ARMED FORCES (SERVICE COMPLAINTS AND FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE) BILL
Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border, Conservative)
I will try to speak quite briefly. I pay a huge tribute to everyone involved for the way that this debate has been conducted. There has been a very good debate in the House of Lords, some very serious work by the Defence Committee since 2005 and the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot). In particular, I wish to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) who has put an enormous amount of energy, thought and focus into getting these very specific amendments in place.
Broadly speaking, the Defence Committee is very positively disposed towards the Bill, as it reflects its work since 2005 and is a huge improvement even on where we were in 2008. The commissioner has gone from being a three-day-a-week job to a full-time job, and gone from having nine staff to 20 staff. The scope and the powers of the ombudsman will be massively expanded, and all of that is good. However, there is a “but”, and it is that “but” on which we want to focus for a brief moment.
We are not, I hope, being pedantic. It is an important point because this is an unbelievably complex area of legislation. It is easy for people to turn up and try to suggest that the way that the armed forces are treated should be the same as the way that civilians are treated. Clearly, the contexts are completely different. Military discipline is very different from civilian discipline. Many of the criminal Acts that apply to military personnel simply do not apply to civilian personnel. Military personnel live under completely different conditions from civilian personnel in terms of their housing, health, non-union status, 24/7 jobs, and risk to life and limb, all of which put an incredible onus on the Defence Committee and on the Government to get this kind of ombudsman right.
The problems that we have had from the start of this debate are twofold. First, there has been a very strong degree of abstraction. Understandably, people have been very reluctant to talk about concrete examples. When taking testimony in the Defence Committee, it was very striking that almost nobody mentioned the Deepcut case. Much of the conversation around this matter is taking place in a vacuum without people using individual examples. The second problem has been a very comfortable consensus. We have a strange situation in which, when we were taking testimony, there was very little push-back from the chain of command and from Ministers, but now we find that the Committee’s recommendations are not being accepted, and we have no clear sense of why that is. The oddity is that there is a basic disagreement between liberty and the chain of command, but that disagreement is not really brought out in public, which is another reason why this Chamber seems to be so empty.
When we have private conversations with people, we realise that the disagreement is really profound. In a private conversation, some human rights lawyers will say that they disapprove of the entire military system and that things that can happen to military personnel would not be acceptable for civilian personnel. Equally, outside this Chamber in private conversations, we might hear retired generals in the House of Lords rejecting the idea of the ombudsman completely. Curiously, in the case of the Committee testimony, there was very much a push towards consensus that papered over some fundamental principled disagreements.
The five principles that the Committee focused on are: independence, flexibility, the scope of the ombudsman, the power of the ombudsman and the transparency of the ombudsman’s findings. On independence, the Defence Committee suggested that nobody who had been a member of the armed forces within the previous five years would be suitable for appointment; that the term of appointment should be between five and seven years, as three years was too short for someone to get their feet under the desk and really understand the job; and that the job should not be liable for reappointment. That is standard practice for such a role around the world. If somebody is up for reappointment, the tendency would be for them to pull their punches in order to get their job back.
On flexibility, we put a big focus on ensuring that there was more flexibility around timelines and procedural control. On scope, we pushed to ensure that any maladministration, the substance of the complaint and thematic issues could be addressed. Power has been another important point. What is going to be the power and how binding will those recommendations be? We went back and forth on that matter with my distinguished predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire. Finally, there is the issue of transparency, confidentiality and whether or not the Government can use national security to make the findings of the ombudsman confidential.
The odd position that the Defence Committee finds itself in is that the Government have said to us that, basically, they agree with almost everything that we say. In line after line in response to our recommendations, the Ministry of Defence comes back and says, “We agree, we agree, we agree, but we do not believe that this should be in the Bill.” Looking through the eight amendments proposed by the Defence Committee, there seems to be only one with which the Government have any in-principle disagreement, and that is on the question of thematic investigation. Government seem to be comfortable with the other seven.
Why is it then that the Government seem to agree with seven out of eight recommendations, but are not prepared to put them in the Bill? The answer appears to be that the Government believe that putting these things in the Bill would be over-prescriptive. Indeed the Government are attempting to elevate to a grand point of principle the idea that legislation should not be over-prescriptive. The Defence Committee respectfully argues back that those grand points of principle about what should or should not be prescriptive in legislation are marginal, if not irrelevant, to the specific Bill under consideration. One role on which we should be explicit is that of an ombudsman. The Government should put in the Bill the basic terms of independence.
There is no time here to go through every one of those eight recommendations, but let us take as an example the question of independence. The Defence Committee has stipulated that we believe that the person should be appointed on a non-renewable term for five to seven years, and that they should not have served in the armed forces in the previous five years. The Government accept those recommendations but will not put them in the Bill. Why not? Apparently, because they think it would be over-prescriptive to do so. However, this should be an easy concession for the Government to make. To have the point clearly stated would reassure the public and reinforce the credibility and independence of the ombudsman. In fact, not putting it in the Bill seems to be based on a very abstract and theoretical notion.
Our eight recommendations should be taken seriously because, bluntly, the Defence Committee is an elected Committee of the House of Commons. It is disappointing that, out of eight recommendations made by the Committee, the Government have inserted in the Bill not seven or five of them but none. No amendments went through in the House of Lords and no amendments appear to be proposed at this stage. Given that we are moving into a world where we have elected Committees, where we want these Committees to play a more active role and where every member of those Committees is elected, we would expect the Government to respond, at least in part, to the Committee’s recommendations, if for no other reason—this relates to the Geneva processes on the setting up of an ombudsman—than that we should follow the proper process of inclusion of stakeholders. The first Geneva principle is the inclusion of Parliament in this process. Even if the Government seem to have deep theoretical objections to the independence of the ombudsman, we believe that in this case, purely for procedural reasons, they should listen to the Defence Committee.
In conclusion, Parliament has been deeply involved in setting the rules for the military from the very beginning. It tightened up the articles of war in the 1660s and again in the mid-18th century. It loosened those articles of war in 1776, and it did so again after the first world war and in the 1950s and 2006. That is exactly the sort of thing that Parliament should be doing.
To get this right—and this is a very good opportunity for Britain to do so—we must do it in a way that is honest to our history, confident about the conceptual disagreements, and clear and precise about resolving the reality of the military justice system with the concerns of the rights community. That sounds jargony, but what I mean is that we need to be really clear that the military is different from civilian institutions. Various military criminal offences—such as mutiny, desertion and conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline—do not exist in civilian life. At the same time, however, the right not to be bullied or harassed, as well as other rights, must be protected. Finally, if the Government can find a way of incorporating the Defence Committee’s recommendations, Britain has an opportunity to set a model for the world.
This has been a good process for the House of Lords and the Committee and because of the inclusion of Dr Susan Atkins. It has been a particularly good process because of the amount of energy the hon. Member for Bridgend has devoted to it from the beginning. Let us finish the process with as much positive spirit as we began it. I ask the Government to show some flexibility in their response to the independence, flexibility, scope, power and transparency of the ombudsman, as set out by the Defence Committee.