The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Ben Wallace)
Let me declare at the outset that I am president of the Scots Guards Association for veterans and have been for nearly 20 years.
I pay tribute to all Members who have spoken in this debate. Looking after our veterans and our armed forces does not belong to any one political party, nor to any one Member of Parliament. Reflecting on the contribution from the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan), one would easily be forgiven for thinking that serving personnel’s experience of the armed forces is that they all live in substandard accommodation, have an awful time and want to leave. One would also think that the veterans in this country are not enjoying successful careers, becoming incredibly employable, working hard, contributing to society and using their skills. Up and down this country, tens of thousands—nay, even hundreds of thousands—of people who have enjoyed service to this country, whether short or long, show those skills to all and sundry. They show their loyalty to their country, they show their patriotism, they show their ability to work, and they are incredibly employable.
For many people, the system works and they have a great time in the services. For many people, the best part of their lives—probably the best part of my life—was as a serving soldier in the armed forces. Was it perfect? No. Did I lose 30% of my sight? Yes. Did I find myself rushed to hospital being told that they would not save my sight? Yes. Did I feel slightly abandoned when afterwards, with a one-inch gash in my eyeball, I woke up alone in a hospital in west Belfast, and did not really know how to transition? Yes. But do I regret a minute of my service? No. Do I regret the skills it gave me? No. Do the hundreds of thousands of veterans in this country regret it? No.
It is true, however, that for a proportion of veterans and serving personnel, all is not well, and we all recognise in this House that we could always do more and do better. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) made the very important point that the journey never ends. The reason the journey never ends is that conflict never ends, and the nature of conflict never ends. The distance between society and the people who serve in the armed forces—fewer and fewer people—never ends. The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), who is a very thoughtful Member of this House who seeks the best for the armed forces, and, as a member of the Scottish National party, is always open to listening, understanding and exploring ideas, made the very real point that there are fewer and fewer serving personnel in society and the gap between the understanding of what they do and what others do is growing greater. We must address that.
This Bill is a good step in the right direction. It improves many of the things that in my day were not even really in existence. I served as a member of the armed forces under both a Conservative Government and a Labour Government. If we just consider the treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder—the transition and liaison service, the complex treatment service and the high-intensity service now delivered by the NHS for the mental welfare of our veterans—we can see that all that is much, much better; a step change from what it was.
This Bill takes another step forward—it goes further—because clause 8 puts the armed forces covenant into law. As the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) said, this has been a long journey. It started off with a charter, then a Green Paper, then it became a duty to report, and now this is a step forward whereby we will put a duty on a number of services to pay regard to the covenant.
The Bill is also a step forward in improving the assurances around investigations, which many Opposition Members said during the passage of the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill was something that is missing. It is about improving the quality and the independence of those investigations, alongside that of the prosecutions and the judiciary. It is about improving the training so that our soldiers—men and women of our armed forces—are never again in the position they were in in the early years of the Iraq war, where they were accused of war crimes when they thought they were simply doing what they were trained to do. That happened because the training had fallen far behind the development of the law and human rights legislation.
Many Members called for the Bill to go wider and deeper, and I will do my best to respond, given that nearly 60 colleagues spoke during the debate. The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) suggested a £500 thank you payment to our troops in the same way as was provided for NHS workers in Scotland. She also said that we could do more in health and education. The Scottish Parliament has those devolved powers, and there is nothing to stop the Government of Scotland tomorrow morning doing even more on a whole range of issues to support the covenant.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) pointed out the excellent report produced by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), “Living in our Shoes”—an extremely good piece of work. As Secretary of State for Defence, I have not only listened to and read the reports from my colleagues and from Select Committees on issues such as protecting veterans and legacy, but have made sure that the Department does not put those reports on the shelf and ignore them. I believe that many of our colleagues have some of the best ideas, and throughout the conduct of this Bill, I assure the House that the Government will be open to suggestions about how to improve it. Everyone in the Government will be interested in doing that, because we all have that interest at heart.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) and many others raised the issue of Northern Ireland veterans. I refer him to the written ministerial statement on 18 March by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and add that we are all keen to get the legacy over the line as well. My hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) gave us an insight into what it means to be a commanding officer, having to discipline soldiers and balance military discipline with the needs of the unit, sometimes on operations—that experience is unique. My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) referred to his experiences as a magistrate in the civilian world. I have sat on a court martial in the military world—before the reforms—but the military world and the civil world are different, so that is a unique experience.
The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire talked about why it is always the military that is called upon to do the resilience. The fundamental reason is how we are trained: it is the pressure, the different discipline and structure, and often the difference between life and death in operations. There is no need to always replicate that across society. It is a unique experience—a unique set of circumstances—because only we in the armed forces are called upon to kill or be killed. It is a unique thing, one that we often take with us for the rest of our lives, and that is why we provide resilience at pace in anything from a pandemic to flooding and snowstorms. That will always continue, because that is the very nature of why our armed forces are special, and we must make sure we protect that special nature. At the same time, we must modernise welfare and aftercare for our troops, but the military is different, and will always be different.
That is why when it comes to co-jurisdiction, there is the obvious difficulty around murder, manslaughter, rape and other offences, but there are many serious offences. There is attempted murder; there is grievous bodily harm; there is armed robbery. Why is it okay for those offences to remain in a service system, but it is recommended that three other offences be potentially removed into a civil system? It is perfectly legitimate to argue against the concept of service justice, although I would disagree, but if we accept that there is such a concept, where we draw the line has to balance the needs of the victim with those of the accused. That is why I think the solution we came up with, which was not the Lyons recommendation of Attorney General consent—which can happen behind closed doors—but consent based on an open and transparent protocol that will be decided between the Crown Prosecution Service and the service justice fraternity, was the right one.
I will just make one other point on this topic, because a number of colleagues make this mistake: the service justice system is independent. I do not appoint the judge advocate; I do not appoint the judges; I do not interfere with the police and the justice system, in the same way that the Home Secretary or the Lord Chancellor do. It is independent. People seem to think that it is all cosy because we are in the armed forces, and that we sit around and choose who to prosecute and who not to prosecute. We do not. Yes, the service justice system and the quality of investigations have been found wanting over many years. That is why we commissioned the Lyons report, and it is why Sir Richard Henriques has been commissioned to increase the assurance, because that is the best way to make sure we do not constantly get taken to court under article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and to ensure that people are not dragged through the courts. We will continue to do that.
The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) talked about the need for the 16-year-olds. In response to his question, I urge him to visit the Army Foundation College in Harrogate—I will happily make that possible.
All I will say in conclusion is that at their heart, our armed forces are about the people. Over the next few months, we will have debates about equipment, integrated reviews, and which service wins over which—which regiments do and do not—but in the end, if we do not invest in our people, we will not have anything for the future of our armed forces.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Armed Forces Bill (Programme)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Armed Forces Bill:
(1) The Bill shall be committed to a Select Committee.
(2) The Select Committee shall report the Bill to the House on or before 29 April 2021.
Committee of the whole House, Consideration and Third Reading
(3) On report from the Select Committee, the Bill shall be re-committed to a Committee of the whole House.
(4) Proceedings in Committee of the whole House on recommittal, any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings on Third Reading shall be taken in one day in accordance with the following provisions of this Order.
(5) Proceedings in Committee of the whole House and any proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which proceedings in Committee of the whole House are commenced.
(6) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.
(7) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings in Committee of the whole House, to any proceedings on Consideration or to proceedings on Third Reading.
(8) Any other proceedings on the Bill may be programmed.—(Rebecca Harris.)
Question agreed to.
Armed Forces Bill (Money)
Queen’s recommendation signified.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)),
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Armed Forces Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable under any other Act out of money so provided.—(Rebecca Harris.)
Question agreed to.
Armed Forces Bill (Carry-Over)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 80A(1)(a)),
That if, at the conclusion of this Session of Parliament, proceedings on the Armed Forces Bill have not been completed, they shall be resumed in the next Session.—(Rebecca Harris.)
Question agreed to.
Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 9(6)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill:
(1) The Committee shall have 16 members, to be nominated by the Committee of Selection.
(2) The Committee shall have power—
(a) to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, to adjourn from place to place and to report from day to day the minutes of evidence taken before it;
(b) to admit the public during the examination of witnesses and during consideration of the Bill (but not otherwise); and
(c) to appoint specialist advisers either to supply information not readily available or to elucidate matters of complexity relating to the provisions of the Bill.
(3) The Order of the House of 24 March 2020 (Select Committees (Participation and Reporting) (Temporary Order)) shall apply to the Committee as if it had the power to report from time to time.—(Rebecca Harris.)
Question agreed to.