Vernon Coaker on ensuring the Armed Forces Bill reflects both a rapidly changing security environment and the needs of UK service personnel
The Armed Forces Bill provides an opportunity every five years to not only renew the legal underpinning of our military, but to also examine how we can improve protections and support for service personnel and their families. The latest legislation, which gets its Lords second reading today, comes at a time when the UK faces a rapidly changing security environment. Threats are multiplying and diversifying, democracy is under pressure, and technology is changing warfare forever.
Today’s debate also follows the UK’s recent withdrawal from Afghanistan and the incredible bravery and professionalism shown by our forces and diplomats, as well as the Afghan nationals who helped. The trauma of recent scenes will not end now that the main evacuation is over, and it is a timely opportunity to increase support for those affected by events. But nor can we escape the political mismanagement behind the withdrawal, which has seriously undermined the government’s ‘Global Britain’ agenda.
Labour stands firmly behind our service personnel and their families, and strongly believes the law should be on their side. That is why we support the bill’s principles. It is also why we welcome plans to both create a legal duty to the principles of the Armed Forces Covenant and implement elements from the Lyons Review on the Service Justice System. But we will be working with a chorus of voices – within and beyond the Lords – to ensure ministers go further.
Too often, the government’s rhetoric for service personnel does not match the reality of their actions. The Prime Minister himself promised not to cut personnel, but the Integrated Review and Defence Command Paper is a plan for 10,000 fewer troops. The Overseas Operations Act promised to end repeat investigations but only focused on prosecution – rather than a duty of care for troops. Meanwhile, ministers, having promising continued support for personnel heading back into civilian life then cut Armed Forces Champions in jobcentres.
The legislation before us today also seems to fall into this pattern. Yes, it introduces a due regard principle for the Armed Forces Covenant – but it also lacks clarity on what this will mean in practice. The commitment also doesn’t appear to stretch very far, with a limited scope that focuses on healthcare, housing, and education, raising concerns among both the Army Families Federation and the Royal British Legion. Central government has also been left off the list of public bodies that must take account of the new responsibilities, and we will seek to overturn this rather odd oversight.
Government rhetoric on providing improvements to the Service Justice System also fails to match the bill as drafted. We welcome the creation of an independent Service Police Complaints Commissioner, but it is concerning that ministers aren’t adopting Lyons’ recommendation that civilian courts should have jurisdiction in matters of murder, rape and serious sexual offences committed in the UK. Conviction rates for rape cases tried under Courts Martial remain much lower than civilian courts, and the Victims’ Commissioner, Vera Baird has said “rape and sexual assault are hugely under-reported”.
Our forces' communities are determined for this legislation not to be a missed opportunity, and we will bring forward amendments in good faith to reflect their calls. They deserve nothing less.
Lord Vernon Coaker is Shadow Defence Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @Vernon_Coaker
Published 7th September 2021