1.The Armed Forces Bill 2021 (Bill 244) was introduced in 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. In modern times this consent is given through the presentation of an Armed Forces Bill every five years.
2.The primary purpose of this Bill is to renew the Armed Forces Act 2006 (itself renewed by the Armed Forces Acts of 2011 and 2016). The Armed Forces Act 2006 (hereafter AFA 2006) provides the legal basis for the Armed Forces and the system of military law which exists in the UK. It sets out the Service justice system that underpins the maintenance of discipline throughout the chain of command. Without the Act, commanding officers would have no powers of punishment for either disciplinary or criminal misconduct and there would be no means to compel personnel to obey orders. Without renewal, the AFA 2006 will expire at the end of 2021.
3.The Armed Forces Bill also contains a number of measures relating to the Armed Forces that fall outside simple renewal of the AFA 2006, including:
4.Armed Forces Bills are, by convention, committed to an ad-hoc select committee of the House of Commons after Second Reading. The current Armed Forces Bill received its Second Reading on 8 February 2021 and the Committee was appointed on 24 February with a tight deadline to report the Bill back to the House by 29 April. As a select committee, we had the power to:
Following our scrutiny of the Bill, it will be considered in a Committee of the Whole House.
5.The convention of committing the Armed Forces Bill to a select committee in addition to its Committee Stage grants the Bill additional scrutiny. We have welcomed the freedom to determine our programme of evidence taking, and the flexibility to adapt it as we progressed in our scrutiny. This means we have been able to explore and analyse the various aspects of the Bill in depth. We also recognise the value of the greater degree of consensus and collaboration that a select committee format encourages. We recommend that select committee scrutiny continues to be the convention for the Armed Forces Bill.
6.We 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.
7.Following the precedent set by past select committees on Armed Forces Bills, we resolved to undertake a select committee-style evidence-based inquiry, followed by formal line-by-line consideration of the Bill. For this latter stage we followed the procedure for consideration of the Bill similar to that of a public bill committee, but broke new ground in being the first Committee in the House of Commons to consider a Bill via virtual means.
8.We formally launched our inquiry on Wednesday 3 March, issuing a public call for written evidence. We then held six oral evidence sessions, featuring seventeen panels and forty-five witnesses. These evidence sessions took place in just under three weeks.
To complement this programme of oral evidence we received 30 written evidence submissions from a range of organisations and individuals, including the Ministry of Defence (MoD). We also launched a public survey on the Armed Forces Bill and related matters, which ran from Monday 22 March to Monday 5 April and received 3,337 submissions. Analysis of the survey results can be found in the annex. We are grateful to all who contributed to our inquiry.
Our programme of work concluded with two sittings to consider the Bill line-by-line on Thursday 25 March and Wednesday 31 March. We agreed this Special Report at our final private meeting on Wednesday 14 April.
9.We are grateful for the assistance provided by the MoD and other branches of Government in our scrutiny of this Bill. We would have appreciated more timely assistance when we asked the Department for documentation, vital to our scrutiny, and regarding approval for visits to Service personnel accommodation. The Committee regrets that the MoD were not prepared to approve a virtual visit to service accommodation.
10.On 3 March, the Committee instructed the Chair to write to the Minister for Defence People and Veterans to request that the Statutory Guidance relating to the duties imposed by new sections 343AA to 343AD of the AFA 2006, under Clause 8 of the Bill, be shared with the Committee at the earliest opportunity. Owing to the short timetable for the Committee to consider the Bill, the Chair wrote again to the Minister on 18 March reiterating this request. In this letter the Chair asked that impact assessments for the Bill, including the equality and diversity impact assessment, be made available to the Committee urgently. The MoD ultimately shared a draft Armed Forces Covenant Statutory Guidance Framework on 24 March, for which we were grateful. However, this was only after the Minister for Defence People and Veterans had appeared before the Committee to give evidence, at the final oral evidence session. We were therefore not able to formally collect evidence from witnesses on their views of the draft framework or properly scrutinise the draft statutory guidance.
11.A separate issue arose in securing visit authorisation from the MoD. We made clear during early meetings that we wished to take part in a virtual visit to Service accommodation. A visit was provisionally arranged for the morning of Thursday 18 March, for us to meet virtually with tri-Service personnel and discuss both single living and Service family accommodation. Unfortunately, late on Wednesday 17 March we were informed that the visit would not be taking place, as the Secretary of State had refused authority for Service personnel to speak to the Committee. This was a disappointing development, particularly considering the short notice of the refusal. On 19 March the Chair wrote to the Secretary of State asking for the visit to be rearranged and for a clear explanation of the reasons for the refusal. We did not receive a formal response.
12.Once the membership for this Committee was approved by the House, just over eight weeks remained before the Committee had to report the Bill. This limited timeframe resulted in challenges securing witnesses, arranging visits and scrutinising the Bill in the detail which we would have liked. Future select committees on Armed Forces Bills should be given more time to complete their work. We recommend that there be at least three calendar months between committal to a select committee and the deadline for it to report.
13.We have faced difficulty securing documents and necessary visit approval from the Ministry of Defence. We request an explanation for the delay in responding to reasonable requests for documents and for the refusal of the virtual visit at the last minute. This Committee is an important part of the scrutiny of the Armed Forces Bill and has the power to undertake visits.It is essential that, in future, the Government provide requested documents in a timely manner and authorise reasonable visit requests in order for this Committee to properly carry out its scrutiny.
14.This Special Report gives an outline of the issues we considered in detail and makes a number of observations and recommendations on matters within the Bill and of relevance to the Armed Forces which require the Government’s attention. We hope that this report, along with the oral and written evidence we have received, and the records of our deliberations will assist the House in its further consideration of the Bill.
15.The Government should respond to the recommendations made by the Committee in this special report by written ministerial statement, within two calendar months. The Government should ensure that it engages with Members across the House at later stages of consideration of this Bill, taking on board our specific conclusions and recommendations.