officers to the ranks, but if they have done 20 years in the armed forces, that will have a deep effect on their pensions, for example. Therefore, this is a good change to the Armed Forces Act 2006 and I congratulate the Secretary of State on introducing it.
Dr Fox: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. The change that he refers to will not only give discretion but provide a sense proportion and justice in dealing with such issues. The idea of a draconian, one-size-fits-all punishment is not in line with the traditions of this country or the armed forces. This is a sensible change that will command support on both sides of the House.
At present, the Director of Service Prosecutions is allowed under the Armed Forces Act to delegate his functions only to legally qualified service officers. As a result, the prosecuting staff at the Service Prosecuting Authority are all service lawyers. Given the small number of service lawyers and the competing pressure on them, the Director of Service Prosecutions has asked for a provision to be added to the Bill to allow civilian lawyers to be appointed to posts in the Service Prosecuting Authority.
The burden of the cases referred to the Director of Service Prosecutions and the complexity of those cases may continue to increase. The service police continue to investigate allegations of serious criminal offences, including sexual offences, fraud and computer-based crime; and allegations arising out of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The decisions taken to prosecute or not to prosecute, especially those cases where there is an operational context, are often finely balanced and involve difficult prosecution decisions.
The change is being made as a reasonable precaution to allow the Director of Service Prosecutions the flexibility to appoint civilian prosecutors. That will be done only if it becomes necessary in order to ensure that the Service Prosecuting Authority continues to have access to an adequate number of prosecutors with the necessary professional skills. All those involved greatly value the benefits of Service Prosecuting Authority lawyers being current serving officers. There is no intention to move to a completely civilian authority.
The Director of Service Prosecutions acts independently of my Department and comes under the general superintendence of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General. It would be for him to decide if such a change were needed. There has been an exchange between my Department and the Attorney-General setting out the circumstances in which the provision would be brought into force. As part of that, it is clear that there would be consultation between our two Departments before any action were taken.
I believe that our Armed Forces are among the best, if not the best, in the world. One of the reasons that they are so good is that they conduct themselves with great discipline. It is something for which our armed forces have a deserved reputation throughout the world. The Bill helps to underpin that discipline. It will ensure that our armed forces continue to have a fair and modern system of service justice that underpins the operational effectiveness of which we are all in the House rightly proud. I commend the Bill to the House.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in today's debate on the Bill. The Armed Forces Act 2006 was a watershed for the military disciplinary system and I am glad to have the opportunity to renew and improve it through this Bill. Before I do so, I want to do what the Secretary of State rightly did and make a comment or two about Afghanistan.
As we gather after the new year recess, during which we enjoyed the company of and time with our families and loved ones, it is a time for us to remember how
fortunate we are for the peaceful lives that we and, for the most part, our constituents lead and to reflect on the sacrifices that others make on our behalf to enable us to enjoy the opportunities that we do. Upwards of 10,000 men and women serving in Afghanistan did not spend Christmas with their families but, rather, stood up against an enemy that wishes to destroy all that we hold dear. The whole House will rightly thank them and send them our deepest and best wishes.
Tragically, for some families that absence is now permanent. Our thoughts are with the families and friends of those who have died in the service of our country over the Christmas and new year period: Private Joseva Vatubua of 5th Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland; Warrant Officer Charles Wood of 23 Pioneer Regiment the Royal Logistic Corps; Corporal Steven Dunn from 216 (Parachute) Signal Squadron, attached to 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment Battlegroup; and Private John Howard from 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment. Their patriotism, courage and dedication are unsurpassed. They will always be remembered by their friends and family and should never be forgotten by this House.
On Afghanistan, I want to say to this House, our forces and, importantly, our enemies that the Government will always have the support of the Opposition when they do the right thing to support our service personnel. We will continue to conduct debates on Afghanistan, in particular, in a spirit of comradeship, for that is in the national interest above all party interest.
The Armed Forces Bill is important and I am glad to have the opportunity to debate the issues that arise from it. The 2006 Act consolidated and modernised all the previous service discipline Acts and replaced them with a single system of service law that amounted to a complete overhaul of legislation on military law and service discipline. The Bill is, as the Secretary of State said, an important continuation of that Act that makes some modest but sensible changes.
The Bill's contents concern the welfare, well-being and management of our service personnel. The previous Government had a strong record in that area, not just because of the introduction of the 2006 Act but because we ensured that forces' pay increases were among the highest in the public sector, invested in accommodation and rehabilitation facilities and increased access to the NHS for dependants. The previous Government also published the service personnel Command Paper in 2008-the first cross-Government strategy on the welfare of armed forces personnel. That doubled compensation payments for the most serious injuries, doubled the welfare grant for the families of those on operations, gave better access to housing schemes and health care, offered free access to further education for service leavers with six years' service and ensured more telephone and internet access for those deployed in Afghanistan.
Bob Russell: I acknowledge that the previous Government did a tremendous amount for the armed forces, but does the right hon. Gentleman accept that even after 13 years of Labour Government there is still a long way to go to bring much of the married housing accommodation for our brave soldiers-and presumably for airmen and naval personnel, but I am talking about the Army-up to an acceptable living standard?
Mr Murphy: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point and the tone in which he makes it is above partisanship or politics. There is a constant pressure on all Governments to ensure that the families of the remarkable men and women whom we often vote to put in harm's way are properly looked after here at home. I would encourage him-perhaps gently-to reflect on whether the Government that he so strongly supports, on most occasions, are putting the nation's money where his mouth is. He has raised an important point and I know that Ministers will consider it. Ministers will be judged on their record on that matter.
The Bill is part of a wider body of work that seeks to ensure that the men and women who give awe-inspiring service and provide security not just in the UK but for all those they protect abroad can do their job to the highest order with the recognition they rightly deserve. It is right that the service police should have the powers they need and I welcome the increased powers passed to them in the Bill. I welcome, in particular, the provision on access to excluded material, which is essential in allowing successful investigations. It is also correct that we have proper checks and balances on the work of the service police, so I welcome the additional powers for Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary to inspect their work. The Bill includes provisions to strengthen the structural independence of the police and to introduce a provost marshal to ensure that investigations are free from improper interference, which is an important development. The Bill also makes important changes to the service justice system, in particular by ensuring that service police disciplinary systems are compatible with and complementary to the European convention on human rights.
The Bill will make the lives of service personnel and civilians safer through the introduction of service sexual offences prevention orders to protect members of the service community outside the United Kingdom. I also welcome moves to strengthen the independence and impartiality of service complaints procedures as well as moves to update regulations to protect prisoners of war detained by UK forces.
I have a number of questions relating to the Bill and to the Government's record on the military covenant to date, and I look forward to hearing the Minister answer some of them in his winding-up speech. Before the election, the Opposition said that repairing the broken military covenant was long overdue. Surely I am not the only one who now believes that there is a dramatic mismatch between this Government's pre-election words and their post-election actions; the difference between the rhetoric and the reality is striking.
In October last year, the Secretary of State said that he would rebuild the military covenant, so, with a spring in his step, he launched a taskforce, which reported in December to much fanfare. He committed to taking forward two recommendations: first, that there should be an armed forces community covenant, encouraging volunteers to support their local forces; and, secondly, that there should be a commendation scheme to thank individuals or bodies that support the forces. As measures that the Secretary of State has claimed will strengthen the bonds between this country and the armed forces, they are worthy in name but not sufficient in action. No one who is serious about the military covenant considers those proposals to be substantive.
"Incredibly wet and feeble. All flute music and arm waving".
Mr Murphy: I know that my hon. Friend takes a keen interest in these issues. He is right to mention that matter, which I will address in a moment or two. It is a heartless, savage cut against the families who rely on that support.
Dr Julian Lewis: I am sorry that the shadow Secretary of State is introducing a partisan note into this debate. As he has done so, however, does he agree that the introduction of plans for university scholarships for the children of armed services personnel who are killed in action is welcome, particularly in the light of certain changes to university charges on which he and I probably agree?
Mr Murphy: The hon. Gentleman is usually very fair in these debates, and I think he will acknowledge that I have already welcomed six or seven of the measures in the Bill in my speech. There is nothing wrong with echoing the comments of Vice-Admiral Sir Michael Moore, chairman of the Forces Pension Society, who has criticised the Government. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not want to criticise Vice-Admiral Sir Michael Moore.
Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his consensuality, which I, as a service pensioner, welcome. Will he not recognise in his remarks, which are becoming a little partisan, that this Government doubled the operational allowance within days of the general election? I assume that he welcomed that.
Mr Murphy: I think that the hon. Gentleman called me the Secretary of State; of course, I am the shadow Secretary of State, but I am sure that will be corrected by Hansard. There are measures that we welcome, some of which I have alluded to already; I shall discuss some of the others later and will give the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to intervene at that point if he wishes.
"innovative, low-cost policy ideas."
Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): Does the shadow Secretary of State agree that the efforts and changes to maximise rest and recuperation for deployed personnel should be greatly welcomed? That issue has arisen in the past and the new Ministry has made great efforts to make improvements.
Mr Murphy: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point and like him I look forward to looking in detail at the outcome of the Government's review into tour lengths and tours of duty. We will both take a keen interest in that.
Dr Fox: The shadow Secretary of State asks why, seven months into government, we have not made more progress, but the previous Government left behind debt equivalent to £16,000 for every man, woman and child in the country. The interest on the deficit is greater than the defence budget for this year and the economic position is a strategic liability, so there is no point in the Opposition adopting a high moral tone-he was a member of the Cabinet who left us in this drastic economic position. He might consider his own culpability for our being in a position that makes it more difficult for us to achieve many of the things we want.
Mr Murphy: There we have it, Madam Deputy Speaker -the right hon. Gentleman advocates such a timid Bill because the cuts that he is determined to make in the Ministry of Defence will not allow him to achieve his ambition. I can do nothing more than quote again Sir Michael Moore, the chair of the Forces Pension Society, who said:
"I have never seen a Government erode the morale of the armed forces so quickly."
Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman's thesis seems to be that we are not going far enough in repairing the damage to the military covenant. Does he remember the moment in 2007, shortly after Lord Guthrie resigned as Chief of the Defence Staff under his Ministry, when Lord Guthrie said in the House of Lords that he could not remember a Government ever having been so bad at keeping their side of the bargain and honouring the military covenant? The covenant was wrecked under the right hon. Gentleman's Government and we are taking steps to put it right; surely he should acknowledge that.
Mr Murphy: We introduced the first cross-Government strategy on the welfare of the armed forces, we doubled compensation payments for the most seriously injured, we doubled the welfare grant for those in operation and we gave better access to housing schemes and health care. If the hon. Gentleman's point is that Governments can and should always try to do more, of course that is the case, but it is difficult for him both to demand that Labour should have done more when in power and defend the level of his Government's cuts. Those contradictory positions cannot be achieved in one intervention.
As we have descended into being a little partisan, let me ask whether my right hon. Friend remembers that as well as doubling the up-front payment for compensation, we introduced, through the auspices of Admiral Boyce, further improvements in the compensation scheme. One of the improvements that I was most concerned to secure was an increase above the rate of inflation for soldiers who were injured early in life, and therefore before their career had developed, to compensate them for the development that they would inevitably have made. However, the change from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index will take
that money back from the very people who have benefited from the improvements that Admiral Boyce brought in on our behalf.
Mr Murphy: My right hon. Friend, a former Secretary of State for Defence, is rightly proud of the work that he did on the review, and of the way in which an effort was made to ensure that the families of those in the armed forces on the lowest pay had the in-built protection that if the worst happened to their loved one they would not be expected to live on very meagre support for decades. He should be eternally proud of the fact that such measures were introduced. I can only hope that as the Government take forward their proposals, those measures are protected, but there is strong doubt about that.
Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): If the armed forces were valued as much under the previous Administration, why, according to the continuous attitude survey, did only 32% of those serving in the armed forces feel sufficiently valued?
Mr Murphy: The fact is that, in previous years, in very difficult circumstances, the support available to our armed forces increased year on year-through pay, pensions and improvements in housing, health care and much else besides. If the hon. Gentleman's challenge is that we did not do enough, of course there is always a challenge to do more, but it is difficult to demand that we should have done more to support the proposals that he is supporting today. He has to be a fiscal hawk or a fiscal dove on these issues; he cannot be both in the same intervention.
Sir Menzies Campbell: I hope that the shadow Secretary of State will not complain too much if I chide him a little for giving the impression that the morale of the armed forces has been dealt with in the way that Sir Michael Moore indicated. My regular contact with the armed forces is with RAF Leuchars, about which, as the shadow Secretary of State knows, there has been some unwelcome speculation. The professionalism and the intensity of the training that is performed there is unmatched. In the past week or so, the first Typhoon aircraft was scrambled from RAF Leuchars so that it could fulfil its responsibilities under the quick reaction alert. One has to be very careful about translating the remarks of someone who has an obvious, though quite legitimate, interest into general comment and criticism of the armed forces.
Mr Murphy: The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes a typically fair point in his own careful way. He is right to say that the constant challenge for politicians of all parties is how we support our armed forces and maintain their morale. My contention is that the Government have missed opportunities, and in Committee we will table amendments seeking further improvements to a Bill that makes sensible but modest improvements to our armed forces.
Does the shadow Secretary of State make the following connection, as I do? Perhaps only 32% of those in the armed forces felt valued because only 35%, as I understand it, felt that they had the right
equipment in the field. Is it not important to ensure that our armed forces have appropriate equipment in the field?
Mr Murphy: There were record levels of investment and support provided, with regard to the kit and equipment of our armed forces in the field and in theatre. I say again that it is a constant challenge to get that equipment to them as quickly as we can, on cost and on budget. However, there is a wider issue that, if he was being fair, the hon. Gentleman would also have sought to address: the wider disconnect between the public and the military. Our nation is remarkably generous, particularly around Remembrance Sunday-in the weeks before it, and for some time after. I know that the hon. Gentleman will not take this as a partisan point, because it is not intended as such. We all have to reflect, as individuals, law makers and citizens, on how we ensure that that act of remembrance is not a Remembrance Sunday event, but an all-year-round event.
There is a wider issue about the level of connection and affiliation between our armed forces and our citizens at large. We are all in awe of our armed forces; if one asks any man or woman, or any young teenager in the street, one realises that they are in awe of the action that our armed forces take, but we can learn lessons from other nations, particularly now that our armed forces, after the horrors of the greater violence in Northern Ireland, are able more regularly to wear their uniform in public. That is one important change that will increase awareness of our armed forces. There is an issue about the armed forces' morale, but there is also a wider issue about public sentiment that we have to address.
Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend rightly referred to the importance of remembrance. He is also right to identify the promises made by the then Conservative Opposition about veterans and their welfare. They said in their manifesto that they would sort out, in particular, the Christmas island veterans, who have been waiting for years and are still waiting for compensation.
Mr Murphy: As my hon. Friend knows, the previous Government offered a compensation deal. That was not resolved. The Government will rightly come forward with their own proposals. He and I will eagerly scrutinise the specifics of the proposals that the Government eventually produce.
I return to an issue raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), the former Secretary of State, which is the subject of clause 2 -the annual publication of the armed forces covenant report. Although I strongly welcome the continuation of the previous Government's plans to provide an annual report scrutinising the Government's progress on implementing commitments to strengthen the covenant, it is troubling that responsibility for doing so has been moved from independent experts and into the political control of Ministers.
It is welcome that we will have a debate in the House on the military covenant, but that should not be at the expense of proper independent scrutiny. One of the innovations of 2008 was the impartial oversight of
Government progress in strengthening the military covenant. The external reference group, comprising charities and civil servant experts, was established as an independent monitor of the Government's implementation of the service Command Paper. This was vital in ensuring public confidence in our commitment to issues that transcend party politics.
It is peculiar and puzzling that the Government, who are committed to cuts in spending in defence, now seem to have embarked on cuts in accountability in defence. [Interruption.] It is essential that the reports are independent, expert-led and above party politics. The Secretary of State is chuntering from a sedentary position. As he knows, the Royal British Legion has already raised concerns about the issue- [Interruption.] The Secretary of State says, with a cavalier swish of the hand, that he has already dealt with it. He has already spoken about it, but that is different from having dealt with it. The Royal British Legion should not be dismissed in such a cavalier way.
Ministers will have to work very hard to persuade anyone other than themselves that they are better placed than charities and experts, often comprising ex-service personnel and their families, to produce that report.
Mr Gray: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is a very beneficial improvement that rather than merely independent organisations scrutinising such reports, the Secretary of State will annually place a report before the House for its scrutiny? That is an increase in ministerial accountability and in the power of Parliament. Surely he should welcome that.
Mr Murphy: I have already welcomed the report and the fact that there will be an annual debate, but I do not welcome the fact that the production of the report will be in the hands of Ministers, rather than independent experts. It is an issue about which the Royal British Legion feels strongly.
Dr Murrison: The right hon. Gentleman has been generous in giving way. Can he define "independent"? I have attended a meeting of the external reference group and found it to be anything but. It is certainly made up, in part, of independent individuals, but also largely of officials, who can in no way be said to be independent of the Government.
Mr Murphy: I do not think Madam Deputy Speaker would welcome an attempt by me to provide the House with a definition of independence, but the fact that the three armed forces families federations are on the expert group gives it authority, independence, clarity and sincerity that, with the best will in the world, the most capable and sincere Minister cannot of himself provide. It is important that that work is continued.
My most serious concerns are about the proposals on armed forces pensions. The Government plan to link forces pension rises permanently to the consumer prices index, rather than to the retail prices index. That is a serious misjudgment and an indictment of the Government's claim to want to strengthen the military covenant. We are in no doubt that in the current climate there is a need for restraint in public sector pay and pensions, but that year-on-year change will disproportionately
affect members of the armed forces and their dependants, who rely on their pensions at earlier ages than almost anyone else.
The impact of the proposed changes will be devastating. A 27-year-old corporal who has lost both his legs in a bomb blast in Afghanistan will miss out on £500,000 in pension and benefit-related payments. War widows will also lose out enormously. The 34-year-old wife of a staff sergeant killed in Afghanistan would, over her lifetime, be almost £750,000 worse off.
There can be only two possible justifications for that policy. First, Ministers think it right to reduce year on year the support to forces personnel and their dependants, and support the policy presumably because they consider the current support to be unfairly generous. The Secretary of State did not support the policy on that basis today, nor I suspect will any Government Back Bencher.
The second possible reason for this heartless policy is deficit reduction, but that argument does not add up either. The impact of the measures will be felt long after the deficit has been paid down and the economy has returned to growth. I ask Ministers today to commit to rethink the policy or, in the absence of a full rethink, and if they believe that it is part of their deficit reduction plan, to consider a time-limited measure during the period of deficit reduction and spending restraint. That would be a fairer approach. There is no logical reason why the bravest British soldiers fighting in Afghanistan should see their pensions reduced for the rest of their lives, or why war widows, who have had the person most special to them taken away, deserve to have taken away from them the support on which they so depend.
"It is not possible to treat the armed forces differently from other public servants."
Mr Murphy: I was aware of that, and the hon. Gentleman will continue to make his case on it to the Government, but, with respect, although my point today is about the same issue, it is a slightly different one. Those who say, as the MOD spokesman said in November, that it is not possible to treat armed forces personnel differently from other public servants show a woeful and deeply worrying lack of understanding and respect for the unique nature of military service.
Service personnel, as many of us know, can be required to work unlimited hours in excessively dangerous conditions with no prospect of overtime or a bonus; they can be imprisoned for failing to show up; living conditions can, understandably, be very tough; they are often separated from family and loved ones for many months at a time; they can be compelled to return even after they have retired; they forgo several political freedoms and contractual rights that others rightly enjoy; and, as we know, they are at risk of being killed or horribly maimed as a direct result and an unavoidable consequence of their service. Often their pension is the only serious, tangible financial compensation available to them, and no Government should ever claim that it is not possible to distinguish in favour of our armed forces.
Dan Byles (North Warwickshire) (Con): I am a little confused. Was the shadow Secretary of State not a member of the Government who went to court to fight to reduce compensation payments to wounded British soldiers returning from Afghanistan? His litany of righteous indignation does not sit well with that, so will he take this opportunity to apologise on behalf of the previous Government for that disgraceful action?
Mr Murphy: I cannot help the fact that the hon. Gentleman is confused; that is for him to resolve. The point is that, as part of the Boyce review, we are committed to increasing some of those payments. He calls it righteous indignation, and I do not know whether that is his attempt to justify the policy that his Government are implementing, but I do not think that it is righteous indignation to say that, if someone at this very moment serving in Afghanistan finds themselves in harm's way, their wife, at home with their children, should reasonably expect decent support.
Mr Murphy: Of course, but, Madam Deputy Speaker, for your understanding, I recognise that time is against us. I have taken numerous interventions and others wish to speak, but I wonder whether I can entice the hon. Gentleman, if he wishes, to support the Government's proposal for that change to pensions.
Alun Cairns: I am grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for giving way. I certainly support the actions of the Government in doubling the operational allowance. If the right hon. Gentleman thought so highly of the forces when he was a member of the previous Administration, why was the operational allowance pitched at such a low level?
Mr Murphy: The hon. Gentleman has got to his feet again and failed again. All I am asking today is that the Government listen to the arguments being made by the Royal British Legion, Help for Heroes and the families' federations, and think again about the policy. I acknowledge that I was partisan about the other issue of scrutiny- [Interruption.] I am really making an appeal to justice and the better spirit of Government Members. They should reflect again on this issue.
Mr Ainsworth: Have I correctly understood the figures that my right hon. Friend has just cited? Given what he has just said, I now believe that the changes that are about to be introduced to the way in which the pension is calculated will not only remove all the improvements made by the Boyce review but go further and lead to levels of compensation for young injured soldiers that are lower than they were before the Boyce review. That is the very thing that the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) complained about in terms of the actions taken by the previous Government to keep the compensation scheme balanced. Is that right?
Mr Murphy: My right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for Defence has paid close attention to these matters. He has looked at these issues with great care. Given the analysis available, there is a strong case for the conclusion that the changes take us back to pre-Boyce levels.
Mr Murphy: The Secretary of State shakes his head. I invite him to correct the record if he wishes. [Interruption.] He says from a sedentary position that he has plenty of time to do so. I give him the time today. [Interruption.] He says, "Get on with it." Even the Secretary of State will not rise to his feet to support his own policy.
The military covenant goes to the heart of the relationship between the military, society and the Government, as the Secretary of State rightly said. It should and will never be the exclusive property of one political party. However, no Government can cut the support to Afghan war widows and claim to be honouring the military covenant. The truth is that this is a Government of convenience, who, in taking money from Afghan war widows, have lost the courage of their conscience.
The Government's actions are particularly hard to comprehend when one considers that in July 2009 the previous Government published a Green Paper entitled "The Nation's Commitment to the Armed Forces Community", in which some truly innovative proposals were made. I invite the Secretary of State to look again at that Green Paper to see which aspects of it can be included in this Bill. I am surprised that the Government have not sought to take forward those ideas, which would not just give real help to the forces community but continue to demonstrate the Government's commitment to serving the interests of those who put their lives on the line. I urge the Government to look again at the proposals.
This debate is also an opportunity for the Government to confirm that they will look again at another of their recent proposals, which in my view is one of their most regrettable decisions-the decision to scrap the chief coroner's office. That office would give families who have lost those closest to them, often in tragic, painful and extremely complex circumstances, the right to the best possible investigations and military inquests into the deaths. Last month's decision by the Lords, by a significant majority, to save the chief coroner's office gives the Government the opportunity to think again. They should listen not only to the House of Lords but to the Royal British Legion, and retain the chief coroner's office.
Today's debate is an opportunity to further the passage of a Bill that in general we support. It will make sensible and important changes to procedures that will ensure that our armed forces can perform to the highest standards and are effectively regulated. But it is also more than that. It is an opportunity for the Government to think again-not about Afghanistan, where they should and rightly will remain resolute, but about cuts to the independent scrutiny of the Government's progress on the covenant, about matching their pre-election pledges to their post-election actions and about the introduction of permanent reductions in the support of those who serve our nation and their families. If they do think again, there will be a very warm welcome not only in this House but, much more importantly, in the houses of service families across our nation.
Mark Lancaster (Milton Keynes North) (Con): It is an honour and a privilege to contribute to the debate. I begin by declaring my interest as a member of Her Majesty's armed forces and as a serving commissioned officer in the Territorial Army.
It is fascinating to consider the history of why we are discussing this matter today as it dates back to the 1688 Bill of Rights, under which it is effectively against the law to have a standing army without the consent of Parliament. Given that history, it is a particular honour to speak on the matter today. However, it is also an honour to do so as a member of the armed forces affected by this Bill. However, because it sits uncomfortably with some that members of the regular armed forces are not allowed to sit as Members of Parliament while members of the reserved forces are, it is not an honour I intend to abuse today.
My experience has shown that members of the armed forces are very interested in politics, but they are not interested in party politics. When I wear a uniform, I always pride myself on being strictly apolitical and I intend to continue that today. Perhaps the test of my speech will be that, when read, it will seem as though it could have been spoken by a Government or Opposition Member.
I welcome the Bill because, as the Secretary of State said, it is in many ways a tribute to the previous Government for the manner in which they put the Armed Forces Act 2006 through Parliament. The fact that the Bill is mainly a tidying-up measure is testament to that, although clause 2 on the military covenant-I will come to that later-is very important. I therefore give credit to the previous Government.
There are, however, a few anomalies even though the 2006 Act attempted to tidy them up. In particular, there is the matter of military law being applied across the three services. I said that I am a Member of Parliament who is also a serving member of the armed forces and, to my knowledge, three other hon. Members also serve in the reserve forces. It may be of interest to the House that, as I stand here today, I am subject to military law as a commissioned officer in the Territorial Army. However, one of our colleagues, who merely through rank is not a commissioned officer, is not subject to military law as a serving Member of Parliament. That is an anomaly. All four of us have been mobilised and have been on operational service, and we all become subject to military law when that happens. It might seem a minor point but whether someone is subject to military law when they go to and from training in the Territorial Army is relevant.
I shall give another simple example of an anomaly before I get into the detail of the Bill. Over recent weeks, there have been calls in the House that, as part of the military covenant, we should have some form of medal to allow members of the armed forces to show that they are in the armed forces. The Veterans Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan) has said that that should be subject to review. I do not think it should be subject to review; I simply do not think it should happen. If hon. Members want to argue that point, I am happy to debate the matter. My case is fairly typical in that have completed three operational tours and have been awarded three medals over 23 years. In addition, I have a Queen's golden jubilee medal, which was effectively given to me for being a member of the armed forces, and a long-service and good conduct medal-or the Territorial decoration as it was called then.
My point is that such medals are awarded simply for serving in the armed forces and I am not convinced that giving people more medals simply for being a part of
the armed forces is necessarily a good thing. However, it is an anomaly that, in the Territorial Army, both officers and soldiers can get what is now the volunteer reserves service medal while, in the regular Army, only soldiers are allowed to get a long-service and good conduct medal. It seems that officers do not receive that medal simply because their good conduct is taken for granted. That is another anomaly in which the House might be interested.
Chris Bryant: I pay tribute to the non-partisan way in which the hon. Gentleman is advancing his arguments. I have no medals-the closest I ever got was a Blue Peter badge. He is referring to the anomalies. An anomalous situation for many armed forces families is because those who are killed in action all come into the UK through one of two different airfields, there have often been very long waits for a proper post-mortem. That was one of the problems we tried to rectify through the creation of the post of chief coroner. Previously, families had to wait a very long time before they could have closure in relation to the death of their loved one. Does he agree that the Government are wrong to be abolishing that post and that it would be better for armed forces families if we were to keep it?
Mark Lancaster: I would have to consider that matter in detail. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that perhaps he should volunteer to sit on the Committee-I certainly will do so-and we can then explore the issue in greater detail. That is probably a sensible way forward, and it will be interesting to see whether he volunteers to be a member of the Committee.
Clause 2 deals with the military covenant and that matter has already been mentioned in the debate. The Royal British Legion-I am proud to be vice-president of the Olney branch-has raised concerns, and the Secretary of State has promised to consider them and, indeed, deal with them. It is perfectly reasonable to expect the role of the external reference group to continue in some form or another. That is something else I expect we can explore in Committee.
We have mainly talked about the three principal areas of health care, education and housing. In the previous Parliament, I was proud to serve on the Select Committee on Defence under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), when we looked at the issue of the education of service families. I am delighted that the Government have introduced some of our recommendations and we should continue to consider that matter. I am pleased that an annual report will be presented to Parliament. [ Interruption. ] When I referred to the Government, the former Veterans Minister, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), said from a sedentary position that it was the previous Government. I am actually being apolitical and mean the government of the land.
There has been some concern that perhaps the Government's commitment to the military covenant does not go far enough and that the relationship between the armed forces and the Government should be enshrined in black and white. My personal feeling is it is not important what is in black and white for the lawyers to argue over; what is important is how the covenant has been interpreted by successive Governments. I shall give one example. After the introduction of joint personnel
administration-the new payment computer system in the Army-there has been a problem with some junior ranks in the British Army being effectively overpaid for a number of months. That has amounted to a sizeable sum for some individuals. I do not think any fair-minded person would suggest that that money should not be paid back; it is an overpayment and we would all expect to pay it back. However, the true test of the covenant is how the money is paid back. It should not have to be paid back in a single lump sum in one pay cheque; those concerned should be allowed to pay the money back over time. That is just one example of how the application of the covenant, and not what appears in black and white, is important.
To be honest, soldiers are quite cynical about government. They feel that any covenant would always be interpreted in the Government's favour. I hope that the Opposition will take that point in the spirit it is intended because it is simply an objective statement of fact.
Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman therefore agree that what is being put forward today is rather disappointing, especially in the light of the Green Paper that I produced in 2009, which set out not only what we had done in terms of the Command Paper, but how we could make what it referred to legally enforceable? Does he share my disappointment that the work and the response to that have not been brought forward in the Bill, so that the things put in place in the armed forces Command Paper would be legally enforceable?
Mark Lancaster: I do not, because the real test will be in the implementation. I have confidence that the Government will implement and uphold their end of the bargain, so I am afraid that I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman. However, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating and only time will tell. Perhaps we can consider the matter again in one of our annual debates on the military covenant.
I was going to give one example of where soldiers are perhaps right to be slightly cynical. I fully supported the previous Government's introduction of the operational allowance in October 2006. That was a good move, and it introduced a tax-free allowance of £2,240. However, it is worth remembering-I wish to make it clear that I think that this was more by cock-up than conspiracy-that at the same time the Government also cut the long-service separation allowance, meaning that a soldier on a six-month tour in Afghanistan lost £2,341. The Government gave with one hand and took away with the other, within the space of a month. When such moves happen, one can see why any soldier is entitled to be cynical of any Government. It is therefore very important that we see, over time, how the military covenant is improved.
As I said from the Opposition Benches shortly after I got back from my operational tour in Afghanistan, there has been a major improvement in personal kit over the past few years. I felt that when I was mobilised in 2006, the standard of personal kit that I was given then was far better than the kit I was given when I was mobilised in 1999 or 2001-so, once again, credit to the previous Government for that improvement, which I should like to continue under this Government in future years.
My other general point about the military covenant concerns rest and recuperation. I had personal experience of the problems of R and R on coming back from Afghanistan in 2006. Although I do not want to go into the details of the matter again-it was the subject of debate in this House for some time-I would like some reassurance from the Minister that the problems with the air bridge have been addressed. Clearly, we will always have trouble when we have to rely on airframes that are very old, but I have heard reports that unfortunately the problems experienced in 2006 are beginning to happen again. There have been calls for us to guarantee the two-week R and R period for soldiers in the middle of an operational tour. I do not support that for simple operational reasons. If a soldier were to lose a day at the beginning of his leave, a guarantee that he could come back from it a day later would make the whole manning plot for the commanding officer in theatre almost impossible. However, I would support a guarantee that if any R and R days are lost during an operational tour, they should be added to the post-tour leave. That is perfectly reasonable.
I was slightly disappointed that neither Front Bencher chose to mention the reserve forces. That is an oversight that I should like to correct, especially given that some 15% of soldiers mobilised on operations are from the reserve forces. Members of the reserve forces face some very specific problems when they are mobilised. Any mobilisation process starts at the reserves training and mobilisation centre in Chilwell. If I am lucky enough to be selected to serve on the Bill Committee, I would like to suggest that we visit that facility, which plays a very valuable role. Having been through it on three occasions, I must say that the standard of service that it provides in preparing reservists for mobilisation has improved significantly over recent years.
However, there can be major problems when a reservist returns home. Because, in general, they are mobilised as individual replacements, they lack the support that a regular soldier, sailor or airman has in coming back with a formed unit. I can give an example of a very unfortunate case from my own unit when a colour sergeant came back from mobilised service in Afghanistan. Because we are a specialist unit that does not meet for drill nights, there is no regular contact every Tuesday night where we can monitor colleagues who have recently returned, and we did not see much of him until one weekend when he was clearly not well. The effects of service in Afghanistan had clearly had a significant impact on him. I regret to say that that ended up with an incident in which he attempted to shoot a colleague with a weapon that he had brought back from Afghanistan, and he is now in prison. It was an awful incident. One wonders whether the same thing would have happened had that individual been serving with a regular unit and received the same levels of support that a regular soldier would have had.
I entirely endorse my hon. Friend's concern about soldiers who come back not as part of formed units. Does he agree that that points to a wider issue with the military covenant, whereby it is not simply a covenant between the Government and our armed forces but between the nation and our armed forces? Although there is talk of putting the Government's side of this
bargain into law, the issue is also about an attitude in our nation as a whole. For example, many of our public sector bodies have policies whereby members of staff can have up to 14 days off work to be a school governor or to undertake trade union activity, yet many of those organisations, particularly NHS trusts, do not give similar time off to members of the reserve forces.
Mark Lancaster: That is a very valuable point. I was fortunate in that before I entered this House I worked for a family fireworks company, so I had no problem getting time off-certainly for six months of the year, anyway. My experience is that many employers are very good about allowing members of the reserve forces extra time off. However, the issue is certainly something that we should consider, perhaps when we debate this matter annually.
Hon. Members have already referred to welfare for the families of regular forces-that is very important, and we should and must do more-but the families of reservists have particular problems because they tend not to live on a specific base. For any one specialist TA unit, those families can be spread across the land. We must do more to try to ensure that they have access to the same kinds of facilities as families of regular servicemen so that they get the support that they, too, vitally need.
I want to deal with one more matter-the military police, as covered in clauses 3 to 6. People say that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I have to confess that for a period of 18 months I was the second-in-command of 253 Provost Company Royal Military Police (Volunteers), based in Balham, south London. Given what I am about to say, I am not sure that the RMP's Provost Marshal will be very pleased that I had that experience. As I suggested to the Secretary of State earlier, the time has perhaps come when we should be thinking the unthinkable, and I encourage him to have a single police service for the armed forces. The three military police services already train together as a single organisation, going through one training school. The whole point of the 2006 Act was to harmonise much of military law. I see distinct advantages to this at a time when we are attempting to try to find savings within the Ministry of Defence, as having a single police service would save the costs involved in two Provost Marshal posts and all their connected staffs. The remaining Provost Marshal would then answer to the Chief of the Defence Staff instead of to the individual service chiefs, and he could be appointed by competition rather than by simple rotation.
In reality, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy have had little exposure to complex investigations into operational deaths because of the nature of operational service, which tends to be Army-based. Combining the special investigation branches would not only make savings on manpower, which is vital in terms of meeting the harmony guidelines of the Royal Military Police, who are particularly affected and overstretched, but encourage the maintenance of high standards through mutual understanding and experience. Currently, Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary inspects the Royal Military Police but does not inspect the other two branches of the armed forces, and that situation might be improved by bringing the three branches together. I was invited by the Secretary of State to table amendments in Committee if I am selected to sit on it and. I think
that we should explore this angle. It will be interesting to see what the cultural differences to which the Secretary of State referred are in reality.
Mr Elfyn Llwyd (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC): It is a pleasure to follow such an informed speech from a person who is well qualified to deliver the points that he made. I am not from a military background, but am a great respecter of the military services, as we all are. I am a long-standing member of the Royal British Legion, but I do not know what that makes me.
The Bill is important for many reasons. I am pleased that the need to bolster the military covenant is recognised. For some years, I have campaigned for widespread recognition of the welfare needs of veterans of the armed forces. The Bill makes integral amendments to the way in which our armed forces function, especially in disciplinary matters. I will focus on veterans' welfare, which is principally the concern of clause 2, and outline some suggestions on how that clause can be improved. If I have time, I shall speak briefly about clauses 9 to 11, which concentrate on preliminary testing for alcohol and drugs in the forces.
The Bill marks a significant breakthrough in the championing of veterans' rights. For several years, I have worked to raise awareness in this place and beyond of the ordeal suffered by many vulnerable members of the armed forces after they are discharged. I published a paper in January 2010 that recommended increasing the support available to veterans of the armed forces. I currently have the privilege of sitting on an inquiry panel commissioned by the Howard League for Penal Reform, which aims to uncover why a high percentage of veterans enter the penal system. The inquiry is chaired by Sir John Nutting QC, and will make recommendations to Government later this year on how to prevent further offending and to make improvements. I chair a parliamentary group that comprises representatives of the justice trade unions, relevant third sector organisations, parliamentarians and concerned individuals, which looks into the problem of veterans in prison. That group will publish a list of recommendations on tackling this mounting problem in the first quarter of this year. I will give voice to a number of its recommendations this evening.
The reasons why veterans are over-represented in the criminal justice system are complex, but the root cause is often the social estrangement that is experienced by susceptible veterans when they lose the ready-made support network of their Army colleagues. Clause 2 unlocks the opportunity to discuss how we can improve the way in which public services are administered to veterans. As I shall argue, improving and streamlining the way in which such services are offered to veterans could drastically reduce the number who fall into difficulties later in life.
As is clear, work is being done to promote this issue. The fact that we are discussing a Bill on the Floor of the House that touches on this concern confirms the traction that it has gained over the past 12 or 18 months. I was gladdened to see that the matter had gripped the political mindset enough to become a major manifesto issue for all parties at the last general election. Although forces charities such as Help for Heroes have generated massive public support, the ordeal faced by some veterans was not widely acknowledged until relatively recently. That ordeal deserves our attention.
It is perhaps easy for us to disregard how difficult the transition must be from life in a combat zone to civvy street. Although the training received by personnel during military service allows the majority to readjust to life after discharge, a growing but unspecified number drop out of the welfare system altogether, and become homeless, disfranchised from mainstream services and socially isolated. Education, further training and employment are difficult to access, and such opportunities are not automatically advertised to personnel on leaving the forces.
Veterans are over-represented in NHS emergency waiting rooms and in road traffic accidents. I do not know whether hon. Members are aware that veterans who have returned recently from a theatre of conflict are 50% more likely to be killed in a road traffic accident than ordinary members of the public. That point bolsters the need for a careful examination of this matter.
As a result of what can be an acute social rupture, an alarming number of such young men and women fall foul of the criminal justice system. That is often prompted by substance misuse and mental health problems. I was first alerted to this problem when I appeared as a barrister in the Crown courts of north Wales, Cheshire and beyond. In the space of about a fortnight, I saw a huge number of young people newly returned from Afghanistan who had committed very serious offences, for which there was no reasonable explanation. That made me think that something was wrong in the system, because those people were as rational as any of us, but my God, the things that they had been through recently would have rocked any of us.
On 5 March 2008, I tabled a written question to the then Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice, asking what percentage of the inmates in prison in England and Wales had served in either of the Gulf conflicts. I was informed that such information was "not collected centrally". I have since found out that at no point is it compulsory to ask someone who is accused of a crime whether they have a service history. That practice must surely be rectified, and some police forces are collecting that information.
Mr Llwyd: Yes, I am. I know that the hon. Gentleman is very concerned about this matter. Kent police, Cheshire police, North Wales police and several other police forces have started to do that over the past 12 months, simply to scope the size of the problem and, hopefully, to come up with reasonable answers.
Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP):
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that no prejudice should be drawn to the person who is accused because of that information
and that it should be used purely for analytical reasons? It should not be used later in a judgment and nobody should be punished more because of their service background.
Mr Llwyd: I agree entirely with those comments, because we are all equal before the law. However, if taking that information helps to address what is a massive problem, it should be done. The probation service in Cheshire and north Wales is also doing that, and that is being led by ex-service people. No prejudice is intended at any stage.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Andrew Robathan): The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important topic, and one that should not be taken lightly. I wonder whether he has read the analysis in the Defence Analytical Services and Advice report of the number of former service personnel who are in prison. It suggests not that they are over-represented, but the contrary.
Mr Robathan: DASA's initial finding was that the figure was about 3%, but after it analysed everybody in prison who had said that they were formerly in the armed forces, it came up with a figure of approximately 3.5% of the prison population who were ex-services. In contrast, more than 7% of the general population have been in the services.
Mr Llwyd: Yes, but if I remember rightly, the methodology of that particular report was somewhat questionable. [Interruption.] May I finish my point? The reservists were not included, nor were people under 18 or women who had served in the Army. I believe that one other category of people was excluded-there were four such categories.
Mr Kevan Jones: In support of the Minister, I wish to say that as the Minister who commissioned that research, I know that it was the most comprehensive ever done on the matter. It cross-referenced all the service records in all three services, in some cases going back to the late 1960s, with the records of the Ministry of Justice. Trying to rubbish it by making points about reservists, for example, is not helpful. It was a thorough piece of work, and I stand by what the Minister said about it.
Mr Llwyd: I take on board what the hon. Gentleman says, and he knows that I have been discussing the matter with him for a long while. I am not rubbishing the report. All I am saying is that four distinct categories of service people were exempted from its scope. The first thing that the people conducting the report did was to ring Harry Fletcher of the National Association of Probation Officers and ask him about his methodology. They were very much working in the dark.
Mr Llwyd: I will give way to both hon. Members, but I am trying to construct an argument and do not want to make political points about the figures involved. I hope we can all agree that we have a huge problem. I give way first to the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones).
Mr Jones: I cannot accept what the hon. Gentleman is saying. It is not helpful to rubbish the most thorough report on the facts of the matter. I have met Mr Fletcher on a number of occasions and know that he is a great self-publicist. He came up with the figure of 10% of the prison population being ex-armed forces, or at one time even 15%, on no evidence at all. That was not very helpful as part of the debate into which the hon. Gentleman has rightly put a lot of hard work.
Mr Llwyd: The way in which Mr Fletcher went about the matter was to e-mail every member of the probation service who was connected with prisons and ask them how many people on their books had been in the services. That was how he came up with his figures, but even within the latest Government figures of 3.5% or 4%, we see that in Dartmoor, for example, the figure was 17.5% in 2007.
Dr Murrison: The Minister and the shadow Minister are right, but then so is the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd). He is probably about to cite the figures for violent and sexual offenders, which show that there appears to be a greater likelihood that people with a service background will fall into that category. However, we would expect people with a service background to be less represented than others in the prison population, would we not? They are selected because they do not have a criminal record when they join up, and they are members of a disciplined service. That needs to be borne in mind when considering the figures.
Mr Llwyd: I agree, and perhaps I should move away from the figures, because I cannot profess to know them precisely any more than anybody else can. All I am trying to say is that the problem is serious. The hon. Gentleman makes the valid point that we would expect people who have been in the armed services to be more disciplined, and in most cases they are. However, there are worrying examples of people who, for almost inexplicable reasons, commit violent offences.
I know of two cases intimately. The first is that of a person in a fish and chip queue in north Wales who felt that somebody behind him was invading his space. He reacted violently, because he had been trained to look after himself. Unfortunately, by the time he had finished the skirmish two or three minutes later, there was a person on the floor very badly injured and he went away for four years for grievous bodily harm.
The second case is that of a young lad from my constituency who returned home from Helmand on a Wednesday and borrowed his father's car to go out on the Friday night. He drank far too much and had an accident, killing two passengers. It could be argued that he had been to hell and back in Helmand and felt that
he could do such things with impunity. I am not running that young man down, and I am sad to see him where he is, but that is another example of which I am aware.
My concern is that just because there is a correlation between two sets of statistics that does not necessarily mean that there is a causation. In other words, just because there may be a higher or lower proportion of former members of the armed forces in prison, that does not necessarily mean that it was because they were in the armed forces that they went to prison.
Mr Llwyd: That may very well be, and we must also remember that the vast majority of those who are in prison come not from the Navy or the Air Force but from the Army, the infantry. There are socio-economic factors to be borne in mind and the equation is not simple, so the hon. Gentleman is right in that regard.
I should like to leave aside the scale of the problem and consider what we can do to assist those who return. First, we must do everything we can to prevent veterans from falling into various problems after discharge. Secondly, I want measures to be taken to ensure that help and advice are available to everybody in the services who encounters problems, whether they be about substance misuse, mental health, housing, employment, money management, violent behaviour or anything else. We spend a lot of time training our young men and women up to the highest level before they go into harm's way. As I see it, we need to spend much more time and money on debriefing them and bringing them back into the less compressed atmosphere of civvy street. As we know, civvy street can be a hazardous environment for vulnerable returnees without assistance.
Alun Cairns: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for underlining that point about training. Does he accept that just as our armed forces are trained to the highest degree to do what they need to do in a military capacity, wherever possible training needs to be provided so that their skills are transferable? That will make them fully valued members of society in a professional capacity and as individuals.
Clause 2 provides a commitment for a report to be placed before Parliament each year, which will deal with health care, education and housing. That is a welcome step, because the regulation of those services is a prerequisite for improving them. Surely, however, we need to do better than that. The Bill specifies that the responsibility for laying the report should lie with the Secretary of State. I wish no offence to him, and I trust that he will take none if I say that he has many other responsibilities
already bestowed on him, which mean that laying the report will not be his highest priority. However, I hope that I am wrong.
I believe, as I mentioned earlier, that we should consider appointing a Minister for veterans' welfare with a cross-cutting responsibility, who could perhaps be situated in the Cabinet Office, because there are many facets to the problem. The report specified in clause 2 should go into far greater depth about how a background of military service might affect people in obtaining personal services. To education, housing and health care should be added welfare benefits, employment benefits and advice, reskilling, budgetary advice, debt management-SSAFA Forces Help and the Royal British Legion say that 60% of their cases concern debt management-alcohol and drug treatment and relationship skills. All personnel should have access to advice from voluntary organisations on all those issues, regardless of length of service, some months before leaving the forces. At present, when leaving the forces, the feeling among many veterans seems to be, "When you're discharged, you're on your own." Regardless of whether that is the case, we need to intensify personnel's awareness of the support that is available for those who need it. Back-up advice in person and by telephone should also be made available for the first six months following discharge.
I have briefly mentioned the prevalence of mental health problems among veterans. Due to time constraints, I cannot dedicate as much time to it as I should like. No compulsory mental health assessment is currently undergone before leaving the forces. I hope that that practice will soon change. There is a tremendous discrepancy between the way in which US and UK forces deal with the matter. Nobody can realistically plead for a veterans agency in the UK on the same scale as that in the States. The US has had to come to terms with the fall-out from the Vietnam war and other conflicts, and it set up such facilities in more benign financial times. However, when I took evidence with the Howard League in the US, senior veterans affairs Ministers told us that there was a presumption that 33% of returnees from conflict would suffer from either post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury.
That figure is not accepted by anyone in the UK forces. The proportion is not even a tenth of that figure, according to the evidence that we have received from people in similar positions in the UK. There must be a problem somewhere because there is a huge discrepancy. Somebody said that PTSD could take up to 14 years to develop. Yes, it could: it could take 14 minutes or 14 years. We must tackle the problem, because we may be considering the tip of a painful iceberg, and the consequences could be long drawn out.
Experts therefore demand making psychological assessment mandatory for all those leaving the forces, alongside a more general resettlement assessment and advice scheme. I hope that, if I am appointed to serve on the Select Committee, I can advocate making available more tailored support to veterans in the criminal justice system. I am a firm believer in all being equal before the law, but veterans' specific needs, and the way in which some initiatives might prevent reoffending in that community, must be recognised. Veterans' support officers should be appointed in every prison and probation service to ensure the streamlining of those initiatives. That has already started to happen. Statutory funding
should be allocated to them as well as to veterans' support groups, which can provide unparalleled support in communities. Such groups normally have the benefit of comprising mainly veterans, who have an unmatched ability to relate to the experiences of other veterans.
I am fast running out of time, but it remains for me to say that we must wake up to the alarming way in which personnel come to rely on alcohol and sometimes other substances as a defence mechanism. Perhaps it is perfectly understandable, but the so-called self-medication route is a huge misnomer. I have evidence to show that, regrettably, at some stages of Army life, alcohol is treated as a catalyst for unwinding. I am sure that many hon. Members have heard about the decompression in Cyprus, which comprises a weekend or week of drunkenness and brawling. It can be no coincidence that so many veterans leave active service displaying a dependence on alcohol. I need hardly say how quickly such a dependence, if left untreated, can feed into other habits, violent behaviour and crime. Henceforth, therefore, counselling on substance abuse must play a vital part in decompression and reintroducing personnel to civvy street.
If we are to retain any hope of fewer veterans running into problems after leaving the forces, we must address some aspects of Army life, such as alcohol consumption as a means of coping with stress and adversity. Clauses 9 to 11 will intensify the regulation of personnel in that field and perhaps awaken them to the dangers of over-reliance on that drug. That is a welcome step in the right direction.
Dan Byles: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a common thread running through his speech is the problem of tracking and identifying veterans, whether by the police, the probation service or GPs? For example, many mental health issues arise because GPs do not necessarily know that someone is a veteran 10 years after that person has left the forces. [Interruption.] I am married to a GP, and I can assure the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) that the system might work at the top, but it does not by the time things get to the bottom. [Interruption.] The point that I intended to make before the sedentary interruptions from the Opposition Front Bench is that we in this place can help because there is a lot of support out there for veterans. How many hon. Members say to someone who is homeless or has other problems and comes to their surgery, "Are you a veteran? If so, I can direct you to more places"?
Mr Llwyd: Such work is being done by, for example, Kent police, to which I referred earlier, and probation services here and there. Very good work is undertaken in some prisons. That work is done by people who have an interest in assisting veterans, and we need to roll out good practice throughout the UK.
It is wrong for anyone to hint that I am disparaging the services when I refer to alcohol or drugs. I am trying to consider matters realistically, not to insult members of the armed forces, for heaven's sake.
Military people are often proud-proud of their regiment and their work. They are not proud of their position if they suddenly become homeless and/or involved in crime, so sometimes they will not say that they were in the services because they are ashamed. That is another problem.
We have had an opportunity to debate such matters today, and it is important to move forward to Committee, where we can explore different avenues. The Secretary of State said that he was open to, for example, extending the categories in clause 2. That is all well and good. Let us see whether we can explore that and come up with further matters that we need to examine.
If I am fortunate enough to serve on the Committee, I hope I can amplify what I have said and strengthen the Bill as best I can so that we can honestly say, as Government members and ordinary Back-Bench politicians, that we are adhering to our part of the military covenant.
Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd). I particularly appreciate his remarks about clause 2 and health care. I am pleased to be able to say that the Government have accepted my report "Fighting Fit" on the mental health care of veterans. Part of it stated that we should indeed scrutinise people far more closely at the point when they depart from the services to ensure that we consider mental health. In my 18-year career as a medical officer in the Navy, we rarely did that. The matter was neglected, and I am therefore pleased that the Government have accepted the report and that the armed forces will now assess people when they leave and before they become veterans so that we can take timely action when necessary.
I declare my interests, which are in the Register of Members' Financial Interests. In addition, in connection with clause 27-an obscure provision, which I suspect is largely uncontroversial-I am a member of the naval medical compassionate fund. I call it a potential benefit because one has to be deceased for any benefit to be obtained from it. Although that is ultimately inevitable, I hope that it will not happen during my time in this place.
I pay tribute to those right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House who have done so much for the military covenant and in raising its profile. Over the past 10 years or so, public support for our armed forces has increased. That is in large part because of the profile of the armed forces and, although it may not be fashionable to say so, I think we in this place ought to take a certain amount of credit for promoting the interests of the men and women of our armed forces. Members on both sides of the House do that, so this is not a partisan matter at all.
However, I welcome this Bill as the next step in the process of ensuring that the military covenant is a key part of the way in which we deal with our armed forces, and not just now. It is very easy to do that now, as every night we see images on our television screens highlighting the plight of the men and women of our armed forces, and the excellent job they are doing and the professional
manner in which they are doing it. The problem arises 10 or 15 years down the line when, God willing, we are living in a time when the armed forces are less high profile. In those circumstances, it will be very welcome to have an opportunity to assess, on an annual basis, how we are dealing with our servicemen and women, and, of course, with our veterans and service families.
Bob Stewart: One of the problems in respect of Help for Heroes is that we must deal not only with the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have problems that go all the way back to the second world war, and we must put in place resources to look after the people who were involved then. Speaking personally, I had about 35 soldiers wounded on 6 December 1982. Those people require to be looked after, and two of them were paraplegics. I simply want to endorse my hon. Friend's point that we must look after all our veterans who have been hurt, not just the people who are now in the public eye from Afghanistan and Iraq and, perhaps, Kosovo and Bosnia. The issue goes back well beyond that, and let us also remember all those people who were hurt in Northern Ireland over many years.
Dr Murrison: My hon. Friend is, of course, absolutely right, and I think the Government have recognised that need. One of my report's recommendations was that we should be more proactive in addressing our veteran population, and I am pleased that it has been accepted. Ministers recognise that we need to do more for veterans.
Having just been nice to my Front-Bench colleagues, perhaps I might say that I disagree with them in one respect. Clause 2 is entitled "Armed forces covenant report" and I take exception to the term "armed forces" in that context. May I gently suggest to my right hon. and hon. Friends that it would be more appropriate simply to use the term "military covenant"? I say that because I think that term has had a certain amount of purchase. It is now understood by the general public. It is in the public domain, and the media understand it, and I think they would be somewhat confused if we were now to make this rather semantic change of using the term "armed forces" instead. To argue against myself, the word "military" excludes naval of course, but I think that in the public's mind "military" refers to the entirety of our armed forces. I do not want the value of the concept of the military covenant to be degraded in any way by a confusion over this title. That point might, perhaps, be considered in Committee, of which I hope very much my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) is successful in becoming a member-I wish him the best of luck in his endeavours in that respect. As he says, it will be fascinating to serve on the Committee, and I hope to talk a little more about that shortly.
Bob Russell: May I help my hon. Friend by pointing out that the Royal British Legion, which, of course, encompasses all the armed forces, refers to this concept as the military covenant, so it is on his side?
Dr Murrison: I am very pleased. I am a member of the Warminster branch of the Royal British Legion and I rarely disagree with it. It has done a great job in its honour the covenant campaign. I am very pleased that it agrees with me, and I have no doubt that it will make representations to that effect.
The Government have been spot-on in the way they have approached the covenant in this Bill. I have given a great deal of thought to what we should be doing in respect of the military covenant. As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, we considered the matter at great length when in opposition, and the debate was always about the form in which it would find its way into legislation.
At one end of the spectrum, we could be fairly didactic in what we mean by the military covenant. We could make it a bean-feast for lawyers, but that is completely against the spirit of the military covenant. It derives from Harry Levinson's work in the 1950s and '60s, in which he identified something called a psychological contract: a contract that was moral and that was understood, but that was not actually laid down in any form of written covenant, promise or undertaking. It is absolutely right that we should do nothing that would destroy the military covenant as part of that type of covenant. A couple of Members have mentioned the fact that this is not simply a deal between Government and officials and the rank-and-file. It also involves the general public. If we were to start putting it in a didactic contractual form, that would degrade that particular element of the deal that we understand by the term "the military covenant".
"This debate must continue but it must not attempt to specify that which is incapable of specification-the psychological contract is more powerful than the legal one."
I agree. It could be said that the military covenant is at the extreme end of the psychological contract spectrum, but it is, nevertheless, part of that deal, and it is important that we treat is as such.
I welcome the annual report. The shadow Secretary of State was a little parsimonious in his praise for it. It will certainly maintain the profile of this issue. The devil is in the detail of course, in that the nature of the annual report is crucial-what it contains, how it is presented, and how it is debated. It is important that we know what the items in the report will be. We know what some of them will be, but this issue goes much further than that, of course. We must also address issues such as kit, the way we deal with the bereaved, and coroners courts. As has been mentioned, they have caused a great deal of grief over the past few years, and it would be extraordinary if they were not dealt with as part of this annual report.
It is also important that we listen to the views of third parties. They will undoubtedly comment on this, and they are also very important in the implementation of the military covenant. Government must not do that alone. If they were to do so, they would completely ignore the general public and the voluntary sector, which are another element that must be party to the military covenant. It would therefore be interesting to know what involvement from third-sector partners is envisaged in this annual report.
It is also important that the report is dovetailed with any other relevant reports there might be, such as from the service complaints commissioner, the continuous attitude survey or the external reference group. We need to know, as well, the extent to which personal functional standards subsequent to the armed forces overarching
personnel strategy have been satisfied, and we need to incorporate the views of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body.
Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): While I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments about external scrutiny of the armed forces annual report, does he not agree that it is vital that the House itself scrutinises the work of the MOD? Does he also agree that every year after the report is published the Defence Committee should invite the Secretary of State to appear before it to face further scrutiny?
Dr Murrison: I believe the Secretary of State does so in any case, but that is, of course, a matter for the Chairman of the Defence Committee, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Chairman will be only too delighted to oblige.
It is important that we thrash out what we mean by the covenant and the deal we are prepared to strike in recognition of it. On the one hand, it might be a "no-disadvantage" covenant, by which I mean that people will not be disadvantaged by their military service. On the other hand, might it mean a "citizen-plus" covenant, in that people will get a bit extra in recognition of the fact that they are serving or have served, or are related to someone who is serving or has served, in the armed forces? It is important that we do that.
We could envisage the "no-disadvantage" covenant as being what we might aspire to at the moment, and the "citizen-plus" covenant as being the sort of model that applies in the United States. Certainly, the "no-disadvantage" covenant appears to be what people have in mind in things such as the service Command Paper. The term is used in that publication and also by Professor Hew Strachan in his recent report on the military covenant. Furthermore, of course, that covenant is a great deal more attainable, and we can take a closer view of what it actually means, if we use the benchmark of not disadvantaging people by virtue of their service. A "citizen-plus" covenant, however, is more difficult and invites calls of "Me too!", in particular from other public servants who say that these days they are just as much on the front line. We could argue that point.
It is important that the annual report contains an outcome measure. We need to know what we are looking at in order to make an assessment of whether the Government have done what they should be doing in honouring the military covenant. What do success and failure look like? It is important that the document is subject to rigorous independent scrutiny, not least by the Defence Committee. The report will be subject to the media spotlight and the analysis of third parties, so it needs to be a comprehensive and detailed document, unless it is simply to become, in the fullness of time and potentially under another Administration, simply a tick-box exercise.
Over Christmas last year, my right hon. and hon. Friends were exercised by the air bridge between the UK and theatre. Perhaps that is a demonstration of a facet of the military covenant that could be covered in the annual report. I find to my great horror that similar problems arose this Christmas. It was a high-profile incident because it involved Katherine Jenkins and James Blunt and their failure to go to theatre to entertain the
troops. Will the annual report cover theatre-specific elements of the disgruntlement of our armed forces? The Minister knows full well-we talked about this a great deal in opposition-that paramount in that list of disgruntlement tends to be things such as the air bridge and rest and recuperation.
Organisations such as the British Limbless Ex Service Men's Association point out that people owe their allegiance to the nation, not to localities by and large, and that the covenant is a country covenant, not a county covenant. It is important, when considering elements of Professor Strachan's report, which is excellent in almost all respects-particularly his important point about the community covenant-that we recognise that people owe their allegiance nationally and expect the covenant to be honoured nationally as well. It would be a pity if we entered into some sort of postcode lottery in how we regard our duties to the men and women of our armed forces. I represent a constituency in a military part of the country, and as a community we are fully apprised of our duties towards the men and women of our armed forces. Some parts of the country, however-perhaps because men and women of our armed forces are less prominent there-are less inclined that way, so it is important, given that this is a national covenant, that we view this nationally, not parochially.
It is also important to recognise that the covenant cuts both ways. It is a duty that the country and the Government owe to the military, but in turn the military owes a duty to the public and the Government, and it is important to assess-in my view, as part of this annual report-whether that duty is being satisfied in all respects. Everyone in this place admires our armed forces greatly-many of us have served in them-and I am second to nobody in my admiration for the men and women who serve this country so gallantly. However, there will be detractors and those who say, "It is all very well talking up the military covenant, but we also need to understand that the public have expectations of the men and women of our armed forces." It is important to include in the report, therefore, if only to gainsay it, that we have to look at areas where the public have been let down, as well as at areas in which we have let down our armed forces. I put that down as a point for consideration in Committee.
I turn to later clauses of the Bill that broadly speaking provide for the discipline elements. Clause 6 deals with the performance of the Ministry of Defence police. I have always had cordial relations with the MOD police, who work closely with their county colleagues, but, in a similar manner to the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North, one would have to ask all the time why we have a separate MOD police force. If we are going to consider in Committee the service police-our Front-Bench team made a generous offer to do so-perhaps we might also look at policing in the round within the MOD, which of course would include the MOD police. It is important that police forces benchmark their performance. The MOD police force is a particular force with a different profile; what it does is subtly different, and its arrest and conviction profiles are very different from those of county forces, and we have to ask all the time, particularly in an age when we are looking for efficiency savings, whether the current model is the correct one. I make no judgment on that, but it might be something that the Committee should look at and take a view on.
Clause 5 deals with the appointment of provost marshals and asserts that only provost officers should be provost marshals, which struck me as slightly odd. At a time when we are looking for ways of making heads of police forces lay people, it seems a little odd-it sits uncomfortably with it-to insist in the Bill that in all circumstances provost marshals should be provost officers.
I am always a little wary when it comes to extending anybody's powers-in this context, the powers of service police-unless I am faced with a good reason. That must be our starting premise. However, I do not have a good reason for why we need to extend the powers of service police. Although I am perfectly willing to take Ministers' words for it that it is necessary, we will have to tease out in Committee why we need to extend the powers in the way described.
Clauses 9 to 11 and compulsory testing have been discussed at length by the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd and in an authoritative fashion that I cannot match. However, I start to get concerned about compulsory testing, particularly when it involves health care professionals. This is an ethical minefield and something that no doubt will need to be explored in Committee.
Bob Russell: When the Armed Forces Bill Committee considered this point three or four years ago, we were advised-if my memory is correct-that the equivalent of two infantry battalions are discharged each year for testing positive. Under those circumstances, does the hon. Gentleman accept that the checking is an important requirement?
We have compulsory drug testing at the moment, and it has been found to be broadly successful. My concern is about further testing at the say-so of the command and because it suspects that there might be a safety-critical issue. If instances can be cited in which safety criticality might have been affected by compulsory drug testing, we have a good case for doing this, but that case has to be made before we extend those powers. I would make a small suggestion: if we are to take those powers, perhaps we might like to consider them after 12 months, using a sunset clause, to ensure that they are still necessary. If they are not, we could consider removing them.
It is not clear to me what the position of registered medical and nursing practitioners will be in all this. They operate within a disciplined service, and the rules can be quite challenging. However, looking at the Bill, I would say that were I in that position, I would be phoning up my defence society to ensure that I was not transgressing before co-operating with such a provision. I see that there is a get-out clause for medical practitioners. It all looks a bit woolly to me, but I suspect that it will be firmed up as the Bill proceeds.
The Bill will further separate service police from the command, yet service police remain servicemen and remain within that command structure; indeed, they can exercise command appropriate to their rank. I am a little concerned about these people, because they are potentially remarkably powerful individuals. We need to bear that in mind when considering this matter. Part of the military covenant is about ensuring that we do
the best by the men and women who serve this country; they should not be disadvantaged. On the remarks made by the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, it is important that we have a system that does not impose a greater legal restriction on that population than on the general public. If our system did impose that, we would not be honouring our commitment under the military covenant, because service personnel would most certainly be disadvantaged.
I am concerned that there has been insufficient reflection on the possibility of combining our three sets of service police. As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North said, there is potential mileage in combining the three. I sat through our consideration of a lot of the supplementary legislation to the Armed Forces Act 2006 and enjoyed it very much. However, it was clear to me that the systems of law were coming much closer together; indeed, one cannot get a cigarette paper between the three of them any more. Given those circumstances, the environment has changed and the case for combining those services into a tri-service provost service makes some sense.
I conclude by welcoming the Bill, which is a culmination of a huge amount of work. It sets the right balance between a covenant that is unspoken, moral and psychological, and addressing the more obvious needs of the men and women who serve our armed forces very well. I shall certainly be supporting the Bill.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): It is particularly appropriate that we are debating this Bill on the anniversary of the treaty of Versailles coming into operation in 1920 and the first meeting of the United Nations in London in 1946. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster). When I was a Minister, I tried to do business with him in as friendly a way as possible in relation to the armed forces and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. His comments about the reserve forces were absolutely right, because it is true to say that the operations that this nation have been involved in over the past 15 years could not have been conducted without the support of the reserve forces, many of whom have, I suspect, had to go into theatre far more often than they or their employers expected when they signed up. We therefore owe them "a debt of gratitude"; those words are often bandied around this Chamber, but he made a very fair point about the importance of the reserve forces. I know from my constituency that they are an important part of the contribution that is made.
The hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) was absolutely right to say that it would make more sense to stick with the term "military covenant". I am often more pedantic than is good for my friendships-[Hon. Members: "Surely not".] I thought that it was you heckling me, Mr Deputy Speaker, but as you have not had a drink yet, it probably was not. He is right to say that this phrase is now common currency and is used generally. I suppose that people who were being pedantic might say, "That merely applies to the Army", but language changes and he is right to say that trying to reinvent a concept of an "armed forces covenant" is inappropriate. I hope that the Minister will respond accordingly when considering the way forward for this Bill.
I particularly wanted to speak in this debate because this country's mining constituencies have produced many members of the armed forces. A large number of men and, increasingly in recent years, women have joined the Army, rather than the Navy or the Royal Air Force. When a survey was carried out in recent years of the preferred career of choice in mining constituencies or former mining constituencies, as mine must now be considered, the armed forces came out on top by far, followed by the police. I am sure that that is partly because of a tradition that there has been in many of these constituencies-there is a deep respect for the traditions of the armed forces, and people have wanted to follow in the footsteps of their fathers, grandfathers and so on-but it is also because of the economic circumstances.
At its height, a single industry in my constituency employed 130,000 men working underground, and when it disappeared and a large number of people were, in effect, left on the scrap heap politically, many of those young men felt that the only career open to them was one in the armed forces. They have managed to take a great deal of pride from such a career. They have been able to give to the armed forces and the armed forces have been able to give back. I was delighted that the Ministry of Defence decided to open a combined cadet force in Treorchy comprehensive school. In the main, cadet forces had previously been attached only to public schools-fee-paying schools-so it was a great delight to see a new one start in Treorchy a few years ago.
Dr Murrison: I agree with the hon. Gentleman entirely on that. What does he make of comments by the National Union of Teachers to the effect that it was wrong for the previous Government-and, presumably, now for this Government-to encourage the involvement of uniformed men and women in our armed forces in areas of deprivation, where there is high unemployment, because they may be preying on people there? I utterly refute that assertion and I hope that he does too.
Chris Bryant: When I have heard those accusations, as I have when political opponents in my constituency have attacked me ferociously on these issues, I have wholly deprecated them. If we examine the work that the armed forces do in schools, we find that it is not about preying on young people who, in some sense, might not have other opportunities in life. Often such work is about giving people the confidence in themselves to go on to do something that has nothing to do with the armed forces. It is about giving them a structure in life, and a sense of discipline and opportunity, which is of value to the wider community. I know that some teachers at Treorchy comprehensive were sceptical about the combined cadet force coming to the school, but since it has been in place they have been entirely supportive and have found it to be an entirely beneficial operation.
Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): I agree about the importance of cadets. I visited my local Stonehouse platoon of the Army Cadet Force last week. It is fantastic and I would like to be sure that this Bill will provide the appropriate support to the cadets and the officers who train them-I am sure that it will.
Chris Bryant: I take on board the hon. Gentleman's point. I do not think that the Bill will do much directly for the cadets, except in so far as putting the military covenant in statute will make us focus on these issues more keenly. If there was one niggly point that I tried to make to the Labour Government when we were in power and would still make to this Government, it is that the sea cadets do not receive the amount of support that other cadet forces get directly from the relevant armed forces. That is a problem, especially because at the moment the sea cadets in the Rhondda spend almost all the money that they receive in support on just paying their insurance bill every year. I wonder whether we could ensure that the Ministry of Defence provides insurance support for all cadet operations. We could thereby release the sea cadets and other such forces to get on with their important work without having to spend all their time fundraising.
Charlie Elphicke: I could not agree more strongly with the hon. Gentleman on that point. The sea cadets are often the Cinderella of the cadets. Dover sea cadets are trying to buy the shed in which they train from the MOD but are having some difficulty. There is not the help that one would hope to see, so I echo and support his comments on the sea cadets.
My other reason for wanting to take part in this debate is that Wales has a particular tradition of its own in relation to the armed forces, not only in successive wars but in producing a much higher quantity of young men and, increasingly, of young women to go into our armed forces than would be proportionate to its population. It is difficult, as the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) said, to get accurate statistics, but roughly 9% of the armed forces come from Welsh constituencies. That compares with just 5% of the UK population coming from Wales. There is, therefore, over-representation. That may in part be to do with the fact that we have higher levels of deprivation-multiple levels of deprivation -in certain parts of the country.
One of the ironies is that little of the time that Welsh personnel spend in the armed forces will be spent in Wales. They might have to go to Sennybridge. They might spend a very cold, wet, hideous, horrible time on the mountain tops in training, but the likelihood is that the vast majority of their time will be spent, even when they are in the UK, not in Wales but elsewhere.
I make a plea to the MOD and the Minister. I hope that he will be able to answer this later. When we are considering future bases in the UK, of course, as the Secretary of State said, the most important thing is ensuring the security of the realm. Every member of the armed forces would agree with that, but I argue that part of the military covenant is saying that deployment when at home, rather than when in theatre, should allow for a wider spread than is currently the case.
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