James Sunderland backs the Second Reading of the Armed Forces Bill which delivers the recommendations of the Lyons review of the Service Justice System and honours the Government's commitment to enshrine the Armed Forces Covenant in law.
The Armed Forces Bill fulfils the legal responsibility on the MOD to update the Armed Forces Act every five years, but it of course does much more. First, it honours the recommendations of the Lyons review, several of which I argued for as a serving officer. It delivers what the armed forces want, and it shows that the MOD is supportive of them. It delivers, too, on a commitment made in the 2019 manifesto to bring the armed forces covenant into statute and fulfil a long-standing promise to our service community. The Bill also shows that in this post-Brexit era, the British Government are able to pass laws that may have been more difficult under the EU. Our service justice system has long been in the sights of the EU courts, and the MOD has done well to preserve it for the good and benefit of our armed forces.
No doubt the legislation will get attacked for what it is not, but from experience the Bill is a good one. The technical term for it is “no-brainer”, and I will be supporting the Government today. At its simplest level, the legislation provides the framework for the excellent work conducted for many years by councils and health and education providers across the UK, and I pay my own tribute to the many councils and armed forces champions who have done so much. Why not legislate, too, to establish armed forces champions in law? Having reinforced the covenant myself for so many years, not least among our brilliant champions in Surrey and Berkshire, I can say that with complete confidence.
Moving on to the clauses, the Armed Forces Act operates on the basis of beyond reasonable doubt, so it is entirely correct that under clauses 4 to 7, commanding officers in courts martial are provided with a means of rectifying errors of judgment. To be worthy of their pre-eminence, the ability to admonish or even overturn outcomes, notably when new evidence comes to light, is welcome.
I thank my good friend for giving way. He was a commanding officer, as I was, and will have sent people to courts martial when he did not really want to.
The Bill brings in the ability for commanding officers to give their men and women additional support when they have to send them to a court martial, and will mean they can involve themselves more in the court martial by saying, for example, “Please can this man or woman come back to my unit rather than be discharged from the service, because they are a good person?”.
I thank my good friend for his intervention and agree completely. It is really important that commanding officers have some input into the service-law process, not only by providing mitigation and character references but by influencing court outcomes. The ability for soldiers to continue to serve, on the recommendation of the commanding officer, is really important.
Clause 8, which brings the armed forces covenant into statute, is long overdue. I welcome the clarification that provisions for housing, health and education will be mandated in law. Further guidance on exactly what councils will be asked to do will be welcome. I would also welcome confirmation of when the Secretary of State might present his annual report on the covenant at the Dispatch Box.
On clause 9, I welcome the increased flexibility that will be available to our reserve forces through the provisions on the new continuous service engagement. Part-time work rightly augments full-time work.
On clauses 10 and 11, I agree that the MOD wishes to speed up the complaints process, but I urge the Minister and the Secretary of State to remain cognisant of just how busy most senior officers are. I welcome the creation of the new Service Police Complaints Commissioner, for all the reasons we heard earlier from my good and hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), as long as a mechanism is built in to ensure that clearly vexatious complaints are filtered out early. That needs to happen for all service complaints: the chain of command must have the ability to filter them amount if they are clearly vexatious.
Lastly, I really welcome the enhanced powers given to commanding officers and courts martial in clauses 13 to 17. Not only is it right that the service justice system can now preside over offences that previously could be heard only in a civil court, but as a former commanding officer I am positively salivating at the prospect of deprivation orders. The proceeds of or means of executing crime can now be confiscated from errant soldiers—what a brilliant way, perhaps, to offset the costs of the regimental Christmas party.
The Bill reflects what our armed forces have asked for. It brings them up to date with what they need and I will vote for it.
James’ interventions in the same debate
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the clauses relating to service justice and terms of service were ultimately requested by the armed forces. They should therefore be non-contentious, although I agree that perhaps clause 8 could be more prescriptive. However, to bring the armed forces covenant into statute, to do it equally and to make it deliverable across all local authorities, across all devolved nations and also Northern Ireland, where particular circumstances reign, will be no easy feat. My view therefore is that, far from being overly prescriptive in primary legislation, it may be better to be less prescriptive. Does he agree that we should commend the Bill for what it is, not attack it for what it cannot necessarily be?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s interest in this. I think there is potential, as he indicates, for cross- party support for doing more than is currently in the Bill on the implementation of the covenant. The problem is not that it is prescriptive, but that it is prescriptively narrow at present, directed only at local councils and local agencies and not the responsibilities or services of national Government, and that it is too narrow, in that it mentions three areas when the lived experience of armed forces and veterans quite clearly raises problems on a wide range of other fronts. That is the lesson of the experience of the past decade and more—that is the challenge we must meet. This is a once-in-five-years piece of legislation and I want to ensure that we on the Opposition side play a part in helping Parliament to meet that challenge.
I am aware of my hon. Friend’s heart-wrenching story; his father would have been very proud of him today. May I quickly ask whether the armed forces covenant would have helped him at that early stage of life?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. In the next two minutes, the House will be able to hear what I went through and how the armed forces covenant would have helped me.