We have a rare opportunity to ensure the Armed Forces Bill delivers the very best for our service personnel
The [Armed Forces] Bill should set measurable, enforceable, national standards, that central government is accountable for, writes Stephen Morgan MP. | PA Images
The unique legislative journey of the Armed Forces Bill gives us another chance to address issues such as pay, compensation and employment, where current deficiencies risk creating a race to the bottom on service standards.
The Armed Forces Bill is a missed opportunity to truly deliver for our service personnel, but its unusual legislative journey means that we have another chance to make improvements. Since 1961 this quinquennial Bill has established its own Select Committee, which considers the legislation before it passes through a committee of the whole House.
In practice, this quirk of parliamentary procedure means MPs can scrutinise this Bill to a much greater extent than most others. This is important not only because of its infrequency - coming once every five years - but also because it offers a rare opportunity to get the very best for our service personnel, families and veterans. Labour intends to make full use of this opportunity, working with colleagues on both sides of the House.
At Second Reading, I argued that the Bill was too narrow and too weak. While its focus on housing, healthcare and education is welcome, it doesn’t go far enough to truly deliver the promises of the Armed Forces Covenant in these areas. It leaves out issues like pay, compensation and employment, where service communities currently experience disadvantage. These deficiencies risk creating a ‘two tier’ covenant and a race to the bottom on service standards.
Mandating that public bodies should have ‘due regard’ for the Covenant is also unlikely to make any real impact on the day-to-day lives of service communities. Instead of lumping extra legal responsibilities on cash-strapped local authorities and other overstretched public bodies, the Bill should set measurable, enforceable, national standards, that central government is accountable for. Only then can we truly end the Armed Forces Covenant postcode lottery.
We will challenge the government to make sure it delivers the promises of the Armed Forces Covenant in full
The Bill’s proposals on the service justice system fall far short of what Ministers promised. While there are welcome efforts to implement the findings of the Lyons review, Ministers have ignored the former Crown Court judge’s recommendation that civilian courts should have full jurisdiction over murder, rape and serious sexual offences committed in the UK. With a conviction rate of just 10% for rape in the service justice system, moving the most serious offences to civilian courts would improve access to justice.
Most concerningly, this legislation does nothing to deliver on Minister’s promises to put right the flawed investigations process they introduced through the Overseas Operations Bill. This dereliction of duty will continue to leave members of the armed forces who have served with courage and distinction vulnerable to the trauma of long-running, vexatious investigations.
Finally, the Bill fails to rectify the shameful treatment of Commonwealth veterans, who are having to pay visa costs of almost £10,000 to live in Britain following their service. Charities including the Royal British Legion have consistently raised this issue since 2016, which pushes those who have served into debt and poverty. It must be put right.
The same can be said of the 300 widows who had remarried or cohabitated between 1973 and 2005 and therefore cannot access their War Widows Pension. The Defence Committee has called this a ‘grotesque injustice’ and it must be addressed.
In addition to ongoing efforts to make our country and the world a safer place, our Armed Forces are doing vital work to support the frontline in tackling the pandemic. Meanwhile, we will never lose sight of the debt we owe to those veterans who have served and sacrificed in conflicts past.
Labour stands firmly behind our Armed Forces, and welcomes the aim of this Bill, but we will challenge the government to make sure it delivers the promises of the Armed Forces Covenant in full for every member of our armed forces, veterans and their families.
Stephen Morgan is the Labour MP for Portsmouth South and Shadow Armed Forces Minister.