The Commercial Secretary to the Treasury (Lord Sassoon): My Lords, there is a memorandum of understanding which sets out a framework for co-operation between the Office for Budgetary Responsibility and HM Treasury. It states that they are expected to meet regularly to scrutinise forecasting assumptions. The OBR will publish a list of contacts with Ministers, special advisers and their private offices shortly after each autumn and Budget forecast. All credible forecasters are clear that the UK economic recovery will continue. The OBR will publish a new economic forecast later this year.
I know that the Chancellor cannot introduce a plan B because it would kill plan A. When the BBC last week gave him an alternative, the Chancellor said that "flexibility" was written into his plan. What does he mean by flexibility? Is it the Treasury's special reserve? If so, can he remind us how much is in it and how much is left after expenditure on the MoD, Libya and other departments? Is that what he meant? If so, can he exceed it with the permission of the House of Commons? Therefore, is that a sort of plan B?
Lord Sassoon: I would love to be able to tell noble Lords what was in the mind of Robert Peston or whoever was being quoted, because it certainly was not the Chancellor. It was somebody interpreting the mind of the Chancellor.
Of course, there are certain ways in which there is flexibility within the numbers, because the automatic stabilisers operate as the economy fluctuates. In that sense there is flexibility, but I have no idea otherwise what that particular commentator had in mind. It certainly had nothing to do with use of the reserve.
Lord Higgins: My Lords, has my noble friend noted that the recent report of the IMF on the UK economy suggests that the Chancellor's plan A, as the noble Lord referred to it, is on the right course? However, is not the growth forecast referred to in the Question none the less pretty disappointing? Is this not a reflection
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Lord Sassoon: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for pointing out the IMF's recent assessment that endorses the deficit reduction plan, as has the Governor of the Bank of England and just about every other commentator I can think of. That is the plan to which we stick. The third Question this afternoon is on matters related to the Monetary Policy Committee and maybe it would be better to talk about monetary matters then.
Lord Peston: My Lords, does the noble Lord look every month as I do at an admirable document published by his own department which is a survey of all the independent forecasts made every month by the leading forecasters in this country? Is he aware that their latest figures show that the economy will grow by 1.5 per cent this year, not exactly the greatest performance ever; it is predicted to grow by 2.1 per cent next year and the medium-term forecast is approximately 2.3 per cent for the three further years? Is he aware therefore that alleged independent Office for Budget Responsibility, in the document quoted with great approval in the Budget Statement this year, predicted that for the three medium-term years the economy would grow at 2.8 to 2.9 per cent? When will he or his right honourable colleague the Chancellor go back to this alleged Office for Budget Responsibility and ask it how it managed to get the three most important numbers it was talking about wrong?
Lord Sassoon: My Lords, I recognise the numbers that the noble Lord, Lord Peston, quotes from the excellent monthly publication that the Treasury produces averaging out the independent forecasts. The Office for Budget Responsibility last published a forecast in March. It is obliged to put out forecasts at least twice a year. We can look forward to another one in the autumn and we will see what it has to say then. As to the extraordinary charge of the alleged independence of the Office for Budget Responsibility, I was pleased to see, only within the past couple of weeks, that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, has been appointed as one of the first two non-executive members of the office, which is a sure sign that its independence is going to be very safely guarded.
Lord Jones of Birmingham: How on earth do this Government intend to meet their growth forecast if they do not rebalance the economy through a quality manufacturing strategy and if at the first whiff of gunshot they still buy German trains and not those made in Derby?
Lord Sassoon: My Lords, first, it is not our forecast. These are the forecasts of the independent Office for Budget Responsibility. Secondly, what is very heartening in the economy is the growth of manufacturing output and the growth of exports. Since last May, manufacturing output has been 4.2 per cent higher than in the same period in the previous year. Since last May, volumes of exports to the rest of the world have been nearly 13 per
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Lord Eatwell: My Lords, it is very helpful for the noble Lord to introduce the idea of rebalancing. Will he confirm that a vital component of the coalition's policy to rebalance the economy is growth in business investment? Indeed, the OBR budget forecast contains a projected growth rate of 6.7 per cent for business investment. Will he confirm that latest figures show that business investment is not growing at all, but falling by more than 3 per cent a year?
Lord Sassoon: My Lords, I do not know where the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, gets his figures from. Since last May, businesses have invested £91.4 billion across the economy and that is 9 per cent higher than in the same period in the previous year. That is very positive confirmation by business of what it sees as the prospects for this economy.
To ask Her Majesty's Government how they intend to respond to the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in April that they should make proposals to grant prisoners the vote within six months of that ruling.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally): My Lords, the Government are considering the next steps and Parliament will be the first to be informed when the decisions on the way forward have been reached.
Lord Willoughby de Broke: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for that helpful reply, but it does not take us very much further. In February this year, the other place voted by a majority of 212 against giving prisoners the vote, and during the passage of the EU Bill the Government made great play of the sovereignty of Parliament. Which body is actually sovereign? Is it the UK Parliament or the European Court of Human Rights?
Lord McNally: On the question of the commitments made last April, we have promised to make our position clear on 11 October. On the question of sovereignty, of course this Parliament remains sovereign. In many cases over the years, Britain has signed up to conventions and treaties as the will of Parliament, and that is still the case with regard to the European Convention on Human Rights.
Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, as the United Kingdom is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, are we not bound to accept the jurisdiction of the court unless we seek to withdraw from it, which would hardly be in the interests of this country? However, if there is a widespread concern, not only in this country but in other countries, about the jurisprudence of the court, is it not more sensible to enter into discussions about possible amendments to the convention on human rights rather than its break-up and withdrawing from the jurisdiction of the court?
Lord McNally: One reassuring thing is that I am not aware of any party represented in this House that is looking for us either to withdraw from the convention or to see it break up. My noble friend is right: we are looking to see whether we can put forward a proper and sensible programme of reform for the court. My right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor spelled out our agenda, as it were, in a speech in Turkey a few months ago, and we will be taking that agenda forward when we take up the chairmanship of the Council of Europe in November.
Lord Anderson of Swansea: Does the Minister agree that while there may be a case for asking for an extension of time while awaiting the Grand Chamber judgment in the Scoppola case, which also involves prisoners' rights, and a case for negotiating with the court on the broad margin of appreciation allowed in the Hirst case, there is no case whatever for defying the court, as a number of Members of the other place seem rather keen to do, particularly at a time when the UK will assume the chairmanship of the Council of Ministers in November? What sort of precedent would that give to defaulting members such as Turkey and Russia?
Lord McNally: The noble Lord makes the key point in all this. It looks rather macho to say that we are going to defy the court, but one of the real benefits of the convention over the past 60 years has been that it has levered up respect for human rights right across Europe and continues to do so. If I, any of my noble friends, or any member of the Opposition were to meet marginal observers of human rights and put pressure on them, our words would not carry much weight if they were able to say, "Well, when it got tough for you to accept the decisions, you did not accept them".
Lord McNally: There is a saying, "You can tell a man who boozes by the company that he chooses". I am well aware of the reasons why Peers cannot vote, because we already have a vote in Parliament. I do not think that that rules out the case for prisoner voting-it is an ongoing debate and the Government are studying the various issues. Another reason why the Government are continuing to have to study those issues is that there are changes in the court's position. The Italian case that the noble Lord referred to means that again there is a slight change in the court's view on these matters, which may change future actions.
Lord Tomlinson: The noble Lord speaks very clearly and enthusiastically about our responsibilities of adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights. Instead of concentrating so much on this micro case of prisoner voting, will he concentrate equally on the macro problem of making the court work? The biggest problem at the European Court of Human Rights is the backlog of cases-over 100,000 cases-and the real reason for the backlog is because the court is being starved of money by the members who have to finance it. Will he make sure that that problem is now seriously addressed so that the court can get on with its real work on the big scale?
Lord McNally: I am not sure I entirely agree that it is simply a lack of money or budget. I know that the noble Lord has made this point about the financing of the court before, but that is why my right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor has made this such an important part of our presidency of the Council of Europe; as the noble Lord says, any court that has a backlog of over 100,000 cases ain't working. We are going to do our best, and we are gathering support for the idea of trying, to get some fundamental reform of the court.
Baroness Lister of Burtersett: My Lords, does the Minister agree that if we deny all prisoners one of the most basic rights of citizenship-that is, the vote-they are less likely to fulfil their responsibilities of citizenship on release?
The Commercial Secretary to the Treasury (Lord Sassoon): My Lords, the Bank of England Act 1998 states that the objectives of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England are to maintain price stability and, subject to that, to support the economic policy of the Government. The Chancellor reaffirmed in Budget 2011 that the MPC will continue to target 2 per cent inflation as defined by the 12-month increase in the consumer prices index.
Lord Spicer: I thank my noble friend for that Answer-and take it as a yes. In the light of that, what response are the Government giving to the stream of letters of apology from the Governor of the Bank of England for not meeting the inflation target?
Lord Sassoon: My Lords, it is part of the discipline of the way in which the Monetary Policy Committee operates that it is required to write letters to the Chancellor when inflation is outside the target range. The most recent exchange of letters was in May 2011, in which the Chancellor recognised the factors driving
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Lord Myners: My Lords, as the Minister said, the Bank of England has two monetary policy objectives: to deliver the inflation target, currently set at 2 per cent, and to deliver growth-and to be accountable to the Treasury and Parliament for doing so. On which of those two objectives does the Minister think the governor and the Bank of England are doing best?
Lord Sassoon: I would always hesitate to hold up and criticise the characterisation of the Bank of England MPC's target by the noble Lord, Lord Myners. However, as I have made clear, it has one primary target-to maintain price stability, with the target that I have already confirmed-and it is doing a fine job in extremely difficult circumstances, when oil prices are 40 per cent higher than they were at the end of last year and agricultural prices are 60 per cent higher than a year ago. Against that background the MPC is doing a fine job in very difficult conditions.
Lord Higgins: Having not got an answer on the first Question, I shall try again. Would my noble friend agree that much of the problem is that the present inflation is imported rather than domestically generated, and that needs to be taken into account in making these decisions? None the less, the MPC also has responsibility for growth. Given the low rate of growth, and the low rate of growth in money supply, is there not a further case for more quantitative easing?
Lord Sassoon: I apologise to my noble friend for cutting him off earlier, but I am glad that he has got in now. It is certainly a bit of a puzzle that there is continued weakness in broad money growth at a time when nominal GDP is growing. I am no macroeconomist, but when I look at the tables I see that, among other things, the velocity of the circulation of broad money is increasing. I cannot see behind me to see whether my noble friend is nodding, but I think he is, so I am all right on that one. Any question of additional quantitative easing or withdrawal of quantitative easing will be decisions for the MPC whenever it sees fit.
Lord Eatwell: My Lords, would the Minister agree that increases in commodity prices and oil prices affect the economy of France, Germany and the United States just as much as they do of Britain? Why then is Britain's inflation rate more than twice that of France, twice that of Germany and significantly greater than that of the United States?
Lord Sassoon: My Lords, the really important thing here is that the inflation expectations remain very low. All the range of forecasters is predicting that inflation will come down to the range of 2 per cent to 2.1 per cent in 2012 and beyond. That is the critical challenge for the MPC, in which it has the market's confidence, and that is what underpins the very low interest rates that we continue to enjoy. We suffer, inherited from the last Government, a deficit the size of Portugal's, but we have interest rates at the level of Germany's.
Lord Newby: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that at a time when real incomes are falling, if the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee were to raise interest rates now the principal effect would simply be to reduce growth and increase unemployment?
Lord Stern of Brentford: Would the Minister agree that we are fortunate that the Bank of England has taken account of the fragility of output and employment in the UK economy, and will he assure us that the Government will also take account of that fragility in setting their own policy?
Lord Sassoon: My Lords, I can confirm the first part of what the noble Lord, Lord Stern, says. What the Government will do is to stick to a very firm, clear deficit reduction plan as the background against which the Monetary Policy Committee can make its decisions with confidence.
Lord Maples: My Lords, consumer price inflation is only one measure of inflation. May I suggest that if in the run-up to the crash the Monetary Policy Committee had been looking at asset price inflation-
Baroness Verma: My Lords, my noble friend Lady Tonge will be pleased to know that on 3 July the Government announced significant funding for the World Food Programme to help feed 1.3 million people in Ethiopia. The UK is the second largest bilateral donor in Ethiopia. Additional responses are rapidly being prepared for Somalia and Kenya, and we are
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Baroness Tonge: I thank the noble Baroness for that response. Is she aware that the population of the four countries currently threatened by famine has grown from 41 million in 1960 to 167 million now and that it is still rising fast? This huge rise is unsustainable and makes populations more vulnerable than ever to drought and crop failures. Will she now repeat the Government's pledges to give more money to maternal health and, in particular, ensure that when we deliver food aid to starving populations we should also deliver contraceptive supplies and health education to try to ensure that the children whose lives we save today will not be bringing their children to the feeding centres in 10 or 20 years' time?
Baroness Verma: My Lords, my noble friend is aware that the DfID programmes are concentrating on ensuring that maternal and reproductive health is at the centre of all our programmes. Of course, the noble Baroness is right that the populations in these particularly poor countries are growing far more rapidly than those in more developed countries. However, it is through education and supporting women to get better healthcare that we will be able to address this problem.
Lord Judd:My Lords, I declare an interest as a former director of Oxfam. Does the Minister agree that in their welcome response to this terrible crisis the Government must take care to ensure that, in the distribution of assistance, they do not inadvertently undermine sustainability in the area and that this will be done sensitively, in a way that enables people to build their lives again and build their sustainability? Is it not very important to co-operate with the NGOs, with all their insight into the situation, in achieving this?
Baroness Verma: The noble Lord is right. We have to work on a long-term plan, but we also have to react and respond to the crisis at the moment. The noble Lord will be aware that we have just had a review of the way we distribute humanitarian aid and we want to build on the recommendations of my noble friend Lord Ashdown so that there is resilience in the system as well as responding in the short term.
Lord Patel: My Lords, on the basis that famines do not occur overnight and that conditions exist for some time before the crisis develops, would it not be better if the Government were able to have some plans that they could put into action in order to be ahead of the curve, so that the effects of the famine, or other crisis, could be mitigated?
Baroness Verma: The noble Lord, Lord Patel, is right. Following on from the previous question, it is about ensuring that we have warning systems in place. We are also working hard to build long-term resilience by providing assistance on how to develop economic growth and by ensuring that populations are better educated in healthcare in order to be able to respond to the needs themselves.
Baroness Verma: My noble friend raises an important question. While we are world leaders, we are pressing Governments, not just from developed donor countries, but also from regional donor countries, to ensure that they are playing their part in responding to this crisis.
Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead: Will the Minister comment on the fact that we knew full well that the Horn of Africa was experiencing the driest year in six decades and the worst regional food crisis in this century, so it need not have been such a surprise to donors? Does she agree that, yet again, the response to what is clearly a desperately serious food crisis has come too late-indeed, only after disaster has struck and thousands of desperate people have been forced to seek food and refuge in refugee camps?
Baroness Verma: The noble Baroness is right: this was forecast. However, we in the UK are playing our part and pressing other donor countries to play theirs. We know that there is a shortfall and we are pressing other Governments to ensure that they respond. We are working very hard with agencies across the globe. Ultimately, it is about ensuring that we are putting long-term resilience plans into place, which take time to build up. At the same time, we will press for short-term responses from other Governments.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, my noble friend talked about the encouragement of other donor agencies. I am sure that she is aware that the Disasters Emergency Committee is still in discussion with the member agencies on whether the catastrophe meets its appeal criteria, although some of its member agencies such as Oxfam and Save the Children have already issued separate appeals. What can my noble friend and the Government do to encourage wider and more effective co-ordination of the voluntary agencies in responding to this and future disasters? In particular, will they encourage wider co-operation between our agencies and those of the Irish Government?
Baroness Verma: My noble friend is right: we need to have better co-ordination. We are working closely with the noble Baroness, Lady Amos. Ultimately, this is about us showing our leadership and pressing other donor countries and organisations to join in the response to this urgent crisis.
The Earl of Sandwich: Will the Minister confirm that, while the aid budget is ring-fenced, there are going to be cuts in the administration of our aid? How will these impact on the emergency services? Will they be protected?
Baroness Verma: I assure the noble Earl that we are looking at cutbacks only in back-office work. Our aid effectiveness will not be affected; in fact, we will be able to deliver better because it will be more focused on results. How we deliver our aid will be at the heart of what we are doing.
That the Commons message of 23 June be considered and that a Committee of thirteen Lords be appointed to join with the Committee appointed by the Commons to consider and report on the draft House of Lords Reform Bill presented to both Houses on 17 May (Cm 8077) and that the Committee should report on the draft Bill by 29 February 2012;
B Andrews, L Hennessy of Nympsfield, L Bishop of Leicester, L Norton of Louth, L Richard, L Rooker, B Scott of Needham Market, B Shephard of Northwold, B Symons of Vernham Dean, L Trefgarne, L Trimble, L Tyler, B Young of Hornsey.
Lord Williamson of Horton: My Lords, I welcome the selection of members for the Joint Committee, and I wish the noble Lord, Lord Richard, and his colleagues godspeed-but of course not too much speed-in the completion of their report.
The Joint Committee's remit is very wide because the draft Bill itself has a very wide scope, covering composition, functions and the efficiency of the House. However, I suggest that in looking at the draft Bill the committee might also look at the issues raised by the Bill presented by the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, because they, too, would improve the efficiency of the House. The noble Lord the Chairman of Committees and the noble Lord the Leader of the House will not be surprised by this comment, because the Steel Bill has the character of the legendary phoenix-when the blaze dies down, the Steel Bill arises alive and well from the ashes.
Lord Steel of Aikwood: My Lords, I would like to speak to the line in the resolution that invites the committee to send for a person's papers and records. If one reads the report of the two-day debate that we had in this House plus the day's debate in the Commons, it is obvious that there are five major issues with which the committee is going to have to grapple. These are, first, the question of whether it is to be 80 per cent or 100 per cent elected, and a subsidiary to that is the role of the Bishops' Bench; secondly, what the election system is to be, as two are outlined in the White Paper but there are others; thirdly, whether the suggested 15-year term is correct, as it was heavily criticised in debate in the other place by supporters of the Bill; fourthly, how the transition from the appointed House to the elected House is to be managed; and, fifthly, perhaps most important of all, what the concordats are to be between the two elected Houses-how will disputes be resolved and what has been the experience of other dual legislatures in that matter? I have enormous respect for the noble Lord, Lord Richard. I have known him in all his previous incarnations, and think he is a man of great wisdom and experience. But, frankly, he is not a magician. To expect a committee of 26 to deal with these five major issues, plus the four housekeeping matters in the Private Members' Bill that I have been promoting, seems to me impossible to achieve by the date of February which is set out in the resolution. I see that the noble Lord is agreeing with me.
For that reason, I hope that the Committee will seek to send for two papers, which I want to quote. The first is the report from the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral, which has already been debated in this House. Perhaps I may quote two passages from it. Paragraph 47 states:
"We recommend that a reduction in the number of members of the House should result in an overall saving to the taxpayer. We recommend that the possibility of offering a modest pension, or payment on retirement, to those who have played an active part in the work of the House over a number of years, should be investigated in detail, though on condition that this should come from within the existing budget for the House and should incur no additional public expenditure".
"We are attracted by this 'value for money' argument and think it likely that, with appropriate actuarial and accountancy input, it would be possible to identify the potential saving to the public purse which could be achieved if the membership of the House were to be reduced significantly without delay".
I suggest that the Joint Committee should look at these two reports. If it does, it would be fully justified in batting this issue back to the Government, and saying, "You have ignored these two reports. This cannot go on. The House is becoming impatient. You should get on with it, and leave us to deal with these five fundamental issues concerning the creation of an elected House, which is quite a separate matter".
Lord Grenfell: I, too, welcome the composition of the committee: it is a very good choice of Lords' members. With regard to the coalition Government's attitude towards this process, I am inclined to Voltaire's view that common sense is sometimes very uncommon. The Deputy Prime Minister has recently been saying that he wants to incorporate into the legislation much of what is in the Steel Bill. How does that square with what the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, said, in issuing his Augustinian warning that speed should not be too speedy? If we follow those two courses, the excellent recommendations in the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, will not be incorporated until some very distant time, when possibly the legislation might become an Act of Parliament. I feel that the coalition is looking a gift horse in the mouth. This gift horse actually has extremely good teeth, and they should buy it. If we have to wait until legislation is passed, which may be a very long time indeed, we miss out on the possibility of instituting the extremely important, sensible and needed reforms that are recommended as an interim measure in the Steel Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Richard, is indeed a sagacious man, and he has an excellent but very large committee. I suggest that the committee looks at the existing powers of your Lordships' House and commissions a study to find out how far those powers have not been used by your Lordships' House acting in a spirit of restraint. Only yesterday, my noble friend the Leader of the House asked for 14 Motions to be approved en bloc. It was pointed out on the Order Paper, as it is every time we have such a Motion before us, that all those things could be individually debated. Could an elected House not debate them at great length? Could an elected House, in conflict with the other elected House and in disagreement with the Government of the day, not cause absolute chaos by exercising the powers that we currently have but do not exercise? I ask the committee to look at just how far your Lordships' House has exercised self-restraint in recent years, and at what would be the consequence if all the things that we could debate were debated, often at great length, and voted on. This is entirely relevant to the committee's discussions. Since it has the power to send for people and papers, and to appoint advisers, I ask that this be considered.
My only other point is that the committee appears to have carte blanche to travel around the United Kingdom. I wish it well in its travels, which I hope will be lengthy and enjoyable. However, if the committee is to look at the effect of elected second Chambers, would it not be appropriate for it also to do some foreign research?
Lord Elton: My Lords, I welcome the names on the list, wish them every fortune in their work and accept that a central issue is the balance between the two Houses. I ask that the members, and those members of the other half of the Joint Committee who are to be appointed from the other House, recognise that the principal question here is not about the balance between the Houses but about the ability of Parliament to maintain oversight of central government; and that this is, perhaps, a closing stage in the 700-year campaign of government to achieve control of Parliament.
The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara): This Motion follows the decision of the House on 7 June to establish a Joint Committee to consider a report on the draft House of Lords Reform Bill. The Committee of Selection published a report on 17 June, proposing the names of those to be appointed. This Motion, if agreed, would appoint those Members named in the report. The Motion also confers a number of powers on the Joint Committee, which are the set of powers usually granted to Joint Committees. The list of names, which I am very proud to put forward, is admirable and I would be extremely surprised if the committee did not take into account all the points made by noble Lords in this short debate.
As for the point of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, about the committee travelling abroad, the powers to which I hope the House will shortly agree do not allow for that at the moment. However, if the committee said that it wanted to travel abroad, I am sure we would agree to that.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Strathclyde): My Lords, I would now like to make a Statement that was made earlier today by the Prime Minister in another place about his recent visit to Afghanistan.
"With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on Afghanistan. From the outset, this Government have sought to take a more hard-headed, more security-based approach to our mission. As I have said, we are not there to build a perfect democracy, still less a model society. Yes, we will help with the establishment of democratic institutions. Yes, we can improve infrastructure, develop education and encourage development. But we are in Afghanistan for one overriding reason: to ensure our own national security by helping the Afghans take control of theirs. This means building up the Afghan security forces so we can draw down British combat forces, with the Afghans themselves able to prevent al-Qaeda from returning and posing a threat to us and to our allies around the world.
This is particularly poignant today on the eve of the sixth anniversary of 7/7-an attack that was inspired by al-Qaeda and executed by extremists following the same perverted ideology that underpinned the September 11 attack in 2001. Three hundred and seventy-five British service men and women have died fighting in Afghanistan to help to strengthen that country and to keep Britain safe from another 9/11 or 7/7. Thousands more-including many civilians-have risked their lives, and hundreds have been injured fighting for the security of our nation. They have been part of an international coalition involving 48 countries with a specific UN mandate, working at the invitation of a democratically elected Government. Though there have been many, many difficult times, we should be clear about what has been achieved.
In 2009, my predecessor as Prime Minister told this House that some three-quarters of the most serious terrorist plots against Britain had links to Afghanistan and Pakistan. We must always be on guard, but I am advised that this figure is now significantly reduced. International forces have been bearing down on al-Qaeda and its former hosts, the Taliban, in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Pakistan, Osama bin Laden has been killed and al-Qaeda significantly weakened. In Afghanistan, British and international forces have driven al-Qaeda from its bases. While it is too early to tell for certain, initial evidence suggests that we have halted the momentum of the Taliban insurgency in its heartland in Helmand province.
We are now entering a new phase, in which the Afghan forces will do more of the fighting and patrolling, and our forces more training and mentoring. As President Obama said in his address last month, the mission is changing from 'combat to support'. When we arrived, there was no one to hand over to-no proper army, no police force. In many places across the country, the Afghan national security forces now stand ready to begin the process of taking over security responsibility.
Success in Afghanistan requires a number of critical steps. The first is making sure that the Afghan security forces are able to secure their own territory. I know there have been well known problems, especially with the Afghan police, but there has been real progress in the last two years. General Petraeus went out of his way to praise the recent performance of Afghan forces in a number of complex and dangerous operations. The Afghan forces are growing rapidly. They are ahead of schedule to meet the current target of 171,600 Afghan army and 134,000 Afghan police by the end of October this year. They are now deploying informed units and carrying out their own operations. There have been some real successes.
The Afghan national security forces have prevented insurgents from reaching many of their targets. And just eight days ago, when a major hotel was attacked in Kabul, the Afghan forces dealt with the situation. This was a major, sophisticated attack. The Afghan forces dealt with it professionally and speedily, only calling in assistance from a NATO helicopter to deal with insurgents on the roof. As General Petraeus stressed to me, the Afghan forces acquitted themselves very well. It is this growing strength and capability which will allow us over time to hand over control of security to the Afghan forces and draw down our own numbers.
We remain committed to the objective shared by President Karzai and the whole of NATO that the Afghans should assume lead security responsibility across the country as a whole by the end of 2014. Last month President Obama announced that the US will withdraw 10,000 of its forces from Afghanistan by the end of the year and will complete the removal of the US surge of 33,000 by the end of the summer of next year. At the time of the US surge, the UK increased its core force levels by an extra 500.
For our part, I have already said that we will withdraw 426 UK military personnel by February 2012. Today I can announce that the UK will be able to reduce its force levels by a further 500-from 9,500 to 9,000 by the end of 2012. This decision has been agreed by the National Security Council on the advice of our military commanders. These reductions reflect the progress that is being made in building up the ANSF. Indeed, it is worth noting that for every US soldier who leaves as the surge is removed, two Afghans will take their place.
This marks the start of a process which will ensure that by the end of 2014 there will not be anything like the number of British troops there as there are now, and they will not be serving in a combat role. This is the commitment I have made, and that is the commitment we will stick to.
Having taken such a huge share of the burden and having performed so magnificently for a decade now, the country needs to know that there is an end point to the level of our current commitment and to our combat operations. This decision is not only right for Britain; it is right for Afghanistan too. It has given the Afghans a clear deadline against which to plan, and has injected a sense of urgency into their efforts.
While there is a clear end-point to our military combat role after 2014, the UK will continue to have a major, strategic relationship with Afghanistan-a development relationship, a diplomatic relationship and a trade relationship. Above all, we have a vital national security interest in preventing Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for international terrorism.
So although our forces will no longer be present in a combat role, we will have a continuing military relationship. We will continue to train the Afghan security forces. In Afghanistan I announced plans for a new officer training academy. This was something President Karzai specifically asked me for; and I am proud that Britain is able to deliver it. We intend to lead the academy from 2013, in addition to maintaining our current role in the officer candidate school, which is due to merge with the academy in 2017.
So we will continue our efforts to help Afghanistan build a viable state. But our support cannot be unconditional. In my meeting with President Karzai, I made clear the Afghan Government's responsibility to ensure that British taxpayers' money is spent well and spent wisely. I emphasised to President Karzai just how important it is that he personally grips the problems around Kabul Bank and the need for a new IMF programme. I also urged him to support due democratic process and tackle corruption. And I made it very clear that while Britain wants to stand by Afghanistan beyond the end of our combat mission, we will only do so on the basis that Afghanistan must help itself too.
As we strengthen the Afghan Government and security forces, so we will also back President Karzai's efforts to work towards an Afghan-led political settlement. The death of bin Laden presents the Taliban with a moment of real choice. Al-Qaeda is weakened; its leader is dead. Last month the UN adopted two separate sanctions regimes, creating a clear distinction that separates the Taliban from al-Qaeda. Local peace councils have now been established in almost all Afghanistan's provinces. These have already allowed more than 1,800 people from 17 provinces to be enrolled on the scheme for reintegration. So we should take this opportunity to send a clear message to the Taliban: now is the time to break decisively from al-Qaeda and to participate in a peaceful political process.
In this task, we need Pakistan's assistance. As I discussed with President Zardari last week, this is now as much in Pakistan's interests as Britain's or Afghanistan's, as the Taliban poses a mortal threat to the state of Pakistan as well.
There is no reason why Afghanistan should be destined to remain a broken country. It has abundant mineral wealth, fertile agricultural land and stands at the crossroads of Asia's great trading highway. It has succeeded in the past, when not wracked by conflict.
Afghanistan still has many challenges ahead. There are real security issues and a lack of government capacity. But 10 years ago Afghanistan was in the grip of a regime that banned young girls from schools,
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Today, Afghanistan is no longer a haven for global terror; its economy is growing; it has a parliament, a developing legal system, provincial and district governors and the basic building blocks of what could be a successful democracy. In Helmand province-which, we should remember, with Kandahar was a stronghold of the Taliban and the insurgency-there is now a growing economy, falling poppy cultivation and many more effective district governors. The fact that President Karzai has been able to choose Lashkar Gar as one of the areas to include in the first phase of transition is a sign of the transformation that we have helped to bring about there.
As we enter this new phase of transition, I am sure the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to our service men and women who have made such incredible sacrifices to protect our national security. While we have been going about our daily lives they have been are out there, day and night, fighting in the heat and the dust, giving up the things that we all take for granted. That is the true character of the British Army, and it is why we are so incredibly proud of all our forces and the families who support them, and so grateful for everything that they do for us. I commend the Statement to the House".
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, as we prepare to remember the victims of the attacks of 7/7 tomorrow, we are all reminded of why we are engaged in Afghanistan-to secure our security at home. That is why we on this side of the House continue to support our forces in Afghanistan. We will also continue to support the intention to end the British combat role in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. It is right that we make clear to the Afghan Government and their security forces that they need to step up and take responsibility for the future of their country. It is also right that we make clear to the Afghan people, and indeed the British people, that this is not a war without end. This year and next we must maintain the combination of military pressure, the accelerated build-up of the Afghan security forces and the work on basic governance and justice. So we support the Government's plan to maintain British troop levels above 9,000, as they have been for the last two years, for this fighting season and the next. We will give our forces the best chance to consolidate the situation before the process of transition to Afghan control starts to accelerate in late 2012 and 2013, when our forces can start to come home in greater numbers.
Can the Leader of the House assure your Lordships that if our reductions go slower than those of other countries, particularly the Americans, that will not cause British forces to take on a disproportionate share of the burden in Helmand? Can the Government ensure that detailed plans for troop drawdown will always be based on military advice and on conditions on the ground?
We ask our troops to do a difficult job in testing circumstances, so can the Leader also assure the House that our Armed Forces will continue to receive all the equipment that they need in the months ahead, including the 12 Chinooks which the Prime Minister promised but for which the order has yet to be placed?
The bravery and professionalism of our Armed Forces deserves to be given the best chance of success. That will be realised only if we also see political progress in Afghanistan. We believe that just as important as the Americans' decision on troop numbers and military strategy is their decision to start talks with the Taliban representatives who are ready to renounce violence. It is right that those talks have been started in parallel with the military effort, and it is encouraging that both Pakistan and India are taking a more positive attitude to the process, but these are still talks about talks, and much work needs to be done between now and the Bonn conference in December if we are to make the most of that crucial opportunity.
Will the Government press the UN urgently to appoint a senior figure, preferably from the Muslim world, empowered by the Security Council to mediate between the Afghan Government, ISAF and the Taliban? Such a figure could also help to secure the commitment of the countries in the region to supporting a new political settlement reflecting their shared long-term interest in a stable Afghanistan.
Although it must remain a red line that the Taliban and others must commit to a peaceful political process, the current constitution need not be set in stone. Will the Government press the Afghan High Council to consider constitutional reforms, including allowing for a less centralised Afghan state? Those steps need to be taken now, so that by the time of the Bonn conference in December the ground has been prepared and real progress can be made.
As we look to a stronger Afghanistan, we all recognise that issues of governance and the rule of law need to be addressed. I therefore ask the Leader of the House about the ongoing scandal over the Kabul Bank. We welcome the fact that the Prime Minister raised the issue with President Karzai, but that problem symbolises the inability of the Afghan Government to distance themselves from corruption that threatens to undermine the Afghan economy and international development assistance, as well as grievously undermining the faith of the Afghan people in their Government. Can the Leader of the House tell us more about what role Britain is playing in getting the Afghan Government to take the necessary steps to tackle the crisis and allow the IMF to resume support?
Finally, I turn to Pakistan. We all accept that long-term stability in Afghanistan depends on stability in Pakistan. We recognise the hard work and sacrifice of the Pakistani security forces in tackling violent extremism in the north-west of the country, but the situation in Pakistan continues to be serious. There is a danger that bringing bin Laden to justice, which ought to have been welcomed on all sides, will usher in a greater era of mutual suspicion rather than co-operation. What steps are the Government taking to put British support for counterterrorism in Pakistan back on track?
We all want British troops to come home at the earliest opportunity, as do their families, but we also want to see the campaign concluded in a way that ensures that their service and sacrifice have not been in vain and that Afghanistan and the wider region moves to a stable future, rather than once again posing a serious threat to our security. We on these Benches welcome today's Statement as a step along the path, but we urge the Government to redouble their efforts to support a new political process for Afghanistan as the greatest priority for the months ahead.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition for her support for today's Statement, which I very much welcome. She asked a number of questions, which I shall try to answer. First, I thank her for her support on the end date for the combat mission at the end of 2014. It is important to have set a deadline to encourage all participants in the negotiations and, indeed, to apply a little pressure on the Afghans themselves to encourage them to raise their game in terms of the army and the police. All of those things are happening. The noble Baroness was right to say that it should not be a war without end-we very much agree with her-and the Afghanistan national security force has an important role to play over the next few years.
The noble Baroness asked about the reduction of the UK forces and whether they would be asked to take a disproportionate share of the burden as the US Army withdraws. I can confirm to her that there is no intention to take up any disproportionate part of that burden. Indeed, the drawdown takes place very clearly on the back of British military advice and is being done at a similar pace to the Americans, given that we did not have the same surge as the American army did.
On the question of equipment, it has been recognised for some years that British Armed Forces on mission in Afghanistan do have the equipment that they need. That has been widely welcomed. Of course we will continue to give the Armed Forces what they need while they are in the military zone.
The noble Baroness asked a most interesting question about the role of the United Nations and the possible creation of a figure from the Security Council who would help in those negotiations-help in mediation, I believe, is the phrase that the noble Baroness used. It is not a bad idea, but we feel that the moment for that has passed, because there is every indication that the two sides are already beginning to talk to each other without the need to add the ingredient of mediation. We would be unwilling to introduce a new ingredient into the process at this stage and, indeed, can see some potential undesirability in doing so. It is an Afghan-led process and we hope that it will continue to be.
The noble Baroness also asked a question about constitutional reform and a decentralised state. Our view is that we should not get hung up on every element of the constitution. We have no secret agenda to carve up the country. The people, the parliament and the president of Afghanistan need to work this out to their own timescale.
Perhaps even more important is the Kabul Bank scandal, which has been a shocking event. We are very keen that the Afghan Government and the IMF should reach an agreement on a new programme of support, which must include finding a resolution to the Kabul Bank situation. We very much support the view that there needs to be a recovery of assets, and indeed prosecutions, and that there should be a forensic audit of the Kabul Bank and any other banks that are involved. We also believe that the Afghan parliament needs to vote and agree to recapitalisation of the bank. We have been encouraging both sides-the Afghan Government and the IMF-to reach a satisfactory outcome as soon as possible. We have urged President Karzai to take the necessary action, which includes strengthening future bank supervision in Afghanistan as well as resolving issues relating to wrongdoing at the Kabul Bank.
Finally, the noble Baroness raised the all-important question of the relationship with Pakistan, such an important regional player, important to Afghanistan and particularly important to the United Kingdom. The bonds of the relationship between the United Kingdom and Pakistan are many and varied. They are also extremely strong. We have worked closely with Pakistan to try to achieve a unified view for Pakistan. The threat from the Taliban there is at least as clear as the threat to Afghanistan. However, I confirm to the noble Baroness that the links and the relationship between ourselves and the Pakistani Government continue to be strong, and we will continue to work closely together.
Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement in your Lordships' House. I associate these Benches with the tributes paid to our servicemen who are serving us so well and to those who are no longer with us.
I want to pursue the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, the Leader of the Opposition, made about identifying someone who can act as a catalyst in this process. I raise this because one of the successes of the Northern Ireland talks was the involvement and assistance of external elements. I particularly have in mind the former chief of the defence staff in Canada, General John de Chastelain. The Prime Minister was right to say recently when talking about the Taliban that the process of talks needs to proceed, although there will be differences of opinion from time to time. We should remember that there are deep-rooted differences between the Taliban and the Government of Karzai, and therefore, as the Prime Minister said, an external element coming from the Muslim community in that part of the world, free from any suspicions relating to western powers, might be able to assist in this task. It is in all our interests to have peace and stability in that region.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I warmly welcome the tribute to British servicemen that my noble friend Lord Dholakia has made. The question of mediation is really interesting. My noble friend used the word "catalyst" and made a comparison with Northern Ireland. One of the problems with Northern Ireland
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Baroness D'Souza: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord the Leader for repeating the Statement and, indeed, I associate the Cross-Benchers with the tributes that have been paid to our courageous soldiers in Afghanistan.
I think it is widely accepted that women in Afghanistan have had a pretty bad time over the past centuries and particularly during the era of the Taliban. The Afghan Women's Network, which is a very respected organisation, wishes to carry out, through many of the women's groups that exist throughout the country, a nationwide survey of their hopes and fears with a view to bringing those views to the hugely important conference that is to take place in Bonn in December this year. Unfortunately, the Afghan Women's Network does not have the resources to carry out the survey. We all know that the British Government are giving an enormous amount of aid to Afghanistan-aid that, in particular, is hugely supportive of women and women's networks. Unfortunately, much of the aid that goes via the Government does not trickle down to the Afghan Women's Network or similar groups. It is deeply important that this survey should be carried out because it means that the views of millions of women across Afghanistan can be brought to the conference in Bonn in December and that their views will be at the centre of the conference rather than just on the margins and can form part of the agreement that is reached following that conference. Can the noble Lord the Leader of the House try to ensure that the funds are made available to the Afghan Women's Network so that they can carry out this survey?
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Convenor of the Cross Benches for what she has said. She is right about the problems facing the people of Afghanistan. Over a third of Afghanistan's people live in poverty, and Afghanistan remains 155th of 169 countries on the UN's 2010 Human Development Index. But-it is a small but, because it is good news-the UK Government through DfID will commit £712 million to Afghanistan over the course of the next four financial years; and in 2010-11 5.7 million children are attending school-nearly half a million more than last year-and 37 per cent of those attending are girls.
None of that solves the issue that the noble Baroness raised on the Afghan Women's Network, which wishes to carry out this survey. I am sure that it is an extremely good idea. Perhaps the best way for me to proceed would be to draw the noble Baroness's words to the attention of the Secretary of State of DfID to see whether, through his organisation, this is something the department would see some benefit in.
Lord Davies of Stamford: My Lords, no one wishes to keep British troops in Afghanistan for a moment longer than is necessary. Nevertheless, I am very disturbed by the Statement that the noble Lord the Leader of the House has read out today. Surely it makes no sense to engage in negotiations with the Taliban while announcing in advance a deadline for withdrawal, irrespective of progress in those negotiations. Of course it is necessary to keep the Afghan national army and police up to the mark by continuing to confer additional responsibilities and duties on them to see how they cope with those and to keep them challenged, but that could be done without making what I fear is going to be a very fundamental mistake in these negotiations.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I understand the noble Lord's point but, with the deepest respect, his is an outdated view of the negotiation process. I also understand why he holds it. What has changed in the last couple of years is that the Afghan armed forces and police are in a much better position to take over the role currently held by different European, American and NATO forces in Afghanistan. That is the first point. The second point is that there has been a growing realisation that to some extent the Taliban is motivated by the fear that foreign troops will remain in the country indefinitely. We wanted to send a signal that that was not the case. These things are always hard to forecast but we believe this is the right way, not just for Britain but for Afghanistan. It will encourage Afghanistan to negotiate seriously and to raise the professionalism of its armed forces and police. If we get it right, we will have achieved our aim of providing long-term stability for the people of Afghanistan.
Lord Eden of Winton: My Lords, will my noble friend convey our congratulations to the Prime Minister on having made such a timely and important visit to Afghanistan, and on the comprehensive nature of the Statement that he repeated to the House? While the talks with the Taliban are obviously welcome, can we have some assurance that representatives of the Taliban who are engaged in these discussions will actually be in a position to deliver? Is it not important that, while there are talks with central government, there are also discussions with provincial and other leaders in the regions beyond the centre, for it is there, on the ground, that the small steps of progress will carry the most significant impact?
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I shall certainly pass on my noble friend's congratulations to the Prime Minister on the timeliness of his visit and the comprehensiveness of his Statement. On the substantive point of my noble friend's question on talks with the Taliban, I broadly agree. We are at the earliest stages of those discussions. Contact has been made, and it must be up to the Afghans to progress the talks. It is an Afghan-led process. I do not suppose there is ever a guarantee that the people with whom you are discussing these issues centrally have the ability to deliver, but I am sure that over time the talks must include provincial leaders, too. If I have any more information to add, I shall write to my noble friend.
Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement. In it, reference is made to the importance of equipping our forces in Afghanistan. A commitment was made in the strategic defence and security review to order more helicopters. The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, asked whether those helicopters had yet been ordered. If they have been delayed, is there not a fear that the Treasury will argue that they could not be in theatre before our withdrawal is started?
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I can tell the noble and gallant Lord that the position has not changed since the announcement in the SDSR. We plan to buy 12 additional Chinook helicopters as well as a further two to replace those lost in operations in Afghanistan in 2009. The Ministry of Defence is working towards the main investment decision on these helicopters.
Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, we welcome the Statement, particularly its emphasis on reconciliation, but it does not mention that reconciliation is possible only within a framework where the minimal guarantees in the Afghan constitution that women's rights, education and some of the other things that we believe are so important will be delivered through peace negotiations. I fear that if we signal to the Taliban that we will respect it in high office without its renouncing its ideology or making any change to reflect adherence to the constitution, we will not be able to undertake the major strategic relationship that the Prime Minister seeks after 2014.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I cannot give my noble friend an answer about NATO and air support post 2014. All I can confirm is that it is the intention of the British Government that British service men and women should not be in combat roles after 2014.
My noble friend's first question was entirely different, being about the role of the constitution in negotiations. It is sometimes nice to believe that we, sitting or standing here, can micromanage this process of negotiation, and I am sure that my noble friend will agree with me that we cannot. We have to believe that those who are most involved in the Afghan-led process can work-for example, by making the preliminary contacts, as they have done-so as to try to deliver a settlement that is inclusive and that addresses the political and economic aspirations of all Afghan citizens, including women, who have been treated so badly in the past, and to try to promote security and stability in the wider region. The process must be actively supported by Afghanistan's neighbours and international partners, including us. My noble friend is not wrong to raise these issues, but it is important that we should not micromanage them.
Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord the Leader of the House for repeating that Statement. All of us in this House are very aware of the commitment of our troops and of the civilians working for us in Afghanistan. I would like to point
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We are in danger of deluding ourselves. We are a minor partner, albeit an important one, in an alliance, but the key driver of what is happening in Afghanistan is the United States. Does the noble Lord the Leader of the House agree that once the United States decided that it was going to go and to a certain timetable, we had to fit in with it? It is right for us to be getting out of there, but there was no alternative other than to fit in with that. It is wrong to pretend that we are setting an agenda, which is how we have deluded ourselves in the past.
My other point is that I have real concerns about categorising Afghanistan as of major strategic interest-I think the Leader said-to this country in future. I produced the first national security strategy. A country that is of major strategic interest to us demands from us considerable resources and a willingness to intervene again to do all sorts of things, and I do not believe that, looking to a long-term future, we can afford to make countries such as Afghanistan of major strategic interest. There are areas of major strategic interest, but we cannot go on like this or we will find out that we are involved across the whole world.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord West, reminded the House that the combat role in Afghanistan is not limited to the British Army. My noble friend Lord Astor of Hever reminded me that there are also marines, Royal Navy and RAF personnel in Afghanistan. Indeed, the whole spectrum of the British Armed Forces has been working hard, as have many civilians. It is right that we should support every one of them in the work that we do.
The noble Lord, Lord West, is also right, inevitably, when he says that the key driver is the USA. However, the links between us and the USA are extremely strong. I do not think there is any sense of delusion that the British would carry on operations in Afghanistan without America.
On the point about us having a major strategic interest in Afghanistan, I hope the noble Lord would agree that we may have such an interest not just in Afghanistan itself but in a region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Given the history of terrorism in the last 10 years or so, there are reasons why we should maintain a major strategic interest in the region. I also agree with him about not deluding ourselves-to use his words again- and I do not think we should delude ourselves about our ability to change as much as we think we would like to. We work in partnership with our NATO allies and our American allies to bring as much peace and stability to the region as we can.
Lord Kerr of Kinlochard: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on his diplomacy in handling your Lordships' questions. I understand exactly what he says about the importance of the internal talks being an Afghan-led process. I know that he is not ruling out the possibility that they could be facilitated and assisted by outsiders.
However, I go back to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, who stressed the importance of proper preparation for the Bonn conference. She is absolutely right. I know that the noble Lord agrees with her and I am sure that he sees a role for the UK in trying to ensure that all those in the region with the greatest interest in the future stability of Afghanistan are properly involved in preparations for Bonn, and that includes not just the Chinese, Russians and Indians but the Iranians.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, the noble Lord is entirely right. He offered me some praise, which is deeply flattering, and I thank him for it. It is an Afghan-led process and it is important that it should be seen to be so. However, this House knows better than many other houses of parliament how important regional influences are. I would have thought that all those involved in the process understand the need to bring in as many international stakeholders as possible in order to give the long-term peace, stability and potential for growth that the people of Afghanistan crave.
Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, there are 31 speakers signed up for the Second Reading of the Armed Forces Bill today. If Back-Bench contributions were to be kept to nine minutes, the House should be able to rise this evening at around the target rising time of 10 o'clock. This advisory time, as always, excludes the Minister's and the Opposition's opening and winding-up speeches.
The Ministry of Defence normally has an Armed Forces Bill every five years, so my task of speaking to the Bill today is a pleasure that falls to few Defence Ministers. I recall my involvement with the corresponding Bill five years ago, then as shadow Defence Minister. That Bill made very significant changes to the legislation governing the Armed Forces and established a single system of service law for the first time. I pay tribute to the then Government for their work to bring forward the legislation and for implementing it. It was a very large Bill. By comparison, the Bill we are considering today is considerably smaller-perhaps a tenth of the size-but, in its own way, it is also very important. This is reflected today in the large number of speakers from all corners of the House.
With long intervals between Bills, the Ministry of Defence tends to keep proposals that require primary legislation until the next one comes along. As a result, Armed Forces Bills such as this one often cover a wider range of topics than service discipline, which is traditionally the main subject.
With the leave of the House, I would like to pick out some highlights. Since coming to office, this Government have confirmed their commitment to rebuilding the Armed Forces covenant to do the right thing by the men and women who have served in our Armed Forces, today and in the past, together with their families. Just over a year ago, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister spoke on HMS "Ark Royal" about the Government's desire to write the covenant into the law of the land. We have looked at the best way to do that.
Our starting point is that the Armed Forces covenant is fundamentally a moral obligation-on the Government, on the nation and on the Armed Forces themselves. It can never be defined by a host of rules and regulations designed to tell everyone exactly what to do in every circumstance. Certainly, where rules need to be changed we will do so. But, generally, the people of this country know how service personnel should be treated. Our task is to create the right framework for that to happen, and to ensure that Parliament plays a central role.
The Bill requires my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence to lay a report before Parliament every year on the effects that membership of the Armed Forces has on service people. The Bill also provides for what the Secretary of State must cover in his report. For example, healthcare, education and housing are recognised as issues which will always be important to the service and the ex-service community. Other issues will only emerge at the time, so the Bill leaves this flexible.
There is also the question of who is covered. The Bill refers to a broad span of people. The total number of serving and former personnel and their families is around 10 million. This is one in six of the population. For ex-service personnel, it specifies an interest in those who are resident in the United Kingdom. Again, this does not stop a Secretary of State covering relevant issues for those who live abroad-for instance, Gurkhas living in Nepal-but it recognises that many aspects of their lives would be matters for their own Governments.
In preparing annual reports, the Ministry of Defence would consult widely with interested parties inside and outside Government. We hope that contributors will range from charities to the devolved Administrations. But the process of preparing reports will evolve over time. We are breaking new ground. We will learn from experience, listen to comments, and move forward in a positive way. I am clear that that is the right way to do it, rather than making the legislation excessively prescriptive.
Noble Lords will be aware that this part of the Bill has been the subject of extensive debate, both inside and outside Parliament. I would like to pay tribute to the Royal British Legion for the constructive contribution that it has made to that debate, as well as the huge amount of work that it does every day to support service people. We have listened to its views, among others, and we have amended the Bill to make clear that, in preparing the reports, the Secretary of State must have regard to the unique nature of service life, to the principle of minimising disadvantage, and to the principle of special treatment where appropriate. These are the core themes of the covenant and we agreed that they should be mentioned in the legislation.
I would like to say something about the devolved Administrations and the covenant. We want to ensure, as far as possible, that there is no difference of interpretation or implementation between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on issues like healthcare, education and housing. Our working relationships with the devolved Administrations are good. The Government want to work with them on the issues that are to be covered in the annual report. In this area, we favour collaboration rather than legislation. I understand, however, that some noble Lords have real concerns on this issue and I very much look forward to discussing them further in Committee.
Questions have also been raised about the independence of the report. The Government have undertaken to publish, alongside the annual report, whatever observations the external members of the covenant reference group-formerly the external reference group-choose to make on it. I repeat that undertaking here, to provide reassurance that the Government will deal with publication of the annual reports in an open and transparent way.
I should now like to cover briefly some of the other issues in the Bill. Last year, the High Court endorsed the ability of the service police to investigate the most serious allegations under the Armed Forces Act 2006. Nevertheless, we want to be sure that the independence and effectiveness of service police investigations have all the safeguards that we can possibly provide.
The first clause in the group places a duty on each of the three provost marshals-the heads of the service police forces-to ensure that service police investigations are carried out free from improper interference. The second clause provides for the service police to be inspected by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary. The third clause provides that the provost marshals will in future be appointed to their positions by Her Majesty the Queen, once again recognising and reinforcing their independence from the service chains of command when carrying out investigations.
There are also provisions in the Bill that will allow commanding officers the flexibility to deal with unfitness through drugs and alcohol. There are two parts to this. One is where commanding officers have reasonable cause to believe that a service person's ability to carry out a prescribed duty is impaired due to drugs or alcohol. The other is a power to test where they have reasonable cause to believe that a person is in breach of a limit on alcohol specified in regulations in relation
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The main reason for these changes is to act as a deterrent and to create a safer environment when service personnel are carrying out safety-critical tasks in the course of their employment generally and on operations. Rather than limiting commanding officers to acting after an incident has taken place as happens at present, the changes in the Bill will allow commanding officers to act earlier in the future.
The Bill also contains provisions that will allow members of the Reserve Forces to be mobilised to serve, alongside their regular counterparts in the United Kingdom, in a wider range of circumstances than is permitted at present under the Reserve Forces Act 1996. Examples of where reservists could be mobilised under the new arrangements include the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001, where the work did not fall within the definition in the 1996 Act; a major disruption to the road and rail network requiring assistance with the distribution of food and blood supplies; and unarmed support to the security operation for the London 2012 Olympic Games.
The provisions are consistent with the work that has been undertaken as part of the Future Reserves 2020 Study, which aims to improve the integration and employability of the reserves within a whole force.
Much was said five years ago about the extent to which the then Armed Forces Bill kept the commanding officer at the heart of service discipline. That Bill became the Armed Forces Act 2006. In practice, it has proved to be a good piece of legislation, and I am pleased to reassure noble Lords that the current Bill does nothing to disturb the arrangements. The commanding officer remains at the heart of service discipline.
I am immensely proud of our Armed Forces. They do a brilliant job, often in the most difficult circumstances. The Bill will allow them to carry on doing that job. Through the reference to the Armed Forces covenant, the Bill also provides the basis for their service to be recognised. I also pay tribute to the families and communities who support them.
Baroness Crawley: My Lords, I begin by paying tribute to our Armed Forces and the extraordinary commitment they show in protecting both this nation and, when necessary, people of other countries. Our Armed Forces have been particularly heavily engaged in operations over the past few years and a large number of personnel have made the ultimate sacrifice while serving their country. Many more have suffered life-changing and very challenging injuries. We have nothing but the greatest admiration and respect for the courage and enormous bravery of our Armed Forces.
An Armed Forces Bill, as we have heard, is needed every five years to provide the legal basis for the Armed Forces and the system of military law we have here in the United Kingdom. I thank the Minister for his résumé of the provisions of the Bill and for putting
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In early May this year proceedings on the Bill in another place were delayed by the Government; and in mid-May the Prime Minister, under heavy pressure to honour the commitment he had given the previous June, stated that the principles of the military covenant would now be incorporated in the Bill.
Of the need for the covenant there can be little doubt. Our Armed Forces face significant redundancies, with the first round of 11,000 being announced in just less than two months' time. It appears that there may not be a shortage of applicants in some areas, including among senior Army officers. Money, of course, may be one factor, in the light of pay freezes, as well as a view that more could be earned outside the services. A feeling among some that our Armed Forces are now involved in managing decline and that promotion will be more difficult to secure does not help. Some financial benefits are being cut, or their scope reduced, which may only encourage some to leave. The continuity of education allowance has been restricted, the overseas allowance cut and travel, fuel and expense allowances reduced. Pensions for Armed Forces personnel will no longer be increased in line with the retail prices index, but instead in line with the consumer prices index, which, it is generally agreed, will result in smaller pensions. This is a blow to all concerned.
Of course, there will equally be a great many service personnel who revel in life in the Armed Forces, the camaraderie it provides and the justifiable feeling of doing a worthwhile and very skilled job. They will want to stay and will hope that they will not be made redundant against their wishes and have to face a return to civilian life, particularly when finding alternative employment is difficult, to say the least.
The concept of a military or Armed Forces covenant is not new. It has existed for many years as an unwritten commitment between the state and the Armed Forces, recognising that, in response to the considerable sacrifices made by service personnel, the nation has a duty to acknowledge that fact and to accept a long-term duty of care towards service personnel and their families. In 2008 my Government produced a Command Paper entitled The Nation's Commitment: Cross-Government Support to our Armed Forces, their Families and Veterans. This was the first cross-government strategy on the welfare of Armed Forces personnel. The paper set out a series of cross-departmental measures to improve welfare provision and support. The need was also recognised to make the best use of the support available through other organisations and charities.
The main recommendations in the paper related to education, welfare support, healthcare, housing and compensation. Armed Forces advocates were established within government departments to deliver on the principles and commitments of the service personnel Command Paper. In addition, the external reference group of the Ministry of Defence, now renamed the covenant reference group, with representatives from across government, the devolved Administrations, major charities and the service families federations, monitored implementation of the Command Paper's recommendations and reported annually to the Prime Minister. The 2008 service personnel Command Paper and associated cross-government strategy on the welfare of Armed Forces personnel led to the doubling of compensation payments for the most serious injuries and the doubling of the welfare grant for the families of those on operations. It also led to better access to housing schemes and healthcare, offered free access to further education for service-leavers with six years' service and provided more telephone and internet access for those in Afghanistan. It is important to demonstrate the foundation on which the covenant that we are looking at today was laid.
The Bill sets out to enshrine the Armed Forces covenant in law. Its scope does not go as far as we believe it should, but it is progress in the welfare of our Armed Forces and service families and we shall support it. It represents a considerable step forward from the Government's line in the first sitting of the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill in another place in February 2011, when they stated that:
We will want to discuss in more detail the covenant and the principles on which it is based as the Bill progresses through your Lordships' House, not least what will and will not be in the Government's proposed annual report on the covenant and who will finally determine its contents.
As an Armed Forces Bill comes before us only once every five years and is normally the Ministry of Defence's only Bill, it tends to cover a range of issues requiring primary legislation that have come to the fore since the previous Bill, as the Minister has said. This Bill is no exception. We support the increased powers that it gives to the service police, including the provision on access to excluded material to assist in investigations. We also welcome the measures to enhance the independence of the service police and to introduce a provost marshal to ensure that investigations are conducted free from unacceptable interference. Other measures in the Bill which we support include those ensuring that the service police disciplinary systems are compatible with, and complementary to, the European convention, to protect members of the service community outside the United Kingdom; measures to strengthen the independence and impartiality of service complaints procedures; and of course moves to update regulations to protect prisoners of war detained by UK forces.
However, there are other government decisions beyond the Bill which are not welcome, and are seen to run contrary to the principles behind the Armed Forces covenant. One I have mentioned already, namely the decision to link Armed Forces pension rises to the
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Another government decision which seems incompatible with the Armed Forces covenant is the intended demise of the chief coroner's office. That office would give service families the right to the best possible investigations and military inquests when faced with the death in action of a loved one. The Government should think again, particularly in the light of the significant vote on this matter in your Lordships' House.
Our service personnel can be called on to work unlimited hours, in highly dangerous conditions, putting their lives on the line. Living conditions for them can at times be very basic and extremely tough. They can be separated from their families for months on end, and be required to move around from one remote location to another. While we support the moves the Government have made to place the Armed Forces covenant in the Bill, we have concerns about decisions the Government have made, or appear to be on the verge of making, which we believe are incompatible with the spirit and intention of the covenant. I hope the Government will think again on these important matters.
In conclusion, we will certainly want to pursue many of these issues during the more detailed consideration of the Bill in the weeks to come. Overall, we welcome the Bill, which is now in considerably better shape than it was when it started its passage in another place last year. It is important that we take the opportunities that the Bill provides to continue to improve the lives of our esteemed service personnel and their families.
Lord Lee of Trafford: My Lords, our nation has always rightly had a high regard for our Armed Forces, but only relatively recently has this regard translated into tangible action. The sending of our troops initially into Afghanistan, ill equipped, underresourced and too few in number, was probably the trigger. There ensued an unprecedented, media-led public outcry, putting heavy pressure on the then Government to remedy matters and recognise the sacrifices that our Armed Forces were making. The public mood swung behind our troops. Charities such as Help for Heroes were spawned, and politicians of all persuasions were challenged to do better.
Here at Westminster, we now receive returning units from Iraq and Afghanistan. I was delighted to learn from an officer who has just returned from Afghanistan that US forces are now envious of our lightweight helmets, body armour, light rucksacks and boots. Thankfully, we have come a long way in theatre. In parallel to this, the Prime Minister made a pledge on HMS "Ark Royal" last June to write the Armed Forces covenant into law, and put its principles at the heart of the new Armed Forces Bill, which we are debating today. While the Bill has moved slowly, following discussions, lobbying and amendments, it has now reached us in a form that seemingly receives broad support-certainly for the clauses concerning the covenant. Chris Simpkins, the director-general of the Royal British Legion, has said:
"For the first time, Armed Forces personnel and their families will see the principles of fair treatment there on the statute book ... We are particularly pleased that the unique nature of Service will now be acknowledged in the Bill, together with the principle that no disadvantage should arise from Service".
Clearly a balance has to be struck between recognising the covenant in legislation and avoiding frequent legal challenges. I believe that the Bill achieves this. I understand that, in delivering the annual report on healthcare, education and housing, the Government will liaise with delivering ministries. I suggest that we go one step further. Could the Secretaries of State for those respective departments produce separate sub-reports or similar, thus giving them a greater degree of ownership, commitment and responsibility? I also ask my noble friend what plans the Government have to publicise all the new benefits and entitlements. I understand that in France there is a website related to its defence ministry, dedicated to families, education, health and housing, which sets out all the state benefits and assistance available to the military, with details of different charities for women, retired personnel and so on.
We shall cover the more detailed aspects of the covenant and annual report in Committee. Turning to other matters in the Bill, my noble friend Lord Thomas will cover justice issues today; my noble friend Lord Palmer will focus on veterans and housing; and my noble friend Lord Addington will deal with the implementation of the covenant. The new provisions to allow reserve mobilisation for work of urgent national importance, and to enable testing for drugs and alcohol pre-incident-rather than, as currently, post-incident-are sensible and to be welcomed.
Finally, I raise two issues in relation to veterans. The first concerns what we might term our atomic veterans and the second concerns former armed services personnel who are in prison. With regard to the former, why have the United States, Russia, France and China set up funds to pay for the medical care of their atomic veterans, while Britain alone has balked at such a settlement? On the latter, the Howard League for Penal Reform has just produced a report from its inquiry into former armed services personnel in prison.
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Lord Stirrup: My Lords, as the Minister said, this is a substantially smaller Bill than that brought forward in 2006 at the previous quinquennial review, when a major revision was made to the administration of justice within the armed services. Nevertheless, I agree that the 2011 Bill contains some important provisions. Perhaps the one that has attracted the most notice, and I expect will attract much comment today, is Clause 2, which seeks to enshrine the military covenant in statute. This, to my mind, is a very welcome gesture, but is it anything more than a gesture?
In order to answer that question, we need to understand the nature of the lacuna that Clause 2 seeks to fill. The noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, referred to the service personnel Command Paper which her Government published in 2008. All of us who are concerned with the welfare of people in the Armed Forces saw it as a very positive step in the right direction, but it was only a step. Some of the changes set out in the paper were, as we have heard, implemented quickly-for example, the doubling of Armed Forces Compensation Scheme payments for the most seriously injured-but others were clearly going to require much more work. This was because many of the issues that over the years have bedevilled military personnel and their families centre on the availability of public services that are outwith the control of the Ministry of Defence. These include things such as access to NHS dentists, places on NHS waiting lists, access to social housing, provision of school places, and many others besides. The enforced mobility to which service personnel are subject put them consistently at a disadvantage in this regard when compared with the majority of their civilian peers.
In 2008, the Command Paper did no more than commit the relevant government departments to working together to find solutions to these problems. The caveat that many of us appended to our welcome of the Command Paper was, therefore, that it not only promised the right things but that it was consistent and sustained the delivery of solutions that really mattered. An external reference group was indeed set up to monitor that delivery. It included representatives of the services' families federations and the leading charities, as well as members of the relevant government departments. Its first report, in 2009, concluded that progress had been made, but that there was still much to do.
As of today, that progress continues. There has been considerable good will, and much good work, between the various ministries, and the people involved deserve great credit for this. However, our society's obligation to treat its Armed Forces fairly should not depend on the good will of the moment. It should not depend on how much-or how little-the military is in the public eye and mind over any given period. Nor should it depend-and forgive me if I seem slightly
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I do not wish for one moment to impugn the motives of anyone acting today. I believe their collective heart is in absolutely the right place, but these are exceptional times. One cannot help remembering, with Kipling, that:
The Minister has implied that the current levels of interest and support will continue. He has said that the people of this country know how their Armed Forces should be treated. This may be so, but it has not prevented the issues that I have outlined from being persistent problems over a great many years. We need a formal undertaking in which military people and their families can have confidence and which they see will be upheld and sustained when the guns have ceased to shoot. To that extent, the proposed inclusion of the military covenant in the Armed Forces Act must be welcome, but what sort of an undertaking are we talking about here? How effectively will it deliver solutions to the kind of problems that I have described? A key reason for enshrining an undertaking in legislation is surely to give people some recourse if that undertaking is not met. In this case, such recourse is not available. Instead, the Secretary of State for Defence is called upon annually to explain himself before Parliament.
I accept the arguments that the services themselves have made-that formal legal redress would generally be neither desirable nor even helpful to their people in such cases-but I have two particular difficulties with the alternative that is proposed. The first relates to the point that I have already made-that the Defence Secretary is not responsible for delivering the services that are at the heart of many of the most difficult and intractable issues faced by the military community. Surely, if Parliament is to probe such matters deeply and effectively, it must do so with those who are directly responsible for the provision in question. If the need to explain actions personally and directly to Parliament is the means by which good behaviour is encouraged, surely the explanations should be required from those responsible for the behaviour, and they should not be able to use the Defence Secretary as a kind of air raid shelter.
crop up quite a bit in Clause 2. Now, I am not suggesting that all boundaries should be set out in the Bill. Such an impractical result is, I presume, what the current wording seeks to avoid. However, is not allowing the Secretary of State alone to define all the parameters as he goes along a little like making him a judge in his own cause? Surely we need some kind of audit function
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While I therefore welcome the inclusion of the covenant in Clause 2, the undertaking given there is not yet firm enough for Tommy or Tommy's family to rely upon with confidence through changing times, and I hope that this can be addressed as the Bill goes through its other stages.
Lord Selkirk of Douglas: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, who has had a very distinguished career as Chief of the Defence Staff. The issues that he has raised should be examined closely during the passage of the Bill. I welcome what he said in relation to the military covenant. It seems only yesterday that I was present when he presented a Royal Air Force Tornado to the National Museum of Flight of the National Museums of Scotland. It has not only been enormously appreciated, but many thousands of visitors have gone there to see the pride of the Royal Air Force on display.
I have spoken previously in this Chamber in support of the Armed Forces, stressing that Ministers have an inescapable duty to honour the spirit of the military covenant. I am therefore glad to support the Government and the Prime Minister in what the director-general of the Royal British Legion has described as a "historic breakthrough" in this regard.
I notice that in debates in the other place, Members were very scrupulous in mentioning their interests. Therefore, it is appropriate that I briefly follow suit. I am an Honorary Air Commodore and am associated with two service charities-as chairman of the Scottish Advisory Committee at Skill Force, which successfully employs veterans to instruct youngsters who have fallen behind at school; and, perhaps of most relevance to veterans, as president of the largest charity in Britain providing homes for servicemen and servicewomen who have an element of disability. The Scottish Veterans' Garden City Association, with help from the public and service charities and other trusts, has made available 612 houses so far, a total which we hope will soon increase to 622.
Today, I applaud the decision of the Prime Minister and the Government to give increased authority to the military covenant through legislation. Of almost equal importance is the commitment to ensure that there should be an annual report to Parliament on how the covenant is being upheld and implemented. Taken together, these two landmark reforms will greatly increase the status and priority given to service men and women, and rightly so.
To take the military covenant first, we all know that this has long been an informal agreement as to what service men and women could reasonably expect as a result of their willingness to make sacrifices in the service of their country. The principle has always been that those who put their lives on the line should not sustain disadvantage in consequence, and this would mean that if they were seriously wounded they would receive special treatment as necessary.
However, this arrangement did not have the full back-up support of the law of the land, and it is always easy for those who do not wish to see a great reform enshrined in an Act of Parliament to argue that such a move might give rise to judicial review or reviews. I note that Clause 2(3) states that the Secretary of State "must have regard to", and those words place on him not just a moral obligation but also a legislative one. It is very much to the credit of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State that they have had the moral courage to take legislative action and set out the key principles involved in the Bill. This must be the right way to do it, as it avoids problems that can arise from rapidly changing circumstances.
I have studied the important package of measures that is to be made available, including concessionary bus travel and additional council tax relief, and I welcome the commitment made by the Minister already today. I hope that in due course he will be able to confirm that these concessions will come into force at the same time throughout the United Kingdom.
This leads me to the issue of an annual review of the Armed Forces covenant, which I see as a particularly important step forward. I remember being shocked, while serving as a Minister of Health, when I was told during a visit to Stobhill Hospital in Glasgow that during the First World War trains carrying the wounded had come in under cover of darkness so that the public would not know the severity or extent of the injuries inflicted. Today we are rightly much more concerned to ensure that the adverse consequences of war on the injured and disabled are correctly known and are mitigated in the best ways possible, through services provided by joined-up government. I therefore strongly support the plan that the annual report should cover such issues as housing, health and education.
I now come to my request-which the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, himself raised in different language. Ministers should support the Royal British Legion's representations that the preparation of the annual report will be subject to the independent scrutiny of members of an external reference group. I note that Mr Simpkins, the director-general of the Royal British Legion, has said that criticisms by the external reference group would give,
May I suggest that the Government give careful consideration to obtaining the best possible independent advice, which could be invaluable for the drafting required? I have noted that former Governments have benefited greatly from independent research reports, which often reveal facts which we would not otherwise have been aware of, and which have had a beneficial effect on decisions and the decision-making process.
"We believe that a sensible way forward ... is to enshrine the principles in law, provide a regular review of the policies that will make them a reality, ensure that Parliament has a chance to scrutinise that review through the annual report, and ensure that the report is widely informed, consultative and transparent".-[Official Report, Commons, 16/5/11; col. 26.]
It will undoubtedly be the case that these decisions and the package of support will greatly enhance the historic covenant. They will help to ensure that fair
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It is a sad reality that our armed services have at times been neglected in past centuries, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, has suggested. The Crimean War is a case in point. Florence Nightingale found wounded British soldiers having to endure appalling conditions in the military hospital in Scutari. As the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, has quoted Rudyard Kipling, I too would mention that he brought to the attention of his generation the harshness of conditions for ex-servicemen of the Crimean War. He wrote a bitter verse, entitled "The Last of the Light Brigade". It ran as follows:
Fortunately, huge changes have been made since those days. In the 21st century, we now have tremendous reliance on the most advanced technology in warfare, and the size of our armed services has been steadily contracting, but alongside those developments is the very special need to recognise the duty of care owed by our nation to all those in the armed services who are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to protect and defend our country.
Today, I pay tribute to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence for resolving that, for the first time, the armed services covenant should be an agreement whose principles are enshrined in law. They are right to have acknowledged legally a timeless human debt which must always be repaid with openness, generosity and gratitude.
Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk of Douglas. I remember him well from my time as a Minister. Perhaps I can best describe him as a very persistent campaigner on these issues; he has a long-term interest here.
I, too, start by paying tribute to our Armed Forces-those whose care and welfare is affected by the Bill-and their families, who should not be forgotten in our deliberations today. We have been reminded again this week of the ultimate sacrifice that many make, and our thoughts are obviously with the family and friends of those who have been killed in recent campaigns, as they should be with those who have been injured and those who have had their lives changed by their experience of conflict.
During my time in the Ministry of Defence, I saw the real expertise, commitment and dedication of those who served in the Armed Forces, and it is our purpose and responsibility today, and in Committee and later stages of the Bill, to ensure, as far as possible, that they get the framework of service rules that will serve them well, and the support and care that they and their families need both during and after their active
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It is because we have a significant obligation to those who serve our country that I want to make a point about some things that the previous Labour Government achieved. I was pleased that mention has already been made of the service personnel Command Paper. I was in the Ministry of Defence at the time when the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, was in post. We should not underestimate the degree of change that that White Paper brought about in people's minds. Mention has been made of the military covenant, and it was talked about a great deal before that, but that White Paper was a significant step forward. It was the first-ever cross-government strategy, and it took a great deal of work, in particular, on the part of my ministerial colleague, Bob Ainsworth.
Before that White Paper was published, there was no mechanism for translating the moral obligation that has been talked about today into real provision. I agree with the Minister that we cannot dot every "i" and cross every "t", but it is important that we get the principles and the framework right. Our discussions today and those that will take place in Committee go back to that groundbreaking achievement. I am similarly proud of the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme, and indeed what that Government did on pay and provisions.
The question is: where are we now? Does this Bill do all that it could do? What issues will have to be returned to in Committee? The Minister will know that on an occasion like this the contributions tend to concentrate on where colleagues want to go further and do more, rather than praise what is actually in the Bill. First, I welcome Clause 13, which relates to reduction in rank or rate; I welcome the automaticity of the current arrangements. This ability not to punish twice may not be used often, but I think that it should be available, and I just wanted to put that on the record.
I want to say a few words about some of the issues that I think will need further consideration in Committee, not surprisingly starting with some of the issues that come under the heading of the military covenant. Not much mention has yet been made of one aspect of the changes that have been introduced so far, the issue of Armed Forces advocates. The previous Government piloted an Armed Forces welfare pathway whereby a number of local authorities appointed Armed Forces advocates to ensure that, in terms of policy development, Armed Forces personnel, veterans and their families had their specific needs recognised and that appropriate services were provided at the local level. This was raised in Committee in another place, and the Minister said that we did not need legislation now and that he could talk about possible local solutions. I hope that that indicates real approval of the concept and that the Minister can confirm that. However, I am worried that that approach could be somewhat complacent, especially when we consider the pressures on local authorities at
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I will also briefly mention the idea of veterans' ID cards. I am a supporter of ID cards generally, so I may be biased. To me, the provision of ID cards for veterans would be of obvious benefit to them across a range of services in both the public and private provisions. I think that if we did have veterans' ID cards they would have an indirect benefit of increasing public awareness of the needs-and indeed the contribution-of veterans. I hope that we can go further in that direction and explore that aspect further. In the Commons, mention was made of servicemen keeping their military ID cards. I do not know whether that plan, or any variation on that theme, has any potential, but I think that we should look at it.
I will also mention mental health. In healthcare generally, very significant steps have been made in the last few years in respect of the health needs of veterans. However, I think that it was quite difficult to get the breakthrough that led to people appreciating that the mental health needs of veterans were something that we needed to talk about and to highlight. My two ministerial colleagues, Derek Twigg and Kevan Jones, spent a great deal of time trying to make sure that there was proper co-operation in order that we did get the services that we need for veterans who have mental health problems and who often were afraid to come forward and talk about their situation because there was a stigma attached and it was something to be ashamed of.
I want to ask the Minister about the future of the new provisions that were established. We launched six mental health pilots-in Stafford, Camden and Islington, Cardiff, Bishop Auckland, Plymouth and Edinburgh. They were launched with the intention of assessing the needs of veterans and rolling out this programme across the country. It would be useful if we could have an update on that because it really is important that we continue to make progress.
Time is short and I want to say a word about minors, although I am not sure that I necessarily agree with some of my colleagues on this. While protecting the rights of minors and making sure that they know what they are doing when they join the Armed Forces, we have to be realistic and realise that, for some young people, the opportunities for training, education and turning their lives around are available at the age of 17 but may not be 12 or 18 months later. We should look at the whole picture when we talk of issues of that kind.
I end by reinforcing some of what has been said about the need for proper reporting on where we get to on the military covenant. From the speeches that we have heard already, it seems to me that there are loose ends and concerns about exactly what will happen in practice. When the noble Lord, Lord Lee, spoke about relevant Ministers having to report on their own
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Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the Association of Military Court Advocates. I am very grateful to the Minister for the meeting that we had at lunchtime today, and I hope that there will be many more such meetings during the passage of the Bill. I was a bit startled to hear my noble friend Lord Burnett say that lawyers should be kept well away from military matters. My mind went back to a Welsh lawyer-a Liberal from Wrexham, my home town and home of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, I am pleased to say-George Osborne Morgan, Member of Parliament. He was the Judge Advocate-General in Gladstone's time and he abolished flogging in the armed services in 1881. He was a mild mannered person; he was not a military man at all. He was more interested in Sunday schools and in closing pubs in Wales on a Sunday. I think that lawyers have a contribution to make. Indeed, one of the senior judge advocates said to me the other day, "Thank God for the Strasbourg court. Because of the decision in Findlay v the United Kingdom, there have been massive improvements to the justice system in the military". Indeed, the 2006 Act, which was produced by the previous Government, was a milestone in improving the way in which justice is administered in the military courts.
One problem that remains is that of the CO summary punishment powers, where the proceedings do not comply with the right to a fair trial, as embodied in Article 6 of the ECHR. It is a summary procedure where the CO is, by definition, in the chain of command. The CO has extensive powers of summary trial. He can deal with absence without leave; neglect of duty; malingering, such as shooting yourself in the foot; conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline, which is no doubt a charge that many people recall; fighting; damaging or misapplying public property; and the looting of enemy vehicles and stores. Those are all within the CO's competence.
The noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, referred to the Crimean War. I recall that looting was an issue in the Peninsular War at the Battle of Vitoria in 1813, when British soldiery plundered the French wagons and loaded themselves down with as much as they could carry to the tune of £1 million. They did so to the fury of the Duke of Wellington, who called them, with little gratitude for their efforts in the battle and without any affection for them, the "scum of the earth". Their first duty, he thought, was not to loot but to pursue the enemy. However, I digress.
The CO's punishments are limited to: 90 days' detention, forfeiture of seniority for officers, reduction in rank for warrant officers and below, fines of up to 28 days' pay, compensation not exceeding £1,000, and a severe reprimand for officers or NCOs-and this is in a non-compliant jurisdiction. There is no power to dismiss from service, as there is in a court martial, but these are serious punishments and it is obvious that the limitations on punishment are an inducement to soldiers, airmen and seamen to accept summary trial before the CO. To comply with the convention rights, an accused has the right to elect trial by court martial, a right granted to him by Section 129 of the Armed Forces Act 2006. But what if the prosecutor decides to change the charge or to substitute another? I am pleased to see that Schedule 1 to this Bill provides the safeguard that in these more complex situations a court martial will not exceed the sentencing powers of the CO when an accused elects trial. That is to be welcomed.
Also to be welcomed are the provisions in relation to the service police. I have been involved in a number of courts martial and the weakness is always the investigation. It is very difficult for service police to carry out investigations outside this country, dealing with people who are not necessarily nationals with very limited resources. I am pleased to see that this Government are doing something to improve the organisation, and I hope the resources, of the service police.
I also welcome the extension of the drug-testing regime to service personnel and CSSDs-civilians who are serving abroad-who are suspected of being impaired through drink or drugs before an incident occurs. I also applaud the new offence for a member of the Armed Forces who is carrying out a prescribed duty when under the influence of drink. In historical mode, I recall the Battle of Crysler's Field in the War of 1812 against America when British forces, hopelessly outnumbered, succeeded. The American General Wilkinson was too drunk to get out of his bed on board his ship, which was moored in the middle of the St Lawrence river. Drink has always been a problem.
I also welcome, as do the judge advocates themselves, the powers now granted for a qualifying judge advocate to sit in the Crown Court. Most of them will be very familiar with the Crown Court, having served as advocates during their legal careers, but sitting in a judicial capacity in the Crown Court will undoubtedly widen their judicial horizons beyond the military family, not least in sharing experiences with Crown Court judges. There must be two-way benefits. It is a mark of the increasing stature of the military justice system that judge advocates will move to sit in the Crown Court on civil charges.
Other speakers have focused on Clause 2, on the military covenant. I join them in the general welcome for this clause, which recognises that the major worry for soldiers in the field is not so much for themselves, because they have signed up for excitement and danger, but for their families at home and their education, housing and support.
I will raise again the matter of the veterans' courts, which have had such success in the USA. We undoubtedly have a significant number of veterans in the prisons of
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Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, five years ago when this House considered the Bill that became the Armed Forces Act 2006, it was, as the Minister has reminded us, a completely new Bill. It replaced rather than amended earlier single-service disciplinary Acts. Every word and clause of the Bill before the House reflected the intended Act. A number of amendments to the text were agreed-I moved some of them. In due course, what we had been considering became the 2006 Act. This time, the Government have reverted to the traditional quinquennial approach. This Armed Forces Bill renews and updates the existing one. But I find it a right mess doing it this way compared to the approach in 2006.
This Bill is over 50 pages of detailed changes to the 2006 Act. It inserts a section here; it substitutes one section for another there; it amends a subsection; it inserts new words; it repeals or revokes bits, parts or all of earlier legislation; it introduces new schedules or changes to existing ones. The insertions, substitutions, repeals et al can be numbered in dozens, not just an odd one or two. Some are described as minor; some are listed as miscellaneous. There is a raft of them entitled "Other amendments". I can see no obvious reason for differentiating in this way, unless it reflects the preparation of the Bill and new thoughts and ideas as they occurred to the drafters. The Bill before the House is little more than a whopping great marshalled list of amendments to the wording of the 2006 Act. Is it just convention that the updating of the 2006 Act must be done in this muddling way? If it were possible, I would have tabled an amendment which proposed that the Bill before the House be presented with all the changes, substitutions, amendments et cetera carried into a new Bill for debate and consideration in Committee and on Report. This legislation, dealing as it does with disciplinary matters, should be comprehensible to service personnel and not just an Act cobbled together and worded for lawyers and other legal experts.
The Bill before the House does introduce one new and untried requirement. Clause 2 is entitled "Armed forces covenant report". Its wording is to be inserted after Section 359 of the 2006 Act as new Section 359A. Section 359 of the 2006 Act is one of a number of sections towards the back of the Act listed as "Miscellaneous". Section 359's title is eye-catching: "Pardons for servicemen executed for disciplinary offences: recognition as victims of First World War". They were veterans, but is this the best place that the drafters can find for the covenant section? Is this not an unfortunate juxtaposition for the requirement to report on the covenant, a covenant to which the Prime Minister and many members of the Government have given their strong support? I invite the Government to think again about the placing of this amendment. Appearances can be important. These sections would be listed next to each other in the table of contents of the Act. What about Part 14, titled "Enlistment, terms of service etc"? Why not insert here a new heading-"Armed Forces covenant"-and put the wording of Clause 2 after Section 339 of the 2006 Act, numbering it Section 339A?
Clause 2 is titled "Armed forces covenant report", which clearly indicates that an Armed Forces covenant exists. While I accept that to introduce a statutory description of a covenant would be neither practical nor sensible, it is still important to have an understanding or non-statutory description of the reach, the length and breadth, as it were, of the matters considered to fall under the heading of the Armed Forces covenant. The Secretary of State, Dr Fox, described it in the other place as,
This is pretty woolly. What has been or will be agreed? The MoD internal briefs published on 16 May 2011-The Armed Forces Covenant, to set the tone for government policy, and The Armed Forces Covenant: Today and Tomorrow, to detail current actions being taken to deliver the covenant-are both helpful. They should be widely distributed because they will provide useful benchmarks for judging outcomes in the future.
Clause 2 requires the Secretary of State to report to Parliament each calendar year, on issues of healthcare, education, housing and any other fields he may determine. However, none of these seems to be his direct responsibility so far as veterans who have left the services are concerned. How then is he to produce an authoritative report on fields for which he has no responsibility? He must seek advice from other government departments, from devolved Administrations and other regional or local authorities. He is required by Clause 2 to draw attention to those who may be disadvantaged in comparison to other non-military persons. On whose judgment must he rely? Does he exercise his own judgment? He is expected to have an opinion according to Clause 2 and to respond to that opinion if it covers some who are disadvantaged.
While not wishing to disparage the Government's good intentions, it is most important that the report and their reaction as a Government to what it says are
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I have argued before that placing responsibility for veterans who have returned to civilian life on the shoulders of the Defence Secretary is not reasonable. Responsibility for veteran affairs reaches out in many different directions. The previous Government recognised this. Three years ago Command Paper 7424, a White Paper, introduced valuable and far reaching arrangements focused on the Cabinet Office and an external reference group, now renamed the covenant reference group. This group reports to the Prime Minister and Defence Secretary annually.
I have proposed before that this arrangement could be strengthened by transferring the Minister for Veterans to the Cabinet Office, where he would be better placed to gather and consider the various fields of interest to veterans and the ways in which they are supported in the wider community. I was interested to learn from the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester-who I am glad to see in his place-that when he was invited by the then Prime Minister to become Minister for the Disabled, the noble Lord insisted he should not be placed within any of the normal government departments because the interests of the disabled and their support spread right across government. Veteran support too spreads across many fields. Why not look after them in a manner akin to the immensely successful way that the disabled were first supported some 40 years ago? It is an approach I strongly urge the Government to consider. It would give practical meaning to their support for the Armed Forces covenant.
Finally, on Clause 5 about the appointment of provost marshals by Her Majesty the Queen, what arrangements will be required if an individual provost marshal fails in his or her duty and has to be removed? Perhaps the noble Lord will be able to explain.
Baroness Fookes: My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, has shot my fox because one of the points that I wanted to make-I will still aim another bullet at it-concerns the incomprehensibility of any one piece of legislation if one seeks to know what the law is on the subject. I share the noble and gallant Lord's distaste for simply amending the previous Act. Unusually, we have the chance to amend the Act every five years for constitutional reasons that have already been touched upon. As it is the only piece of legislation for the Ministry of Defence, I would have thought it possible for the MoD to start to work on consolidation from now on so that when we next get to the five-year point we will have a Bill that is complete in itself. I once served on the Joint Committee on Consolidation Bills. It met but rarely. Here we have an opportunity to put the matter right, at least in one piece of legislation.
On the new part of the legislation on the Armed Forces covenant, I slightly disagree with another noble Lord who felt that there was a weakness in giving the
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I have one or two questions for the Minister. First, other than the measures for education, health and so on that are already listed in the Bill, does he have anything else in mind at the moment? If he does not, perhaps I may make one or two suggestions.
One suggestion relates to the Chief Coroner. As far as I was concerned, the whole point about the Chief Coroner was that he was given the power to ensure that coroners engaged in military inquests had sufficient training. This was, and remains, a key point for me. I point out that although this was in legislation brought by the previous Government, it was introduced because they were virtually forced into it by the then Opposition losing the day when they had said it was not necessary. However, the balance is now redressed because my own Government are seeking to get rid of it altogether.
I suggest to my noble friend that this might well be an issue that the Secretary of State could include in his annual report. Ensuring that military inquests are dealt with by coroners with sufficient experience to do them properly could be one of his duties in the annual report. That would deal with a real worry that many people have felt. In the early days, when there were a number of deaths, the coroners did not have sufficient knowledge and experience of the Armed Services and their ethos, and this caused many of the families great strain, including of course to the war widows, of whose association I am very proud to be president.
That brings me to another issue. The reference committee-or whatever it will be called-which is going to advise the Secretary of State on the various issues that will form the basis of the annual report, does not seem to be in the Bill. I may be mistaken, but if it is not in the Bill it should be a statutory body. It might well need to alter its membership, but if it is not there, what is to stop a Secretary of State who is not particularly interested in all this discontinuing it? If the Secretary of State is to be fully informed, it is absolutely vital that he has all these inputs from bodies such as the War Widows' Association and SSAFA Forces Help, of which I am a vice-president nationally. One of their strengths is that they deal with individual cases of servicemen, ex-servicemen and their families, so they are at the sharp end and know exactly what the problems are. That kind of information is absolutely vital if we are to have an annual report that means anything at all.
Another issue, which was raised by the BMA in a briefing to me and no doubt to other noble Lords, is medical reservists. They can be called up-at very short notice, of course-but they have found that in many cases being called up actually puts their primary career at risk, particularly if the NHS organisations
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Lord Stirrup: Before the noble Baroness sits down, I wonder whether she will allow me just two seconds, for the sake of clarity, on her point about the need for flexibility in what the Secretary of State reports. I absolutely agree on the need for that flexibility; I was merely suggesting that there should be some marking of the way in which he exercises that flexibility.
Lord Davies of Stamford: My Lords, I too greatly welcome this Bill. As has already been pointed out several times by my noble friends Lady Crawley and Lady Taylor, and indeed by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, there is a very large element of continuity between this Bill and the Command Paper introduced by the previous Government in 2008, when I had the honour to be serving in the Ministry of Defence, though I had nothing directly to do with that particular Command Paper except as one of the ministerial team. That continuity is very desirable, and it is moving in the right direction. I do not think that we have necessarily got to the end of the road.
The two points where there may well need to be some strengthening or further progress are again ones that have already been mentioned. First, the provision that the Secretary of State can use his own discretion to report on anything other than the three very important items of housing, education and health, is slightly loose. A number of very important issues have been raised in the debate this afternoon, notably military inquests and pensions; they are not included in that list. There may be scope for increasing the number and the range of items which the Secretary of State has to report on, because with the best will in the world, it is all too easy, if one is a Minister, to avoid making any statement on something that is not politically convenient, or perhaps not politically convenient for colleagues to comment on, if one is not absolutely obliged to do so.
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