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By Dr Adrian James
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Defence minister Leo Docherty: "Northern Ireland is complicated. If it was easy, we would have done it already"

Defence minister Leo Docherty: 'Northern Ireland is complicated. If it was easy, we would have done it already'

L-R Brigadier Jock Fraser of the Royal Marines introduces Simon Hart MP, Wales secretary, and Leo Docherty MP, defence minister, to members of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines at HMS Cambria, Cardiff | All images credit: UK Government/Ministry of Defence/Dave Jenkins

13 min read

Leo Docherty, former army captain and minister for defence people and veterans, is bristling with energy and ideas for the armed forces. If only he can figure out who’s going to pay for the Royal Yacht replacement. Georgina Bailey joins him on a trip to Cardiff to see them in action

“Ha! No comment, literally no idea,” minister for defence people and veterans Leo Docherty says. I’ve just asked him about a story that the £200m costs of the new (not-Royal) yacht are going to be met by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) – despite it being a trade ship and there currently being a £16bn hole in the MoD’s budget. 

“Discussions are ongoing,” one of the staffers in the room intervenes. 

If the report is correct and the full costs are going to be met by the MOD, is that the right use of money? 

“No idea. I don't think I can get drawn into that. It's not useful for me to get into that,” Docherty says, laughing heartily. 

It is 5.15pm on Monday 21 June and we’re sitting in the boardroom at HMS Cambria, the Royal Navy’s new £11m reserve training centre in Cardiff. Earlier that day, the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesperson (PMOS) briefed the Lobby the MOD would meet the full costs for the new national flagship. Two hours later, I’m told the spokesperson had got it wrong, and is meant to be correcting the record: sole MOD funding is one of the options one the table, but no decision has been made yet – views in No 10 are mixed, but it is ultimately the Prime Minister’s decision.

The next day at lunchtime, the PMOS officially backpedals: while the MOD will be responsible for the initial cost of taking the flagship through the procurement process, the government hasn't set out the source of full funding for the rest of the project.

By Wednesday lunchtime, defence minister Baroness Goldie is telling the House of Lords: "The MOD will be responsible for the initial cost of taking the flagship though the procurement process but the source of government funding for the rest of the project is still to be determined." Less than three hours later defence secretary Ben Wallace has confirmed to the Defence Select Committee that the MOD is indeed funding the whole flagship.

While it is not Docherty’s fault, it is hardly a glaring success for government communications around the controversial flagship – and the whole farrago speaks to critics’ claims that No 10 is writing cheques its spending departments are unable to cash. 

Meanwhile, Docherty keeps busy. I had been warned about his high energy levels – the 44-year-old never takes the lift up the multiple floors to his office in the MOD, preferring the stairs – and the day in Wales runs at a gallop. Everyone he meets gets a few direct questions, before a big thumbs up and a “good job!”. “I was most impressed, actually,” he tells me at the end of the day, “That's why this job is great, because you basically go around meeting completely awesome people like that.”

It has been a full programme, with a visit to a Job Centre Plus to launch a network of 50 Armed Forces Champions across England and Wales with the minister for welfare delivery, Will Quince, before a stream of joint meetings with Wales secretary Simon Hart on plans for a Veterans Commissioner for Wales (currently the only UK nation not to have one).

Hart and Docherty meet with representatives of Hafal, Adferiad, VC Gallery, Valley Veterans, and Change Step charities and the local Armed Forces Liaison Officer in Cardiff

Docherty is particularly taken with Abby, a local Armed Forces Liaison Officer and Veterans Adviser across the Vale of Glamorgan and Cardiff, who works as the point of contact between soon-to-be service leavers and veterans and the local authorities. The local charities we meet, nearly all run by veterans, are in constant contact with her and each other to get support and signpost people to help. 

“Provision for support and care of veterans will always be quite a complex landscape, but the theme that runs through all of this provision, and what basically makes it work, is really committed people at the coalface,” Docherty says. “Clearly it's our job in central government to give them the resources and empower them as much as we can… and it's those people that have the credibility and deep knowledge to really effectively engage with individuals, [who can best] help those individuals navigate their way through whatever challenge it may be.”

The afternoon is a tour of the newly completed HMS Cambria, which includes a drill demonstration from a 42 Commando who shimmies across a 15ft rope course, before pulling himself up 30ft in the air, all while carrying a 21lb kit and 10lb rifle. He barely has time to catch his breath before he is answering questions from the ministers.

There is also a lesson in teamwork from 11 and 12-year-old cadets, who have to use three carpet tiles to get teams of two across the room without touching the floor. Hart and Docherty muse on who in Cabinet they would want on their team: “Rishi [Sunak] is fit but has got short arms,” Docherty says. “Kwasi [Kwarteng] would be good, but would lose focus halfway through,’ Hart adds.  

Royal Navy Cadets from Fitzallen High School demonstrate teamwork exercises for Docherty

As a former Captain in the Scots Guards and MP for Aldershot, home of the British Army, since 2017, Docherty is well-versed in the lingo of those he meets with, and in nearly every conversation refers back to the next stage of the Armed Forces Bill, which he’ll be taking through the Committee of the Whole House two days later. 

Hopefully it will be less dramatic than the consideration of Lords’ amendments to Overseas Operation Bill in April, where Docherty only had an evening to prepare after his predecessor, Johnny Mercer, either was fired or resigned (depending on who you believe) due to his frustration at a lack of progress on protecting British soldiers from legacy investigations into the Troubles in Northern Ireland. 

The Conservative 2019 manifesto included a pledge to “introduce new legislation to tackle the vexatious legal claims that undermine our Armed Forces”. So far, the legislation bought forward by the government specifically doesn’t cover claims against soldiers who served in Operation Banner, the 37-year deployment of British armed forces in Northern Ireland over the course of the Troubles. In recent years, six former military personnel have been charged with offences relating to the Troubles.

Despite promises from government in April and May to bring forward legislation, Docherty won’t be drawn on a timeline. Much of the political oxygen in Northern Ireland is currently taken up by unease over post-Brexit trade barriers with the rest of the UK, and a revolving door of DUP leaders. There is currently no first minister or deputy first minister in the province, and Docherty says that, while the government is working with urgency, the delay is due to “the domestic pressure on Northern Irish politics because of the Protocol and challenges faced by Stormont”

Since leaving the government, Mercer has made a number of incendiary claims about the government’s work on Operation Banner veterans, including that the Prime Minister “repeatedly lied” about his commitment to protecting them with legislation.

“Yeah, that's simply not true,” Docherty says of the latter point. 

“My approach is different [to Mercer’s]. We are absolutely committed to delivering for our veterans of Operation Banner,” he says. “The Prime Minister has been clear; we will deliver this. It is complicated. Northern Ireland is complicated. If it was easy, we would have done it already. But we are committed to it, and in due course, I'm absolutely confident that [legislation] will come forward.”

Our main global adversaries, Russia and China have been developing their military capabilities at a blistering pace. We've got a lot of catching up to do

While most of the recent media attention has been on the veterans part of the brief, Docherty is looking to make the armed forces a more attractive career for those currently serving and new recruits. But with only 45 per cent of personnel saying they’re content with service life, down from a high of 61 per cent in 2009, what is his strategy?

“It is a constant effort,” Docherty says, including improvements to accommodation and family life, a wraparound childcare pilot, the chance to upskill and careers advice for transition, increased opportunity to serve abroad, and a variety of jobs within the service. “Overall, I hope that people feel that it's an exciting and rewarding time to be in the armed forces.”

Docherty, who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, the latter of which he was highly critical of, is clearly excited about the opportunities ahead for UK defence. “We're rebuilding our military as an institution that will be capable of fighting peer to peer with the threats that are real, globally. While we have been somewhat distracted in Iraq or Afghanistan following 9/11, our main global adversaries, Russia, China, have been developing their military capabilities at a blistering pace. We've got a lot of catching up to do,” he says, pointing to developments in cyber warfare, the use of drone technology, robotics and AI.

He gets visibly more excited as he discusses the integrated review and Defence Command Paper – plus the £24bn in extra funding. 

“It's a time of great change,” he says. “But what will not change is the fact that our people will be at the heart of it. So having great people in the military, that is the one timeless ingredient. And that's what makes this job completely brilliant fun.” 

While Docherty pays tribute to the “completely awesome” members of the military, the picture isn’t always so rosy on the ground. On the finding from the Armed Forces Continuous Attitudes Survey that only 48 per cent of personnel think their service has fulfilled its commitment to them, he is emphatic, bulging his eyes for emphasis as he talks: “That's not good enough. We need to get it going up. So let's track that, I'm confident that it is going to be going up.”

I think people will say, ‘it's not just about the money’. People will want to join the cyber force because of the opportunity to serve our nation

In line with all public services apart from the NHS, armed forces pay has been frozen for 2021/22 (although Docherty expects the lowest paid to get a £250 uplift). How does this match with his commitment to first class pay, when 42 per cent of personnel do not believe their pay and benefits are fair?

“We're in the process of conducting a review of all pay and remuneration. What you've got to bear in mind is the whole offer. Things like subsidised accommodation, affordable food, other benefits of the role, like Forces Help to Buy for example,” Docherty says. While he says there should be bonuses for areas that are highly paid on “civvie street,” such as cyber security, “we need to encourage a culture of service. I think people will say, ‘it's not just about the money’. People will want to join the cyber force because of the opportunity to serve our nation.”

Docherty also wants to ensure that the provision for armed forces and veterans is a level playing field across the country – hence some of the measures in the Armed Forces Bill, and the work with Simon Hart on securing a Veterans Commissioner for Wales. 

Commander Carolyn Jones, commanding officer of HMS Cambria, briefs Docherty

The bill contains a new duty of due regard for all local authorities to consider the Armed Forces Covenant in housing, healthcare, and education, ensuring no service person or veteran is disadvantaged because of their service. Although all local authorities in Great Britain have already signed up to the Covenant voluntarily, the bill contains guidance on what Docherty calls the “gold standard” in local authority practice, and some statutory teeth. 

There has been some criticism that by focusing on housing, healthcare and education, the bill will create a two-tier system of services, and risks areas like social care, pensions, employment and immigration being downgraded.

However, Docherty says the bill is designed to focus on the essentials, describing housing, health care and education as “the pillars that support a stable life for veterans or service people in a local community,” as well as the most frequent areas of frustration. “If the bill was far too wide, I think it would lose that potency,” he says, adding that there is scope for more areas to be covered in the future.

Another criticism of the bill is that it has not brought forward one of the main recommendations from HH Shaun Lyon’s review of the Service Justice System, regarding jurisdiction. Currently, when an individual subject to service law commits an offence in the United Kingdom, they may be tried either in the service justice system or the civilian criminal justice system. However, Lyon concluded that for the most serious crimes (murder, manslaughter, rape), such cases should be heard in the civilian criminal justice system, and should only be prosecuted at Court Martial with the consent of the Attorney General. So why wasn’t this included?

With service people, there's less drunken night out-type stuff. The people who want to accuse and progress cases are, probably, more reliable witnesses

“We believe that it's not necessarily the case that these cases would always be dealt with in a better fashion in the civilian context,” says Docherty. “Let’s imagine In a case involving serving personnel, in the case of serious crime, it might well be better for them to stay in their current employment for the duration of the case, rather than have to stop their job effectively in order for that case to be dealt with in civilian life. So it's really to do with the agility of the service justice system. And that agility actually leads to a more supportive process for the people involved in the case.”

Docherty says the military “has fewer spurious cases. What happens in the civilian world, you [may] get 1,000 cases, but only 200 are taken forward. We have a smaller number [of cases], but our progression rate is much higher. That's because the people you're dealing with, service people, there's less drunken night out-type stuff. The people who want to accuse and progress cases are, probably, more reliable witnesses.”

He is confident the government’s approach is the right one, with cases able to progress faster in service justice than in the civilian world. However, Docherty admits there is a need to “tighten it up,” and so the bill includes a requirement for the Director of Service Prosecutions to agree new protocols on matters of jurisdiction with their civilian counterparts.

After we say goodbye and most of his team head home, Docherty gets in the car to go on to St Athan, an RAF base in the Vale of Glamorgan. Still full of smiles and an elbow bump for everyone he meets, it seems the energiser bunny minister isn’t done yet.

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