Select Committee on Defence Fourteenth Report


Letter from the Chairman to the Secretary of State for Defence

The Defence Committee has maintained an interest in the progress of the Armed Forces Bill for several years. As you may be aware, in the previous Parliament the Ministry of Defence provided the Committee with regular updates on the progress of the legislation.

As the Bill proceeds through the legislative process and then toward implementation, we would wish to maintain the opportunity to follow developments, and in particular the progress of statutory instruments made under the legislation which will contain much of the important detail. Given the relatively short periods of time often available for consideration of secondary legislation once it is laid before Parliament, we would appreciate the opportunity to see draft secondary legislation before it is laid, with the accompanying explanatory memoranda. In addition, we would appreciate updates on the progress towards implementation of the legislation.

We are particularly interested in the proposals for independence in the complaints mechanism. It would be helpful if we could be kept closely informed of developing policy.

15 September 2006

Letter from the Secretary of State for Defence to the Chairman

Thank you for your letter of 15 September 2006. I very much welcome your proposal for the Committee to maintain a continued interest in the Armed Forces Bill as we move toward its implementation.

I agree that it is important that the Committee has ample time to consider the key statutory instruments and explanatory memoranda. I am happy to undertake to let you have copies of these in draft in sufficient time before being laid before Parliament.

In addition, we will provide an annual report on more general progress towards Bill implementation. It might be of most value to do this in advance of the Continuation Order Debate which we envisage will, as now, be before the summer recess each year. We will, of course, expect to keep the Committee abreast of any significant developments as they occur.

I note your particular interest in the proposals for the complaints process. We have now tabled our amendments to the Armed Forces Bill to provide for a Service Complaints Commissioner, which we announced would be forthcoming in our response to the report of the Deepcut Review by Nicholas Blake QC.

These amendments will be considered at Committee stage in the Lords scheduled for 11 and 12 October. I thought it would be helpful to provide some detail about the Government amendments ahead of those debates.

You will recall that on 13 June the Government published its response to the report of the Deepcut Review by Nicholas Blake QC and that a statement was made in the House of Commons on our intention to introduce a Service Complaints Commissioner. The amendment will provide that, in addition to reviewing the fairness and effectiveness of the military complaints system, the Commissioner will have the power to refer allegations of certain types of wrongdoing against members of the Services to an officer (usually the commanding officer of the alleged victim). That officer will have a duty to inform the alleged victim about the allegation and find out whether he wants to make a complaint about the alleged wrong. The officer will also ensure that the alleged victim knows about how to make a service complaint and about any time limits under the legislation.

The allegations must be made in a communication to the Commissioner. They may be made by anyone, such as a friend of the alleged victim or member of the same family. Secondary legislation will also provide for the Commissioner to be informed about the progress and outcome of referred complaints. Critically, the Commissioner will have direct access to Ministers and the amendment will also require the Commissioner to provide the Secretary of State with an annual report to be laid before Parliament.

Secondary legislation will also define the types of allegation to which these provisions will apply, so that they cover ones related to discrimination, bullying, harassment or other forms of improper behaviour. These are the same circumstances as those in which an independent member of the Service complaints panel will be required. I envisage that this will be one of the statutory instruments that your Committee will be keen to see in draft.

Some of the detailed functions for a Commissioner, proposed by Nicholas Blake, could not be accepted. We do not think that the Commissioner should be able to intervene in the handling of a complaint, or to supervise the investigations of or response to a complaint. We think it essential that all complaints, whether introduced by the Commissioner or not, should operate under one system. Under that system, the aim is that complaints should, if possible, be resolved by the chain of command with reference, if necessary, to the service complaints panels. In complaints in which the Commissioner will have a role, there will be an independent member of the panel.

To do otherwise would risk undermining the chain of command and its overall responsibilities for the welfare of those under command. It would also undermine the role of the panel system. The Government amendment will seek to ensure that the Commissioner's role is complementary to, and independent of, the rest of the redress system.

Although not covered by Government amendments, you also expressed an interest in the workings of the service complaint panel, proposed in the Bill. In our considerations of complaint panels, we took as our starting point the need to maintain the service involvement, in the broadest sense, in remedying complaints. In some cases, however, the balance moves in favour of an independent element in that process; in particular where the need for transparency is paramount or where outside expertise is beneficial.

We have already identified the key areas where an independent element is needed: unlawful discrimination or harassment; bullying, which can amount to harassment in some instances; and a wrong done involving bias or other improper behaviour. There will be other instances in which expertise or independence calls for an independent element, but we concluded on balance, that those issues relating to careers and regulations, for example on eligibility for allowances, would not benefit from an independent member. We think that in this way, we shall achieve the right balance between, on the one hand, independence and outside areas of expertise, and on the other hand, the need for the Services to respond to complaints and for complaints to be considered with an understanding of the service context.

30 September 2006

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