The Armed Forces Bill 2021 (Bill 244) was introduced to the House of Commons on 26 January 2021. This type of Bill is of constitutional significance, dating back to the 1688 Bill of Rights and is a key component of the requirement for Parliamentary consent for the raising and keeping of a standing army during peacetime. Armed Forces Bills are by convention committed to an ad-hoc select committee of the House of Commons after Second Reading. We were appointed on 24 February 2021 for this purpose.
Following the precedent set by past select committees on Armed Forces Bills, we undertook a select committee-style evidence-based inquiry, followed by formal line-by-line consideration. The written and oral evidence received as well as the transcripts from line-by-line consideration are on our website. Results from our public survey on the Armed Forces Bill and related matters can be found in the annex.
We found that the convention of committing the Armed Forces Bill to a select committee in addition to its usual Committee Stage grants the Bill additional scrutiny. We welcomed the freedom to determine our programme of evidence taking, and the flexibility to adapt it as we progressed in our scrutiny. We recognised the greater degree of consensus and collaboration that a select committee format encourages and recommend that select committee scrutiny continues to be the convention for future Armed Forces Bills.
We faced some difficulty securing documents and necessary visit approval from the Ministry of Defence, in part due to our limited timeframe to work. We recommend that future select committees on Armed Forces Bills be given at least three calendar months to operate and advise that it is essential that the Government provide requested documents in a timely manner and authorise reasonable visit requests.
We inquired into specific areas of the Bill, focusing on the Armed Forces Covenant, the Service Justice System and the Service Complaints System. We also explored additional areas including diversity in the Armed Forces, healthcare and housing.
We welcomed the Bill, which seeks to further incorporate the Armed Forces Covenant into law, and note that this change is important for, and is welcomed by, Service personnel, veterans and their families. However, we recognise that there are concerns around how the new legal duty to have due regard to the Armed Forces Covenant will work in practice. This was due, in part, to the delay in the publication of the draft Statutory Guidance and the decision not to have prescribed outcomes, and around some areas of the Covenant being brought into law whilst others not. There are also concerns that the Bill applies to local government and some public bodies but not to central nor devolved governments. We also heard evidence in regard to the lack of alternative routes of redress for veterans.
As a first step, we recommend that questions be included in future editions of the annual Continuous Attitude Surveys for the Regular Armed Forces, Service Families and the Reserves on whether the Covenant has had a positive or negative impact on respondents in the areas of housing, healthcare and education in the last 12 months. We also recommend that the Government conducts a review, within 24 months after this Bill becomes an act, to look at how the new legal duty to have due regard to the Armed Forces Covenant works in practice and whether it is negatively impacting other areas of the Covenant. The Armed Forces Covenant Annual Report should review the effectiveness of the legislation and comment on future scope of the duty. We recommend that the House of Commons Defence Select Committee conduct post-legislative scrutiny into how the Armed Forces Act has worked in practice once it has come into force. The Ministry of Defence should submit a memorandum to the Defence Committee 24 months after the Armed Forces Bill 2021 becomes an Act.
On the Service Justice System we found that the Bill, combined with non-legislative measures in the process of being implemented following the Lyons review, demonstrates a commitment to improving the system and ensuring that it has the confidence of those subject to it and of the wider public. We heard evidence from those closely involved in the Service Justice System that confidence in the investigative function of the system is imperative. We therefore welcome efforts to reform the Service Justice System following the Lyons review but recognise that concerns remain surrounding concurrent jurisdiction and the decision not to implement this recommendation of the Lyons review. We recommend that the Ministry of Defence work quickly to introduce the Defence Serious Crime Capability, and work to ensure clear protocols are in place to allow effective cooperation with civilian police forces.
Turning to the Service Complaints System we welcome efforts to speed up the process, provided that the necessary safeguards remain in place to ensure fair access. We found that concerns remain around the system, particularly tackling delay in resolving cases, which reduces confidence and negatively impacts all parties. We thought it particularly concerning that female and BAME personnel continue to be overrepresented amongst complainants. We note that responses to our survey indicate that only 15% of respondents believe the decision to reduce the time limit in which an appeal can be made from 6 weeks to 2 weeks gave them enough time to receive “fair treatment”. We also note that 34.8% of respondents answered that they were “not sure”. Our conclusion based on this is that there needs to be greater clarity on this matter. We recommend that the Ministry of Defence prioritise implementing all recommendations of the Wigston review within 6 months, ensuring that solutions take account of the needs of victims and provide appropriate avenues to redress external to the single Services’ chain of command where needed.
We welcome and encourage a more diverse Armed Forces and are in no doubt that the majority of Service people benefit enormously from their time in the Services. We heard encouraging evidence that the experience of Armed Forces personnel with protected characteristics has improved. However, we recognise that there is more to be done. We recommend that a metric be added to the Annual Report on the Armed Forces Covenant to report on the experience of those with protected characteristics. We welcome the Minister committing to “find a mechanism of restorative justice” for veterans dismissed due to their perceived sexuality during the years of the ban on homosexuality in the Armed Forces and the Minister should report back to the House on progress within three months. We also fully support the important work of the Defence Committee’s Sub-Committee on Women in the Armed Forces. Once it has reported, the Ministry of Defence should carefully consider its conclusions and recommendations.
We inquired into the provision of healthcare to veterans, particularly in mental health, and found it encouraging that the provision is improving. We conclude, however, that more should be done and recommend that:
a.The Government should urgently set out how it plans to meet targets for the Transition, Intervention and Liaison Service, Complex Treatment Services and Improving Access to Psychological Therapy.
b.Further work should be done to ensure that the principle of “priority treatment” is better understood by both veterans and service providers.
c.Work should be undertaken to minimise variation in the level of services across the UK, with specific funding required in Northern Ireland to deal with the challenges faced by veterans attempting to access mental health services there.
d.Work should be undertaken to improve data collection with regard to the numbers of serving personnel and veterans requiring treatment for addiction and other mental health illnesses. The Minister gave a commitment that there should be “a single front door and clear pathway people can navigate” for treatment for addiction and other mental health issues and we encourage the Department to do further work on this, alongside the NHS and partners such as Tom Harrison House.
Finally, we found that the level of satisfaction for personnel and families living in Service housing is still too low. Whilst work has been undertaken to improve this, accommodation is an area that needs to be prioritised by the Ministry of Defence. We note that by excluding central government as a responsible public body, Service accommodation is not covered by the new legal duty to have due regard. We conclude that the Government may wish to consider adding housing as an area where the legal duty applies in the future.
Members of the Committee also look forward to the House having an opportunity to scrutinise the long-promised legislation addressing the investigation and prosecution of former Armed Forces Personnel who served in Northern Ireland.
The Government should respond to the conclusions and recommendations of this report by written ministerial statement, within two calendar months. We urge the Government to take on board our specific conclusions and recommendations and to ensure that it engages with Members across the House during later stages of the Bill’s consideration.