Stephen Kinnock – 2021 Speech on Lords Amendment 2B of the Armed Forces Bill

The speech made by Stephen Kinnock, the Shadow Defence Secretary, in the House of Commons on 13 December 2021.

In February, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), the shadow Defence Secretary, set out the Labour party’s core principles for our defence and national security, which are based not on party politics but on Britain’s strategic national interest. They are: an unshakeable commitment to NATO; non-negotiable support for our nuclear deterrent; a resolute commitment to international law, universal human rights and the multilateral treaties and organisations that uphold them; and a determination to see British investment directed first to British industry not just because of how we think about defence and national security but because we seek to build a more resilient economy and a country that can stand more firmly on its own two feet. At the heart of those four principles lies a commitment to our armed forces personnel: the men and women who are the lifeblood of our defence and national security; those who serve to protect us.

The Conservative Government have been complacent when it comes to our armed forces and our national security more widely. Just as threats against the UK are increasing, the Prime Minister decided to break an election promise and cut the size of the Army by 10,000. Under the Government and this Prime Minister, our country is becoming less safe and our brave service personnel increasingly undervalued and under-rewarded.

I was only recently appointed to the shadow Defence team, but standing at the Dispatch Box to highlight the weaknesses that sit at the heart of the Bill is already starting to feel like groundhog day. The Bill is a missed opportunity. It was a one-in-a-Parliament opportunity to ensure that our world-class armed forces are supported by world-class legislation, but glaring gaps at its heart mean that it will fall short and fail to live up to its full potential. If the Government had chosen to support the Lords amendments, we would have been guaranteed a more robust approach to dealing with serious crimes committed by service personnel, and we would have had clear accountability and transparency about the role of central Government in delivering the armed forces covenant.

Labour supports the Bill, but we have consistently pressed the Government to ensure that its content matches the ambition. As I set out last week in this Chamber, the Bill is a missed opportunity to deliver on the laudable promises made in the armed forces covenant for all personnel and veterans, and their families. To that end, we have worked closely with hon. Members in this place, noble Lords in the other place and service charities to amend the Bill in the interests of our service personnel.

John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)

Can the hon. Member help the House by explaining what he thinks the Government might be able to do but could not if the Bill had the protections that he wanted over central Government action?

Stephen Kinnock

As I will address a little later in my remarks, the huge disconnect here is between the level of accountability that local government will be held to compared with that for central Government. So we end up in an absurd situation where a school governor has a greater level of accountability for the covenant than the Defence Secretary. I am not sure what the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) thinks about that, but it appears to be a bizarre state of affairs.

I pay particular tribute to Lords Mackay, Thomas and Craig for their efforts in working with us in our attempts to improve this legislation. Mr Deputy Speaker, you will know that the Labour party has been pushing the argument strongly that the most serious crimes, including murder, manslaughter, domestic violence, child abuse, rape and sexual assault with penetration, should be tried in the civilian courts when committed in the UK. The case for that is overwhelming, because the investigation and prosecution of those crimes within the service justice system simply does not work.

The latest Ministry of Defence figures show that between 2015 and 2020 the conviction rate for rape cases tried under court martial was just 9%, whereas the latest data suggest that the conviction rate was 59% for cases that reached civilian courts, with considerably more cases being tried each year. Moreover, more than three in four of the victims were women, and seven in 10 held the rank of private. By rejecting Lords amendment 1B in lieu, the Government are not only letting down women in the lower ranks, but undermining their own policy of seeking to recruit more women to the armed forces. The Army has committed itself to a 30% target by 2030 for female recruits, but has not yet produced a clear plan of how that will be achieved. The Government therefore need to think carefully about the message they are sending by resisting this amendment, because until there is fairness, transparency and justice in these cases, the actions of a minority will continue to tarnish the reputation of our world-class armed forces and will continue to have a chilling effect on female recruitment.

We do, however, welcome the fact that the Minister has today acknowledged the need to publish data on all the offences listed in this amendment—murder, manslaughter, domestic abuse, child abuse, rape and sexual assault with penetration; for that data to include under-18s for the first time; and for that data to cover both investigations and prosecutions at all stages of the service justice system, including reports of incidents, how many are referred from service police to service prosecution authority, how many the service prosecution are able to prosecute, how many go to court martial and how many convictions there are. But I must tell the Minister that Labour remains committed to moving these serious offences into civilian courts, and we will continue to push the Government on this issue.

This matter is not closed; our concerns have not been allayed. There remain many unanswered questions, so I ask the Minister: what will the Government do if conviction rates for one or more of those serious crimes is concerningly low? Will the Government reconsider this approach? Why will they not commit to a performance review, based on this data? We view this issue as unfinished business, and we know where the weight of opinion lies in this House. As the Conservative hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) clearly stated last week in this Chamber:

“Conviction rates for rape are lower in military courts than they are in civilian courts. That is a fact…The MOD accepts that the contested conviction rate at court martial is significantly lower than it is in the Crown court.”—[Official Report, 6 December 2021; Vol. 705, c. 104.]

We therefore hope that Ministers will reflect again on the recommendations from the Government-commissioned Lyons review, as well as the proposals made by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) in her Select Committee on Defence Sub-Committee report, “Protecting Those Who Protect Us”. We must improve conviction rates, and moving these offences into civilian courts offers us the best chance of doing so.

Perhaps the most unfathomable aspect of this Bill is the Government’s decision to offload responsibility for the armed forces away from central Government and on to overstretched local authorities—it is utterly illogical and indefensible. The Bill piles new and often vague statutory responsibilities to deliver the covenant on a wide range of public bodies, so it is impossible to understand why on earth those responsibilities should not apply to central Government. We are faced with a farcical situation whereby the chair of school governors has a statutory responsibility to have “due regard” to the armed forces covenant, but Government Departments, including the Ministry of Defence, do not.

As the Royal British Legion has pointed out, many of the policy areas in which members of the armed forces community experience difficulty are the responsibility of national Government based on national guidance. Organisations such as Help for Heroes, Cobseo and other service charities, alongside Members from both sides of this House and in the other place, have lined up to criticise Ministers for shirking their responsibilities.

The Bill was an opportunity for the Government to lead by example and to demonstrate that credible leadership depends on accountability and on practising what they preach, but they appear to be intent on palming off all the responsibility to local government. Social care, pensions, employment and immigration are on the long list of areas not covered by the legislation, and the exclusion of the Ministry of Defence from the responsible public bodies means that the Bill offers little to actively serving personnel. The Government are already hitting many servicemen and women with a real-terms pay cut this year.

As I said at the Dispatch Box last week, we are left with a Bill that will not deliver practical action for the squaddie in dilapidated living accommodation who is without basics such as heating and hot water; the veteran struggling with their mental health and waiting times for treatment that are more than twice as long as Government targets suggest they should be; or the dispersed service family who struggle with the cost of childcare and getting into work. Central Government must be held to the same measurable, enforceable national standards that local authorities and agencies are held to. Only then can we truly end the postcode lottery on the armed forces covenant.

The Government’s concession of a review of the operation of the duty and whether central Government should be added is welcome, but ultimately, it is a recognition that the Bill is drafted too narrowly. How will parliamentarians be involved in the review? I recognise that the Minister mentioned that, but we need a clear assurance about it. Knowing the strength of feeling on the issue, I encourage him to ensure that parliamentarians from both Houses and the Chairs of relevant Select Committees are involved in and can give evidence to the review. We will keep a close eye on the review process, but we still believe that the due regard principle should be broadened to cover all areas of potential disadvantage for servicepeople.

The Opposition have been clear throughout the process that the Bill must become statute, not least because we must provide our armed forces with the solid and stable legal basis that they require to be able to operate. Although we welcome the concessions that the Minister has promised today, we remain profoundly disappointed that the Government have continued to resist the Lords amendments, thereby running the clock down. Let me be clear that it is unfinished business.

The Minister knows full well that there is deep unhappiness about the way that the Government have handled the process and profound concern about the way in which the weaknesses in the Bill will ultimately lead to it failing to serve the best interests of our services personnel. I therefore assure the House that Labour, as the party of the armed forces, will robustly hold the Government to account. I put the Minister on notice that he has not heard the last from us on these matters.