All Carolyn Harris contributions to the Armed Forces Bill 2021-22

Mon 8th February 2021
Armed Forces Bill
Commons Chamber

2nd reading
2nd reading: House of Commons
2nd reading
Cabinet Office
3 interactions (556 words)

Armed Forces Bill

(2nd reading)
Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Monday 8th February 2021

(8 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Bill Main Page
Cabinet Office
Virginia Crosbie Portrait Virginia Crosbie (Ynys Môn) (Con) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab) [V]
- Hansard - -

May I add my thanks to all our armed forces personnel for everything they do and for the sacrifices they make to keep the rest of us safe? Today, I want to touch on what we can do to keep them safe outside their jobs and when they leave service.

A King’s College London study five years ago confirmed that there were in excess of 70,000 veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Now, mid-pandemic, that number will likely be higher, and there just are not the resources to get adequate help for all those individuals. The sad statistics show the blunt reality of what our service personnel face. More Falklands veterans have committed suicide since the conflict than those who lost their lives during it. Mental health issues can affect service personnel and veterans just as much as physical injuries, leading to unemployment, homelessness, social deprivation and addiction.

Gambling addiction is on the increase in the armed forces. One of the biggest challenges that those in the military face is getting that addiction recognised, as it is often seen as a weakness. To date, it is an offence to borrow money in the forces, but we know from the volume of case studies that every single week, disordered gamblers borrow money and will steal to fund their addiction. For those leaving service, it is evident that there is a worrying lack of support. Many find the transition back to civilian life very difficult, and mental health support falls far short, resulting in veterans being up to four times more likely than any other cohort to experience gambling-related harm.

With over 10,000 veterans thought to be suffering from or at risk of gambling-related harm, more really needs to be done to address the causes. Gambling becomes a coping mechanism, blocking out the anxiety, the anger and the loneliness. With an industry ready to prey on these vulnerable individuals, we need far better regulation to provide protection, if not through this Bill, then through other forms of legislation.

In addition to this Bill, I ask the Defence Secretary to please work with his colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport as they undertake the long-awaited gambling review. That review is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ensure that gambling legislation in this country is both robust and future-proof. We have to get this right. The review needs to look not just at the industry but at its customers, and particularly at the cohorts, such as our armed forces and veterans, who are most vulnerable to harm.

Our armed forces serve to protect all of us and, in turn, it is our duty to protect them from associated public and mental health issues, of which addiction is one of the most isolating. We owe a real, huge debt of gratitude to every serving member of our armed forces and to all veterans, but thanks and accolades are not enough. There is so much more we need to be doing to help these heroes, many of whom suffer in silence after witnessing things the rest of us cannot even imagine. In truth, the scope of this Bill is too limited. Social care, pensions, compensation, employment and benefits are all excluded and, while it focuses on healthcare, mental health is, sadly, lacking. The answer to what we are doing with this Bill is, sadly, very little.

James Wild Portrait James Wild (North West Norfolk) (Con) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.