Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)
My Lords, from these Benches as from the Opposition Benches, I support this Bill. As we have already heard, this is the once-every-five-years Armed Forces Bill, following very swiftly on from the annual Bill to ensure that the Armed Forces continue and quite swiftly on from the overseas operations Bill. In recent weeks and months, we have therefore had the opportunity to talk quite frequently about the Armed Forces and as much about our duties to them as about theirs to our country.
I welcome this Bill and certain aspects of it in particular, but as many noble Lords have pointed out, there are some aspects which could go further and some aspects on which we will certainly move amendments. Some will be probing and others very much will not be—they will seek to change the Bill.
While this is in many ways a welcome Bill, which clearly has support across the Chamber—with the partial exception of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, who had a few more caveats than the rest of us—there are two areas where we will want significant change. The first is service justice and a change to Clause 7, while the other is aspects of the Armed Forces covenant.
I do not propose to rehearse the comments made by my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford; the reason I asked him to open for the Liberal Democrat Benches was because I knew that he had the expertise to talk about military justice that I absolutely do not. Please take it as read that I am in complete agreement with everything he said, and that is very much the Liberal Democrat position. Any amendment that my noble friend proposes we will support, but that very much fits with comments that we heard from across the Chamber, including from the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup.
There are questions about why one aspect of the Lyons review was not brought into this Bill. If the Minister is unable to give satisfactory responses on why military justice should differ from civil justice in the areas of rape, murder and manslaughter, a series of amendments will be brought forward. Whether that is in the form of the inquiry proposed by the noble Lord on the Labour Benches or of a series of explicit amendments, something needs to be done to ensure that everybody receives justice—the women who, as my noble friend Lord Thomas pointed out, currently do not receive justice or the service people against whom the allegations are brought. If incorrect or poor decisions are made, that clearly is not right either for the perpetrator or for those against whom offences are committed. We need to ensure that justice is brought for everybody.
I want to talk in particular about Clause 8 and the Armed Forces covenant. Before I do, I pay tribute in his absence to the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, and the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for their efforts on posthumous pardons. We obviously welcome Clause 18 and will listen to the amendments that they will bring forward.
A key part of this Bill, and where it differs from previous Armed Forces Bills, is the focus on the Armed Forces covenant; all Members are committed to it but there appear to be questions about how far it goes. It is obviously welcome that it is being put on a statutory footing, but what good does that do? As the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, implied, there are no clear legal implications from the duty to have due regard in the areas of health, education and housing. Can the Minister tell the House what that might mean in practical terms?
The phrase “due regard” sounds good and legalistic, but what does it mean in practice? We can say to service personnel who are looking to their future, “It’s fine. The Armed Forces covenant is enshrined in law. The local authority will have to give due regard”. However, if the local authority says, “We have no funds—we can’t make any difference. We’ve paid due regard, but the Covid crisis has left us almost bankrupt. We can’t do anything”, what will central government do about that? I say as somebody who was on Cambridge City Council as a portfolio holder, including for customer services and resources for some years, that there is a tendency for Governments of whatever political persuasion to give duties to local authorities. They may give a small amount of money, but it never covers the cost of what is required.
The areas in the Bill on the Armed Forces covenant are very much ones where local authorities are already under pressure. What will the Government do to ensure that local authorities and public health bodies will be able to do anything more than pay lip service to the duty to have due regard to health, education and housing? As the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, pointed out, veteran homelessness is a significant issue. What support will local authorities be given to deal with that aspect of the covenant? A lot more work needs to be done in the Bill on those areas, and I propose to table amendments on the financial aspects.
However, as several other noble Lords have pointed out, we see the duty to have due regard only at the local level, not at the national level. What assessment have the Government made of creating a duty for themselves to pay due regard to the Armed Forces covenant? Are there particular departments of state that could be looking at the Armed Forces covenant? Should those educational duties be on local education authorities or should the Department for Education be doing something? What is happening at the UK level? What should be happening at the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland levels?
In addition to the aspects on the face of the Bill, like my noble friend Lady Brinton I raise the issue of PTSD—a very particular aspect of the health, particularly mental health, areas of the Armed Forces covenant. This puts it very much in the context that the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, talked about in his opening remarks, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. This Bill must be seen in context. We can see that context in a general way or a very specific one. The general way is, as the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, sought to do—to say that this has been a military disaster and that we in the West are being laughed at. There is a case for looking at the UK’s role in Afghanistan and our role with NATO, but I do not believe that that is for this debate or this Bill. There are lessons to be learned, but they are not issues that we can deal with in this Bill.
What we can do is think about the veterans of Op Herrick and Op Pitting and the service men and women who have been involved, because we have a duty to all of them. As my noble friend Lady Brinton pointed out, the danger is that recent events in Afghanistan are triggering our service veterans, who have in many cases been on several tours of duty there. Can the Government commit to putting more resources into ensuring that PTSD can be treated, and that veterans and current service personnel can be looked after as quickly as possible?
I have no service background, but in the last three weeks I have talked to people who have been involved with the UN, the British Council and our Armed Forces. Talking to people with hands-on, personal experience of those who are currently at risk in Afghanistan is incredibly moving because they are so concerned about the people now at risk of losing their lives—people they have worked alongside and who have worked for them. They feel a personal responsibility, in the way that we as a country and the Government, as responsible for the Armed Forces, all have a duty to the service personnel, as well as to those we are evacuating from Afghanistan.
My final plea is for the Government to think about extending the Armed Forces covenant to those who have come out of Afghanistan under ARAP, and maybe even those who come through the second tier. If that is to be done, I make a further plea on financing. We have already heard the impassioned pleas from my noble friend Lady Garden about widows’ pensions—a very small number, but it would make a huge difference—but the Government have said they cannot do things retrospectively. We have also heard impassioned speeches from the noble Lords, Lord Dannatt and Lord Bilimoria, about the Gurkhas. If we have not been able to look after those people, we will not be able to look after those who will come from Afghanistan, unless we put the resources in. Could the MoD please think about that? If we do not do that, Operation Warm Welcome will be merely warm words and will not deliver. We owe it to our service men and women, and to those whom we are liberating and bringing back from Afghanistan, to ensure that we give them the warmest of welcomes. We must honour our service personnel, as we all owe them a great debt.