Ministers must listen to service community concerns on the Armed Forces Bill
The Armed Forces Bill Select Committee publishes its report today following a month-long inquiry. While cross-party colleagues and I have welcomed the broad intent of the bill, its shortcomings risk undermining the government’s lofty promises to our service communities.
Evidence from service charities has reinforced Labour’s concerns that the bill is too narrow and too weak. Its provisions will not apply to government departments, including the Ministry of Defence, and its narrow focus on housing, health care and education, risks creating a "two-tier" Covenant that begins a race to the bottom on standards in those areas left out.
In practice, this means many long-standing problems facing armed forces, veterans and their families will remain unaddressed. Social care, pensions, employment and immigration were among the long list of areas witnesses told us will not be covered by this once-in-a-Parliament piece of legislation. Confederation of Service Charities Chair General Sir John McColl specifically highlighted the eyewatering visa fees that Commonwealth veterans face as an instance where the government’s current “moral requirement” to comply with the Covenant “absolutely does not work”.
The exclusion of the Ministry of Defence as a responsible public body also means the bill offers little to actively serving personnel, who have gone above and beyond to support our frontline response to the pandemic in the past year. The government will thank them by missing this crucial legislative opportunity to make long-overdue improvements to the standard of service housing and handing them another real-terms pay cut this year.
Ministers must not be allowed to shirk their responsibilities to our armed forces and must widen the scope of the bill to deliver all of the promises made in the Armed Forces Covenant.
The government also can not continue to ignore the Lyons Review recommendation that civilian courts should have full jurisdiction over murder, rape and serious sexual offences committed in the UK. In evidence to the Committee, Judge Lyons said he was “surprised” to find the most serious cases being tried in the service justice system and argued that this had not been Parliament’s original intent. The pressing need for change was reinforced by the Centre for Military Justice, which highlighted low levels of reporting of these offences, and a shamefully low conviction rate of just 10 per cent for rape cases tried under courts martial, compared to 59 per cent that reach civilian courts.
Ministers must not be allowed to shirk their responsibilities to our armed forces
Evidence from the survey of armed forces communities on the bill, included in the Committee’s workplan at Labour’s request, emphatically rejected proposals for reducing the time limits for appeals in service complaints cases from six weeks to two weeks. Almost half (48 per cent) said this would remove safeguards needed for fair treatment. Government claims that the change would speed up the complaints process were contradicted by former Service Complaints Ombudsman Nicola Williams, who explained that the delays were at the beginning of the process, not at appeal.
With informed input from across the sector and, importantly, service communities themselves, the Select Committee has made its recommendations. The government must now listen and act on these concerns when the bill returns to the House. Only then will it truly fulfil its manifesto promise to the armed forces, and stop taking their support for granted.
Labour will continue speaking up for our armed forces, veterans and their families, and ensure that the promises in the Covenant are delivered for all of the nation's service personnel. It is what the country expects.
Stephen Morgan is Labour MP for Portsmouth South and Shadow Armed Forces Minister