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General Committee Debates
Northern Ireland Grand Committee Debates
|©Parliamentary copyright||Prepared 16th 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
Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Arbuthnot. I have given the Minister prior notice of this. You will recall that a fortnight ago the civil servants promised to write to the Committee about why there were some minor differences between civilian rules on breathalysing and drug testing after an incident, and military rules. The civil servants still have not given us an answer. We have moved on to consideration of the Bill and are out of time to table amendments. Could the Minister inquire as to why the civil servants have been unable to give us an answer?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Andrew Robathan): Further to that point of order, Mr Arbuthnot. I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of that point of order some eight minutes ago. I spoke to officials and was distressed to discover that a memorandum has been written but is somewhere in the bureaucratic chain. That is not an excuse; I put it forward as the reason. I have given instructions that the memorandum should reach the hon. Gentleman by the end of play today. If it does not, I shall want to know why not.
Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Further to that point of order, Mr Arbuthnot. May I seek your advice? Clearly, we shall reach the parts of the Bill that cover these changes on Thursday. If we have not received that memorandum by the end of today, how can we table any amendments that may be necessary?
The Chair: Amendments for Thursday had to be tabled by close of play yesterday, but in a circumstance such as this it is within the discretion of the Chair to allow late amendments, and I would be very amenable to using such discretion in this case.
Mr Robathan: Further to that point of order, Mr Arbuthnot. The House will be sitting until 10 o’clock this evening, and you have said that you would be sympathetic to late amendments being tabled. I am glad to say that my civil servants do not normally work until 10 in the evening. They work more normal hours and I would expect their response to come at the latest—they are listening—by 6 o’clock this evening. I think the hon.
Gemma Doyle: As the Bill stands, only health, education and housing are specifically cited as issues that the report on the covenant should cover. I do not think that sufficient. The list set out in amendment 3 is more comprehensive and more appropriately reflects the Secretary of State’s own responsibilities. The Minister or the Secretary of State may not be keen to be directed by this amendment, but when the Conservatives were in opposition they were only too pleased to speak at length about all the things they promised they would do for our armed forces when they got into government. The same was true of the Lib Dems. Now they find themselves in office together, neither seems willing to take detailed and practical action. The alternative that the Minister has to offer is, in the words of the chairman of the Forces Pension Society,
As a flautist myself I have nothing against flute music, but I would suggest that it has its place—which is not anywhere near the armed forces covenant. It is perhaps
We heard evidence last Thursday from service charities—in particular from Tony Stables of the Confederation of British Service and Ex Service Organisations—from the armed forces families federations and from the Forces Pension Society that a move to expand the list of issues set out in the Bill would be welcome, and that the Secretary of State should not report on the work of other Departments without reporting on his own. It would be bizarre if we had a report that criticised local authorities or the Department for Education for disadvantaging the children of servicemen and women, but that made no reference to the MOD’s responsibilities. Conservative Members have expressed disappointment over the fact that reservists are not even mentioned in the Bill, and I agree that the particular challenges they face should be considered.
Benefits paid to former serving personnel—for example, under the armed forces compensation scheme—have been the subject of great interest in previous years. There is also a huge amount of interest in armed forces pensions at the moment because of the Government’s cuts and the disproportionate impact on service people, who often draw down their pensions much earlier than other public sector workers. Servicemen and women, some of whom will have suffered horrendous injuries in battle, may see the value of their pensions reduced by hundreds of thousands of pounds. War widows will be affected likewise. This change is fundamentally unfair on the very people who give their service to defend our way of life, which is why we have suggested an alternative and potentially much fairer approach, given the need for restraint in public sector pay and pensions. I cannot envisage a time when this would not be an area of interest on which the Secretary of State should report, even if the situation changed and people felt that the direction was satisfactory.
I would have liked to explore with the Minister why he chose to include education, health care and housing in the Bill at the expense of other matters. As we have already discussed, he declined calls to give evidence to the Committee. Last week, he said he would be happy to take as many interventions as Members wanted to make, but when he spoke that was not the case.
Mr Robathan: I am sorry but I must correct the hon. Lady, because I am very surprised that she has said that. I have the transcript here and if she looks at the page that I have just opened at random where I was speaking, she will see several interventions. It is uncharitable, to put it mildly, of the hon. Lady to say that I did not take as many interventions as were needed.
Gemma Doyle: I did not say that the Minister did not take any interventions—he certainly took plenty—but certain Members who wanted to intervene were not able to do so. As we have discussed already, there is a great difference between giving evidence to a Committee and taking interventions in a speech. I made that comment because I would have appreciated the chance to explore with the Minister why those three issues were included in the Bill at the expense of others.
We heard in evidence last week from Dawn McCafferty that her organisation, the RAF Families Federation, was not consulted about what the Bill should contain. The Minister said last Thursday that the charities from which we have heard told us that they had been consulted. I want to clarify that they said they had been consulted on a first, very rough draft of the covenant, which was described as “weak”, but not on the Bill. Amendment 3 expands the matters that are to be covered to include mental health care, pensions and benefits, and employment and training.
Mr Jones: Does my hon. Friend agree that when the charities referred to the covenant, they were not talking about the Bill but to another document, which we assume will appear at some time in the future, called the covenant? Exactly how that relates to the Bill is not clear either to the Committee or to the service charities.
Gemma Doyle: My hon. Friend makes a good point. In Thursday’s sitting we finally had a clarification that there will be two different documents: the report on the covenant and the covenant itself. Unfortunately, the Bill has given us no scope to consider what the covenant should contain. My hon. Friend is correct; the charities said that they had been consulted on a first, very rough and weak draft of the covenant, not on the Bill.
Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): The hon. Lady mentions the RAF Families Federation and Dawn McCafferty. Does she recall that Mrs McCafferty also said that she did not want the covenant or the report to be a prescriptive document? The hon. Lady also mentioned John Moore-Bick, who said that he did not want the covenant or the report to be a “shopping list”. Does not the amendment fly in the face of that advice?
Gemma Doyle: With respect, I think the hon. Gentleman is confusing two different issues. One is about setting out minimum standards, and the difference was made clear in questioning from the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke. The charities giving evidence last Thursday were clear that they did not want the Bill to lay down a list of minimum standards or demands. However, every charity, if I recall correctly—I may be mistaken about one of them—agreed that the list, which they had not seen and had only heard read out by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North, seemed to be a much better list for the Secretary of State to report on than the three issues in the Bill.
Gemma Doyle: A number of those issues were brought up in the evidence. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but perhaps he will let me finish. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes North read out the list to those giving evidence.
Gemma Doyle: The people from whom we were hearing agreed that it would be much better to have an expanded list of responsibilities, which more accurately reflects the Secretary of State’s responsibility. The hon. Gentleman is confused about setting out minimum standards in the Bill. When I watched him ask the panel his questions, I thought that he was getting confused.
John Moore-Bick: I think so, because there is so much concern at the moment that there ought to be some responsibility laid on the Secretary of State to tell Parliament about the whole pay and pensions area.”
It is important to bear it in mind that Major-General Moore-Bick made it clear that the Forces Pension Society is not a charity but a membership organisation, which, perfectly reasonably, is there to stand up for its membership. I think there are 40,000 of them and they each pay £30 a year, which is a pretty good business if you happen to be working for it. I do not denigrate the fact that he is standing up for his membership, but the hon. Lady should understand that he is parti pris.
Gemma Doyle: If the Minister is suggesting that pensions was an unreasonable issue to raise last Thursday, he is much mistaken. If I may say so, I think it a bit distasteful for him to bring up the issue of the salaries of the people who were giving evidence to us. In a visit to Colchester yesterday, soldiers raised the issue of their pensions with me, so it is right and proper to discuss it here and put it in the Bill.
The amendment also includes the armed forces compensation scheme and rehabilitation services, which reflects the importance we place on long-term support for injured service personnel. Paragraph (g) ensures that the report considers the particular challenges and issues faced by reservists and employers. When deployed on operations, reservists are almost indistinguishable from their regular counterparts; nevertheless, we should not overlook the fact they can face separate issues. I am conscious that there is an amendment on that specific point from the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North.
As I have mentioned, a number of members of the Committee visited Colchester yesterday, and the issues set out in the Bill were not what was raised with me there. Matters such as education, health care and housing
Mr Robathan: As the hon. Lady has raised that point, I would like to clarify the issue for the Committee and, indeed, for the whole House, if hon. Members would care to read the report of proceedings in Committee. We very much regret what has happened. It should not have happened. I do not think that any employer should ever sack an employee or give warning of redundancy—which is what this was, of course—by e-mail. We very much regret it and we are investigating how that process took place, because we are not happy with it at all, either.
Gemma Doyle: I thank the Minister for his intervention. As he knows, the Secretary of State guaranteed that no redundancies would be issued to those on the front line, so I welcome the fact that that will be investigated.
Mr Jones: If it had not been for The Sun reporting on that this morning, we would not have known that that was the disgraceful way that this Government are treating people who have served this country loyally for a number of years. Is the covenant report not the obvious place for the Government to explain and report on that each year, especially as we will see reductions in manpower over the coming years in all three services? The report could be a benchmark to show how the Government are not only treating people, but living up to their commitments under the covenant.
Gemma Doyle: Yes, absolutely. Such issues should be included in the Bill and we need to be talking about them. Education, health care and housing are important, too, and they should be included, but those are not the issues that are being discussed by our soldiers and their families right now.
Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con): For clarification, when we spoke to families, the issues of health care, housing and education were raised. Does the hon. Lady remember the session in the afternoon, where we met families? That is very much what was fed back to me.
At Colchester, like other members of the Committee who went there, I had lunch with some of our soldiers. They were angry about their pensions and their travel allowances being cut. These men cannot get home to see their families at weekends any more, because they do not have the money to pay their train fare. They were
When I spoke to the families, they wanted clarity, not uncertainty, about what is happening to allowances. There are particular changes that they say would make their partner leave the armed forces. They wanted to talk about employment and the fact that they cannot get a job because most employers will not take them on once they realise that they are the spouse of someone in the forces. They, too, wanted to talk about whether their partner will have a job in a year, or whether they will be evicted from their home. Those women are well qualified, and they would be an asset to any employer. The Bill should have been an opportunity to discuss such issues and make real progress. Instead, it is weak and simply not good enough.
As a Scottish MP, I am also concerned that nothing in clause 2 applies to Scottish, or indeed Welsh, veterans. At the very least, the Bill should be amended to send a clear signal about the UK-wide responsibilities of the Secretary of State. Perhaps our colleagues on the Government Benches are separatists, but I do not think so, and nor am I. If there were not even one UK-wide responsibility included in the Bill, that would send out a very regrettable signal indeed. Although I am aware that the Secretary of State is one of a select number of Conservative exiles who had to flee south of the border to pursue their political ambitions, I am sure that he has not forgotten his roots entirely. Take serving personnel in Scotland. A Scottish service person might have children who go to a state school, but those responsibilities are devolved. We have been advised that the Secretary of State will update the House even where those matters are devolved. It seems odd that a Secretary of State would do such a thing, on the basis that he or she is not responsible for the delivery of devolved services, nor is he or she accountable and able to answer questions on such issues. However the process is handled with the devolved Administrations, the inclusion of pensions and benefits and the other issues set out in the amendment as a defined area within the report would ensure that the report reflected issues for service people throughout the UK. As the Bill stands, Scottish and Welsh veterans in particular are being ignored.
Mark Lancaster (Milton Keynes North) (Con): It is a pleasure to be able to contribute to this group of amendments. Before I move to my own amendment perhaps it is appropriate to comment on that of the hon. Lady the Member for West Dunbartonshire. At the heart of this discussion is the debate about whether the Bill should be more prescriptive about the categories. Although we have heard examples from the evidence sessions of witnesses arguing both sides of that coin, neither side of the debate can say that it has overwhelming evidence. Both sides can pluck quotations from witnesses, but the argument is at best balanced.
Gemma Doyle: Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the evidence we have heard against expanding the list of issues to be covered has come from MOD officials, and the evidence we have had suggesting that we should expand the list has been from people representing service people and their families?
Mark Lancaster: No, I do not accept that – not in its entirety. I am trying to be reasonable and balanced in my comments. I hope the hon. Lady will respect that. Forgive me, I cannot remember his name off the top of my head without a note, but I think General Sir John Moore-Bick from the pensions organisation wanted pensions to be included in the Bill. When I read out the list to the witnesses from the Royal British Legion, and others, they were not rushing to support the exact list in the hon. Lady’s amendment. Indeed, when it came to the service families, they did not want to have what they described as a shopping list. All I am trying to say is that I think the evidence on both sides of the coin is balanced and we should bear that in mind.
Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that including just health, education and social housing is arbitrary to say the least, and that at least having an expanded list is more relevant?
Mark Lancaster: I shall get to my own amendment in a second, and perhaps we can cover that point then, but what I am arguing is that there no overwhelming evidence on either side of this debate, and I think we should bear that in mind.
Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): One of the things that strikes me from this list is the inclusion of mental health care. I know of one young man on the streets of Stockton on Tees, a former soldier, who is homeless, with mental health problems. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that it is important that the issue that affects so many of our armed service people, and results in so many of them ending up on the streets, ought to be included and specifically reported upon, so that we can see what progress is made as the Government try to improve services in that respect?
Mark Lancaster: I am slightly surprised that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned that, given that one of the three headings already on the face of the Bill is health care. One would assume that that would be reported in the Bill as a matter of course.
Alex Cunningham: I said specifically mental health care, because it is a specific problem for many of our armed service people who find themselves on the street. In fact, I understand that large numbers of homeless people on the streets are ex-armed services people with mental health problems.
Mark Lancaster: The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point, but I can only restate what I have just said, which is that I am personally confident that mental health care will fall under the category of “health care” as already listed in the Bill.
Thomas Docherty: I am grateful to the hon. Member. I cast my mind back to less than a year ago, when many Opposition Members and many candidates suggested that the previous Government were not doing enough on mental health care, so there is a bit of a U-turn going on among those on the Government Benches.
Mark Lancaster: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, he is now dancing on the head of a pin if he is suggesting that the heading of “health care” is not going to include mental health care. The hon. Member for North Durham wanted to intervene.
Mr Jones: I did a lot in that area. The Bill includes education, accommodation and health care, but it excludes areas that are a direct responsibility of the MOD, such as pensions, employment training, the armed forces compensation scheme and the armed forces rehabilitation scheme. The Secretary of State will have no remit to report on those, even though he or she will report on education, accommodation and health care, which are areas that he or she has no direct responsibility for.
Mr Jones: If the hon. Gentleman was listening to my previous interventions on the Minister, he will know that the problem is that it is left to a future Secretary of State to decide what he or she includes in the report. That is what is fundamentally wrong. I am not questioning for one minute the Minister’s or the Secretary of State’s intentions to include such things, but the Bill must be future-proofed. If it is not specified in the Bill, a future Secretary of State could exclude those areas, and there would be nothing that anybody could do about it.
Mr Jones: The point that I was making is that we must always future-proof legislation. If a future Secretary of State decided, for example, that he did not want to report on something, even though it was an issue that had raised concern among members of the armed forces—pensions and benefits is an example—there would be nothing that anyone here or anywhere else could do to force them to put that on the report for that year.
Mark Lancaster: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, although I sense that he may be judging the current Government by the standards of the previous Government, and that concerns me. [ Interruption. ] Having taken an intervention from everybody on the Opposition side of the Committee, may I perhaps proceed?
My point is that there is a balance of evidence as to whether the Bill should be more prescriptive. There are some parts of amendment 3, which is in the name of hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire, with which I have sympathy. I have particular concern about the current status of the external reference group, which was made clear during the evidence sessions. We need to change the terms of reference for that group to make it more relevant to the military covenant, because that was not the objective of the group when it was first set up.
It will come as no surprise to the Committee that I now want to move on to the involvement of the reserve forces, having mentioned it on several occasions during the evidence session. I joined the Army on Remembrance Sunday in 1988, and, apart from a brief period of service in Hong Kong in the Queen’s Gurkha Engineers, almost all of my time has been spent as a member of the reserve forces. Over the past 21 years, I have seen a radical change in the role of the Territorial Army from a cold-war force—I served on airfield damage repair, waiting to repair runways after the Russian bombers had been—to an integrated part of the one-Army concept. It is perhaps that concept that causes concern for some hon. Members in terms of my amendment, and I understand that. If we were to do anything that suggested that we are moving away from the one-Army concept towards two armies, it would be a retrograde step. We must be very cautious when we look at the Bill’s implications.
For my part, I am deeply concerned that, although we hear a lot about the one-Army concept, all too often it does not happen in practice. I shall give one specific example that occurred under the previous Government, although that is not why I am making the point. As a member of the Territorial Army I was horrified that, mid-year in the financial year 2008-09, it was hit with a £24 million cut to its budget, which meant that all training was planned to cease for six months. During the effort to prepare for mobilised service, the TA was completely cut for six months. The previous Government, to their credit, ultimately saw the error of their ways and reversed that decision following pressure to do so.
Thomas Docherty: Obviously, I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s service. My understanding is that that cut was recommended by the generals themselves, and it was the politicians who ultimately stepped in. Does he accept that is a valid viewpoint?
Mark Lancaster: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making my point for me, which is that in practice, although we have the one-Army concept, in the MOD main building the TA is always the first port of call for such cuts. It was ultimately a political decision to implement those cuts, and it was a political decision to reverse them. I am afraid that Ministers cannot absolve themselves of making that decision.
Although we have the one-Army concept in theory, in practice all too often we do not. That is why my colleagues and I are deeply concerned that the three categories that have been chosen to be reported—health, education and accommodation—do not best reflect the specific needs of the reserve forces.
During the evidence sessions we touched on the problems of education and accommodation, which are not relevant at all to reserve forces, but health care is.
It is also important to realise that when it comes to health care, members of the reserve forces receive the same treatment as their regular counterparts only when on mobilised service. As a reservist standing here today, I have no access to an MOD doctor or to an MOD dentist. I have such access only when I am mobilised and treated equally as a regular soldier.
I am also concerned that some areas do not fall naturally in the scope of the Bill—employer relations, for example. As a reservist I am entirely reliant on my employer giving me leave to go on mobilised service, although, yes, there is compulsory mobilised service. Having myself been mobilised three times in the past 10 years, members of the reserves are prepared to go and do their bit. They are prepared to be mobilised, but they are not prepared ultimately to sacrifice their primary career for their secondary career. That is why the relationship we have with employers through SaBRE is so vital, and it is why I would like to see that guaranteed in the Bill, too.
Gemma Doyle: I picked up from the hon. Gentleman’s opening comments that he is not likely to support my amendment. I support his measures to include reservists in the Bill, but does he not share my concern that Scottish veterans are being shut out of the clause? How would he address that point?
Mark Lancaster: I am fortunate in that I am not the Minister, because I am going to reserve judgment until I hear the Minister’s comments. Otherwise what is the point of having a debate? I am confident—I say looking at the back of his head—that the Minister will offer me some reassurance, but we shall have to wait and see. Perhaps when the Minister responds, the hon. Lady would like to make her point to him.
Mr Jones: Although I support amendment 1, it makes no reference to what the Secretary of State should report on. The hon. Gentleman has just raised the relationship between reservists and their employers, which I know can be contentious. Without addressing that important issue in the Bill, any future Secretary of State could completely ignore it.
Mark Lancaster: Once again we are going back to the argument about how prescriptive the Bill should be. The areas that are particularly relevant to me as a reservist are employer relations and welfare. TA families may live some miles from their TA centre and so lack the level of support that regulars have. There are also issues around the TA bounty. As hon. Members will know anyone who fulfils their minimum requirement and is deemed fit for role receives a tax-free bounty. That is a large financial consideration that keeps many members in the reserve forces and also encourages them to be fit for role. It would be a great shame if that was not a matter that was reported under the clause.
I do not wish to take up too much of the Committee’s time. We are at an interesting juncture here. We have ample opportunity now to hear from the Minister but
Thomas Docherty: May I begin by clarifying something for the Minister? He asked from a sedentary position what my background was and talked about the Secretary of State having fled Scotland some time ago. For the record, I have English maternity and Scottish paternity, so either I am a half caste or I have the best of both worlds. I leave it to the Minister to decide which it is.
On the substance of the debate, having listened to the earlier exchange, I must confess that the Minister reminds me somewhat of Phil Collins. You are far too young to recall it, Mr Arbuthnot, but Mr Collins, a popular singer of an earlier time, once divorced his wife by fax. Unfortunately, the behaviour of the Minister, the Secretary of State and their officials this morning in sacking 38 senior officers by e-mail is incredibly disappointing.
Mr Robathan: I am rather disappointed in the hon. Gentleman. I have made the position quite clear. We deeply regret what happened and it was not the Secretary of State’s intention. He is less than well pleased, if I can put it that way, as am I. The hon. Gentleman is making rather a meal of something that I have already explained. If he wishes to make it partisan, I suppose that is up to him, but it is not worthy of him.
Thomas Docherty: Perhaps I gave way slightly too early, because I was about to say that we have a Speaker’s conference taking place this morning. I am sure that the Secretary of State has requested an opportunity to make a statement to the House on this very serious issue. The Minister indicates dissent. I can only assume that the Secretary of State, however regretful he is about the actions of his officials—I assume that he was not involved in the decisions, and will not comment on the rights and wrongs of whether he should have been involved—still does not think that the House should have an opportunity to hear the Government’s argument. That is disappointing, given that the Minister is doing penance in Committee on this matter.
Mr Robathan: I really do not think that this is worthy of the hon. Gentleman. The Secretary of State has insisted on making a quarterly statement to the House on Afghanistan, which he did yesterday. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was there. I do not think anyone can accuse the Secretary of State of being unwilling to come to the House. This was an error, which we deeply regret. While it has indeed attracted a great deal of publicity, I am not sure that it is exciting the House of Commons as much as the hon. Gentleman suggests.
Thomas Docherty: I do not wish to be drawn on what does or does not excite the Minister, but that leads on nicely to the substance of the issue, which is, who sets the terms of reference for the welfare of our forces, the ERG and the covenant?
Last week, we debated the very serious issue of amendment 4 and, specifically, who sets the terms of reference for the ERG support—whether that be the Secretary of State or the ERG itself—and the terms of the military covenant. If I have understood the Minister and his hon. Friends correctly, they are loath to hand any responsibility to the ERG. I am sure he will leap to his feet if I have misunderstood, but one of their arguments is that the ERG would not be accountable for any terms that it set. Given his lack of dissent, I think that is an accurate description. If that is the case, surely it is right that the decision on which aspects are covered by the military covenant—and, therefore, the report—be determined by the House? Who is more accountable on this matter than Members of Parliament? Indeed, if I can be so bold as to suggest it, Members of Parliament as a whole are more accountable than is the Secretary of State. That is why I think the amendment is entirely sensible and reasonable.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that we established last week that the majority of the ERG is internal to Government? I suggest, therefore, that it is far better that we keep it as open as possible for Members to influence that report, rather than keeping it in-house, as the amendment would have it.
Gemma Doyle: Does my hon. Friend think that if the hon. Member for Colchester is as concerned about the independence of the ERG as he says, he should have supported my amendment last week, which would have made the chair of the ERG independent? [ Interruption. ]
Thomas Docherty: I am grateful that we now have two Chairs in the room, Mr Arbuthnot, in case you were failing in some way. My hon. Friend makes the point I was going to make, which is one of surprise that the hon. Member for Colchester acted as the strongest voice for the Government on this occasion—a badge I am sure he often wears.
Bob Russell: Representing a garrison town comes before any party allegiance. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that, as with the Armed Forces Bill 2006, playing the party political card is not well received by those who serve our country.
Thomas Docherty: I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman feels that being described as a defender of his Government is in some way a slur on his character. That, of course, was never my intention. I would have thought that sitting on the Government Benches would be an honour for him, although I often see him in our Lobby, showing some dissent. [Interruption.] I am sorry that, yet again, the Minister’s PPS, who has not opened his mouth to make a speech, is making comments from a sedentary position and throwing brickbats at Opposition Members. It is perfectly reasonable to suggest that we need to widen the list of issues that the Government should be held to account on.
Returning, as I tried to do some time ago, to the substance of the point made by the hon. Member for Colchester, if I am not mistaken, there is no contradiction between the amendment and the clause. If there is a matter that is not covered by proposed new paragraphs (d) to (i), it can still be picked up under the wording
My final point is that when we had the debate last Thursday, and in the House itself on Second Reading, the Minister gave me the impression that he had had some discussion with Ministers and officials from Scottish and other devolved Administrations and that there had been a dialogue on the issue of the covenant and the welfare provisions. After last week’s proceedings, I tabled a written question to which I have now had a reply. The Minister’s written answer confirms that there were no specific discussions between Ministers and officials of the devolved Administrations.
Unless the Minister wishes to correct me, my understanding of his written answer is that on one occasion, while he was having a meeting with devolved Administration Ministers on another matter, there was a brief discussion of the armed forces covenant. I am sorry, but that cannot be classed as a substantive or detailed discussion on the implementation of the armed forces covenant with respect to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I hope he will clarify the situation and set out what steps he will now take to have a genuine dialogue with the devolved Administrations.
Sandra Osborne: It is extremely disappointing to hear that there have not been substantial discussions with the devolved Administrations about this. My hon. Friend will be aware that there is a Minister for veterans in the Scottish Government, and I would have thought he was an obvious person to discuss the matter with. Does my hon. Friend agree that this will add to the anger in Scotland about the general attitude of this Government towards defence matters and particularly to the closure of bases in Scotland?
Thomas Docherty: My hon. Friend makes a good point about the anger that has been felt. I would be straying off the path too much if I suggested that the problem is that the Secretary of State for Scotland cannot be found anywhere and is a will-o’-the-wisp figure. Will the Minister clarify what discussions he has had with the Scotland and Wales Offices on the issue of implementation? I suspect that the answer might be that
Bob Russell: I think we have already established that, for the purposes of the armed forces covenant, the term “service people” also involves family members. One reason I feel the amendment should be rejected is that it does not embrace everything, although it embraces everything that those who tabled it thought of at the time. The Bill’s great strength is that it allows anything and everything to be added or included as and when circumstances require it.
I say that because there are three items I have written down here that are not included in the extended list, but all of which have been raised with me over the years by constituents and their families. Those issues are learning difficulties, physical difficulties and marriage breakdown. Those are important issues that should be considered as part of the armed forces covenant. They are not listed here, but they would be caught up, along with anything and everything else, by the wording of proposed new section 359A(2)(b) in clause 2, which is
I am pretty confident that the ERG will be one of the bodies that contributes evidence to the Secretary of State, along with individual MPs, groups of MPs and outside charitable organisations. Those may be the big boys—the Royal British Legion; Help for Heroes; the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association Forces Help; the Army Benevolent Fund and so on—or the small but very important charitable groups such as Veterans Aid and the War Widows Association. With respect to the latter organisation, my understanding is that some of those bereaved in more recent conflicts do not even have the dignity of being referred to as war widows on their pensions.
Mr Jones: It is very sad to see an independent-minded Member, such as the hon. Gentleman, falling into being part of the human shield for the Conservative party. Is it not a fact that what he has just said is complete nonsense? Proposed paragraph (j) would allow any of the issues he raised to be included in the report. By supporting the Conservatives today, he is excluding areas that are within the remit of the Secretary of State for Defence and impact on the covenant, but there is no responsibility in the Bill to report on them.
Bob Russell: I am sorry to hear the hon. Gentleman’s comments, particularly the opening one, because if anyone has even minor knowledge of me they will know that I always put the armed forces ahead of party political affiliation. To my mind, paragraph (b) is much better than proposed paragraph (j) for the reasons I set out. I feel that if we widen the list, we are in greater danger of making it prescriptive. I have cited three examples of cases that I have taken up over the years on behalf of army families.
Bob Russell: We are not going to agree on this. My honest assessment is that —[ Interruption. ] I suspect that if those among my constituents who are serving in Afghanistan at the moment could witness these cheap jibes, they would be appalled.
I believe that the clause is best for our military personnel and their families. I do not disagree with the sentiments behind the amendment, but I believe the clause before us is better. I would appreciate it if I could be shown the same respect by the Opposition.
Mr Jones: I am sorry; it is very interesting how the parties in the coalition start bringing in party politics. Some of us who were Ministers remember when the Government were in Opposition; frankly, they used every opportunity in disgraceful ways with their colleagues in certain newspapers to denigrate not only the work that civil servants and armed forces members do, but the efforts we made to improve the lot of servicemen and women, and their families.
The amendment is important because the Minister already told us last week that the covenant will not be in legislation, irrespective of what the Prime Minister and others said. Therefore, what is in the report will be very important. It will enable a judgment on whether the Government of the day—this Government or any future Government—is honouring the covenant and their commitment to the armed forces. I find the resistance to the amendment strange. The hon. Member for Colchester spoke as if it were somehow prescriptive, but he obviously has not read proposed new paragraph (j), which allows other issues to be brought in at any time. He is right that issues such as marriage breakdown are very important. The armed forces families federations raised those issues with me on a number of occasions when I was a Minister. We did a lot to support Relate and other organisations in supporting servicemen and women whose relationships were affected by their military service and related issues.
If we reject the amendment and agree to the clause, we will have a report that will cover only education, accommodation and health care. We have been told that the Secretary of State can then bring in anything else. He or she can, but those are the only three areas on which they will be judged and forced to do. The question became clear: what would that include? It came out in last week’s evidence session. Are we talking about education, accommodation and health care of those people in service? If that is the case, the Secretary of State has responsibility for education of servicemen and women and for the education of armed forces’ families, for instance in Cyprus and Germany. Are we talking about just that?
Clearly, there is also responsibility for accommodation here in the UK and overseas. Are we to include in that the effect of people who leave and cannot get accommodation in the areas where they live? Or are we going to report on the ability of servicemen and women leaving and veterans’ access to accommodation? My
We come on to health care. Again, the Ministry of Defence and the Secretary of State have responsibility for the health care of those people who are in service and, as was raised by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North, for reservists as well. Likewise, they have responsibility for primary health care for families in Germany and other parts of the world. Is the report going to be limited to that, or are we going to have a report on the delivery, as raised by my hon. Friend in the last sitting, of such things as access to IVF treatment, dentistry—which was an issue for local families when I was a Minister—and the broader spectrum of health care? I would say a report needs to do that. However, as it is billed at the moment, we will be limited to what is the responsibility of the Secretary of State.
I find it remarkable that, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire said, in parts of Scotland and Wales where these issues are devolved, there is to be no reporting mechanism at all. I am surprised to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife say that the Minister has not even raised or discussed these issues with his Scottish counterpart.
We have many issues for which the Secretary of State is directly responsible; I am not sure if some are actually in the Minister’s portfolio. We have pensions and benefits, and Mr Moore-Bick said last week how important it is that they should be in the report. It is clearly a controversial issue at the moment, with the Government’s change from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index for the uprating of pensions. I note this morning, for example, that RPI is higher than CPI. Obviously, a lot of future pensioners will be looking at that very closely. Again, the Bill does not provide for pensions and benefits to be included in the report.
Bob Russell: Is the hon. Gentleman telling me that when the Secretary of State produces the report to Parliament and the subject matter he has referred to missing, he would remain silent? Or would he raise the issue?
Mr Jones: The hon. Gentleman has known me long enough to know that I do not sit silent very often. The point is that if we look at the covenant we need to ensure that what we give our servicemen and women and veterans in the future—we are not talking just about this Government—will be included in the report. As it now stands, it is up to the Secretary of State alone to decide what is in the report. If a future Secretary of State is embarrassed and does not want pensions and benefits in the report, he or she can exclude them. That is completely wrong. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is not supporting the amendment because it strengthens the Bill, not just in terms of accountability of the current Secretary of State, but of future Secretaries of State. If, as is being spun at the moment, this report will be so important in ensuring that we honour the military covenant, is it not fundamental that pensions and remunerations for veterans should be included in the Bill?
Bob Russell: Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that this would be the first time that the armed forces covenant, as it has become known, has been formally included in an Act of Parliament? Surely he must accept that only a fool of a Secretary of State would narrow his report knowing full well that hon. Members such as the hon. Gentleman himself would be the first to seize upon anything that has not been reported.
Mr Jones: I wish the hon. Gentleman would read the Bill and stop listening to the spin by the Conservative party and No. 10, because it does not enshrine the covenant in law. That was confirmed by the Minister in the sitting the other day.
The amendment seeks to ensure that the issues for which the Secretary of State has direct responsibility are included in the report, rather than leaving the provision as weak as it is. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is not prepared to support the amendment—the amendment does not state that it is the only list, because paragraph (j) allows for the inclusion of other points—and I can only assume that, like many of his Liberal Democrat colleagues, he is so wedded to the coalition that he fears that anything he does to weaken it will ensure both his and its political oblivion.
Christopher Pincher: Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the longer one makes the list the more prescriptive the report will be, to the exclusion of many other things that could be included? If there is a long list to work through, a Secretary of State will naturally stick to it and only report on those items. It is not the advice that we received from the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, the Royal British Legion, Help for Heroes or from anybody else who gave evidence.
The amendment would insert a list of areas that are the direct responsibility of the Secretary of State. By supporting the Government line, the hon. Gentleman would leave it to a future Secretary of State to decide what should be in the report. The idea that inserting a list of areas for which the Secretary of State has direct responsibility would be somehow prescriptive is absolute nonsense. It would clearly lay out those areas and add paragraph (j), which is the catch-all for everything else and would be better than the current paragraph (b), which leaves it to the Secretary of State to decide what goes in the report.
The amendment provides for the independently chaired external reference group to determine that certain things should be included in the report, which would give confidence that a future Secretary of State would not be able to stop things being included in the report and would be held accountable for the things for which he or she is directly responsible.
Thomas Docherty: Does my hon. Friend share my puzzlement at the existence of subsection (2)(a)? If I have understood their logic, coalition Members are saying that there should not be a list at all. What we
Mr Jones: My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Secretary of State has responsibility for service education, accommodation and health care. They are deemed good enough to be in the list, so I completely follow his logic. But why not include the other areas? They are not wet and woolly, they are specific areas for which the Secretary of State is responsible. Let us be honest—I say this from my experience as a former Defence Minister—many of them are central to the idea of the covenant.
Mr Jones: But with this amendment my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire has tried specifically to include the areas for which the Secretary of State is responsible. Things such as pensions and benefits, the armed forces compensation scheme and the armed forces rehabilitation services are part of the welfare bubble that we should put around our active servicemen and servicewomen, and veterans, too.
Christopher Pincher: The hon. Gentleman wants the report to be accountable, as he puts it, and he does not think that the Secretary of State can do that job. If we dredge up amendment 5 from the oblivion into which it has sunk, we see that the hon. Gentleman wants the ERG, which is an unaccountable group, to be appointed by the Cabinet Office—unaccountable civil servants—to provide input to the report. How does that make the report accountable?
Mr Jones: Well, it is far better than what the Government are proposing. [ Interruption. ] I am sorry, but we have confusion about the ERG’s role. A Minister says on the Floor of the House that a report will be produced, and officials tell us that the ERG will wither on the vine.
There is nothing wrong, in my opinion, with the ERG chair and others being independently appointed by the Cabinet Office, according to the rules that were laid down for other external bodies and quangos and that would bring into it the independence of that process. I am sorry to have to tell the hon. Gentleman that he seems to question the entire role of the Cabinet Office in making appointments to NHS trusts and everything else.
Amendment 5 would make sure that the ERG or the Secretary of State at least has some people from an independent position feeding into the process. The hon. Gentleman is supporting basically leaving a Secretary of State of the future to decide first that the report is only limited to certain areas and secondly what the extent of the future areas would be.
I move on to support for reservists and their employers. Although I support amendment 1, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North, in extending the report to cover the reserve forces, it is rather a waste of time if he does not support amendment 3. Amendment 1 states:
Again, the hon. Gentleman’s amendment would allow the Secretary of State to determine what should be in that report regarding reservists. If he was minded to support amendments 3 and 1, that would at least wed the two together. As it is framed, however, a Secretary of State in future could completely ignore what the hon. Gentleman is trying to do.
Paragraph (h) of amendment 3 would extend the report to cover the running of the armed forces compensation scheme. That legislation, which was introduced by the previous Labour Government, substantially increased the awards to those in service who are injured as a result of that service. The Boyce review made some recommendations, some of which have not yet been implemented because of the time delay involved in setting up a group to consider some specific mental health issues.
In supporting the covenant, how we treat our servicemen and women not now but in the future is very important. I always had that concern as a Minister. The idea of somehow excluding that from the Bill is wrong; let us remember that the Secretary of State for Defence is responsible for that area. It would be valuable to ensure that the country is meeting its debt to those who are wounded either in service or in accidents or other injuries through their service to this country, and that should be reported on as part of the covenant.
My final point concerns paragraph (i) of the amendment, which is very important and relates to the rehabilitation service. I am quite proud of the work that the previous Government did to put in place the Army recovery capability and other support for injured servicemen and women. I am very grateful that the present Government are following through on that work and making sure that the recommendations are acted on. A key test of whether we are meeting the covenant and our obligations to those who have been wounded or severely injured in the course of their service to this country should be how we treat them. To hold this or any future Government to account, that should be part of the report.
The amendment would improve the report, which we are told is central to determining whether this or any future Government honour the covenant. I cannot for the life of me think why the Government should resist the amendment, except from embarrassment that the idea of a covenant enshrined in law has been over-spun and is slowly unwinding.
Mr Robathan: May I say how disappointed I am by this morning’s debate? I genuinely regret the highly partisan tone taken by the Opposition. As my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester pointed out, we are dealing with the welfare of our armed forces and how we can best serve them by looking after that welfare, yet we have heard nothing more nor less than petty attacks. The record will show how partisan they have been. I have said specifically that, although it might have taken
One would imagine from the speeches we have heard that we have been in power for the past 13 years. Actually, I recall the years between 1997 and 2010 well. Labour was in government, and during that time, there was no impetus at all to address the issues in the covenant and put them into a Bill, as we are doing.
Mr Robathan: I will, but I counted just now the number of substantive interventions that I took in Thursday’s debate. There were more than 20, most of which were purely time-wasting and some were silly. I will take interventions, but only sensible ones. Does the hon. Gentleman wish to comment?
Mr Jones: I do. If the Minister had given evidence to the Committee, perhaps that would have eliminated some of the need for interventions. He says that we had 13 years in government. If he looks at the Green Paper that I produced in 2008, he will see that it was exactly the forerunner of these proposals to enshrine in law issues from the Command Paper and elsewhere. Our sense of disappointment arises from the fact that the Bill does nothing of the sort. As for being party political, if he looks back over the past five years, he will see that he and his colleagues, when they were in opposition, were very partisan in using the issue as a party political football.
Jack Lopresti: I echo what the Minister says. I am a relatively new Member of Parliament and new to the Committee, and I have been disappointed by the partisan interventions. We have a serious job to do here, and I think that we should raise our game a little.
My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North asked whether we would amend the ERG’s terms of reference. We will most certainly review them. Currently, the ERG reports to the Prime Minister. We want a more focused ERG, although it might continue to report to the Prime Minister; I cannot speak for him. However, it will also be required to consider issues of the covenant for the Secretary of State, and we will ensure that that happens. We will review the terms of reference.
The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire spoke about the devolved Administrations. I am not sure whether she appreciates that the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly Government are represented on the ERG and have taken part in discussions there and that we have cleared the covenant with Alex Neil and the Welsh Assembly. I understand that they have said
Mr Robathan: Perhaps I misspoke—personnel responsible in the Welsh and Scottish Governments have sent back their comments on the covenant. As I explained to the hon. Lady beforehand, this is something that we want to get right, so we are consulting groups such as the British Legion. We are getting that right, and the result will be published this spring.
Gemma Doyle: I have here a copy of a letter that Alex Neil sent in response to a request to give evidence to the Committee. That letter is specifically about the taskforce’s report on the covenant. It does not relate to how the Bill will operate in practice, to the mechanism of reporting or to whether the Secretary of State can report on devolved issues. Although it comments on the taskforce’s report, it is not about how the Bill will operate in practice. I merely say that as a point of clarification, because my concerns about Scottish veterans are still outstanding.
Mr Robathan: The hon. Lady makes a perfectly reasonable point. I am pretty certain that I have seen a letter from Alex Neil, who is the Scottish National party Minister involved, saying that he has no further comments on the actual covenant and its consequences. If I am wrong, I will let the hon. Lady know, but I am pretty sure that I am not. We are in communication at official level and, indeed, from time to time, at ministerial level with the devolved Administrations. It would be foolish not to do that because we want this to work, for heaven’s sake.
Both amendments would extend the range of subjects that the Defence Secretary would be obliged to cover in his annual report to Parliament. With amendment 3, which we have discussed at some length, the hon. Lady’s aim must be to prevent the Secretary of State from ignoring key issues in his annual report. However, requiring every report to cover all the issues that anybody can think of will inevitably mean that the report lacks depth and focus, and it is extraordinarily prescriptive. What the Government and I have in mind is a process through which, with the benefit of the external reference group and independent comments, we identify and investigate real problems and provide practical solutions. The report should include a wide review, but it should not be required to consider everything, which would result in it doing very little. As a Government, we are not interested in box-ticking, which looks good on paper somewhere, but in genuine results.
A further problem is that, although the amendment aims to cover everything, it fails to do so. For instance, does the mention of the armed forces compensation scheme mean that we should be less interested in those who receive war pensions, which is, of course, a different scheme? Perhaps there will be a different scheme in the future.
Mr Robathan: Not again. What about welfare support? That is surely as important as some other topics listed, but it does not appear. The purpose of having the three key issues—health, education and housing—is that they are raised every year, and we are putting the report firmly into the welfare domain.
The list of subjects in amendment 3 would not increase the accountability of Ministers. It would simply tie us to a checklist, or a box-ticking exercise. It may or may not look right today, but I feel that it will almost certainly look wrong tomorrow. The greater discretion involved in the Bill is the right way to ensure that the key issues are covered. Philosophically, we trust the Government, and if the Government do not live up to that trust, the Opposition or even Government Members should hold them to account for failing.
Amendment 1 makes it even clearer that the report must cover the effect of service on members of the reserve forces. From what we have heard in the evidence sessions, we all understand the reasons why my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North tabled the amendment. I have a great deal of sympathy with what he said, and I agreed with almost everything in his short speech. He will be aware that the reserves review is ongoing, although I do not know whether he has taken any part in it, so I am optimistic that many of his concerns will be addressed in that review, because using the reserves is not an easy way—perhaps this happened in the dim and distant past—for the regular armed forces to save money. We are not interested in that; we are interested in bolstering our reserves because of the excellent work that they are doing. I hope that he will understand that there is no doubt in the minds of Ministers about the important role that the reserves play in the life and work of today’s armed forces and the extent to which we are in their debt.
We need look no further than the sacrifices that the reserves have made in the conflict in Afghanistan to realise that we really are one force. I have met reservists out in Afghanistan—sitting behind me is one reservist who has been out to Afghanistan—and I know that the hon. Member for Colchester has met reservists in Colchester who were going out to Afghanistan. When I was in the Army, we talked about one Army, and I am delighted to see that in practice today. Not only is my hon. Friend
I must say to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North that I am not keen on his amendment. Proposed new section 359A(3) in clause 2 specifically provides for reserve forces—and so it should—and also covers other groups, including veterans and a wide range of people within the service community. The amendment would imply that less importance is attached to other groups of service people and would be prescriptive about how reserves are covered in the report. I would like to see the reserves covered in every element of the report. I understand that their needs are different and that health care, education and housing are not necessarily important in the same way for them. However, such prescription would not be the right way forward.
I can assure my hon. Friend, however, that, in addition to the vital contribution made by the reserve forces, we recognise the special problems that they face, and I will aim to ensure that those are adequately considered in the preparation of the reports from the Secretary of State. I am sure that the members of the external reference group will join me in that aim. From my discussions over the past six months, I know that we need to look at the health care, and particularly the mental health care, of the—typically—young men who, having served on operations for six months, return to the reserve unit but are quite isolated in comparison with those who are serving in a regular unit. I am absolutely committed to that.
Gemma Doyle: Last week the Committee rejected amendments to bolster the independence of the report by enshrining the role of the ERG in the Bill. Given that Government Members could not bring themselves to support such a move, amendment 3 becomes even more important. I would have been delighted to have discussed with Government Members what they thought were the right issues to include in the report to Parliament, but there seems to be a bizarre attitude that the Bill is perfect as it is.
Mr Jones: Does my hon. Friend agree that we have had no opportunity to decide why the Government chose the three areas? The Minister did not answer that in his conclusions or in any interventions. Could we not have had an answer to that if the Minister had not refused to give evidence to the Committee?
Gemma Doyle: Indeed. I am concerned that there has been no detailed discussion and that there is no specific rationale for why those three issues are included. If Government Members choose not to support amendment 3, I assume that they will not support amendment 1 either. I have heard no rational explanation for why we should expand the list to include support for reservists but not any other matters.
Mr Robathan: As it happens, pensions are raised at the moment, but have not been raised perennially. The three issues are central to the welfare of our serving personnel and their families, and they are raised each year by the families federations and serving personnel.
Clause 2 is weak as it stands. It does not live up to the hype that is being spun in the media about the Bill. The Minister and his colleagues should thank us for attempting to strengthen the Bill. It is nonsense to say that expanding the list makes it more likely that other issues will be left out. Amendment 3 expands the list of issues to be reported on more accurately to reflect the responsibilities of the Secretary of State, and we heard support for such an approach in our evidence session last Thursday. I therefore wish to press the amendment to a Division.
Mr Jones: The amendments would enshrine the military covenant in law for the first time and provide a means of redress for service people, as defined by the Bill, through the parliamentary ombudsman. The country’s commitment to our servicemen and women is not negotiable. When I was the Minister with responsibility for veterans, I certainly knew of the public gratitude and united support and admiration for the courage, skill and dedication of our servicemen and women. We must do our utmost to ensure that we support not only them, but their families, as well as those who have served in previous conflicts and those who have served Her Majesty generally in the service of their country.
I have already referred to the covenant and the previous Government’s work. I recognise the point made earlier by the Minister, but it is a pity that, when in opposition, his party did not recognise or support some of the things that we were doing. We have heard accusations about playing party politics this morning, but they were played—and disgracefully so—by certain members of the present Government when they were in opposition.
The work builds upon the service Command Paper, which was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) when he was Armed Forces Minister. I was responsible for ensuring that the cross-departmental work and the Command Paper were implemented. It was the first time that such cross-departmental work had ever been undertaken, and its main aim was to ensure that those serving and who had served were not disadvantaged by their service. The Command Paper followed a sustained campaign by the Royal British Legion and others to raise awareness of our debt of honour to our servicemen and women, and to veterans. It was an important campaign to ensure that politicians, wider society and government at all levels recognised our debt of honour to servicemen and women.
“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.”––[Official Report, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, 10 February 2011; c. 3.]
Mr Jones: I recognise that. Had the hon. Gentleman been listening, he would know that I said as much a moment ago. That comment, however, is in marked contrast to others made during the last two years of the previous Labour Government, when we were constantly being told by the current Secretary of State and Prime Minister, among others, that the covenant had been broken and that we were offering very little support. It was frustrating that the press did not cover some of the positive things that we did, which the present Government, who clearly played party politics with the issue, now recognise. I am grateful that sinners have realised the error of their ways.
It is important that we build upon that work. We heard last week from the Army Families Federation, the Royal British Legion and others about the need to ensure that the covenant is recognised in relation not only to our current debt, but to the future, when the armed forces are no longer involved in conflicts.
If the hon. Gentleman would like to be reminded of what we did as a Government, I shall do so now. We should be proud of our record in introducing the armed forces compensation scheme, which doubled lump sum payments to veterans who were severely injured, not only in action but in general service. We brought in lump sum payments for the first time. The comments of some Government Members when they were in opposition gave the impression that lump sum payments had been there all the time, but they were in place before 2005.
“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.”––[Official Report, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, 10 February 2011; c. 4.]
Mr Jones: It is, but I am also disappointed that the hon. Gentleman is not following through in ensuring that the Bill holds not just this Government to account in their support for armed forces members and veterans, but future Governments. When I was a Minister I visited Colchester on a number of occasions and I would not doubt his commitment to the armed forces, not just the Army but in general. But there is a real opportunity in this Bill to follow through on that. I am disappointed that he is not doing that and is nodding through a weak Bill. Even though it has been hyped up to be more than it is, it presents a real opportunity to do that and that is what my hon. Friends and I are trying to do.
Before anyone stands up and says the operational allowance has been doubled, let me point out that it was introduced by the previous Labour Government. We also had a very good record on armed forces pay, honouring the Armed Forces Pay Review Body in full in each of the last 12 years, unlike this Government, who doubled the operational allowance but froze armed forces pay for the majority of people, except those on active service.
Mark Lancaster: The hon. Gentleman knows what I am going to ask him. Does he perhaps with hindsight regret, amid the fanfare of introducing that operational allowance, covertly cutting the longer service separation allowance?
Mr Jones: We did, but we also increased the welfare package overall. However, we did not trumpet, as this Government are doing, the fact that the operational allowance has been doubled but is being paid for basically by a pay freeze for the majority of members of the armed forces and in many cases reducing their pensions through the change from RPI to CPI. In terms of our commitment, we honoured the Armed Forces Pay Review Body in full. That meant that service men and women were at the top of the public sector pay round every single year. I think that was the right thing to do.
One thing that would keep morale up would be to make sure that pay is in the covenant. The Government have made a mistake by not meeting the Armed Forces Pay Review Body and freezing pay for the majority of those people who are not on active service in Afghanistan or other parts of the world. We also introduced the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency, recognising for the first time the unique role of veterans in our society with a Minister responsible for veterans. We have a good record which we should be very proud of. I am glad that I played a small role in implementing that. It beats any post-war record of any Government of any political persuasion.
Mr Robathan: I know he was not. I remember the days before 1979 and the so-called black hole. The pay and conditions of service were so poor that my contemporaries were leaving in droves. When the Thatcher Government came to power in 1979 they walloped up the pay by approximately 33% and as a result the armed forces continued to run smoothly. I will not have it said that the last Government were the best Government the armed forces ever had.
Mr Jones: Taking into account the overall package, they were, certainly in terms of the armed forces compensation scheme and the recognition of the pay, pensions and terms and conditions. Regarding veterans, I know that we hear a lot from the Conservative party about its commitment to veterans, but it was the last Labour Government that introduced the Minister for Veterans and the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency, specifically to look after veterans’ affairs. So if we take the package as a whole rather than just looking at pay, our record is one that we can quite rightly be proud of.
Mr Jones: I certainly will. It then comes down to the covenant itself, and we must continue to improve what we can do. However, it is also important to say that this Bill has clearly been spun when it is claimed that it is putting the covenant into law, which it clearly is not. I will come on to that issue in a moment. The amendment tabled in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire aims to put it into law.
It is also important to look at the rhetoric of the Conservatives when they were in opposition. During the election, they produced “A New Covenant for our Armed Forces and their Families”, which says on page six:
“It is time for us to rewrite that Military Covenant, to make sure that we are doing everything we can…whether it is the schools you send your children to, whether it is the healthcare that you can expect, whether it is the fact that there should be a dedicated military ward for anyone who gets injured…I want all of these things refreshed and renewed and written down in a new Military Covenant that we write into the law of our land”.
The forces community, and for that matter the public, are entitled to ask where that new military covenant is. We can ask that question today, because quite clearly this Bill does not write it into law.
That has been reflected in some of the media coverage. I listened with amusement to the Minister for the Armed Forces, who is sadly not on this Committee, when he told the “Today” programme that the Bill enshrined the covenant in law. I must tell the Committee that a report from the Secretary of State to Parliament, which is what the Minister for the Armed Forces was referring to, is a weak interpretation of writing the military covenant into law.
The only way that the Minister for the Armed Forces might be proved correct is if the amendment were accepted today, because the Royal British Legion has made it clear that the Bill, as it stands, does not enshrine the covenant in law. Indeed, Chris Simpkins from the Royal British Legion said last Wednesday on “Channel 4 News” that he was:
That is comment. Last week, however, we had the Minister’s own comments on this issue when he appeared in an evidence session. It is worth reminding ourselves and a wider public what he said in that session. He said:
“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”. ––[Official Report, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, 10 February 2011; c.22.]
“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.” ––[Official Report, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, 10 February 2011; c.22.]
Confusion still reigns about when we will get the work referred to in questions this morning by my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire. A document has been produced that Scottish counterparts have had sight of, which could be called a covenant. However, it does not put it into law. It is important to know the relationship between the two. Clearly, it will not be part of the law, as is being spun by No. 10, the Ministry of Defence, and even the Secretary of State as late as last night on the “Sky News” blog.
Mr Robathan: First, I hope the hon. Gentleman does not think I was being patronising. It was meant to be funny when I said he was in prep school at the time I was referring to. There are two points: he asks what the relationship will be between the covenant and the report. The report will be measured against the covenant. It is as simple as that. The second point refers to whenever it will happen. It will happen in the spring. I very much hope we will be publishing it before Easter, but that depends on the comments of other people. We are trying to get an agreed, consensual position, rather than a non-consensual one.
Mr Jones: I would not hold out much hope for early spring—or possibly autumn. It is clear, as he said to the Committee, that the covenant is a conceptual thing—it will not be laid down in law. Is he reaffirming that today?
Mr Jones: If that is the case, that is not what is being spun as the headlines of the Bill. If we are bringing forward a Bill to look at how we honour the military covenant, it is odd that a piece of work to draw up that covenant should be ongoing, when the Bill talks about the military covenant. I have yet to see how the two will be linked. That is why I give the Minister the opportunity today to support the amendment tabled by the Opposition, which would enshrine in law the military covenant by
There will also be consultation before the order is laid, so the public can examine the Government’s record and what actually is meant by the covenant. The amendment would also ensure that all public bodies in the UK took into account the special nature of service, to ensure that people are not penalised as a result of their service. When the Prime Minister talked of writing the covenant into law, I believe this is what the British people thought he meant by that—not a simple report being laid before Parliament, without any recommendations or view of what the covenant should be. I am certain that services charities that gave evidence to the Committee thought that was what he meant by it.
When it comes to ensuring that the covenant means what it says, individuals need some type of redress. Confusion also arose on that point at the beginning. When we were trying to determine from officials what this states and how the policy was generated, the Minister—in response to an intervention—was dismissive of all previous work, saying that the election had taken place and that was it. I think Mr Barlow told us that the response to the former Green Paper, which I produced two years ago, would take into consideration the policy form and process. If that were the case and if the Minister had given evidence, we would have had an opportunity to find out exactly how that came about. If this report or the covenant are to mean anything, the individuals affected will need redress. The amendment would create a course of redress for individuals to the parliamentary ombudsman, so that the rights contained in the covenant are enforceable in some way. Many servicemen and women, veterans and others would become rather cynical if all we do is produce a report that is somehow noted by Parliament when, on an individual basis, there is no redress.
In drawing up the Green Paper, there were various proposals on how to do that, including a body of opinion that wanted an altogether separate armed forces ombudsman. That could have become over-bureaucratic. The best way forward would be to use the existing parliamentary ombudsman as a route to seek redress, and the amendments would at least give the legislation teeth by doing two things: enshrining the covenant in law, which clearly the Bill does not do, and giving individuals some redress against those organisations if they were not responding to the issues put forward.
Last week, the Minister was at pains to point out that officials advise and Ministers decide, but, given the weak nature of the Bill, it appears that officials are in control. When I was drawing up the Green Paper, there was a lot of resistance from some officials not only in the Ministry of Defence, but in other Departments, to anything that held other Departments and others to account. It was sad that that should be the case.
As we heard during the evidence sessions, it would be entirely wrong if a member of the armed forces, their family or veterans felt that they had to seek redress through law. I agree that that would not be a way forward as it would tie up the legal process and be expensive. As stated last week by the veterans’ community,
We need some redress and this provision provides that opportunity. If we are talking about support for our armed forces and bipartisanship, the amendment would be helpful in creating a mechanism to assist the Government to ensure that they fulfilled what they said when they were in opposition about wanting the covenant in law, as the Prime Minister clearly wants. At the election, it seemed that the coalition parties were offering some promise that we would try to have a new type of politics. I give the Government the opportunity to do that today.
If we accepted the amendment, the covenant would be enshrined in law. It would not hamstring the Government in making them define it today. It would give the Secretary of State the opportunity to introduce, by order, whatever work he is undertaking at the moment. Clearly, we have had evidence that that is taking place. Having travelled the journey that we have, we can look back on the work of the previous Government with pride. If we mean what we say on the covenant, it has to be enshrined—not only in being referred to as a report within the Bill, but as a central part of it. There is the opportunity here to do that.
I ask hon. Members to support the amendment to ensure that servicemen and women and veterans get support from hon. Members from all parties, as well as from the public, because I think they would also support the amendment. In opposition, we all get carried away with the rhetoric, but I urge the Government, rather than spin things out, to follow through and deliver. The amendment gives them the chance to do that today.
Mr Robathan: The hon. Gentleman finished by talking about spin, but I do not think we have been spinning at all. He also said that the Bill is hyped up to be more than it is. Down the Dog and Duck, be it in Durham, Colchester or Leicestershire, people would not recognise that we have spoken a lot about the covenant. We are talking about what form the covenant should take.
I was glad to hear the hon. Gentleman say that he thought an armed forces ombudsman would be over-bureaucratic, and glad to hear his comments about lawyers. I once joined the Inner Temple, but the other day I threw away my Rapid Results College Bar part 1 course when clearing out my mother’s house. I am afraid to say that it was still wrapped in cellophane, so I did not get much further than that.
I accept that this is a different approach, but, like the hon. Gentleman, we do not want to be over-bureaucratic. We do not want to be over-prescriptive and we judge this way forward to be the better way.
We have looked carefully at the amendments. Amendment 6 sets out complicated arrangements involving renewable orders and public consultations. In the end, however, it boils down to imposing a legal requirement on public bodies to ensure that service people suffer no disadvantage and sometimes get special treatment.
Let me deal first with the suggestion that the legislation should require the production of the military covenant. As the Committee is aware, the Government will publish the text of a new armed forces covenant. That will be this spring—by Easter, I hope. I am looking at my officials to ensure that they get that idea in their heads. I see no reason why the covenant should not be produced by Easter, which, after all, is yet two months away.
That is not an issue, but the covenant is a statement of moral obligation—something that I take pretty seriously, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman does. It is broad, aspirational and a developing notion that reflects the relationship between society, the armed forces and, indeed, the Government. Where there is a problem that should be remedied, legislation can be introduced to deal with it if legislation is the right answer. Generally, however, I tend away from prescriptive legislation.
Mr Jones: Today and last week, the Minister told the Committee that the Government are working on defining what the covenant should be. He told us that it will not be enshrined in law, but how will the work he produces later this year fit in relation to the report? Surely, if the report is to mean anything, it must be joint with the principles of what the covenant should cover. This is a golden opportunity for him to do that.
Mr Robathan: The hon. Gentleman makes a rather good point. They will, of course, be intertwined. However, we still do not think that the covenant should be codified on a statutory basis any more than the service Command Paper was.
Mr Robathan: I am afraid that I cannot comment on that because I did not hear it. The Minister for the Armed Forces and I are at one on the issue, and we are defining the report on a statutory basis. The report is on a statutory basis, as one can see from clause 2. We will then put the military covenant in the public domain, I hope before Easter.
Mr Jones: I want to clarify the matter. Not only did the Minister for the Armed Forces say something completely different on the radio, but, in a speech on HMS Ark Royal, the Prime Minister himself said:
Mr Robathan: This is becoming marginally like a cracked record. I explained that last week. The amendment would require us to put a sweeping burden on a huge range of bodies without any regard to cost—cost is important—to do nothing that would create a disadvantage for service people. I certainly do not want to disadvantage service people but, as the hon. Gentleman has accepted, a culture of claims and litigation could be encouraged, which might well lead to a loss of the appreciation and respect now given to the armed forces by the public.
Given that “sometimes” is not a legal term and that “special treatment” can be interpreted in all sorts of ways, does the Minister not agree that such woolly wording would be open to legal interpretation in a way that we do not want? It would create the lawyers’ paradise that the Opposition say they do not want either.
Mr Robathan: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, because that is exactly what I think. The point I would make to the Opposition is that we are all, broadly, on the same side and that we wish to achieve the same results. The results are more important than the amendment, which could open a can of worms.
Mr Jones: I am sorry, but I disagree completely with what the Minister has just said. The Command Paper gives special treatment to veterans—for example, priority treatment in the health service. To define that special treatment, it is something that people get because they have served their country. The amendment would ensure that those things that are laid down—not in the Bill, but in the report—were legally enforceable.
Bob Russell: Does my right hon. Friend the Minister agree that a debating point is being made? The important thing is that the words “armed forces covenant” appear, quite clearly, in clause 2 of the Bill, which, if passed, will become an Act of Parliament and thus the law of the land. I urge both sides of the debate to seize on that as a step forward, building on the Armed Forces Act 2006. I have every confidence that, in four or five years’ time, as things unfold, another Committee will want to build on what is here. It is not possible to have an all-singing, all-dancing, word-perfect Bill today, because we do not know how things will unfold in the months and years ahead.
Mr Robathan: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, because he is right—a debating point is being made. We broadly agree about the results that we want to achieve, and results are very much more important than semantics, which is what we seem to be dealing with here. The amendment would also ride roughshod over the needs of local authorities and the NHS not to be burdened with unworkable legal obligations. That is the issue. I therefore believe this to be the wrong route to follow. The Bill provides for an annual report to give the right level of assurance about the covenant, without the disadvantages I have outlined.
Where that process shows that fair treatment for the service community requires legislation, including special treatment, that will be the way forward, as my hon. Friend has just suggested, dealing with specific problems with clear solutions. Where the right result can be achieved without legislation, Government Members very much prefer the non-legislative route.
Amendment 8 envisages providing a means of redress for service people if they believed that the legal requirement outlined in amendment 6 was not being met. Clearly, amendment 8 would fall if the legal requirement fell, but if the amendment were agreed to it would be impossible for an ombudsman to apply it without detailed laws explaining what was really required of all the public bodies to which the amendment would apply.
Both amendments have many other problems. We have spent a long time teasing out why, for example, amendment 8 would give access to an ombudsman only to service personnel. However, I think that I have covered the fundamental points and I ask the Committee to reject both amendments.
Mr Jones: We have again seen that the Bill cannot be justified, despite the best attempts of the hon. Member for Colchester, because it goes back on what the Prime Minister has said publicly. If the Government are already working on defining the covenant, it is disappointing that the opportunity to make it law will be missed today. The opportunity will also be missed to give legal teeth to some of the issues, unless the report will be a sterile document. Issues were brought into the Command Paper and the Green Paper, which I produced and which was in my party’s manifesto at the last election. We heard from the British Armed Forces Federation last week that people have become cynical because politicians and the Government are raising the bar and expectations, but when it comes to a veteran or a service family member not being able to get priority access to the NHS, no recourse is available. There is an opportunity here to strengthen both the Bill and support for not only servicemen and women and their families but for veterans. I therefore wish to press the amendment to a vote.
Thomas Docherty: On a point of order, Mr Arbuthnot. As you know, I am a great stickler for “Erskine May”, and on page 446 it states that all Members are required to wear jackets and ties during the business of the House. Does that apply to Committees as well?
The Chair: I have been taking advice, and I understand that the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North did not wish to press the amendment to a vote. Unfortunately, the notice that the Opposition wished to do so came too late, in practice, for it to be dealt with. In future, if Members wish to press an amendment that has lapsed in an earlier debate to a vote, good notice would be preferable. There will be opportunities on Report to come back to that amendment.
Mr Jones: Further to that point of order, Mr Arbuthnot. I would not want to question the Chair’s ruling, but it was not put to the Committee that the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North wanted to withdraw the amendment, and there is no formal record of that, so how were we to know?
Mr Jones: Further to that point of order, Mr Arbuthnot. Does that not leave the Opposition in a rather difficult position? If we did not know that the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North was not pressing his amendment, how were we to know to press it to a vote? Must we have telepathy, or second sight of what the hon. Gentleman is thinking?
The Chair: Members of the Committee must keep on their toes. On the previous day, Members made it plain that they wished to press to a vote an amendment that would come later in the morning. Anyway, my ruling is that the amendment was not pressed to a vote and cannot now be pressed to a vote, because the moment has passed.
Amendment 7 extends the network of armed forces advocates. One strength of the service Command Paper was the individual armed services advocates in each Department to raise and address issues relating to servicemen and women and their families and to veterans. I know that the issue of the health service was raised last week by the armed forces families federations. I found it enlightening and pleasing that they felt that issues that they had raised with the Department of Health were now changing the Department’s policy to ensure that armed forces families and servicemen and women not only have a voice and are recognised but influence policy at an early stage.
Mr Jones: In terms of what was done nationally, they were civil servants. However, the previous Government piloted an armed forces welfare pathway. It did not get a great deal of recognition—to be fair, it was recognised in Professor Strachan’s report—but it involved a number of local authorities appointing armed forces advocates whose job it was to ensure that in policy development terms, armed forces families and veterans were put to the forefront. I envisage that the existing network could be extended to regional level, although I accept that the Government are doing away with Government regional offices at the local level. The amendment would ensure the thrust of the covenant in terms of what has been outlined and issues relating to the veterans’ community and to servicemen and women and their families.
I will give an example of how the system worked in practice at the national level. An issue has been raised—I think in a previous session with the Service Complaints Commissioner—about IVF treatment. Servicemen and women who were being moved around the country and, in some cases, to other countries found that they went to the bottom of waiting lists for IVF treatment. That issue was raised by the armed forces families federations when I was a Minister. The advocacy system ensured
The other example concerns service children. The issue of statements was raised by the Defence Committee report into the education of service children, which caused a great deal of distress to servicemen and women and their families. If those families had a child with an educational special needs statement, whether it was from the educational service in Germany or a local authority in this country—if, for example, you moved from Wiltshire to Catterick—there was no way to passport that educational statement. That meant that the poor child had to go through the process yet again when they moved to their new home. It could often take many months, or indeed years, to get that statement issued again.
Bob Russell: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the previous Government addressed that point? My understanding is that now the statement goes with the child, so the previous Government resolved that problem.
Mr Jones: They did, and I was pleased. That was thanks to the Defence Committee, which raised the matter in its report on the education of service children and followed through on it. However, the way in which the Committee was able to affect that was by issuing guidance through the Department for Education. The advocates ensured that that was an issue and gave guidance to local authorities and—in terms of IVF treatment—to local PCTs and others. That is the strength of the advocates network at a national level, which has worked very well, and the Bill is trying to push that practice down to a local level to ensure that it continues.
There are many policies—I think this was raised recently in “Panorama”—where it is said that there is a lot of help out there but very little co-ordination. Certainly the welfare pathway was a way of making sure that we could co-ordinate. I am not sure what happened with the four pilots that we kicked off with and whether they were followed up on. I know the Minister in question did not like the name—nor did I—and that we were trying to think up another. It was a way to make sure that when developing policy—whether at a county council level, in a local health service, or anything else—the special nature of servicemen and women and their families was taken into consideration, and also the position of veterans. This is very important in terms of housing, the health service and education.
To be fair to Professor Strachan, he recognised the fact that trying to bend policy locally is the way we can have the greatest effect. On the pathways, a number of authorities, such as Wigan, Kent, Wiltshire and North Yorkshire, appointed local advocates whose job was to make sure that service families were thought of when the council discussed the implications of any type of policy. People have asked whether that was a major change. I think it was where the Command Paper really started to make a difference, because it made sure policy makers in those departments thought about veterans, servicemen and women and their families. The amendment would add to and ensure that we follow through on that, and put it on a legal footing to ensure that when
Bob Russell: I am sure that the thinking behind this amendment is laudable, and so it should not be opposed, but I am concerned about logistics and how it will work in practice. I intervened on the hon. Gentleman, but I did not get a reply to my question. Who would the supporting advocates be? Would they be legal people, people from the local authority, civil servants or lay advocates? It is an open question. I would like to think that organisations such as SSAFA are already dealing with the work suggested in the amendment, certainly in the major naval and garrison towns.
Thomas Docherty: I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to proposed subsection (8), which defines who the advocate would be. I hope that provides the clarification that will let him vote with us on the amendment.
Bob Russell: I understand what the hon. Gentleman says, but that subsection refers to the “armed forces advocate”, and I am referring to the nomination of supporting advocates. Bearing in mind that the number of personnel in the civil service, local government and the armed forces is likely, if not certain, to be reduced, I do not think that the proposal could be delivered, other than in the manner in which it is already being delivered.
Mr Robathan: The existing network of armed forces advocates was set up by the previous Administration as one of measures in their service personnel Command Paper under the heading “Joining It All Up”. Each of the main Departments responsible for services that affect the armed forces community has an advocate. He or she is expected to champion the interests of service people within their Department. I was told yesterday that they were generally approximately two-star positions—so quite senior. There are also advocates in the Scottish and Welsh Assembly Governments.
In most cases, those advocates also represent their Departments on the external reference group. Their role is additional to their main duties, and we believe that they have done an excellent job. It did not need legislation to set up the advocate system, and it does not need legislation now—people have just got on with it.
The same considerations apply locally. Some local authorities already have an armed forces champion. The hon. Member for North Durham referred to Kent and other places. That was one of the themes of the welfare pathway that he promoted when he was a Minister. We agree on the title. It expresses the intention, and the intention of the welfare pathway was clear. I applaud that.
Advocates have a variety of roles, from ensuring that the armed forces community gets the right priority within the local authority’s planning, to acting as someone who can be approached if a service person has problems with the services that they receive. No legislation was required. No doubt, the champions perform their roles very well, and if it is the right solution for a local authority, I am delighted to endorse that approach, which came from the previous Administration. We should all work to ensure that best practice is exposed and publicised.
Similarly, if the work of the existing armed forces advocates in central Government Departments would benefit from the appointment of supporting advocates across the country, we should look at that idea. However, those are not the questions before us today; we are being asked to require the nomination of supporting advocates across regional and local government, whether or not that suits the operation of the local authority concerned.
The amendment would impose a solution, rather than allow local solutions to local needs. My contention is that it is entirely unnecessary. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester made much the same sort of point. We agree with the way that things are going with the awfully named welfare pathway; we do not need legislation to change it. We need to develop things outside the strictures, restrictions and prescriptions of legislation. Accordingly, I ask the Committee to reject the amendment.
Mr Jones: I welcome what the Minister said, but I believe that there is an urgent need for advocates to be put on a more statutory footing. Two areas in the report—health care and education—affect servicemen and women and veterans. The Government are doing away with primary care trusts and strategic health authorities and moving towards free schools and a reduction in the role of local authorities. I therefore believe that including advocates in the Bill is important, and I shall give one example of why.
One issue included in the Command Paper was priority treatment for veterans. That commitment, given by the Department of Health, is to be supported by strategic health authorities and implemented through primary care trusts. In the not-too-distant future, if the Health and Social Care Bill is enacted, we will no longer have those bodies; there will no longer be a system allowing individual GP fundholders to give priority access to veterans, service families and servicemen and women. The Minister argues that it is working fine now so why change, but there is an urgent need for the amendment to ensure that the rights of veterans and servicemen and women are enshrined in legislation.
Mr Robathan: The hon. Gentleman states boldly that there is an urgent need for change, but we have no evidence for that. Such a need may come, in which case we could revisit the matter, but there is no urgent need at the moment.
Mr Jones: What discussions has the Minister had with his health service counterparts? How will he ensure that his commitment—one that we introduced—to allow veterans priority access to the health service will happen in practice? It will be down to individual fundholders to decide people’s priorities; unless there is some central advocacy, those people will lose out. There is an urgent need for change; this is another example of the unjoined-up thinking that we have seen in various Departments.
Thomas Docherty: I wonder whether my hon. Friend is surprised as I am, given the Prime Minister’s championing of the big society. Does he think that the Bill will be a prime example of the big society in action? Perhaps it is becoming slightly commonplace to have rhetoric in one place and a lack of follow-through elsewhere.
Advocates have been important in ensuring that what the Government are saying and what Parliament wants can be delivered locally. Without the amendment and with the changes that are taking place in the health service and elsewhere, their services will no longer be guaranteed. The Prime Minister and other Ministers will soon see that, although they may push levers, nothing is connected to them to deliver what they want.
I think that all members of the Committee agree that servicemen and women and their families should not be disadvantaged, and nor should veterans. Without that reassurance and without a mechanism to achieve it, we will leave a big problem for the future. We should ensure that those things that have already been advanced, such as priority access for veterans, are implemented. That is why I shall press the amendment to a vote.
Mr Robathan: We have discussed most elements of the clause at quite some length, and although I do not want to detain the Committee unnecessarily, this clause has engendered most interest both inside and outside the House. Members of the armed forces and their families can face exceptional demands. The Government have confirmed their commitment to rebuild the covenant and 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. We have been looking at the best way in which to make that happen.
Our starting point is that the armed forces covenant is fundamentally a moral obligation on the Government, the nation and the armed forces themselves. It can never be defined by a host of rules and regulations designed to tell everyone exactly what to do in every circumstance. For the first time, the clause will give statutory recognition to the covenant and a mechanism for ensuring that it is addressed by Ministers and Parliament, which represents the people. It places a duty on the Secretary of State to prepare and lay before Parliament an annual report about how service affects service people—regulars and reservists, veterans and their families. Different groups within that broad community face different problems.
In response to the very helpful observation of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North about the position of reservists, I should like to acknowledge specifically their important contribution to our operations. The contribution of our volunteers creates particular issues and challenges for them, and we need to ensure that they are considered during the preparation of our reports. While I have it in my power to do anything about it, I can assure my hon. Friend that I will do it.
The covenant itself and the service community of current and former members and their families are very broad. If each report tried to cover everything, it would lose focus and be less useful to the House. As a result, that would fail to solve the practical problems that the service community faces. The clause requires that every report will cover the effects of service in the fields of health care, education and housing as they affect the groups of service people reported on. Experience tells us that such issues are always likely to be important to the service and the ex-service community.
The Defence Secretary will not neglect other areas where issues need to be addressed. With the help of the external reference group, he will identify those issues.
“Whether it’s the schools you send your children to, whether it’s the healthcare that you expect, whether it’s the fact there should be a decent military ward for anyone who gets injured... I want all these things refreshed and renewed and written down in a new military covenant that’s written into the law of the land.”
A written legal covenant must leave no room for ambiguity or sidestepping. The Government are not being honest with our armed forces. They promised a military covenant enshrined in law, yet the Minister last week finally admitted that the covenant will not be laid down in law. He admitted that the report and the covenant will be two different documents. He therefore proved my point that the Bill enshrines in law a report on the covenant, but not the covenant itself. There is a difference.
Mr Robathan: I have not known the hon. Lady for very long, but I find her genial company and we get on quite well. We are talking about the covenant and how it affects our armed forces personnel, their families, reservists and veterans. Frankly, she is banging on about semantics, which is peripheral.
Gemma Doyle: The fact is that there is nothing else in the Bill to talk about. It is so weak that we have not spent the time we would have liked on the covenant itself. As he has admitted, that work is going on elsewhere. It has not been addressed in the Bill and is not before the Committee to discuss. That is why we have had to have these debates on the central point of whether the Bill enshrines the military covenant in law. And, as he has now admitted, it simply does not.
The Minister said that he and his colleague are at one on this issue, but, frankly, the facts do not bear it out. I leave it to him to discuss it with his colleague, but clearly there is still either confusion or a degree of misleading going on.
During last Thursday’s sitting, the Minister described the Government’s view of the covenant as a “philosophical statement”. He later described it as a “conceptual thing”. Our servicemen and servicewomen deserve more than fuzzy assurances and woolly platitudes, and our amendments were designed to ensure that the Bill offers nothing less than an unshakeable commitment and cast-iron guarantees.
We have already heard about the discrepancy between what the Government promised to deliver when they were in opposition and what they are proposing to
Our amendments would have ensured that the covenant is not merely a “philosophical statement” or a “conceptual thing”, as the Minister interprets it. They would have enshrined the military covenant in law and strengthened the independence of the report on the covenant, too, to ensure that we are meeting our obligations to service personnel. It is extremely unfortunate that the clause has not been amended and, as such, the Bill’s provisions on the military covenant remain weak.
Mr Jones: Like my hon. Friend, I am disappointed that the Government have not taken on board some of our amendments. The coalition promised us new politics, but we are seeing the same old politics with the Liberal Democrats providing a human shield to the Conservatives in their support of some of the more unpalatable measures. The Bill is a lost opportunity. There was an opportunity today to enshrine the covenant in law.
Mr Jones: I am sorry, but the Minister is just not correct. If he had actually seen and read the Green Paper that I produced in 2008—it did not get much publicity, but that is not something one could bash the Government with—that is exactly what it was doing. It was putting the questions––
There was an opportunity today. My amendment was crafted to provide an opportunity for the Government to follow through on. As I said, we did not have an opportunity to have the Minister before us, but he tells us that there is work ongoing in defining the covenant. My amendment gave an opportunity for the Government to follow through on that work and introduce it in this Bill. There is no understanding of how this report is going to link to the covenant at all. It seems odd to me that work should still be going on to define the covenant when the Government bring a major piece of legislation like this forward. But I think that the Minister defined it himself when he said that
We had it quite clear on that occasion. He also said that the covenant could have no more legal status than the service Command Paper in the last Parliament. That is a missed opportunity, which we should have grasped today given that commitment which we all want to see in terms of our servicemen and women.
It also concerns me that the Government seem happy to leave with the Secretary of State the decision of what the report should contain. That is not just this Secretary of State, but future ones as well. Confusion still surrounds the role of the external reference group. We are still told by the Minister on the Floor of the House that it will be produced in the report. We were told by officials that they hoped it would wither on the vine. In terms of independent oversight and input, there is a big difference between being consulted by the Secretary of State and what we were proposing—to ask the external reference group, independently chaired, to be able to draw up the areas they thought were added to the extensive list. We heard the absolutely ludicrous position that the Secretary of State will report on entire areas that he has no direct responsibility for whatsoever, and in areas in which he does have direct responsibility and which affect the servicemen and women and veterans such as pensions, pay and the armed forces compensation scheme—there will be no legal requirement for him at all to put them in this report. I do not understand the Government’s hostility, although I think that it demonstrates again the difference between what is being spun out in the newspapers and what we are seeing in practice. As this Bill passes through this House and the House of Lords, that will unravel even more.
Bob Russell: For the first time, an Act of Parliament will contain the words “armed forces covenant”, and an Act of Parliament is the law of the land. We can argue as to whether the Bill should contain more, but I regret that there is opposition to it, because I have not detected a party political line outside this place from the service charities, military personnel or the people whom we met yesterday at the Colchester garrison.
The hon. Member for North Durham said that I am supporting the Conservatives, but those who know me will know that I support the members of Her Majesty’s armed forces, their families, the reservists and veterans. If it happens that I am supporting the same Bill as Conservative Members, that is a coincidence. I am not blindly supporting the Conservatives. If that was the case, I do not see how I could be elected as a Liberal Democrat in Essex, in one of the super-garrison towns and with an increased majority unless I was seen to be supporting our armed forces.
The last such Bill was enacted with a broad consensus. There were differences around the edges, but that is my recollection. I regret the partisan element of the past few minutes, which members of our armed would not think a good idea. I hope that we will agree with the clause and that the Bill will become an Act. As time flows on, I am confident that some of the concerns that have been expressed will prove unfounded or be proved to have some substance, which will require a subsequent Bill to correct them. At the moment, the Bill is important, and we can build on it and improve it. It will not be spot on from day one, but the 2006 Act is not spot on, which is why we have the Bill in front of us today.
Thomas Docherty: I will be brief. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman thinks that some hon. Members are embarking on partisanship, and I hope that he believes that all parties have a genuine interest in the welfare of our armed forces.
I want the Minister to reflect on the fact that it is somewhat disappointing that neither his Government officials nor the ministerial team have yet had a specific meeting with any of the devolved Administrations to discuss the implementation of the armed forces covenant or its report. I hope that, by the time we reconvene on the Floor of the House on Report, there will have been an opportunity for him or his officials to sit down with those from the devolved Administrations to discuss the genuine and serious issue of how the proposals should be implemented. I will leave my comments at that.
|©Parliamentary copyright||Prepared 16th February 2011|