The Bills announced in each session’s Queen’s Speech are the fulcrum of the Parliamentary year. But they are easily lost sight of, separately and wholly, as the political cycle moves – and a mass of other news and events crowd them out.
So during the coming months, ConservativeHome will run a brief guide, most Sunday mornings, to each Bill from this year’s Speech: what it is, whether it’s new, its main strengths and weaknesses – and whether it’s expected sooner or later.
2) The Armed Forces Bill
What it is
In a nutshell, this Bill ensures that the United Kingdom has armed forces. Why is legislation required for that purpose? Because of Parliament’s ancient fear of the Crown having a standing army. (So it is that we have a Royal Navy and Air Force but the British Army.)
As James Sunderland explained recently on this site, “the Armed Forces Bill is a procedural anomaly harking back to the 1689 Bill of Rights. Every five years, the Bill must pass through Parliament, thereby renewing the Armed Forces Act in statute and enabling the maintenance of standing forces in peacetime”.
The Ministry of Defence. Second Reading debate took place in the Commons on February 8. Secretaries of State usually take the Second Reading of Bills, but Johnny Mercer, then Minister for Defence People and Veterans, took this one.
He has since resigned (over the treatment of Northern Ireland veterans, which is unconnected to this Bill) so his replacement, Leo Doherty, is likely to step into the breach when amendments are considered.
Carried over or a new Bill?
A new Bill – but it has had pre-legislative scrutiny through a unique form of joint committtee, chaired by Sunderland. Read its report.
Expected back when?
The committee stage of the Bill is timetabled for this coming Wednesday, June 23.
The case for the Bill is a slam dunk – assuming that you believe that the United Kingdom needs armed forces. It also updates elements of the armed forces disciplinary system.
Furthermore, it “enshrines the Armed Forces Covenant in law and help prevent service personnel and veterans being disadvantaged when accessing services like healthcare, education and housing and improve the Service Justice System for our personnel wherever they are operating”.
No-one has emerged in the Commons to argue that we don’t need armed forces, but there are lots of questions about the detail of the Bill – especially the application of the Covenant.
For example, as the Joint Committee report puts it, “concerns were…raised that the Bill applies to local government and some public bodies, but not to central nor devolved governments, and that there is a lack of alternative routes of redress for veterans”. The committee also has concerns about the proposed workings of the Service Justice System.
Labour’s unsurprising position has been to support the Bill in principle, arguing that it emerges from its own Armed Forces Act of 2006 – while backing the Joint Committee’s concerns and adding some of its own. For example, Kevan Jones, the former Defence Minister, claimed during Second Reading that Labour suggested protections for a 2009 forerunner of the Covenant that are not contained in the Bill.
While the Joint Committee necessarily maintained some differences with the Government, Sunderland rowed in behind Ministers over Labour’s criticisms, arguing that “my view therefore is that, far from being overly prescriptive in primary legislation, it may be better to be less prescriptive”.
Controversy rating: 2/10
As John Healey, Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary, said at Second Reading, the Bill is bipartisan – and it is difficult to get controversy going about a measure necessary for the continuance of our Armed Forces. But honouring the Covenant will be a challenge, given the range and complexity of issues affecting veterans, that may require further legislative changes before the Bill next comes up for renewal.