James Sunderland is MP for Bracknell.
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. As Chair of the newly formed Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, I look forward to supporting my colleagues in Westminster as a critical friend, spearheading scrutiny and advocating for our military personnel and service families wherever they may be.
The Armed Forces Bill is a procedural anomaly harking back to the 1689 Bill of Rights. Every five years, the Bill must pass through Parliament, thereby renewing the Armed Forces Act in statute and enabling the maintenance of standing forces in peacetime. Since 1961, the Bill has led to the creation of a unique hybrid committee, technically a select committee, with the power to summon witnesses and hear evidence, but also acting as a public bill committee by scrutinising the legislation line-by-line. Not only is the Bill essential to retaining and resourcing our Armed Forces, but it has come to serve as a ‘checkpoint’ for what works, what doesn’t and for what is needed in statute.
At the heart of the Bill is the highly successful Armed Forces Covenant, which has already been signed by countless 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 over 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 extant legislation.
In its accepted form, the Covenant includes a range of ever-changing policy areas, including 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 so the current Bill only covers certain aspects of health, housing, and education. Some argue that this approach risks creating a two-tier Covenant, one in which certain policy areas are considered lower priority in comparison to others.
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 that 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.
However, the Bill will set primary legislation for how this will be practically delivered and this long-standing promise to integrate the Covenant into law should be warmly embraced. It is the job of the Bill Committee to provide the necessary scrutiny so providing that the Ministry of Defence shows the necessary leg and goodwill, I am confident that this commitment will be honoured and that the faith of the Armed Forces in Government will be ably repaid.
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 of course that the MOD should keep hold of this unique service justice system in a way that might not have been possible through continued membership of the EU. Through our inquiry, the Committee will also ask what the rationale is for implementing some of the recommendations, but not others. A notable exception is why the legislation does not answer calls to try the most serious crimes in a civilian court only but there will be good reasons why the Government seeks to maintain the autonomy of the armed forces.
This indeed is a pivotal moment for defence. The ongoing delay to the Integrated Review, the announcement last year of historic increases to defence spending and rumoured cuts to troop numbers, all paint a picture of an organisation in flux. But of course, this is exactly what the Ministry of Defence is – an organisation which is rightly and impressively on the move. The Armed Forces Bill therefore provides a timely opportunity for the Government to send a clear message of commitment to all service personnel, and to instigate the very reform requested by the Department itself.
Finally, the pandemic has again served to highlight the tremendous sacrifices that 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 are 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 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.