Carol Monaghan – 2021 Speech on Lords Amendment 2B of the Armed Forces Bill

The speech made by Carol Monaghan, the SNP MP for Glasgow North West, in the House of Commons on 13 December 2021.

There is a debt of gratitude that we owe to members of the armed forces, and we have seen that acutely over the last few days as they mobilised to help with the vaccine booster campaign. I received my booster on Friday, and there was certainly a large armed forces presence there. As well as thanking members of the NHS, I would like to extend my gratitude to members of the armed forces who are contributing to that campaign over the next few weeks.

As we renew the Armed Forces Act, it would have been great if we had done so with some provisions that delivered a real impact for members of the armed forces. I suppose the litmus test for this is: will members of the armed forces notice any real difference as a result of this legislation? I think that for the majority the answer, sadly, is no, and that is disappointing.

The Lords amendments today are a final attempt by those in the other place to flesh out the provisions of this Bill, and to attempt to improve what had been billed as a great opportunity to improve our offerings to those who serve. It is disappointing that the expertise of Members of the other place, which was mentioned by the Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), has essentially been disregarded. That is not how this should work. I am not a great fan of the other place myself, but I must admit that there is real legal and military expertise there that was not listened to or paid attention to, which is disappointing.

What would we have liked to see? We would have liked to see improvements in service accommodation. As the Bill progressed, the SNP put forward very modest amendments on this, such as asking that the basic standards of accommodation for social housing should also apply to members of the armed forces. That was a reasonable amendment, but it was thrown out. We saw no movement on visa fees for Commonwealth service personnel. There was the idea that they should serve for 12 years before we even consider this, but that is utterly unrealistic; it is not a reasonable position for us to take.

Most disappointingly, there is very little improvement to service justice, particularly for rape or sexual assault. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton), as I did last week, for the superb work she did in the Defence Sub-Committee report on the experiences of women in the armed forces, and I echo some of the comments already made. If we really want to increase the number of women who serve—as we should, because diversity is positive—we must look at their experiences as they go about their duties.

To give the Minister his due, he has acknowledged that there have been failings in service justice in the past. It is important that that has been recognised. Conviction rates remain disappointingly low—a point I shall return to—but it is not just about conviction rates: it is also about those who made complaints and reports who were subsequently asked to withdraw those complaints. How are we going to deal with that? The data the Minister talks about will certainly shine a light on the issue, which is important, but we need to see what happens, because there are too many reports of people being asked to withdraw complaints.

As I mentioned in last week’s Westminster Hall debate, some of these amendments, particularly on service justice, are so reasonable that many Members on both sides of the House question why they have been rejected. I am concerned that the Government are worried about the visibility of these issues, whereas I feel that the public spotlight must be shone on them, because that would be beneficial. We need to accept and admit what is going on before proper change can take place.

Last week, the Minister said he would be

“making non-legislative changes and enhancements in procedure so that the experience of the victim in the civil or military system has parity.”—[Official Report, 6 December 2021; Vol. 705, c. 97.]

That is positive. I also welcome his remarks today about the statistical data on serious crime in terms of reports, prosecutions and convictions, but I echo the concerns already raised this evening about what we will do if this data shows no improvement. I ask the Minister to accept that it is not enough just to publish the data, and to commit to making a regular statement to the House, preferably annually, based on the data, so that Members are able to scrutinise it and discuss how it is going to be used. Data on its own is of no use if we have no plan in place to actually use it.

The Scottish National party will of course support the Bill, but as the Minister knows, this is a missed opportunity. Ultimately, it fails to deliver the changes required for those who serve.