Don Touhig on our approach to the latest Armed Forces Bill, ahead of Lords Second Reading
I have a sense of déjà vu about the Armed Forces Bill, which has its Second Reading in the Lords on Thursday. In 2005, I was the then Labour government’s Veterans’ Minister, taking what became the 2006 Armed Forces Act through the House of Commons. Sadly, by the time this became law I wasn’t in the same position – having been told that at 57 I was too old to be Veteran’s Minister!
That Act was a large piece of legislation that overhauled military law. Now, every five years, the government of the day must pass an Armed Forces Act, which is why we have this new Bill before Parliament.
Quite simply, the latest Bill updates the 2006 Act, dealing with issues such as how people are charged in the Service Justice System, reviewing sentencing, creating a statutory framework for immunity from prosecution, and extending the circumstances where drug and alcohol testing takes place. The Bill received cross-party support in the Commons, and I look forward to a similar approach with colleagues across the Lords.
The Bill was improved significantly while in the Commons. Not least because Labour MPs have helped guarantee compensation payments to veterans suffering from mesothelioma; and ensured that homosexual acts will no longer constitute grounds for discharging someone from the Armed Forces.
Labour Peers however, will continue to push for further changes so that equalities are enshrined within the Armed Forces.
We will table amendments therefore, that would mean sexual offences, for example rape or sexual assault, are treated in the same way as other crimes. At present, the Ministry of Defence is not required to publish statistics on the reporting of such offences, or subsequent prosecutions. We will call on Ministers to think again, so that there’s a fair and true picture of the situation across the Army, Navy and Air Force. And we will also seek changes to the Bill so that all sexual offences are properly investigated.
There are also concern that Reservists – those in our Armed Forces, who also hold down a civilian job and get called upon for service when required – face workplace discrimination. In 2013, the then Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said that this Bill would be a vehicle for creating protection for this vital part of our Armed Forces. As the detail has not yet been forthcoming, we will press the government to act.
Labour, as Maria Eagle told the Commons when Shadow Defence Secretary, supports the aims of the Bill and we have not sought to delete any of the content. We will however, continue to try to strengthen it and ensure those who serve in our Armed Forces do not suffer discrimination – and that no one is discouraged from serving their country.
Lord Don Touhig is Shadow Defence Minister in the House of Lords
Published 10th February 2016