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General Committee Debates
Northern Ireland Grand Committee Debates
|©Parliamentary copyright||Prepared 11th February 2011|
Publications on the internet
General Committee Debates
Northern Ireland Grand Committee Debates
Armed Forces Bill
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Georgina Holmes-Skelton, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The Chair: This is the first formal sitting to consider the Armed Forces Bill. This Committee is by tradition a Select Committee, but one which has decided to adopt General Committee procedures to consider the Bill line by line. As such, I remind Members that the required notice period for amendments is three working days. Therefore, amendments should be tabled by the rise of the House on Monday for consideration on Thursday and by the rise of the House on Thursday for consideration on Tuesday.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Andrew Robathan): I have never taken part in one of these Select-Public Bill Committee hybrids, and I find it extremely interesting. Some of the evidence that we have heard has influenced my thinking on the Bill. I should like to make a few introductory remarks about the Bill that fit neatly under clause 1. The Bill is much more modest than its predecessor, the Armed Forces Act 2006. Two members of the Committee served on the Committee that considered that Act, which established a single system of service law for the first time. The Bill reflects feedback from the services following implementation that the 2006 Act is proving a good one in practice, too.
I hasten to add—I will say it now and I will try not to say it any more—that I do not hold in contempt everything that the previous Administration did. They did many sensible things that we are continuing with. I pay tribute to them for many of the things that they did, such as the service Command Paper and various things that they introduced.
Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): In that spirit of bipartisanship, would the Minister like to comment on whether my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham was correct to press for the introduction of the Service Complaints Commissioner? I understand at the time there was some scepticism among Conservative Members about the issue.
Mr Robathan: That is slightly off the clause. I was not party to that scepticism; I was not involved in at all. We had an interesting and valuable meeting with Dr Susan Atkins. I had met her previously and found her to be reasonable, sensible and very much on the side of getting better results for the armed forces. That change was valuable, notwithstanding any scepticism that there may have been before. Indeed, generals I have spoken to,
The Bill provides the legal basis for the armed forces to continue to exist, as was explained on Second Reading. It contains eight main groups of clauses. The first group deals with renewal and the second with the armed forces covenant, of which much more later, I expect. The third group makes provision for the service police forces and the Ministry of Defence police. The fourth group relates to powers of entry, search and seizure. The fifth group provides for the testing of service personnel, in specified circumstances, for alcohol and drugs. The sixth group relates to punishments and other court orders. The seventh group will make a small number of changes to the Armed Forces Act 2006. The eighth group will make amendments and repeal other primary legislation.
Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I welcome the Minister to his position. It is nice to hear his voice at last in this Committee. May I congratulate him on behalf of the Committee on his promotion to the Privy Council yesterday? There is hope for us all. The hon. Member for Colchester and I seem to have done something wrong as children; we seem damned eternally to sit on Armed Forces Bill Committees. As the Minister said, this Bill is a lot shorter and narrower in scope than the last one. The last one basically welded together nearly 50 years of legislation and three different service Acts.
Some of the Bill’s provisions clear up points in the 2006 Act, and they have been broadly welcomed. The Bill contains some important provisions not only for members of our armed forces regarding discipline and procedure, but for wider engagement—especially on the covenant, which we will be coming to—in the relationship between society and members of the armed forces. Debating such a Bill every five years is important in ensuring not only that our armed forces have the confidence of Parliament’s taking a proper scrutiny interest in their affairs, but that modern military law is as up to date as possible.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I thank the Minister for the way in which he has introduced the Bill. I am one of two survivors from the previous Armed Forces Bill Committee, and it was very rewarding to serve on that Committee. We had, broadly speaking, unanimous outcomes in most of our deliberations. Our armed forces look to Parliament to have a consensus and a united voice wherever that is possible.
When the Bill came before the House, I rushed to the Whips Office to request that I be allowed to serve on the Committee. It is not a penance; I regard it as a reward, because I have the privilege and the responsibility of representing a garrison town. If the Bill becomes an Act that is as successful as the one from five years ago, it will be work well done by us all. I pay tribute to the previous Government for the many measures that they introduced to make life better for our armed forces. I hope that that evolution will continue through the rest of this Parliament and beyond.
Gemma Doyle: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Arbuthnot, on my first Bill Committee, even if it is constituted in a slightly different way from normal Committees. I will begin by explaining why I believe that it is necessary to amend the clause, and I will make some specific remarks about each amendment.
When the Government orders British armed forces into harm’s way, our servicemen and women act without hesitation or question. As though the disruption to family life and the separation from loved ones were not hardship enough, our service personnel stand firm in the face of danger and, sadly, on occasion, make the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf. It is only right that in responding, in return, to their needs and to those of their loved ones the Government demonstrate equal resolve. We simply cannot let them down.
Unfortunately, despite their having been in office less than a year, there is already cause to question the Government’s ability and commitment to make good on the intentions that they heralded so vocally when they were in opposition. At the end of last year, the Government published their long-awaited report on the Task Force on the Military Covenant, in which the Government pledged to strengthen the bonds between this country and the armed forces. The report sought only
We must also touch on the Government’s recent decision to link forces’ pensions to the consumer prices index rather than to the generally higher retail prices index, which was previously used. That will disproportionately affect members of the forces, and it has caused Sir Michael Moore, chairman of the Forces Pension Society, to say:
In July 2009, the Prime Minister promised a written military covenant enshrined in law, but the Bill falls far short of that pledge, proposing merely an annual report written by the Government. Clearly, that does not enshrine the rights and expectations of our brave service personnel into law. It does not even give them the courtesy of independent scrutiny that is free from political interference, because it moves responsibility for monitoring the Government’s progress on strengthening the covenant away from independent experts and into the political hands of Ministers.
Our amendments attempt to hold the Government to their pledge of a written, legally binding military covenant. The Government must meet their commitment to protect and improve the well-being of the whole armed forces community by putting the obligations on to the statute book, which will ensure that Ministers are held to account for their actions. The amendments would ensure the independence and legitimacy of the annual covenant report by putting it into the hands of an independently chaired external reference group and getting it out of the political control of Ministers.
On amendment 2, the Bill contains a specific proposal that the Secretary of State will publish an annual report on the Government’s progress on the military covenant. Indeed, the Bill enshrines in law a report on the covenant, but not the covenant itself, as was touted by the Prime Minister and by Defence Ministers. In the media yesterday, the Minister for the Armed Forces said that the Government are defining the covenant in law, which, for anyone who has read the Bill, is clearly not the case.
The Bill falls far short of the written armed forces covenant enshrined in law that the Prime Minister promised before the election. Furthermore, it removes responsibility for monitoring the Government’s progress on the covenant into the hands of Ministers who are, of course, political—as we all are. The Army Families Federation warned us today about raising expectations, and we should heed their warning. Members will be aware of the external reference group established by the previous Government to chart progress by Departments in delivering the commitments made to our armed forces in the service personnel Command Paper.
Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): Does the hon. Lady not feel that her amendment, which requires that the external reference group, rather than the Secretary of State, reports, actually circumscribes the inputs to the report? As we heard from the witnesses and as we believe from what the civil servants have said, the inputs to the report that the Secretary of State can provide under the Bill will have more than just the ERG’s participation.
Gemma Doyle: My concern is that the input of the ERG will be lost entirely, and I will move on to set out those concerns more clearly. As we know, the ERG has representatives from service charities and the Army Families Federation, and it is considered to provide a somewhat independent progress report. I am concerned about how the ERG will fit into the new proposal for
However, in a briefing from the Bill team to the Committee, Gavin Barlow stated that the Secretary of State’s report would replace the ERG’s report. That is contradictory to the position that the Minister set out in the House. We had further questioning on the matter, as hon. Members will recall, which revealed great confusion within the Bill team about how the ERG will continue to fit into the process. The one thing that those giving evidence were clear about was that one report will be published only. As has been mentioned, we have not been able to question the Minister during the evidence sessions, and I was disappointed about that, because the issue needs to be cleared up.
Mr Robathan: The hon. Lady is disappointed, but we had a meeting at the tail end of January where we discussed who we would like to interview. She had the opportunity then to suggest that she might like to me to appear before the Committee, and I would have been perfectly happy to do so, but she did not raise that at the time.
Gemma Doyle: As I recall, that discussion was about whether the Secretary of State should come before the Committee. I also recall that we decided that, although we did not think that that was necessary at the time, we should see how matters developed. The reason that it became important for the Minister to give evidence to the Committee is that, although we had had a clear assurance about the how the ERG would continue to function from the Minister in a debate on the Floor of the House, recorded in Hansard, we then had evidence from the Bill team—his own officials—that contradicted what he said. We have not yet been able to clear up the matter. We heard from members of the ERG who have no idea of how they will be asked to fit in.
Bob Russell: I think that I understand what the hon. Lady is seeking to achieve by wanting to put the ERG’s report before Parliament. We heard in our evidence sessions that some voluntary and charitable organisations felt uncomfortable about their being brought into the official Whitehall or Ministry of Defence machine. However, if the clause goes ahead as published, I am pretty confident that right hon. and hon. Members who wish to refer to the ERG will not be stopped by Mr Speaker from so doing, as that is in any case part of the building bricks of the Secretary of State’s report.
Gemma Doyle: I am impressed by the hon. Gentleman’s confidence in the Secretary of State that he will consult the ERG, but the Bill places no statutory duty on the Secretary of State to do so, which is what concerns me. The independent evidence provided by the ERG could be lost.
Gemma Doyle: Indeed. That is why I think there is so much confusion on the issue and why I have tabled a series of amendments that relate to the ERG. I think it would be irresponsible of us if we simply accepted verbal assurances and assumed that they will be followed through. As the Bill stands, there is no requirement on the Secretary of State to consult the ERG.
Mr Robathan: The hon. Lady and her colleagues have made much of the fact that I have not sat in front of the Committee in an evidence session. May I assure her and everyone in the Committee that I am not intending to cut and run? I shall remain here throughout the Committee’s sittings, and when I am making my speeches, she may intervene as often as she likes to ask me questions.
Gemma Doyle: I am delighted to hear that, and I thank the Minister for his intervention. Our evidence sessions have informed our interpretation of the Bill and led us to table the amendments that we feel are necessary. If the Minister had given evidence before the Committee and if we had been able to get a clarification from him on the record about the ERG’s role, which we do not currently have, it might not have been necessary to table the amendments.
Mark Lancaster (Milton Keynes North) (Con): The hon. Lady says that what was said in our evidence sessions has been taken into account. It was pretty clear from some of the evidence this morning that the ERG was set up originally for a separate purpose, which is related to the service Command Paper. That should not be confused with the covenant’s role. With that in mind, does she think that for her amendment to work, we would have to change the ERG’s terms of reference? If that is the case, how would she change them?
Gemma Doyle: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The external reference group’s terms of reference would need to be changed, but it has an important role to play in scrutinising the implementation of the covenant. That is why I have tabled amendments to include it in the process.
Mark Lancaster: I accept that, but there is a feeling that the hon. Lady might have tabled the amendment for partisan reasons, which I am sure is not the case and is very unfair. Given that she has clearly thought about the amendment and she agrees that the external reference group’s terms of reference must be changed, she must have thought about what those changes should be. Could she tell us what the terms of reference should change to?
Members of the external reference group who have given evidence to the Committee have expressed differing views on how the ERG will fit into the process of reviewing the covenant. It would be wrong for us to proceed with the Bill without giving them some sort of statutory involvement in that process. Had the Minister given evidence, we would have been able to consider and debate this matter before tabling amendments on it.
We have heard from charitable organisations and from military officials on the value of the ERG, and we do not want to lose the valuable contribution that it makes. As such, if only one report is to be published, it should be the report of the external reference group.
Bob Russell: Did the hon. Lady share my surprise at discovering that the majority of people on the external reference group are actually from within the Government system? The external reference group is really an internal reference group, because external people are in the minority.
Gemma Doyle: I was somewhat surprised to hear that. It relates to one of my other amendments, which I will come to later. I felt that the independent members of the reference group—those members who are not civil servants or MOD officials—stated quite clearly that the current process is one of compromise. If they are not satisfied with the final report, they take a step back—I believe that is the phrase they used—and make their views very clear.
Christopher Pincher: The hon. Lady has said that she looks forward to the report being produced in November, which I assume is November each year. Dr Atkins, the chairman of the service complaints panel, told us—if she did not, it is certainly in the notes on her report—that her report is published every March.
Does the hon. Lady not think that publishing an ERG report in November and an SCP report in March would mean that important input to the ERG report either would not be available or would be out of date?
This morning we heard testimony expressing concern that it would not be good enough for the Secretary of State alone to decide what goes into the report. Consequently, my amendment specifically tasks the ERG, not the MOD, with preparing an annual report for the Secretary of State on the covenant. I believe that the ERG is better placed than the Government to assess the success of past measures and to identify areas for further action. The report should be laid before Parliament for debate, and that provision is already included in the Bill. I think the consensus is that it is a welcome measure and that there should be an annual debate on the covenant. Any Government who truly wish for the
Amendment 4 would tidy up the wording of the Bill to reflect amendment 2. It seeks to reinforce the independence and legitimacy of the annual report by tasking the ERG, rather than the Secretary of State, to define precisely which issues should be included in the report.
Amendment 5 would insert a new paragraph to define the ERG. As we heard this morning from Chris Simpkins of the Royal British Legion, the ERG currently has no statutory role—that was the concern he expressed. It is right that in examining the state of the armed forces covenant, the best interests of the armed forces community are placed ahead of everything else. It is of concern that the value of the covenant report could be undermined if it were perceived to be pulling its punches in order to protect the Government from criticism or embarrassment. That is why the ERG is better placed to produce the report than Government Ministers.
The amendment will ensure continued legitimacy, and that it will ensure that independent views are not squeezed out of the ERG through the selection of an independent chair, thereby guaranteeing the credibility of the covenant report by freeing it from potential political interference. It will also ensure that the ERG continues to draw on the expert advice of armed forces families, veterans and related organisations and charities.
The Committee will note that the ERG has already produced two annual reports that were welcomed by Ministers and service organisations alike. Political considerations must not be allowed to distort, weaken or detract from further constructive appraisal of Government progress in meeting their commitments under the covenant.
Thomas Docherty: I am grateful to be called to speak, and I place on record my thanks to you, Mr Arbuthnot, for your chairmanship. I have the privilege of being chaired by you in my other role as member of the Defence Committee, and I hope that you will be equally kind to a new Member who might occasionally lose his footing.
I support the three amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire. If there is any reason why it is so vital to have external scrutiny, it is the Government’s disappointing decision to cut £250 million of allowances from the service personnel. I will not list them all as that would take far too long.
Mark Lancaster: I am sorry that the debate is becoming slightly partisan. I recall 2006 when the Government introduced the operational allowance—I was a recipient of it when I served in Afghanistan. It was perhaps a cause of some cynicism among our troops, because at the same time the Government also cut the longer service separation allowance. That meant that the £2,000 operational allowance introduced was offset by the £2,000 cut to the longer service separation allowance. If the hon. Gentleman insists on making a partisan point, does he accept that the dramatic overspend conducted by the previous Government has probably contributed to the situation in which we now find ourselves?
Thomas Docherty: I am nervous about going too far off the subject matter, but the hon. Gentleman refers to black holes. As you will know, Mr Arbuthnot, the permanent secretary of the MOD confirmed in evidence that a black hole exists under this Government. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to step outside and talk to either the Minister or his Parliamentary Private Secretary about overspends and black holes, before he has a go. I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman, who I know has done gallant service, believes that challenging ministerial decisions is somehow partisan. If he wishes us all to sit around and hold hands, I suspect that the nature of the debate would alter somewhat.
Bob Russell: Would the hon. Gentleman be surprised to know that not a single member of 16 Air Assault Brigade has contacted me to say that they disapprove of the doubling of their overseas operations allowance while they are in Afghanistan? Not one of them has contacted me to say how much they deplore what the Government are doing on other allowances.
Mr Robathan: Consistency is a great thing in politics. During the Second Reading debate, the hon. Gentleman said clearly that he did not believe that the continuity of education allowance should continue, because it was a way of subbing private schools. He must be consistent. As a matter of interest, does he know what has happened to the motor mileage allowance that he and I get for driving around or to our constituencies? It has been reduced and consolidated to 25p a mile as a way of encouraging people not to drive too far. I would have thought that he would applaud that. The reductions in allowance are quite sensible.
Thomas Docherty: I am trying to stay on the agenda, Mr Chairman, but hon. Members—or right hon. Members, as I must now call the Minister—insist on challenging me, and I am getting dragged off it. If the Government are to cut £250 million in allowances, it is absolutely right that some independent body should be able to challenge their thinking. That is what my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire seeks to do in the amendments. Surely, given that the Cabinet Office will still control appointments, if I have read her amendments correctly, the ERG will not seek to castigate the Government simply for the sake of it or, to use the language of the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North, to behave in a partisan manner. The Cabinet Office would, obviously,
Gemma Doyle: Was my hon. Friend as disappointed as I was that the measures in the Bill on the military covenant were so weak? If the Government had introduced a stronger proposal, we might have spent more time in Committee debating the important issues, such as allowances, that he has raised.
Thomas Docherty: My hon. Friend is entirely right, although I must confess that my disappointment is nothing compared with that of the witnesses whom we heard this morning. I was also disappointed that we did not hear from the Minister, for the simple reason that he is a charming fellow, as I discovered again last night. I think that we would all have enjoyed hearing his thoughts on the matter.
The hon. Member for Tamworth asked why the Service Complaints Commissioner would report in March and the ERG in November. I would have thought that he would have seen the obvious reason. When Dr Atkins makes her report about trends of problems and issues—some eight months, if my maths is not entirely wrong, before the ERG report is published—it will help to shape the ERG’s thinking about what it would like to receive investigation and further scrutiny. I suggest gently to Government Members that if the two reports were published at the same time, we would effectively have to go a whole year without an opportunity to react through scrutiny.
Thomas Docherty: I do not know how much experience of the civil service the hon. Gentleman has, but it is probably fair to say that it does not tend to move quickly. Indeed, perhaps seven months is not enough time.
Mr Jones: Does my hon. Friend also agree that the areas and, in many instances, individual cases that the Service Complaints Commissioner considers might have an interest in the covenant, but they are not fundamental to the issues outlined in the report?
Thomas Docherty: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. If I could just perhaps labour the point—pardon the pun—one issue that we touched on with Dr Atkins was IVF treatment. Of course, I hope that health care for service personnel is something that the Minister will, if he accedes to the very sensible amendments from the Opposition, support. As he knows, there is a kind of postcode lottery—if I can use that phrase—with regard to IVF treatment, as some parts of the country have a residency requirement. In some cases, I understand that that is up to two years. Clearly, for many service personnel who move on a regular basis, that is a problem. I am delighted to hear that Dr Atkins has been able, in individual cases, to try and resolve that issue. However, I hope that the Minister he will take the issue back to his civil servants.
Mr Jones: I am intrigued. I accept that we should have perhaps looked at that, but that is not actually one of our terms of reference. On IVF, I do not know whether the present Government have followed this up, but there were some clear commitments and benchmarks put down in the Command Paper, and followed up by the ERG, to deal with exactly that issue of the move-ability of individuals when they are receiving IVF treatment.
Thomas Docherty: Again, my hon. Friend makes a valid point. I am very conscious, Mr Arbuthnot, that if I stray too much on to the definitions of the commissioner’s role you would, probably rightly, pull me back into line. In her evidence, Dr Atkins indicated that there is some fluidity in the scope of her work. Perhaps, as more amendments are tabled later this week and next week, we will come back to the issue.
Let me finish the point about IVF treatment, because there are other hon. Members who wish to speak both in favour and, bizarrely, I am sure, against these sensible amendments. If Dr Atkins highlights particular problems with health care, notwithstanding the excellent work from my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham from his time as Minister with responsibility for veterans, it is only right that the ERG picks up on those issues and sets a direction of travel for further scrutiny, and I think that that is what my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire seeks to do with her amendments.
When I first saw that amendment 4 had been tabled, I assumed it was merely a technical amendment, a kind of cleaning up, and a logical subsequent follow-on from amendment 2. On reflection, it deserves consideration in its own right. I hope that the Minister has listened to the arguments on amendment 2. I was encouraged by his opening remarks when he said that, if I am not paraphrasing him incorrectly, he had his mind shaped slightly by the witnesses we have heard. If, however, my hon. Friend has not succeeded in persuading the Minister to accept amendment 2, I hope that he will consider accepting amendment 4 in its own right.
If I have understood correctly, and perhaps the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, the Secretary of State both sets the direction for the reporting—which areas will be covered—and does the report himself. Now, I have absolute respect for the current Secretary of State. I am disappointed that the colleague of the hon. Member for Colchester, the right hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Michael Moore), does not share that view of the Secretary of State for Defence, but I think that he is a decent enough chap. I am sure that he would not abuse his ability to determine what is considered, because that is a possibility, although I stress that I am sure that this Secretary of State would not do it. The MOD could say, “You know what, we know that there is an area that we are falling down on, so we will not do a report on that matter”. The key part in the Bill is subsection (2)(b), which contains the phrase,
As it currently stands, the Secretary of State is both gamekeeper and poacher in this scenario. If the ERG is tasked with determining the matters that should be reported on, I think that that is a perfectly reasonable way of taking some of the power away from the Secretary of State.
I can see that the Minister is having a think about that. Will the Government at least accept that reasonable and sensible proposition? Indeed, it might go some way to providing some satisfaction to the ERG. It was disappointing to hear, in the evidence from the civil servants, that they felt the ERG would “wither on the vine”. None of us would seek that, and I hope that the Minister could find his way to giving some ground on that.
Turning briefly to amendment 5, my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire has made a sensible suggestion about independent chairing. There was some discussion earlier about the number of civil servants in the room. While I accept their point that no formal votes are taken, it does not do a disservice to the civil servants or to the Minister’s team to say that his civil servants are both fluid—I should say fluent—and professional.
If we can restrict the number of voices that we hear from the establishment—the Minister will pardon me for saying this—from the Ministry of Defence and from the Government as a whole and provide an independent chair to the group, who could, as you do very successfully on the Defence Committee, Mr Arbuthnot, steer in an impartial and elegant manner, it might give some comfort to the ERG. I hope that the Minister will also reflect on whether that is a sensible and pragmatic approach.
Finally, I hope that the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North will not see this as a partisan approach. In my brief time in the House, I have found that when it comes to matters concerning the armed forces and the defence of the realm, both sides of the House are as one, although we may disagree on some of the technical details. I appreciate that he and his colleagues approach this in the right spirit, and I hope that he can see that we do, too.
Bob Russell: I am merely observing that if the Bill becomes an Act it will enshrine the phrase “armed forces covenant report”. It has already been established that the majority of the members of the ERG are in fact internal. I thought that most of us were opposed to the outsourcing of parliamentary matters.
Mr Jones: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but at this stage, it is nothing to do with Parliament. The report recommended in the amendment will be drawn up by departmental civil servants, Ministers, external experts and the devolved Administrations. It will have nothing to do with Parliament at that stage.
Bob Russell: The hon. Gentleman brings to this debate the experience of being a Minister in the last Government. From that we must assume that that is the way he operated in the past, and he did not take advice or information from elsewhere but kept very narrowly to his circle of civil servants and political advisers. I would like to think that the Secretary of State would be open and receptive not only to the ERG, but to any other bodies that wish to make representations to him.
Mr Jones: Yes, but as the Bill stands at the moment, the Secretary of State does not have to consult anyone at all. There is nothing in the Bill that says that he has to consult other Departments or the ERG. If the hon. Gentleman wants what he wants, why did he not table an amendment to suggest that?
Bob Russell: I am happy with this part of the Bill. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for confirming that when he was a Minister, he had a closed-door policy to matters being brought forward. My belief is that an active Member of Parliament who received representations from any organisation or individual would make sure that those views were heard on the Floor of the House through parliamentary questions and in debates, and through direct communications with the relevant Defence Ministers. Therefore I do not think the amendments will achieve what they say on paper.
Mr Jones: What the hon. Gentleman said about my time as Minister could not be further from the truth, and he knows that. I should not have bothered using my time when I was a Minister visiting Colchester so often for him. The reference group involves not just Departments but devolved Administrations. What we have in the Bill is the Secretary of State making decisions without reference to anyone.
Bob Russell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his visits to my constituency when he was a Minister, and I am also grateful to him for being the one who managed to arrange for me to do a 13,000-foot free-fall parachute jump, which I have clearly survived.
I believe that the coalition Government’s proposals will take things forward from the Armed Forces Act 2006, and that is to be welcomed. It may well be that in the fullness of time, with experience, those who succeed us may feel that those proposals are worth expanding or amending, which is exactly what we are doing now with the measures in the previous Act. I would urge caution about trying to spell out everything.
Thomas Docherty: I am loth to start mentioning words such as “independent” and “parliamentary” and things related to that, because we would definitely get off the point if we started talking about the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. If I am looking at the matter correctly, five years ago, when we had last
Bob Russell: The hon. Gentleman moved too quickly, because I have not even reached that amendment. I was going to refer to the list of things that should be included for deliberation rather than just health care, education and housing.Mr Jones: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Arbuthnot. It is just like the old days on the Defence Committee. When I left, you referred to the fact that it was like a toothache; you miss it when it has gone.
The hon. Member for Colchester said that the provision was taking things forward. I have to say, though, that this Bill is a missed opportunity in terms of taking forward measures that the previous Government introduced—on some occasions those measures were opposed by the Conservatives.
As we heard this morning, the External Reference Group was set up specifically to report on the Command Paper, which was the first piece of Government legislation that looked across Whitehall and involved the charitable sector, devolved Administrations and local government. It considered how it could ensure that armed service personnel, their families and veterans were not disadvantaged in their service life or by having served their country. The ERG has done a valuable job in that regard.
In the newspapers in the past few weeks, we have seen the Prime Minister putting a spin on this Bill, saying that it enshrines the military covenant in law. Well, Mr Arbuthnot, it does nothing of the sort. The hon. Member for Colchester summed it up correctly when he
How the report is drawn up and how it gains respect will be very important. I am sorry, but I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman who says that we can wait and see how these things develop. What we have to do in the proposed legislation is deal not just with this Government but with Governments in the future and consider how the Act will be looked at and interpreted by future Secretaries of State. The Bill quite clearly states that the Secretary of State must
Will Secretaries of State they have to consult anybody on how it is drawn up and what goes into it? No, they will not. We are not clear what will go into it, apart from these three areas. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire said earlier, there seems to be some confusion about the relationship between the covenant report and the ERG report. As she said, the Minister gave a commitment in January that the ERG report would still be produced. How that will then relate to this report is completely unclear. We were told by officials giving evidence that there would be one report. In Question 21 of the evidence session, my hon. Friend asked:
“We haven’t come to a final view on how we’re going to do that. We will do that when the legislation is passed. We’ve had some discussions in the External Reference Group about how we might take the report forward, and we’ve agreed that consultation is important.”
I am sorry, but it is not good enough that we are left in a situation in which we have been asked to consider this Bill—in fact pass an Act of Parliament—without even being clear about the constraints on or the terms of reference for the Secretary of State when he draws up this report.
Gemma Doyle: My hon. Friend has a good deal more experience in the House than me. Was he as shocked and disappointed as I was when the Minister refused to give evidence to the Committee? These are exactly the kind of issues that we could have discussed. Does he recall a similar situation taking place before?Mr Jones: I feel disappointment, but I do not think that it will upset the Minister that I have been disappointed. Perhaps I have also been disappointed by him on other occasions, but overall I think that he is quite a jolly fellow.
Mr Robathan: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman thinks that I am quite a jolly fellow. I will reciprocate. However, he could have attended the meeting that we had in January, where we decided the report, if he had wanted to. I am sure that his visit to Pakistan was extremely important—was it a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association visit? However, one must prioritise what one wishes to do. He could also have discussed with his colleagues whether he wanted me to appear in front of the Committee.
Mr Jones: We missed an opportunity. If I was in the Minister’s position, I would want to clarify some of this confusion. The other issue that I asked about was how this policy was being formulated and how it has been arrived at. There were inconsistencies, for example, in the evidence that we heard yesterday. The Head of Personnel for the Army said that my previous Green Paper and other Green Papers were taken into consideration, whereas Mr Barlow more or less drew a line under it in May.
I cannot understand why the Minister is so reluctant to help the Committee. If he says that he is going to help, with the greatest respect, the process in Committee, where there is a debate and there are limited opportunities and he has control over who intervenes on him, is different from that involved in appearing before a Select Committee.
Bob Russell: Well, it was one of the very earliest—it was in the early days of those hybrid Committees. I wonder if the hon. Member for North Durham can remind the Committee how many occasions the then Minister, who sat on that earlier Committee, was questioned in an evidence session?
Mr Jones: I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that the Civil Contingencies Bill was the first hybrid-type Committee. I sat on that Committee, which was a joint Committee of the House of Lords and the House of Commons. However, I am now talking about this Committee. It is important that we actually get the understanding that we want. Hopefully this afternoon we will get some enlightenment. Regarding this clause, the important thing is that basically the Secretary of State will be able to decide how the report is prepared.
The ERG has been a valuable tool. It certainly held the previous Government to account, in terms of the measures that it put forward in the service Command Paper. The other valuable exercise that the previous Government did was the Boyce review on the armed forces compensation scheme. That review was under the chairmanship of Admiral Lord Boyce but it had independent members. Many were drawn from the ERG, but I hasten to add that there were other independent members. That process was important in ensuring that the recommendations that came from the Boyce review were not only robustly argued and considered in depth but could be said to be independent from Government.
It is important for the credibility of the report that is going to be produced now that it is seen to be independent. Otherwise, and I am not only talking about this Government but future Governments, it will be felt that a Government can decide what is and what is not in the report, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife has just said.
It would be helpful if we knew what the input of the ERG is going to be, because the information is clearly contradictory. The Minister and his Government will
Regarding the points made by the hon. Member for Colchester about civil service input, I still think that that has been a problem. It was actually a benefit in the ERG, because the civil servants were the advocates from the different Departments. We heard this morning from the representatives of the armed forces charities sector that their ability to engage directly with Department of Health officials and other officials allowed them to affect policy directly.
I think that my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire is saying in her amendments that the ERG should draw up the report and that it should not be left to this or any future Secretary of State. The report will go to Parliament. I will put it on record that that is important; it would also be good if it were debated every year. I hasten to add that the Defence Committee may well scrutinise the report each year.
On the point about independence, it is also important that an independent chair is appointed to the group. That will lead the outside world and certainly the charitable sector to feel not only that they have input but that it is not just a done deal by Government. These days, whether we as politicians like it or not, there is a huge amount of cynicism about Governments doing their own—
Mr Jones: The Minister chunters from a sedentary position, “Thirteen years,” but he was one of many Opposition Members and others who called for more independent and external scrutiny. In the clause, he seems to be going in exactly the opposite direction, taking us away from independent input and saying that the Secretary of State should decide what happens. In terms of credibility—we will come next to the amendment that deals with what is in the report—the process has been horribly done. It clearly has not been thought out. To lose the ERG’s expertise would be a mistake.
I do not know whether the hon. Member for Colchester has gone native and is now a Tory in some parts. It is not good enough to accept, if we do not put on the face of the Bill how the report will be drawn up—not the content but whether the onus is on the Secretary of State to consult or involve individuals—that future Secretaries of State, if not this one, could completely ignore anybody and propose what they want. That would be a fundamental mistake.
Tony Stables made the point this morning that it is quite clear that officials want the ERG to wither on the vine, and that it is important that the ERG should evolve. It is obvious that with an independent chair, the ERG could have valuable input. I think that it would assist Government. When I was a Minister, I thought that the work of the ERG, families federations and other bodies was helpful. They did not always agree with the Ministry of Defence and were quite critical on occasions, but that grit in the oyster was important in
Mr Robathan: I will turn to a few of the points raised and the specific wording of the amendments. I will start by laying to rest—what is it that one lays to rest?—the corpse, canard or whatever about what we have said about putting the military covenant in law. This is exactly what the Prime Minister said in June 2010:
Gemma Doyle: Does the Minister accept that there is a difference between the armed forces covenant and the armed forces covenant report? Does he think that those two statements refer to the same document?
Mr Robathan: It depends on what interpretation is put on what the Prime Minister said. Unsurprisingly, the Prime Minister is happy with what we are doing at the moment in fulfilling what he spoke about in June.
Mr Robathan: Obviously, the hon. Lady was not listening this morning when various people said—there was quite a consensus of opinion with the exception of one witness—that the point about the armed forces covenant is that it develops and is a conceptual, philosophical statement. To write it down and try to codify it by statute would be, frankly, rather surprising.
Mr Jones: That is obviously a good tactic—we have seen it used by the Prime Minister. Is the Minister saying that at some time in the future another document called the military covenant will be produced? If so, why is that not being done now as part of the Bill?
The Bill encapsulates, as does the debate on the clause, the different attitudes between the coalition Government and the previous Government. We are much less interested in box ticking, prescription and the bureaucratic laying down of this, that and the other. We are interested in better results and outcomes.
Mr Jones: Will the Minister clarify whether another document will be produced some time in the future called the armed forces covenant? If that is the case, how does it relate to this document? Why is that not part of the Bill? How will it be put into the Bill later on? Frankly—I am going to use a rude phrase—it is a bit arse about.
Mr Robathan: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is being so obtuse. I am not used to that from him, especially after he has been so polite to me. The covenant is a conceptual thing that will not be laid down in law. The report will measure the actions, results and policies of the Government against the covenant. The hon. Gentleman will see that shortly—I have the draft with me.
Mr Jones: I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying that. He says that the covenant will not be laid down in law. He has just attacked the previous Government for box ticking and target setting, but that is exactly what he will do. That is why, with the Command Paper, the previous Government got improvements in the health service and other areas.
Mr Robathan: I am afraid that I really do not accept what the hon. Gentleman has said. I feel that we are not likely to agree, and from his wry smile I think that he, too, accepts that. [ Interruption. ] From a sedentary position, the hon. Gentleman says that it is not going to be in law, but I shall pick up a piece of legislation. It states, “Armed forces covenant report.” That looks pretty much in law to me.
Thomas Docherty: As you know, Mr Arbuthnot, I speak only when I feel that I have something that is worth saying. The Minister will be aware that my ten-minute rule Bill has its Second Reading on Friday 11 November, and it is entitled the Armed Forces Charter Bill. Perhaps he would like to confirm to the Committee whether he will support my Bill?
Mr Jones: I may need to get a hammer and chisel in a minute, but can I clarify something? Reference has been made by the Minister today and by officials to some other work that is ongoing. Will a document called the covenant be produced, and if so, how will that relate to the Bill?
Mr Robathan: The hon. Gentleman is being obtuse. The covenant will be produced—I would expect it at some stage in the spring—and he can comment on it then. The report, which is in the Bill, will measure the actions and policies of the Government against the covenant and its effects.
Mr Jones: So we now have it finally confirmed that there will be another report. What will be its legal status in relation to the Bill? If a report is being produced, why will it be measured by something that the Committee cannot see for some time? How will that legislatively and legally link to the Bill?
Mr Robathan: I do not think that I am being particularly opaque. There will be one report. The Secretary of State will present to Parliament—the elected tribunes of the people—a report on the effects of Government policy on the military covenant. The military covenant will be published this spring, and the hon. Gentleman will have plenty of time to comment on it again.
Mr Robathan: As I have explained already, it will be a conceptual, philosophical statement, and it will have about the same legal position as the service Command Paper, I think. I might move on now, because this is rather sterile.
Mr Jones: So we will have a separate armed forces covenant, which will not be legally enforceable and which will have no legal status whatsoever, and that is the reason why the Minister has not brought it in as part of the Bill. Is that correct?
Mr Robathan: I return to my original point, which was that the Government do not want to be as prescriptive as the previous Government, and we are not as prescriptive. We are producing the covenant, which the hon. Gentleman can see shortly, and we will report against the measures listed in the covenant. The Secretary of State will make an annual report to Parliament.
The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire referred to cost, and I am awfully sorry, but I am not going to let her get away with that. She mentioned the linking of pensions to RPI and CPI. She can stand up now and commit the next Labour Government—should there ever be one—to relinking public sector or armed forces pensions to RPI, but it is highly unlikely that she will. The decision has not been a particularly happy one, but it will introduce greater stability to the public finances, and that is why the Government decided on it.
Gemma Doyle: The Minister should probably worry about his career, rather than mine, given that he has just completely contradicted what the Prime Minister said about enshrining the military covenant in law. Will the Minister accept that the armed forces community will be disadvantaged compared with other public servants, because of the measures that the Government are implementing on pensions?
Mr Robathan: Mr Arbuthnot, I would love to. My final point on the hon. Lady’s speech is that we think that the ERG, which was set up by the previous Government, does good work. Indeed, I pay tribute particularly to its independent members, led by Professor Hew Strachan, whom I saw not 24 hours ago. We saw several of its members in the evidence session this morning. We value it enormously; but, as we heard this morning, it is not a statutory body. The previous Government, in their wisdom, saw no reason to make it a statutory body. We consider that there will be changes, but I will come on to that later.
How kind the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife was to me. I find him very charming. That is why I find this Committee slightly strange. The agreement on these issues is massive, and most of the measures in the Bill would have been introduced by the previous Government if they had won the election—luckily, they did not. They were developing the covenant at the same time, but it was still work in progress. We are bringing it forward, and I think that quite a lot of nit-picking is going on in an attempt to make—dare I say it?—rather partisan points.
Specifically, the hon. Gentleman mentioned IVF treatment. Funnily enough, the ERG can deal with that matter, with the Department of Health. That is a good point, which we will take forward and ensure that there is no disadvantage—
Mr Robathan: From a sedentary position, the hon. Gentleman says that the issue has been dealt with already, in which case he might have told the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife before he raised it in debate.
This morning, we heard Tony Stables praising the co-operation with the Department of Health through the ERG. That is why it is there, and it has done good
I thank the hon. Member for Colchester for his support and his sensible comments. He particularly said, as I am trying to say, that we will not spell out everything, and we do not intend to spell out everything. Funnily enough, I do not think that spelling out everything and making bureaucratic demands on people, which the previous Government apparently used to delight in doing, is necessarily the best way forward.
Thomas Docherty: I fear that the Minister, in his enthusiasm, has perhaps jumped over this issue under clause 2(2)(b). The key thing is that the Secretary of State will determine such other matters. I hope even now that the Minister accepts that we seek to provide some balance and a health check on the matters that are chosen.
Mr Robathan: If the hon. Gentleman can restrain his enthusiasm, I will come to that subsequently. The hon. Member for North Durham, with his great experience as the former Minister—was it for two years?
Mr Robathan: The hon. Gentleman seemed to imagine that the Secretary of State might dream up a report in his bath without any reference to other people. That will not happen, and I will come to that subsequently, so I ask the hon. Gentleman not to intervene. He has said that we cannot put the genie back in the bottle. We have no desire to put the ERG genie—to which I think he was referring—back in the bottle: quite the contrary, since we are committed to transparency. We want the ERG to evolve; he particularly mentioned evolution and it is evolving as we speak, as we heard this morning. Some very useful comments in the evidence session this morning revealed how members of the ERG wanted evolution and change, although they did not all agree.
Mr Jones: I am not questioning the intention of the Government or of the Minister, but the legislation has to endure future Governments. Nothing in the Bill states that the Secretary of State has to consult anyone at all. How do the comments that the Minister has just
Mr Robathan: The hon. Gentleman asks about the officials. Perhaps it was different in his day, but nowadays officials give advice and Ministers decide. I think that I made it quite clear on Second Reading, as I am about to make it entirely clear again now, how much we value the ERG.
Gemma Doyle: Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify the role of the ERG in proceeding with the report on the military covenant? Will it continue to produce a report that will be put into the public domain?
Mr Robathan: Yes, it will. This group of amendments seeks to strengthen the role and status of the external reference group, about which we have heard a great deal in evidence. I thought that today’s evidence was probably more valuable than anything else we have heard; it was particularly good. I would like to put on record my thanks to those who came today and gave evidence, because they made some extremely pertinent points that made me sit up and think. That is why we have evidence sessions.
The Government firmly support the ERG and the role it plays, and I will say more on that in a moment. The authors of the amendment have, I think, misunderstood what we are trying to achieve through the Bill. The Government want to emphasise the accountability of Ministers for their actions in relation to the armed forces covenant. Amendment 2, in contrast, would turn the Defence Secretary into a sort of post-box for a report from the ERG.
As I said before, it is Ministers who decide and who are accountable for their actions. I want Parliament not to read a report that simply highlights issues for the Government to consider, but to get one that also sets out the Government’s position on such issues, so that it can take an informed view on whether the Government’s response is adequate. Our approach acknowledges and strengthens the Government’s responsibility for the armed forces covenant, whereas the amendment seems more designed to stir up controversy.
Mr Jones: I am sure that it does not. The question, which the Minister has yet to answer, is what is there to stop the Secretary of State, or a future Secretary of State, completely ignoring everyone—the ERG or any other consultee—in drawing up the report? There is nothing in the Bill, because it is the Secretary of State’s report, which is completely different from what the Minister has just said.
Bob Russell: Can the Minister, with his knowledge of a free, democratic and independent Parliament, foresee an occasion when individual Members of Parliament would not challenge the Secretary of State about a report produced by an organisation such as the ERG should the Secretary of State be foolish enough to try to cover it up?
We are considering amendments 2, 4 and 5 together because if we agree that the ERG should be the body that prepares the annual report, we must explain what is meant by that body, and we referred to that issue earlier. That explanation is unnecessary if we place the duty on the Secretary of State, as we have proposed. Nevertheless, it gives me the opportunity to comment on the kind of external reference group that the amendment would create. If I might say so to the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire, it would not be the current mix of officials from Whitehall and the devolved Administrations, key stakeholders and experts from outside government; on the contrary, it would be limited to independent representatives of certain groups. It would probably exclude Professor Hew Strachan, who does not represent anything except himself, a deep knowledge of military affairs and a lot of common sense.
The ERG is developing as we speak—as hon. Members heard this morning, it has been going for just over two years and has issued two reports—and various questions need to be answered. At its most recent meeting, as we heard this morning, it talked about the input that it might have. Should it continue to be part of the Cabinet Office? I suggest that it should, but I need to consult the independent members before coming to a decision. Should it report to the Prime Minister or to the Secretary of State? My view is that is should report to the Secretary of State, and I will explain that in a second.
Mr Jones: The Minister’s comment is nonsense. He is suggesting that, if the Committee agrees to amendment 5, the groups he has mentioned would not be able to sit on the ERG, which is not the case. The amendment states that the ERG is
Mr Robathan: I go back to the hon. Gentleman’s previous intervention, in which he asked what is to stop the Government. That is exactly the point, we do not prescribe; we want to leave it open. This is the converse of what he asked earlier. The ERG has proved its worth and at no time has its continued existence or its vital role been in doubt in my mind.
Members of the Committee have attempted to create distinctions between what my ministerial colleagues and I have said and the evidence the Committee has received from officials. Those distinctions do not exist, because officials, in the end, give advice and do as Ministers decide. The issue is the timing of final decisions. As has been identified this morning and this afternoon, the situation is changing and developing.
The concern above all else, as we heard this morning, is not to pre-empt the views of the ERG itself. It is strange that some who declare themselves to be concerned about the independence of the ERG are pressing Ministers to finalise decisions about the ERG’s work without consulting it.
Let me make it clear exactly where I stand, both to reassure colleagues and to demonstrate why these amendments are unnecessary. I am committed to the ERG continuing to report, and I am committed to full transparency in the whole process. It would be pointless to proceed in any other way, as my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester has identified, because of the possibility that the report would be disowned as soon as it was published.
Mr Jones: I am very grateful for that clarification, but would the Minister answer the following questions? Where will the ERG report to? Will its annual report be published publicly? What relationship will the House report have to the Secretary of State’s report? Will there be two reports on the covenant?
Mr Robathan: It would have been better in many ways if, before leaping in to question me, the hon. Gentleman had waited until I had said a few things. First, the ERG, as he knows, works on a lot more things than just the covenant. We need, with the co-operation of the ERG, and particularly its independent members, to see how we can develop that work and the work on the covenant.
We see the ERG as being inherently involved in the production of the report for the Secretary of State—involved, but not writing it. There are only so many independent members, but they will put forward their views. We will give the draft report to the ERG. The independent members are the ones that matter to us—everybody matters to us, of course, but the views of the independent members are the ones that need to be made public. We will then publish the report and a statement will be made. It will be given to the House of Commons with the comments of the independent members of the ERG published as well. I can make that commitment and that is what will happen.
Gemma Doyle: The ERG has clearly played an invaluable role in the past few years. It is imperative that its independence, expertise and scrutiny is not lost. It has become clear to me that Ministers and officials have not considered its role with the covenant when drawing up the Bill, or until, I have to say, the Minister came under some heavy fire about the role of the ERG and whether it would continue to produce an independent report. As I have already stated, that is an issue that I feel would have been best dealt with in evidence from the Minister before the Committee.
I share the trust of the hon. Member for Colchester in the Secretary of State about who will be consulted about drawing up the report, but I do not think that it is good enough to leave it to a wing and prayer. The Minister has, I think, now clarified that the ERG will comment on the Secretary of State’s report, but seems to be now contradicting his own statement to the House that the ERG would continue to produce its own report, which would be published in full. If I understand him correctly, a decision on that has simply not been taken.
The hon. Lady is quite right, but we are not in the business of having independent members comment on Government policy and then dismissing it or trying to hide it under a bushel. As has already been pointed out, the hon. Lady met some of the independent members today. They are unlikely to sit quietly if we ignore what they have to say, and their comments will be published. Whether they will continue to report to the Prime Minister is something we have yet to decide.
Gemma Doyle: I am disappointed, frankly, to hear that the Minister is not clear about whether the ERG will continue to report to the Prime Minister, and I think that will be disappointing news. I understand the current state of affairs and, as we have had about four different positions on this, things may change again.
Thomas Docherty: Perhaps my hon. Friend can tease out from the Minister when exactly he told this information to the ERG members, because I suspect that it will come as a bit of a surprise to them. Does she agree with that?
Gemma Doyle: My understanding is that there is confusion among the members of the ERG about exactly what their role is going forward, so my understanding is that they have not been informed of exactly what their role is.
Mr Robathan: I say to the hon. Lady, and to the hon. Gentleman, that I could quote back to her what the hon. Member for North Durham said about the ERG evolving. It is evolving. We heard this morning what people had been discussing at the last meeting. We are not minded to be prescriptive with independent people whose work we value. They have not yet discussed this—I do not whistle and they come; they are independent people—but if they said that they wished to continue to produce a report to the Prime Minister it is highly unlikely that we would say they could not. However, we want them to be involved transparently in the development of the covenant, which is what we are discussing this afternoon.
Gemma Doyle: I am beginning to wonder what other position we could push the Minister into, as the position seems to have been evolving during this discussion even. I accept that the ERG is an evolving body, but I am concerned that it is not mentioned in the clause, hence the amendments. I thank the Minister for stating that the covenant will not be laid down in law by the
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