The armed forces have risen magnificently to Covid - Parliament mustn't waste this opportunity to repay them
As the Armed Forces Bill weaves its way through Parliament, MPs must make the most of this vital opportunity to reflect on the strengths and needs of our armed forces by ensuring that this new legislation is fit for purpose
For the last couple of months, I have been privileged to chair the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill. This unique committee, set up every five years as the Armed Forces Bill passes through Parliament, is technically a select committee, with the power to summon witnesses and hear evidence, but also acts akin to a public bill committee by scrutinising the legislation line-by-line. Our final repor broadly supports the provisions in the bill to further incorporate the armed forces covenant into law. We do, however, highlight concerns that were put to us over the ambiguities in the bill, and the potential that current legislation will create geographical inconsistencies or even a two-tier Covenant.
At the heart of the bill is the highly successful principle: the Covenant, which has already been signed by multiple councils, businesses and public stakeholders right across the UK. This is the Government’s commitment to honouring the armed forces and the countless sacrifices made by service personnel in the line of duty. This pledge, conceived more than a decade ago to provide for and protect the armed forces, compels the government to tackle the most pressing issues facing service personnel, such as their physical and mental health, employment, accommodation, and their legal representation. The Covenant consists of two foundational principles; namely that there should be no disadvantages as a result of military service, and that special consideration should be afforded when appropriate, particularly for those who are injured or bereaved. Since its inception, there have been calls to strengthen this pledge in law, with some even criticising the current legislation.
In its extant form, the Covenant includes a range of ever-changing policy areas, such as health, housing, employment, pensions, compensation, social care, education, criminal justice, and immigration. Recent debate amongst policy makers, local authorities, military charities and other stakeholders has centred upon what is deliverable in statute, and so the current bill covers only certain aspects of health, housing, and education. During our inquiry, we heard that this approach risks creating local variations, whereby certain policy areas are considered lower priority in comparison to others.
Covid-19 pandemic has served to highlight the tremendous sacrifices our armed forces make
But this isn’t the only potential for inconsistency. Members of the armed forces are spread across the UK, accessing public services through national, devolved, regional and local bodies. Opponents therefore say the bill largely applies to local government and fails to hold national government and the devolved administrations to the same legal standard. As yet, there is no published detail on how the government will guarantee equity for service personnel accessing public services and it runs the risk of creating a postcode lottery, depending on the individual commitment being made by local councils, health and education providers. To ensure that this does not happen, the government must make itself accountable and commit to post-legislative scrutiny, and our report today recommends continuous follow up in order to monitor the success of the bill.
We are also a year on from the Service Justice System Review. Otherwise known as the Lyons Review, this was a comprehensive, independent policy evaluation that recommended further reform of our approach to military justice and complaints. Reassuringly, the Armed Forces Bill will implement many of these endorsements, such as changing the constitution of court martial boards, allowing independent oversight of the service police, increasing the powers of commanding officers and permitting mistakes to be more easily rectified in law. These policy recommendations have been broadly welcomed by the military community and it is right that the Ministry of Defence should keep hold of this unique service justice system in a way that might not have been possible through continued membership of the European Union. However, our inquiry recognised the legitimate concerns around the decision to not try the most serious crimes in civilian court only. The Committee urges the government to accelerate work on the Defence Serious Crime Capability, an initiative which should enhance the investigative capabilities of the service police, to ensure that the most severe crimes are investigated effectively and that robust decisions on jurisdiction are made.
The Covid-19 pandemic has again served to highlight the tremendous sacrifices our armed forces make, and it is essential that Parliament is always fighting their corner. In terms of the Committee’s vital contribution to this process, we were keen to amplify the voices of those with recent on-the-ground experience, as well as policy experts, so that we get the legislation right. Given too that our service personnel will always rise to the tough challenges set by the government, it is even more important that politicians of all parties robustly step up to support them. Parliament must not therefore waste this opportunity to be a force for good and to do the right thing.
James Sunderland is chair of the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill