Armed Forces Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Carolyn HarrisMain Page: Carolyn Harris (Labour - Swansea East)
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It is an honour to speak in this important armed forces debate. One of the most significant changes that the Bill makes is to enshrine the armed forces covenant in law. The covenant was put in place 10 years ago to protect and support those who serve us as members of the armed forces. It is our very promise as a nation to ensure that those who serve or have served, and their families, are treated fairly.
Our armed forces defend and protect us, and we often think of them in the context of conflict overseas. However, in the past few months, we have seen at first hand the value of our servicemen and women, as they have built our field hospitals, carried out covid-19 testing and been part of the team vaccinating those at greatest risk. Only last week, a further 96 military personnel were detached to help with the vaccine roll-out here in Wales. Members of RAF Valley in my constituency of Ynys Môn have been assisting with testing across the UK.
Since its inception, over 6,000 businesses have signed up to the covenant, including Isle of Anglesey County Council and Môn Maintenance Services here in Holyhead, but once the Bill becomes legislation, the principles of the covenant will become a legal requirement. That will ensure equal treatment for our serving armed forces and for those who have left the services.
Our local poppy appeal co-ordinator, Piers Beeland, reminded me recently, “Don’t forget the veterans. We may be suffering genuine PTSD, long covid or live in substandard accommodation. Most of us were prepared not just to serve but to put our lives at risk to save others.” On behalf of all current and former servicemen and women, and particularly those in my constituency of Ynys Môn, I thank the Government for their work to create a country in which they can expect fair and equal treatment.
The defence of the realm is the first duty of Government, and this Bill provides the legal basis for the armed forces. In three years advising the then Defence Secretary, I had the privilege to meet many servicemen and women, at home and around the world, helping to keep Britain safe, and it is in recognition of their unique sacrifices and obligations that we have the armed forces covenant. This pledge from the nation commits to remove disadvantages arising from being a serving or former member of the armed forces, and to consider whether special provision is justified for those who have given the most.
I warmly welcome the new duty on public bodies to have due regard to the covenant’s principles when providing housing, education and healthcare. This is a very good start, and reflects the areas the Secretary of State is required to report on. However, the annual report typically covers a broader range of issues where personnel face disadvantage, including family life, criminal justice and employment, so I encourage the Government to broaden the scope in due course. I hope the Minister will reassure the Royal British Legion and others that the case for adding further areas is under active review.
While I support public bodies being subject to this duty, the Bill would be improved by including Government Departments, which determine policy, allocate resource or provide national guidance to other delivery bodies. I know how committed Ministers are to the armed forces covenant, and a legal duty would help ensure that it is properly adhered to. Clearly, it also needs to be enforceable, and judicial review is expensive and slow, so it would be helpful to clarify that the local government and social care ombudsman and other bodies will have responsibilities for enforcement.
During my time at the Ministry of Defence, I helped instigate the service justice review in 2017. I did so because I was concerned about the transparency, fairness and efficiency of the system and the impact on service personnel who have been let down. The Government have rightly accepted many of Shaun Lyons’s proposals to improve the system. However, I am concerned that they have not accepted his first recommendation that court martial jurisdiction should no longer include murder, manslaughter and rape when offences are committed in the UK, except with the consent of the Attorney General. That is the approach that other countries have adopted, including Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence People and Veterans for the discussion we have had on this issue, and I do think it would be helpful to send a clear message from the House that, as a general principle, civilian authority should take precedence for investigating and prosecuting those offences in the UK. This is about giving victims confidence to come forward, and also about public confidence. Another important step to improve confidence are the changes to bring the court martial system into line with the Crown court by introducing qualified majority voting where there are six lay members.
Finally, I was pleased to work on measures to enable part-time working for our armed forces. This Bill will allow reservists to benefit from the same flexible working provisions that regulars have to undertake full-time or part-time service. Churchill called reservists “twice the citizen”, and this is very much a welcome move. Our armed forces represent the best of us, and I am pleased to support the Bill, which will strengthen our commitment to their service.