House of Commons portcullis
House of Commons
Session 2007 - 08
Publications on the internet
Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Armed Forces (Redress of Individual Grievances) Regulations 2007

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Joe Benton
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing, West) (Con)
Burden, Richard (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab)
Burns, Mr. Simon (West Chelmsford) (Con)
Crabb, Mr. Stephen (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con)
Duddridge, James (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con)
Farrelly, Paul (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab)
Hewitt, Ms Patricia (Leicester, West) (Lab)
Hodgson, Mrs. Sharon (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab)
Howarth, Mr. Gerald (Aldershot) (Con)
Jenkins, Mr. Brian (Tamworth) (Lab)
Mitchell, Mr. Austin (Great Grimsby) (Lab)
Rennie, Willie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD)
Roy, Mr. Frank (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Russell, Bob (Colchester) (LD)
Stoate, Dr. Howard (Dartford) (Lab)
Twigg, Derek (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence)
Vis, Dr. Rudi (Finchley and Golders Green) (Lab)
Mark Etherton, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Third Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 20 November 2007

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Draft Armed Forces (Redress of Individual Grievances) Regulations 2007

4.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Armed Forces (Redress of Individual Grievances) Regulations 2007.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the draft Armed Forces (Service Complaints Commissioner) Regulations 2007.
Derek Twigg: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. Both statutory instruments were laid before the House in October and are being made under the powers of the Armed Forces Act 2006. As hon. Members will know, that Act represents the first complete overhaul of the service justice system in more than 50 years, but as well as providing a single system of service law, it introduces a number of other important changes.
Historically, service personnel have had few enforceable rights in relation to their conditions of service. For that reason, there is a system that allows service personnel to submit complaints related to their service. The system is designed for the individual; there is no provision, therefore, for group complaints.
The key features of the new service complaints process are these. Complaints will be resolved at one of three levels. At the highest level—the Defence Council—complaints may be dealt with by a service complaint panel, which for certain categories of complaint will include an independent person. Also, a service complaints commissioner will be appointed. I shall say a little more about each of those aspects.
The three levels at which a service complaint may be resolved are the prescribed officer, who will usually be the commanding officer unless he is implicated in the complaint, in which case the complaint will be made to the commanding officer’s immediate superior; the superior officer; and the Defence Council, whose function in considering complaints has been routinely undertaken by the single service boards, but will now include service complaint panels.
When the commanding officer receives a complaint, he has three options. First, if he lacks the power to deal with it, he may refer it to the superior officer or the Defence Council. Secondly, if he decides to deal with the complaint and it is well founded, he will decide what redress should be granted. Thirdly, he can reject the complaint. The superior officer has the same options as the commanding officer: to deal with the complaint, refer it to the Defence Council or reject it. It is important to note that, if the complainant is not satisfied with the redress to be granted or a complaint is rejected, he can have the complaint referred to the next higher level for consideration.
Against that background, the regulations will establish a number of important improvements, including procedural changes to ensure greater fairness and consistency across the services and to reduce the time taken to resolve complaints. They will exclude some types of complaint—for example, where there is an established alternative system to deal with such complaints.
Above all, the regulations will introduce two elements of independence and transparency into the system. First, they establish independent members on panels, which at the highest level will normally deal with complaints about bullying, harassment, discrimination and other types of inappropriate behaviour. Secondly, they provide for the appointment of a service complaints commissioner.
The regulations on redress of individual grievances begin by excluding certain matters from the redress system where an alternative system exists, as I mentioned. For example, complaints about pensions and compensation are excluded, as are judicial and prosecutorial decisions, because they are subject to judicial review and it would not be appropriate to allow lay interference in judicial or prosecutorial processes.
Each service complaint considered by the single service boards, acting on behalf of the Defence Council, involves significant time and effort spent by senior staff in reaching decisions. That imposes a heavy administrative burden and risks causing delay. The 2006 Act therefore provides for the Defence Council to delegate cases to service complaint panels. It also provides that a panel must have at least two members, one of whom is at least of the rank of brigadier or equivalent, although it is our intention that panels will normally consist of two officers of at least that rank, normally from the same service as the complainant.
Service complaint panels will operate with the full delegated powers of the Defence Council that are relevant to the case under consideration. The regulations will ensure that complaints by or about senior officers will be dealt with by a panel that contains at least one officer of the same rank as, or of a higher rank than, the officer involved.
The regulations will ensure that, in the interests of fairness, certain people are excluded from being members of service complaint panels, including members of the Defence Council, the single service boards and chaplains of the three services, as well as any officer who may have been involved in any way with the complaint being considered.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I am interested in the specific exclusion of military chaplains. Given the extraordinary, special role that they play—often mediating between soldiers and commanders—their exclusion seems rather odd. Their inclusion might not be appropriate in every circumstance, but I know a number of Army chaplains, and they are rather well placed to help. Can the Minister enlighten us?
Derek Twigg: I know quite a number of service chaplains and talk to them regularly. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, they often have concerns brought to them and often end up mediating, too. They would not, therefore, be the right people to be involved; nor do I think that they would want to be. However, I will be happy to explore that a bit later if the hon. Gentleman will let me continue. As I said, the regulations will ensure that certain people are excluded in the interests of fairness, and I hope that I have explained why that is the case for chaplains.
The normal expectation is that complaints reaching the highest level will be dealt with by service complaint panels. However, there will be exceptions because the service boards will always retain some cases, including complaints about security vetting, decisions or actions by a senior officer of three or four-star rank and the termination of an officer’s service.
The service boards may also decide to retain cases where the normal expectation would be to delegate them to a panel. That is an important aspect of the system, which allows the single service boards to exercise their stewardship of the services and influence decisions that have an effect across the whole service. Such cases may include a complaint about changes to specialist pay or an allowance, a challenge to a job evaluation outcome for a particular branch or trade or a complaint about the policy, for instance, of not allowing women to serve in submarines or the infantry. Decisions by panels that exercise powers on behalf of the Defence Council will, of course, be final.
In line with the Act, an independent member will be added to the service complaint panels that deal with complaints that relate to the following: bullying, harassment or discrimination; dishonest, biased or other improper behaviour; allegations of failure in clinical care; allegations of the misuse of service police powers; and the rejection of a complaint following the referral of an allegation by the service complaints commissioner.
The introduction for the first time of an independent element into the redress process is an important change, which will give service personnel much greater confidence in the system. The independent element also recognises the recommendations made by the Select Committee on Defence and by Nicholas Blake, QC, in his Deepcut review. Both stressed the importance of demonstrating that bullying, harassment and other forms of inappropriate behaviour have no place in the armed forces and underlined the importance of dealing with such things effectively and openly.
Independent panel members are being recruited using the normal public appointments process. We have stipulated that they cannot be members of the regular or reserve forces, but that they should bring experience and expertise relevant to considering and deciding cases relating to bullying, harassment, discrimination and the other types of inappropriate behaviour about which we are particularly concerned.
Before I move on, I should add that, at present, an officer has the right to require a report on his complaint to be referred to the Queen if he is not satisfied with a decision at the Defence Council level. That right will still exist under the new system, except where any decision on a complaint is made by a service complaint panel.
I turn now to the service complaints commissioner. Hon. Members will recall the recent announcement of the appointment of Dr. Susan Atkins as the service complaints commissioner. That statutory appointment was made by the Secretary of State for Defence, and Dr. Atkins comes to the post having previously worked for the Equal Opportunities Commission and set up and run the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
The Defence Committee and Mr. Blake recommended the appointment of a commissioner and envisaged the role as being similar to that of an ombudsman. We said then, and I reiterate now, that we welcome this further independent element to the service complaints process. However, we could not agree to the commissioner’s role including the ability to intervene in the consideration of complaints, to investigate complaints or to reopen cases. Such actions would undermine the chain of command, which we have properly placed at the heart of ensuring the effective discipline and welfare of members of the armed forces.
Under the Act and the secondary legislation before us, we will provide a commissioner with real powers to make a difference. The commissioner will provide an alternative point of contact for service personnel, their families and friends and any other member of the public who wishes to make an allegation that a service person has been wronged in relation to their service. It will be particularly helpful to those who do not feel confident approaching the chain of command directly.
James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): In a private employment relationship, an employee can leave the relationship—literally walk out of work—and claim constructive dismissal. Will that type of procedure apply? Will people who feel that their situation is so bad that they do not just express a grievance be able to remove themselves from employment and claim the grievance retrospectively?
Derek Twigg: The answer is no.
The regulations provide that any communication received by the commissioner alleging that a member of the armed forces has been wronged through bullying, harassment, discrimination or any other form of improper behaviour may be referred to the chain of command for action. It is important to convey that point. Such an allegation will normally go to the commanding officer of the individual alleged to have been wronged, but will go to another officer if the commanding officer is the subject of or is implicated in the complaint.
A referral from the commissioner places certain duties on the commanding officer, including checking whether the person allegedly wronged wants to make a service complaint, whether they know how to go about it and what time limits apply. The commanding officer must also notify the commissioner of the individual’s decision whether to make a complaint, whether the complaint is excluded under the redress of individual grievance statutory instrument or whether it is not allowed to proceed, for example, because it is outside the time limit for a service complaint. The commanding officer must also inform the commissioner if the complaint is withdrawn by the complainant or referred to a superior officer or the Defence Council, as well as informing the commissioner of any decision relating to the redress sought.
The commissioner will also provide the Defence Secretary with an annual report on the efficiency, effectiveness and fairness with which the complaints process has operated. The report will also cover the commissioner’s exercise of the function of referring allegations and other factors that the commissioner or the Defence Secretary consider appropriate. The reports will, of course, be laid before Parliament. The Government believe that an annual report written by an independent service complaints commissioner and made available to Parliament and the public will make a significant contribution to the overall effectiveness and transparency of the system.
The changes that we are discussing have the potential to affect every service person. We take very seriously the responsibility to ensure that our service personnel are briefed on such changes, so significant effort will go into ensuring that all service personnel are made aware of the changes under the new system. A new joint service publication about redress of individual grievance will be published and made available electronically to all service personnel, a defence notice will be issued to publicise the changes further and leaflets will provide service personnel with a clear explanation of their rights and how to use the complaints system. All three services are making arrangements for their personnel to be briefed in detail nearer the introduction of the changes.
I should like to make a final observation about the statutory instruments that we are considering. The Government have given an undertaking that Ministers moving instruments subject to the affirmative procedure will tell the House whether they are satisfied that the legislation is compatible with the rights provided in the European convention on human rights. I am pleased to confirm that the statutory instruments before us are compliant with the European convention.
4.43 pm
Mr. Howarth: I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton, for our debate on these important statutory instruments. It is one of Parliament’s opportunities to hold the Government to account and scrutinise what is being done in the name of the people and Parliament. Of course, as our armed forces are so heavily engaged in military operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq as we speak, it is important that we should do them the courtesy of ensuring that we scrutinise carefully new measures likely to have an impact on how their lives are organised.
The Minister outlined the background to the regulations as well as the wider issue of complaints procedures available to members of the armed forces. I think that the Committee will agree that he spent rather more time talking about matters of grievance redress, which are outwith the regulations, than matters that are within them. I do not criticise him for that, because he drew the Committee’s attention to the comprehensive range of remedies available to members of the armed forces through the chain of command to ensure that their grievances are dealt with. The Minister missed out one such remedy—members of the armed forces may also approach their Members of Parliament. In Aldershot, when I find that I have a complaint referred to me by a soldier, I refer it to the Minister, which means that the soldier will get top-quality attention from him. I shall not continue in that vein for too long, but I believed that it would be fair to make that observation at the outset.
The regulations are specific and flow from issues that we have discussed on many occasions, so I should like to make the following observations. First, there is no doubt that the loss of young lives at the Army training establishment at Deepcut served to undermine public confidence in the Army’s ability to respond to a spate of unexplained deaths and to investigate them satisfactorily. The Minister referred to the report by Nicholas Blake QC, Surrey police produced reports, and the Army produced around six internal reports, so those matters have been subject to considerable debate and scrutiny.
What has been the pattern of suicides in Army training establishments in the past couple of years? Perhaps the Minister would like to answer that question later as I did not give him any notice, but I have been unable to obtain figures from either official publications or from the Library. Given that the matter is of public concern, it would be helpful if he could tell us whether there has been an improvement. I suspect that there has been an improvement. Surrey police recognised that from 2002, the Army have done a tremendous amount to respond to the tragic loss of life and to the public concern arising therefrom. The investment that means that there can be a better ratio of instructors and supervisors to recruits has been beneficial. Perhaps the Minister could write to me if he is unable to answer the question now.
Secondly, the Blake review supported the call by the Defence Committee for an independent ombudsman and described the establishment of a commissioner of military complaints or armed forces ombudsman as
“an essential step in improving confidence, transparency and justice.”
However, Mr. Blake went on to say:
“The full role of such a Commissioner may require further reflection but, for the Review, it is essential that soldiers and their families have access to an established authority who understands the military and its ways of working, but stands outside of the chain of command and beyond its influence, in order to ensure best practice is adhered to.”
I emphasise the words,
“an established authority who understands the military and its ways of working”
because the Opposition sought to persuade the Government last November to ensure that the appointee as commissioner
“should have a military background”.
Indeed, not mincing my words, I said that
“given the huge importance of this appointment, I commend—with all the power at my disposal—to the Minister the idea that the appointee should have a military background.”—[Official Report, 7 November 2006; Vol. 451, c. 811.]
The Canadian forces ombudsman, Mr. Yves CôtÃ(c), came to his post at least familiar with the armed forces having started his career as a military legal officer. One may quibble at just how much experience that gave him of the military, but he was at least in the military. Most regrettably, the Government would not accept the advice either of the Blake review or of the Opposition, and opted instead for the nebulous qualification of an appropriate person.
We see today that the Government have chosen someone who appears to have no connection or knowledge of the armed forces in complete defiance of the Blake recommendation. We are not surprised, because the Government—particularly, the Prime Minister—have consistently demonstrated their abject failure to understand the armed forces and the ethos that drives their achievements.
Each successive internal military report testifies to the fact that the armed forces are being ground down by a Government who will only be convinced that the optimal level of funding has been reached when they have broken the organisation. Meanwhile, politically driven prosecutions have served to undermine morale.
It would be interesting to know how widely the post of commissioner was advertised, whether the advertisements were limited to The Guardian, how many people applied, and the Ministry of Defence criteria on which the candidates were assessed. I emphasise that we have no animus whatever against the Government’s announced appointee. I have never met her, and my inquiries have not adduced any more information than has been provided by the Government. Nevertheless, we are concerned at her lack of knowledge of the military, which has been confirmed to me today in a written answer from the Minister for the Armed Forces.
In the answer, the Minister sets out at length the commissioner’s qualifications in the area of equality and discrimination, but admits that she
“does not have any direct knowledge or experience of the armed forces.”
Apparently, in order to make good what the Government clearly recognise as a deficiency, the commissioner is to undergo
“a comprehensive induction and orientation prior to assuming her duties in January 2008.”
Perhaps the Minister will elaborate on the initiation procedures to which Dr. Atkins is to be subject. Perhaps 9G aerobatics in a Typhoon, an assault course with the Paras or Royal Marine Commando training in the Arctic? Will the Minister enlighten us on how this lady is, in a very short space of time, to become familiar with the armed forces?
I do not know whether I am allowed to mention Lord Drayson’s name—I know that it causes pain in some quarters. In a special report of 12 October 2006 he said:
“Our starting point is that, at the heart of the relationship between service personnel and the chain of command, is that the chain of command is responsible for investigating wrongs and remedying them.”
Sadly for the defence community, that most able of Defence Ministers has had enough and has quit to go fishing. [Interruption.] In fact, he has gone motor racing, but that is the equivalent of putting up a sign saying, “Gone fishing”. The entire defence community is distressed at his Lordship’s departure, and I personally thought that he did a tremendous job. In a short time, he acquired an understanding of what the armed forces are about, and I want to place on record the fact that I believe he made a major contribution, not least in the speeding up of the supply of vital equipment to the front line. I salute him for that. The armed forces have lost a good friend, and, if I may say so, so have his ministerial colleagues.
What he said a year ago was right. Together with the distinguished noble and gallant Lords in the other place, the Opposition have always been concerned at the risk to the authority and integrity of the chain of command that is implicit in the creation of this new post. In our view, that risk is potentially compounded by the appointment. The concern appears to have resonated with the Minister, who was quoted in a BBC news item yesterday as saying:
“We don’t want to erode the position of the chain of command.”
The Opposition would welcome an indication from him as to how he sees that protection to the chain of command being applied.
We hope that the new commissioner will rapidly come to understand that which Ministers have so often failed to grasp: the unique nature of the armed forces and the extraordinary capacity of the military training system to deliver professional, competent and courageous soldiers, sailors and airmen. We recognise that the current remit of the commissioner will be limited to the area defined in the regulations: discrimination, harassment, bullying, and dishonest, improper or biased behaviour. I have two key concerns, however. First, the scope for complaints is potentially immense. What calculations has the Minister done on how many are likely? The regulations do not define discrimination or biased behaviour, and it does not take a rocket scientist to imagine how easily a disaffected soldier, sailor or airman will avail themselves of the new facility. As Lord Astor said during the debate in the other place a few moments ago, our fear is that this arrangement may turn out to be no more than a troublemaker’s charter. Furthermore, as the Minister explained, aggrieved friends or family can use the facility to lodge a complaint on behalf of a member of the armed forces, and they may have even less understanding of the military than those serving who are the subject of the complaint.
The second issue is how to be sure that the commissioner will bring the necessary robustness to her assessment of the cases referred to her. How will she temper the undoubted expertise that she brings from the Equal Opportunities Commission with the need to understand service ethos and discipline? I remind the Minister that the Surrey police force, which first reported on the Deepcut issue, was the first to recognise the need for military training to be robust. In its final report, in which it called for an inquiry, it said:
“Such an inquiry should consider the need for independent oversight of Army recruit training to support the Army in striking the right balance between tough training and the control of avoidable risk.”
The Minister and I had the privilege this morning of listening to General Dannatt, the Chief of the General Staff, and his team. They gave us an insight into today’s Army—how they train and work, and their role and the job that they do on the nation’s behalf. One could not help but leave that gathering with one’s sense of pride in our armed forces, particularly our Army, being hugely reinforced by all that we heard. The Army consists of a fantastic bunch of people; but as the General said, they are trained to engage in high-intensity war—fighting with violence.
Much was made by a number of the military commanders who spoke today—I note that the hon. Member for Colchester was with us this morning—of the fact that it is close-quarter combat. It is fighting with bayonets. We were told that 250 Taliban had been killed in a couple of days, with no loss of life to our troops. To get men to do that—the infantry is men only—requires a quality of training that is robust. If they are not trained robustly, they will not go into such high-intensity situations prepared to meet such dreadful challenges. It is important that the commissioner understands the need for training to be robust.
I believe that the Government are caught between a rock and a hard place. The Minister has been at pains to point out the other avenues open to military personnel for the redress of grievances, but he does not want to be seen to undermine the chain of command—a point made by the Minister in the BBC clip that I mentioned earlier. That reflects the concerns expressed by former serving officers in the other place—concerns that I suspect are fairly widespread in the military.
The Minister will remember that throughout our debates on the Armed Forces Act 2006 I was determined to do whatever I could to assess the legislation against the way in which it would impact upon the chain of command. He heard of the problem from the military, which is why he comes to the Committee to tell us that he is keen to ensure that the chain of command is properly protected. I have asked him to tell us how, and I have no doubt that he will do so. However, he is under pressure from his backwoodsmen, who want to see much more. They want to see trade unions in the armed forces, with more opportunity for independent investigation. The unions do not really like the officer class, so they are putting the Minister under pressure to have a more independent examination, preferably from people who have no connection with the military.
I sympathise with the Minister. He is clearly between a rock and a hard place, and I am trying to help him. He may not think so, but I am trying to help. [ Interruption. ] I hear the Minister saying that he always welcomes my help. In that case, he is a very sensible man. There is greater joy in heaven over the one sinner that repenteth than the ninety and nine that have no need of repentance.
When the Government sought to give effect to the Blake recommendations, we acknowledged that public concern meant that we needed some independent oversight. However, given the Government’s refusal to accede to our call for the post of service complaints commissioner to be offered to a person with some understanding of the armed forces, especially at a time when they are feeling hugely overstretched and beleaguered, the only way in which we can register our anger at what we consider to be their failure to honour the military covenant is to vote against the second of the regulations before us. I accept the first, but I am sorry to say that the regulations dealing with the commissioner do not meet those requirements that we have consistently called for over the past 12 months. That is what I shall recommend to my hon. Friends, unless the Minister can tell us that the commissioner will acquire from somewhere the military experience that, by the Government’s own definition, is lacking at the moment.
5.1 pm
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): It is a pleasure, Mr. Benton, to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the Minister for the way in which he presented his case, and I sympathise with much of what was said by the hon. Member for Aldershot, although I distance myself from some of his more colourful comments. However, they are genuine—I have known the hon. Gentleman for 10 years, and I know that they are not made up for today. He thinks and speaks like that all the time.
What we are debating is the logical extension of the Armed Forces Act 2006. Those hon. Members who served on the Committee that considered that legislation will remember that we went through it in considerable detail and with much discussion. I believe that the Act is relevant to the 21st century, bringing together the separate disciplinary procedures of the three services in a meaningful way. Only time will tell whether we got the balance right. It made sense to bring the disciplinary codes of the three services together, but we did our best to retain and maintain the distinctive ethos and separateness of the three services. I believe that that has been achieved, but only time will tell.
I record my appreciation for all involved in the back-room deliberations, as well as for those hon. Members who served on the Committee. We need to proceed with what has evolved. However, I have one or two questions. Like the hon. Member for Aldershot, I was puzzled about why the chaplains of the three services were deemed not to be appropriate persons to serve.
Dr. Rudi Vis (Finchley and Golders Green) (Lab): I would never turn to a chaplain, as I am not a religious person. It is sometimes forgotten that other channels are necessary for those who are not religious. We either include chaplains and others, or we include neither. I agree with that bit.
Bob Russell: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, but it is one classification from which people are deliberately excluded, whereas the very people to which he refers would be included. The point is valid, but, with respect, he presents the argument the wrong way around.
The regulations will bring in independent members for the first time. That, in itself, is worthy of appreciation; it is something that society would recognise. However, I have considerable sympathy for the point made by the hon. Member for Aldershot that the person appointed as the commissioner has no knowledge—none that we are aware of—of Her Majesty’s armed services. I made a note of the need for the commissioner to familiarise herself with the military ethos. I am not sure how that will be done, bearing in mind the fact that the regulations come into effect on 1 January.
As the Minister said, the 2006 Act represents the first complete overhaul of the service justice system in more than 50 years, and it harmonises practice and procedures across the armed forces. I shall cite an example. When we were in Basra, we met the Combined Helicopter Unit, and the helicopter pilots were drawn variously from the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force and the Army. If there had been a misdemeanour or a serious military incident involving one pilot from each of those three services, they would have gone down three separate disciplinary routes. These regulations make common sense. They bring together a common route, yet still retain the ethos and the separateness of the various services.
I should like to end by endorsing the points made by General Dannatt, both today and in recent weeks, and by drawing the Committee’s attention to the fact that the “Honour the Covenant” campaign by the Royal British Legion has manifested itself in the House of Commons in the form of early-day motion 1, which has already been signed by more than 100 right hon. and hon. Members. That is an indication, on which I hope the Minister will draw, that there is a lot of good will in the House towards Her Majesty’s armed forces. Unfortunately, the perception is that the covenant is not being honoured.
I hope that the Minister can give an assurance that the Government take very seriously the Royal British Legion’s campaign and the comments by the head of the Army and that, in time, when we return to the regulations—we have been told that there will be an annual report to Parliament—we will be able to say that the commissioner has done a good job and that the lack of a military background has not been a disadvantage. However, will the Minister give an assurance that, if experience shows that that is a disadvantage, appropriate action will be taken to make amends?
5.8 pm
Dr. Vis: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. I will be brief. I did not serve on the Committee that considered the Armed Forces Bill, so I presume that it is all in good order. I heard my hon. Friend the Minister say at one stage—I think that I am quoting—that bullying and other things had no place in the armed forces. I served long enough in the Dutch armed forces to recognise that bullying is the most often used means of so-called communication in the armed forces. If that were to be admitted—the hon. Member for Aldershot alluded to this—this minor matter before us would be the most important change in the armed forces, with enormous costs possibly attached. Therefore, I think that we ought to be very careful. My question is whether the regulations will apply in the case of a declared war.
5.9 pm
James Duddridge: I have nine brief questions or points. First, does the grievance procedure that has been outlined apply to grievances solely within the Royal Military Police, or is that subject to a different grievance procedure? Quite often, grievances brought before the military police are early indicators of much broader, more systemic problems. Secondly, what provision in the grievance procedures has been made for grievances across the three services, rather than in an individual service? Thirdly, the Minister mentioned time limits for grievances. I did not hear the details of those time limits, and I should welcome more information, as I am sure would the Committee.
Fourthly, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot discussed the number of grievances expected. It would be unrealistic to expect the Minister to have an exact figure, but presumably the commissioner’s office will be resourced for a predicted number in the first year. On what basis are those numbers predicted by the Minister’s office, and what predicted volumes is the commissioner’s office developed to handle?
Fifthly, I recently returned from Afghanistan, having visited Camp Bastion and Lashkar Gah. What differences exist in the grievance arrangements for officers serving in a field of conflict, rather than back at their home base, whether Aldershot or, to a lesser degree, Colchester?
Bob Russell: A lesser degree?
James Duddridge: The hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but it is my understanding that there is a significant police contingent and a military prison in Colchester, and I suspect that the grievance arrangements for prisoners might be different from those for serving officers in Aldershot.
Sixthly, the Minister will know, because he recently visited my constituency, that I have an interest in QinetiQ and the relationship between private service organisations and the military. What will happen when grievances relate to private contractors such as QinetiQ that operate on site with the military? Has any provision been made in the grievance procedure for that eventuality?
Seventhly, the commissioner and independent members may not have current military or Territorial experience, but are they debarred if they have historic military or Territorial experience, even a short-term, three-year commission 20 years ago? That would be somewhat unfair. Eighthly, is the commissioner’s appointment time limited? If it is, can the appointment be renewed, or is it felt that a new person should take over after a certain period?
Finally, there was discussion of family and friends bringing complaints. I have certainly received complaints about service conditions from the families and friends, particularly the families, of young serving soldiers. When I have written to the Minister or the Department, they have quite rightly replied, “We need a bit more detail”—the name of the serviceman and so forth—“and permission to correspond with you on these details.” The serviceman—it has been men in all cases—has said, “No, I don’t want to continue this complaint.” What provision has been made for situations where the families and friends feel that they have just complaint and grievance but the serviceman or woman does not want it taken forward?
5.13 pm
Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): I did not intend to intervene in this debate, and I shall not speak for long. I ask the Minister to intervene on me to answer a yes-or-no question: is the proposed commissioner the sister of the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins)?
Derek Twigg: No.
Mr. Burns: I am grateful to the Minister, and I do not wish to say any more.
5.14 pm
Derek Twigg: I shall try to answer as many questions as I can in the time available. I shall write to hon. Members if I cannot answer them all. I did not want to get into a wide general debate about how we treat the armed forces, but it was mentioned a number of times; the hon. Member for Aldershot started on that subject. I reject the idea that the regulations suggest something about how we treat our armed forces. In fact, they are a positive step forward. If we had the time, I could discuss the very good equipment that we are providing, which we heard about today from one of the battle group commanders at the Army presentation; the increased funding for accommodation; the improved health care and mental health support; the best pay rise in the public sector, which occurred this year; or the 9 per cent. rise for the most poorly paid soldiers, sailors and airmen and women. I do not want to go down that track, because the debate is about a specific issue, but I wanted to start by putting that on record, as it has been mentioned.
The hon. Member for Aldershot made a number of important points about suicides. I cannot give him the figure for the training establishments today, but, overall, the number of suicides in the armed forces has decreased. I will be happy to confirm the actual figure later.
The hon. Gentleman made several points about the suitability of Dr. Atkins and about the chain of command, and I will take them in reverse order. In respect of the chain of command, the commanding officer will remain at the centre of the process; the complaint will be made to the CO, and if it relates to the commanding officer, it will be made to his or her superior. We have the usual Defence Council, service boards and so on and the service complaints panels. There are sufficient safeguards to ensure that the CO remains at the centre, and it is important to reiterate that complaints will go to the CO in the first instance.
I was asked what the commissioner will not be able to do, which, I think, has not been discussed. The commissioner will not have the power to instigate or to reopen service complaints; to do so would risk undermining the chain of command, which has the responsibility for the welfare and discipline of its people. The commissioner will not have the right to be consulted on disciplinary matters or have the ability to intervene to institute legal proceedings against decisions not to prosecute, as was recommended by Blake, as that would undermine the role and independence of the prosecution authorities.
The commissioner will provide the best solution for service personnel, who need to have confidence in the system—we have to accept as a fact of life that some do not—and for the chain of command in looking after the welfare and discipline of those under command. That is the right way for the armed forces to operate, and it meets the overall objective underpinning Mr. Blake’s recommendations in the Deepcut review. I want to make it absolutely clear that a number of things cannot be done in respect of the chain of command’s responsibility.
Dr. Atkins was selected in an open competition, in which 100 people applied, and the normal civil service rules and conditions for recruitment applied. She has vast experience of issues such as harassment, bullying and inappropriate behaviour from her time in police service complaints and in equal opportunities. A point was made about her lack of service experience, but she will be going out to visit units and establishments to talk to a cross-section of people throughout the services and, of course, to the chain of command, to enable her to understand the issues. She will also visit the operational theatre. Those opportunities will give her a better understanding of the services, the chain-of-command issues and the reviews of service personnel.
Mr. Burns: The Minister told us about the capabilities of the proposed commissioner. Her curriculum vitae is very detailed about what she has done since the early to mid-1990s. Could the hon. Gentleman share with the Committee more of her experiences before that period, so that we can get a more rounded view of her?
Derek Twigg: I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with further details, as I do not have that information to hand. I have tried to make it clear that Dr. Atkins has vast experience from her time in police complaints and equal opportunities of the issues that she has been asked to look at. I have explained clearly that she will make an effort to talk to as many service personnel as possible and to visit units and bases in operational theatres, as well as talking to a range of people who have an interest in these matters. She will get a well-rounded view of the issues involved. The person who has just been appointed should be given every opportunity to get on with the job and deal with it in the best interests of those making the complaints and of the services. We should let her get on with the job. It is important for her to take account of the points that have been made in the debate, and I am sure that she will do so.
The hon. Member for Colchester mentioned chaplains. I thought I had explained that chaplains’ impartiality is important because of their personal involvement. They have to listen to complaints from service personnel, and they should not be involved in the process because of their independence.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the British Legion covenant campaign. We welcome the covenant campaign as a way to highlight the issues and to support our armed forces—I believe that the Government are doing more and that they have made many improvements—and the wider issues of society’s role. We welcome the event and are engaging with the British Legion and other services charities. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have just announced the Command Paper on personnel and welfare issues, which will look across Government. That project is about to start and will report next year. Again, that has been welcomed by the British Legion. We will involve the service charities, as well as the chain of command, in that important process. I believe that we are addressing and dealing with the issue.
Mr. Howarth: I asked the Minister what criteria the Ministry of Defence set out against which the 100 applicants were judged. Perhaps he has at his fingertips the criteria or a job advert like the one that appeared in The Sunday Times for the head of the Defence Export Services Organisation before it was scrapped 10 days later. I wish to make it clear to the Minister that I do not for one second impugn the integrity of this lady, but it is important that we understand what she brings to the party. That is a legitimate matter of objective debate.
Derek Twigg: I do not mean to go over old ground, and I have made it clear that Dr. Atkins has experience of issues such as discrimination, bullying and harassment and inappropriate behaviour. Her curriculum vitae is quite extensive in those areas, as I have explained. She will ensure that she goes out and talks to service personnel, visits bases and units, and it is important that she does so. I could read out my notes for the record, but I shall be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman on the details of the job description, because I am conscious of the number of questions that I have yet to deal with.
My hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green asked whether the rules apply in war. They apply equally in war and in peacetime. The regulations also apply to the military police.
Bob Russell: Is that the Ministry of Defence police or the military police?
Derek Twigg: The military police.
On time limits, the redress of individual grievances regulations stipulate that complaints should be made within three months of the event occurring, or within three months of the latest in a number of incidents over a period. The three-month period may be extended if the officer who receives the complaint judges that it would be just and equitable to allow the complaint to proceed—for example, if a service person had been away on operations and did not have access to the information or people required to make a complaint within the three-month time limit. The three-month period generally reflects the time limits in similar civilian regulations.
In the past three years, 233 service complaints have been raised by Army personnel. In the past year, 73 of the complaints made in the Navy have been referred up from the commanding officer. In the past two and half years, 220 service complaints have been made in the RAF. Of those, around 100 each year have gone to the highest level to be dealt with single service boards. I hope that that clears up the history of complaints, but I do not know how many complaints will be made in future.
A point was also made about families and friends making complaints, but it is still for service personnel to decide whether to make a complaint after it is referred by the commissioner. It can be referred to the CO, but it still a matter for the individual concerned to make the complaint. That is the key point. I am happy to write to hon. Members about any other points that I have not answered.
5.26 pm
Mr. Howarth: Although we have discussed the two sets of regulations together, Mr. Benton, may I propose that we have separate votes, so that I can invite my hon. Friends to vote against the second? [ Interruption. ] I appreciate the spirit of co-operation that occasionally extends across Committees; the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy) and I happen to be rather good friends.
For all the reasons that we have given, we are concerned that, although the way in which the appointment was made may give confidence to those outside, the risk is that it will do so at the expense of those in the services. It is an important appointment. As I said at the outset, we have no animus whatever against Dr. Susan Atkins, but we know no more about her than has appeared in the information provided by the Government. However, it has been our consistent view throughout that a person with at least some military knowledge ought to have been appointed. We have not seen the criteria against which the appointment was made, and we feel that the Government have not listened to us or to others concerned about the potential risk to the chain of command that could result from the appointment, notwithstanding everything that the Minister has said.
I understand that Dr. Atkins was once engaged in the Prison Service. That service was inspected by Sir David Ramsbotham—now Lord Ramsbotham—and there is no doubt that he brought fantastic expertise to it. I happened to see him in action, and I thought that he was magnificent. Someone like that—not necessarily with that much military experience, as it might not satisfy those who take a different view—is essential in the role that we are discussing. That is why I invite my hon. Friends to oppose the second set of regulations.
The Chairman: Just for the record and for future reference, I can tell the hon. Member for Aldershot that, although the regulations were discussed together, they could have been put to the vote separately in any case.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Armed Forces (Redress of Individual Grievances) Regulations 2007.

Draft Armed Forces (Service Complaints Commissioner) Regulations 2007

Motion made, and Question put :—
That the Committee has considered the draft Armed Forces (Service Complaints Commissioner) Regulations 2007.—[Mr. Twigg.]
The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 4.
Division No. 1 ]
Burden, Richard
Farrelly, Paul
Hodgson, Mrs. Sharon
Mitchell, Mr. Austin
Roy, Mr. Frank
Russell, Bob
Stoate, Dr. Howard
Twigg, Derek
Vis, Dr. Rudi
Burns, Mr. Simon
Crabb, Mr. Stephen
Duddridge, James
Howarth, Mr. Gerald
Question accordingly agreed to.
Committee rose at thirty minutes past Five o'clock.

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 21 November 2007