James Sunderland, who chaired the Armed Forces Bill Select Committee, speaks in the Committee Stage debate and whilst welcoming the draft statutory guidance to support the Armed Forces Covenant, calls on the Government to look again at the complaints process in respect of local councils.
After that speech, who on earth would be a Defence Minister? It is a great privilege to speak during Armed Forces Week. We have a clear responsibility in this place to support Her Majesty’s forces, so the timing is neat. As Chair of the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, I am familiar with the Bill. It is a good Bill, but may I commend to hon. Members the Select Committee report and the subsequent statement made in this House on 22 April? Both were fully objective and the result of painstaking analysis and debate within the Select Committee. Yes, we did not agree on every issue. In fact, we did not agree on many issues.
It was remiss of me in my contribution not to thank the hon. Member for chairing the Select Committee. He got thrown in at the deep end at the last minute, but I think all members of the Select Committee thought he did an excellent job and ensured that everyone had their say. May I put on record my thanks, and I am sure that of other Members, to him for the way in which he chaired the Select Committee?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman —my friend—for those kind words. It was a real pleasure to chair that superb Committee. The report was pretty good. I believe it to be a framework for what lies ahead and perhaps even a template for what we do with this standing legislation in five years’ time. We are progressing all the time, and the future looks good.
I want to discuss two areas: the statutory guidance and the latest amendments to the Bill. First, I thank the Minister for his written response to the Select Committee report and for the draft statutory guidance, which we have now got. We must acknowledge that the covenant is already with us. It has been signed by the vast majority of councils all over the UK, including in Northern Ireland. In fact, it has its 10th birthday at this point in time, so what better present could there be than to bring it into statute?
The door is already open for the statutory guidance, and it is a good bit of work so far. I welcome the fact that it places a due regard on the placeholder, that it recognises rightful outcomes, that it reflects the unique sacrifices and obligations on HM forces and that it places a legal obligation on the delivery of health, accommodation and local support from councils. It also provides examples of good practice and pragmatic guidelines on how that is to be provided.
I note that prescriptive performance targets are still absent, but it may be that it is impossible to apply any meaningful metrics and tools to this area. I do not believe that councils are in any doubt about what is expected of them after 10 years, but—it is a big but—it may be that guidance is still needed on how they will be held to account if they do not meet their obligations. I read with interest the line in the guidance that:
“Covenant duty does not mandate public specific delivery outcomes or advantageous treatment of the Armed Forces Community. It only mandates that consideration takes place…when exercising certain functions”.
That worries me, as the local authority complaints process does not cut it in terms of what I believe is still needed. Simply inviting disaffected personnel to contact their MP fills me with horror. I urge the Minister to please look again at this, dig deeper and do the right thing.
I turn to the amendments. I am comfortable with what the Government have tabled, and I want to talk to a handful of the others. New clause 1 would amend the Immigration Act 2014 to waive the fee for indefinite leave to remain applications for any current or previously serving members of the UK armed forces. Similarly, new clause 7 provides that foreign and Commonwealth veterans applying for indefinite leave to remain following four years of service will pay only the unit cost of an application.
I am clear in my mind that the Government have this key issue in hand, and I welcome the consultation recently announced by the MOD and the Home Office. I personally wish to see an amnesty for those F and C personnel who slip through the net, and I agree that it is right to abate the cost of visa fees as a function of time to incentivise longer service. As a former commanding officer of the largest and most diverse unit in the British Army, I say that is the right way to go, even though it may set a precedent for other Departments.
New clause 2 would require the Secretary of State to establish a duty of care standards in relation to legal, pastoral and mental health support provided to service personnel. The MOD takes very seriously its duty of care for service personnel and veterans, and over the years it has established a comprehensive range of legal, pastoral, welfare and mental health support for service personnel and veterans. We have come a long way from the early days of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, with which I am very familiar. The covenant has also been enshrined in law, so I think that the new clause may be redundant at this point.
New clause 3 would require the Government to publish a report on changes to personnel numbers across all services and to detail the impact of reductions on operational capabilities. However, none of that is a closely guarded secret. The MOD recently published its Command Paper “Defence in a competitive age” and noted that the size of the Army would be reduced. I believe that that new clause is also redundant; the information is out there.
New clause 4 would require the Government to conduct a comprehensive review of the number of people who are dismissed or forced to resign from the armed forces due to their sexuality and make recommendations on appropriate forms of compensation. Restorative justice is difficult due to the policies that were legally enforceable at the time, but I am comfortable, for now, that the Government are making strides to tackle this, not least by restoring medals and engaging much more broadly with the LGBTQ+ community. That is absolutely the right thing to do.
As for new clause 6, the duty of care for alcohol, drugs and gambling disorders is already there. It is called good leadership—and also the covenant, which is being enshrined in law.
Lastly, new clause 8 is laudable, but we are not there yet. The new clause would create a representative body for the armed forces, akin to the Police Federation, which would represent its members in matters such as welfare, pay and efficiency. The Government have not been persuaded at this point that there is a requirement or a groundswell of support for a federation along the lines that have been suggested.
The interests of armed forces personnel are already represented through a range of mechanisms, not least, again, the chain of command. Furthermore, the Service Complaints Ombudsman provides impartial scrutiny of service complaints made by members of the UK armed forces regarding any aspect of their service life. However, for the Minister’s benefit, I would, in this case, welcome an independent body to provide additional rigour for service complaints. In my experience, service complaints are very awkward, and it may just be that taking them out of units and out of the chain of command is the right thing to do.
To conclude, one of the main criticisms of the Bill is that it does not go far enough, but as an ex-serviceman I refute that. Any new legislation has to be deliverable, proportionate, pragmatic and responsible, and has to attract the necessary due diligence and analysis, for it needs to consider the effect on those it relates to, and no Government can write cheques they cannot cash, as they have to maintain the fundamental ethos and integrity of the organisation itself. Our armed forces are pre-eminent in their field and must be afforded the autonomy they need to do their job. So this is about evolution, not revolution, and I believe that we will get there in due course through what the Select Committee has recommended.
I say to those who wish to turn this unique organisation into what they would wish it to be by clipping its wings, softening its operational capability and ignoring its hard edge or negating the importance of the chain of command: please be careful what you wish for.