William Hall: Why ministers must press on to bed the Armed Forces Covenant into all areas of public life

16 Sep

William Hall is the Policy Lead for Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces. He is Deputy Chairman of Oxfordshire Conservatives and works in UK defence, infrastructure and education.

The Conservative Party is a broad church but one of the core areas that unites us is support for our armed forces and a belief in the importance of a strong national defence.

Progress has been made, but we must do more to support the military community. The Armed Forces Covenant must be further enhanced and strengthened so that it has a greater force of law.

The Covenant articulates that the nation has a moral obligation to members of the Armed Forces Community in return for the sacrifices they endure. The armed forces community includes regular personnel, reservists, veterans, and immediate families. Specifically, the Covenant outlines two core principles:

  • No disadvantage: no current or former member of the armed forces, or their families, should be at a disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services.
  • Special consideration: special consideration is appropriate in some cases, particularly for those who have been injured or bereaved.

That these goals should be a key pillar of Conservative thinking on defence should not be in question. The Conservative Party would stray considerably from its proper philosophical and moral course were it pursue anything other than a full-throated advocacy of support for ex-servicemen and armed forces personnel.

In the 2010 Conservative Manifesto our party was elected to government on a promise to fix the covenant that had been let fall into ‘disrepair’ by Labour. Writing on ConservativeHome, James Sunderland, now MP and supporter of Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces, said “the Conservative Party must re-affirm its support for all serving personnel, veterans and their families, not only as the traditional party of the Armed Forces, but also as the defender of the democratic rights and freedoms that we share.”

The party’s backbenchers and Cabinet appear in agreement that defence spending and focus must be a priority and the announcement of an additional £24.1 billion funding is welcome.

The Armed Forces Covenant is a statement of a principle. It does not itself infer legal obligations and rights on members of the community. Instead, it is referred to by laws which may require it to be taken into account, and is a governing pillar for the body politic. The Secretary of State for Defence must make an annual report to Parliament on the government’s progress in honouring the Covenant. In particular the Defence Secretary must have regard to the following:

  • The unique obligations of, and sacrifices made by, the armed forces;
  • The principle that it is desirable to remove disadvantages arising for service people from membership, or former membership, of the armed forces; and
  • The principle that special provision for service people may be justified by the effects on such people of membership, or former membership, of the armed forces.

The Armed Forces Covenant Fund was launched in 2015 with a budget of £10m a year to support “mutually beneficial projects and programmes being delivered by organisations across the UK in partnership with the Armed Forces Community”. It supports the obligation that the Covenant represents through four broad funding areas: removing barriers to family life; extra support after service for those that need help; measures to integrate military and civilian communities; and non-core healthcare services for veterans.

One of Boris Johnson’s first actions as Prime Minister was the establishment of the Office of Veterans Affairs (OVA), led by Johnny Mercer as Minister for Defence People and Veterans jointly with the Cabinet Office. In its first year the OVA launched a new railcard for veterans, a scheme to provide guaranteed interviews in the civil service for veterans, plans for a National Insurance Holiday for employers who hire veterans, and prioritisation of veterans for new homes.

The establishment of the OVA supports the cross-Whitehall approach that the Covenant represents. It is telling that the ministerial responsibilities straddle both the MoD and the Cabinet Office signalling a continued entrenchment of the Covenant in policy formulation in every Department. This is a welcome step in furthering the goals of the Covenant.

It would be beneficial to the continued impact of the OVA if its mission were treated in a way similar to other overarching, cross-departmental themes of the Government. The Armed Forces Community is impacted by the decisions of every Department and it is right that the political sponsorship of this is significant. To enhance this, a useful addition would be a focused team of political and non-political advisers similar to those tasked with taking forward other thematic priorities, including the ‘levelling up’ agenda.

Local authorities are a key deliverer of services to the beneficiaries of the Covenant. The Local Government Association’s (LGA) report ‘Our Community – Our Covenant: Improving the Delivery of Local Covenant Pledges’ provided concerning insight into the delivery of this service at a local level.

Of the Council Chief Executives surveyed by the LGA, 48 per cent reported that they had a good understanding of the Covenant, and 39 per cent a moderate understanding. Perhaps even more concerning is that the same report found that almost a quarter of surveyed members of the Armed Forces Community felt that their local authority did not understand their needs.

In areas with higher visibility of the armed forces in the community the local authority tended to be better at folding the Covenant into their decisions. However, a post-code lottery of council awareness is simply not good enough.

Over the last decade, the Armed Forces Covenant’s scope and impact has increasingly benefitted from the political sponsorship of the Conservative Party in Government. This looks set to continue apace. Service provision areas of high impact for the Covenant are being brought into law in order to strengthen the existing framework of regard for its principles.

As this progress continues it will be increasingly necessary to focus on those parts of public services that are most complex, unwilling to change, or unaware of the specific requirements of the Armed Forces Community. To achieve the ultimate aims of the Covenant, it will be necessary to maintain the political trajectory that recent defence announcements have signalled and to root out areas of poor performance in local authorities and service providers.

Fundamentally, the Covenant seeks to apply some very simple principles to an incredibly complicated legal and governmental landscape. It must therefore be an ongoing project and a living commitment.

A longer version of this article appears in Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces’ new Policy Pamphlet.

Ed McGuinness: Afghanistan – and the changes that should now be made to better support our veterans

10 Sep

Ed McGuinness is a founder of Conservatives in the City, and contested Hornsey & Wood Green during last year’s General Election.

This week the summer seemed to return and, as the sun rose over Westminster, MPs began filling the House of Commons once again, bringing a buzz to the start of a new political term. In a week packed with domestic legislation, the Prime Minister took to his feet to make a statement on what was surely the major story of the summer: Afghanistan.

Many have pored over the strategy of the withdrawal – and will continue to.  Even more will consider the operational and tactical decisions that led to chaotic scenes at Kabul airport. What can, I believe, be objectively said is that the bravery, dedication and professionalism of our Armed Forces and diplomatic service is without question. However, as the Prime Minister pointed out, those men and women were only the final team of the over 150,000 British service personnel who have served in the country since 2001.

It was therefore welcome that the Government laid out extra support, in the form of an extra £5 million, for veterans of the conflict who are undergoing mental and physical health issues as a consequence of their service to the nation.  A quick calculation, assuming that five per cent of those who served are undergoing or require treatment, is that this new measure will provide an extra spend of around £650 per person.

But however welcome this extra funding may be, it is not is not enough in and of itself. There is a tremendous amount of knowledge and best practice in the public domain with respect to promoting aspects of service life: one need only look at the number of military charities that are out there. And the Veterans Affairs Office was a good start to coordinating the Government action to protecting and promoting veterans’ interests from a top-down perspective.

However, structures do not make a strategy, and I believe that there are three changes that could be made to strengthen the bonds between the Government and the Armed Forces.

First, the Government should make the Minister for Veterans Affairs a Cabinet-level position – or else place it under the purview of the Secretary of State for Defence with a Defence Minister (it currently resides in the Cabinet Office), so that it has the requisite clout when negotiating for funding with other departments.

Second, there ought to be a serious consultation with the Armed Forces charity sector. In 2020, there were around 2,000 Armed Forces charities. Some of these charities have a very broad remit, and some very specific. The Government should establish an umbrella organisation to act as a forum to share best practice, identify areas not covered and allow better co-ordination. Most importantly, this would allow for the identification of where public funding can be more efficiently allocated to better support serving and retired service personnel.

Third, and perhaps the most difficult objective to implement, is a mindset change. There needs to be a recognition that the Armed Forces are a unique public service. Whilst many public servants, especially the emergency services and health services, will undergo traumatic experiences through their careers, there is no expectation that those public servants will explicitly lay down their lives in the service of the nation, although it is recognised that many have made brave sacrifices.

Furthermore, the Armed Forces are the only public service whose major purpose is to actually stand ready to act for the majority of the time, rather than to be acting all the time. To this end, resourcing the Armed Forces for “outcomes” is not an appropriate mindset. Instead, Ministers should resource single living accommodation for serving soldiers, provide sufficient funding for equipment and good food, and make sure there is adequate housing (including families) and employment for retired soldiers. Changing mindset from quantitative outcomes to qualitative is more appropriate in this respect.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan was painful for a whole spectrum of people, for a whole series of reasons, but it presents an opportunity to reform our approach to the Armed Forces and how we support soldiers. There has been a hugely positive change in mindset over the past 20 years when it comes to soldiers’ mental and physical health.  But in order to solidify this and build on it more reform is needed.

Not all of it requires lots of additional funding; most simply requires a willingness to engage and support. Our Armed Forces come to our need, domestically and overseas, time and time again. Our efforts to support them should never be exhausted – there is always going to be scope to do more, and it is government’s duty to do so.

Robert Halfon: America has abandoned the Afghans. But we must stick with the Kurds.

8 Sep

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Western withdrawal from Afghanistan has jangled nerves in allied nations. One such place is the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.

The situation in Kurdistan and Iraq is quite different from Afghanistan. American armed forces
 in Iraq and Kurdistan will end combat operations by the end of the year. But Iraq and America 
have recently agreed that 2,500 American troops will stay to assist, advise, and train.

The Americans stress the continuing importance of their strategic relationship with Iraq and are
 building the single biggest consulate in the world in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan.

The UK
 supports a strong Kurdistan Region in Iraq and also has a sizeable diplomatic presence in Erbil.
The presence of American troops and bases in the Kurdistan Region is certainly desired by its
 people and government. American, British, and German soldiers are providing invaluable training to the Peshmerga, and
 are seeking to unify it under the authority of the government rather than the two main parties – a
 legacy of the past.

A strong Peshmerga is ever more necessary, as the fall of Kabul to the Taliban will embolden 
what Tony Blair calls Radical Islam elsewhere. The Peshmerga have proved a dedicated and capable ally in resisting such extremism. They held
 out almost alone for several years after ISIS took Mosul, and then attacked Kurdistan in 2014.
 Eventually, the Peshmerga and the revived Iraqi Army dislodged Daesh from its genocidal
 caliphate. RAF jets were essential to this achievement.

But it is not complete. Isis is smaller, but regrouping in the gaps between the Iraqi Army and the
 Peshmerga. Erbil and Baghdad are building better relationships, but judicious American and 
British engagement can help them to do so more quickly.

Of course, we should carefully examine the experience of Afghanistan, but my great fear is that 
isolationism on the left and right could take root.

Friends of the Kurds can say that there are times when there’s one thing worse than a Western 
intervention – and that’s no Western intervention.

Not all interventions have been disastrous, let alone about imposing our values. John Major’s
 no-fly zone and safe haven for the Kurds in 1991 averted certain genocide, and helped the Kurds
 create an autonomous region that increased health, education, living standards, stability, and
 opportunity. Our jets saved Kurds from ISIS in the last decade.

Such interventions are the baby that should not be thrown out with the bathwater amid any
 isolationist backlash. They go with the grain of change desired by our partners and enable their self-defence, with
urgent and direct aid in existential emergencies, and self-improvement.

The need to deploy military muscle in extremis is on the spectrum of liberal intervention, and
 provides the solid assurances without which other engagements are more difficult.

Our wider range of cultural, commercial, and political engagements clearly say that the fate of the
 Kurds remains important to the West. It also gives them the confidence and stability to further
reform their institutions.

The Kurds are an ancient people, but they have only had a coherent and recognised near-state in
 Iraq for a generation. They have come far in that time but have much further to go. From my visits over many years, I can testify that they welcome our involvement in ventures as
varied as training MPs and judges, measures to advance transparency and tackle corruption,
boosting agriculture, and film, for example. I suspect many films about Afghanistan could be 
produced in Kurdistan.

A major imperative close to my heart is their desire to modernise their education system and
 encourage new thinking in a more vibrant civil society as they reduce their reliance on oil and
 state employment while designing new futures in technology, tourism, and light industry.
One of our country’s great soft power offers in higher education. My predecessor as MP for 
Harlow, Bill Rammell has recently become Vice-Chancellor of one of their prestigious English 
language universities.

Another such university in Kurdistan has just taken in female students from Afghanistan. It
illustrates the deep generosity of the people of Iraqi Kurdistan, so often exiles and refugees from 
injustice themselves.

Iraqi Kurdistan also continues to host nearly a million refugees and displaced people from Syria 
and from the areas once occupied by Isis to which they cannot yet return. That has been an
 enduring and willingly given duty for them.

Their respect for religious and national minorities as well as improved women’s rights powerfully 
defy Radical Islam. All countries act in their own national interests and not just for altruistic reasons. American and
 British engagement is both. The fall of Kabul highlights how much more we need Iraqi Kurds as 
allies and partners, and vice-versa.

Ex-servicemen enrich the Commons, but we should beware giving their views special status on matters of war

21 Aug

One feature of the reaction to this week’s parliamentary debate on the debacle in Kabul has been the praise for contributions from Tom Tugendhat and other MPs who were formerly members of the Armed Forces.

Beyond admiration for the technical skill of some of the oratory, these members were able to speak movingly about their on-the-ground experience in Afghanistan, including the risks they had taken and the comrades they had lost during this twenty-year war.

As a result, there has been a perhaps natural tendency to give their perspective particular weight – although as our editor has pointed out, this seems not to apply to everyone. John Baron, another soldier-turned-MP, enjoys a much lower profile for his consistently anti-intervention position. Indeed, Tugendhat at one point went so far as to attack Joe Biden, a civilian, for criticising the collapse of the Afghan National Army:

“To see their commander-in-chief call into question the courage of men I fought with, to claim that they ran, is shameful. Those who have never fought for the colours they fly should be careful about criticising those who have.”

Such sentiment is understandable. But civilian oversight of the Armed Forces is a pretty central plank of what makes a western democracy today. On top of that, in the US the President is Commander-in-Chief. Criticism of the military by civilians, let alone the elected government, is legitimate.

There are other reasons too to be cautious of giving excess weight to ex-military voices in these debates. Again, it is understandable that people who worked on the ground to try and build a new Afghanistan, and lost friends in the process, should be frustrated to see it all collapse like a house of cards the moment the United States decides it can no longer spare a few thousand troops and auxiliary contractors.

But as we noted last week, the sunk costs fallacy is not a good argument for staying in. And whilst this week’s speeches were long on emotion, they were somewhat shorter on practical plans for creating a self-sustaining Afghan state. Given what we are now learning about the fragility of the Islamic Republic and the ineptitude of much of the occupation, it is tricky to see how we might have achieved even in another ten years what we did not in the preceding 20. Sometimes, a virtue of civilian oversight is the capacity of people less invested to call time on mission creep.

(Likewise, the Government cannot so easily handwave the practicalities of resettlement as can an eloquent backbencher. Tugendhat says he is “not going to get into the political auction of numbers. We just need to get people out.” But the ‘auction of numbers’ is the business of government.)

It is also difficult to imagine the Conservative Party endorsing this attitude towards external criticism when it comes to civilian professions (although much easier to envision the left doing so). Should people who aren’t doctors and nurses hesitate to criticise the NHS? Or non-teachers hold their tongue on school standards and education reform?

(Schools actually provide an interesting case in point about the limited applicability of specialist front-line experience to the business of government. New Labour expected great things of Estelle Morris, a former teacher appointed Education Secretary in 2001. But she resigned in 2002.)

None of this means that we should not value the ex-military perspective, nor even that Tugendhat et al are wrong in wanting to make an ongoing military commitment to Afghanistan. But there is a danger in affording them special status, perhaps best captured by Dr Johnson:

“Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.”

We should remember always that MPs and citizens with no military experience have just as much right to weigh in on these questions as anyone else.

Alistair Lexden: Remembering Sir Henry Wilson, the MP the IRA assassinated – and the Commons forgot

8 Aug

Lord Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian. His website can be found here. This piece is written in support of the campaign to secure Sir Henry a memorial shield in the House of Commons.

A railway journey from London to Lexden on the edge of Colchester in Essex begins at Liverpool Street station (named after the Tory leader who was our third longest-serving prime minister between 1812 and 1827). Until the reconstruction of the station some thirty years ago, I bought my tickets home in a vast booking hall dominated by a marble war memorial covered with the names of over 1,200 Great Eastern Railway staff who had died in the First World War. The booking hall has gone, but the magnificent memorial remains.

There is a stone tablet beneath the memorial which bears the following inscription: ‘To the memory of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson Bart GCB DSO MP, whose death occurred on Thursday 22nd June 1922,within two hours of his unveiling the adjoining memorial.’ The Field Marshal’s head and shoulders are depicted in bronze on a plaque attached to the tablet.

Until the ticket office moved to a new location in the 1990s, I often cast a respectful glance at this highly controversial soldier turned politician (the only Field Marshal elected to the Commons in modern times), who had been returned unopposed as Ulster Unionist MP for North Down at a by-election just four months before his death at the age of 58.

On the Tory benches, where all Ulster Unionists sat until 1974, he had immediately become prominent among a group of vehemently right-wing MPs, some 50 strong, known as the Diehards. Some had started to speak of this witty, charming, formidable man with a silver tongue as the group’s future leader, who would enhance its chances of influencing the course of Tory policy towards the strengthening of imperial ties and higher defence spending. These hopes were dashed on 22 June 1922.

After the unveiling ceremony at Liverpool Street, which took place shortly after 1pm on that June day nearly a century ago, Wilson, who was in uniform, went by underground (where trains then had first-class compartments) to Charing Cross. From there, a taxi took him first to his club, the Travellers in Pall Mall, where he briefly checked the tapes for the latest news( a common practice at that time), and then on to his home at 36 Eaton Place in Belgravia, where he arrived at about 2.20pm.

As he approached his front door, he was shot by two young Irish republican terrorists in their twenties, converts to the cause after serving in the British forces during the First World War. They used revolvers which they had bought a week earlier. As the bullets struck him, Wilson drew his sword in a valiant, but vain, gesture of defiance.

It does not seem to have occurred to anyone that this very distinguished person ought to have had some form of armed protection. But even if it had been offered, Wilson was the kind of man, brave to the point of fearlessness, who would have turned it down out of hand (like Airey Neave, the next MP to be killed by Irish terrorists 57 years later).

He was an obvious terrorist target. In 1919, the IRA had begun a brutal campaign to try to achieve complete Irish independence. They had no more uncompromising or outspoken opponent than Sir Henry, who was then Chief of the Imperial General Staff(CIGS), the army’s professional head, and principal military adviser to Lloyd George’s coalition government, which was dominated by Tories.

This implacable foe of the IRA had deep roots in Ireland. He came from an old and large Ulster family, who had sold their very successful Belfast shipping business in the mid-nineteenth century and bought estates in three southern counties, Westmeath, Longford and Dublin (an extremely unwise investment as it turned out). None of them passed to Sir Henry, born in 1864 and the second of four sons, who set his sights on an army career after leaving Marlborough College in Wiltshire.

His English public school left his strong Irish accent intact. He remained close to his family in Co. Longford, ‘good employers of Catholic and Protestant workers alike’ (in the words of a top IRA officer), who became deeply committed to the Unionist cause when Parnell’s campaign for Irish Home Rule became a serious threat in the 1880s. Sir Henry always referred to himself as an Irishman, who also took great pride in being British. There was, he said, ‘only one solution to the Irish question, and that was the Union.’ His Irish wife took exactly the same view. They had no children.

In 1919, Wilson was confident that the British government could defeat the IRA, and save the Union, if it implemented his plans to transfer the overall responsibility for crushing terrorism from the police to the army. ‘Unity of control was essential’, he said. This never happened. The army acted as requested in support of the police, which increased its numbers by recruiting ex-servicemen, the notorious Black and Tans, whose arbitrary reprisals against terrorists and their suspected sympathisers horrified Wilson. He was appalled by this ‘desperate and hopeless expedient[ which was] bound to fail’. He was of course right.

After that failure, Lloyd George negotiated a treaty with some of the Irish republican leaders in December 1921. Only the six counties of what had become Northern Ireland remained outside the self-governing Irish Free State, which subsequently turned itself into a republic. Wilson, never one to mince his words in private or in public, denounced Lloyd George’s Irish settlement as a ‘shameful and cowardly surrender’.

He never spoke to the Welsh wizard again, resigning as CIGS in February 1922 to enter politics, where one of his chief aims was to bring down Lloyd George. Enmity replaced the devotion that had until then united the two men. Wilson was the only senior First World War general to win Lloyd George’s admiration and friendship.

Praise was lavished on him at 10 Downing Street as a superb military organiser and administrator with a greater grasp of key strategical issues than anyone else. In 1919, Wilson, then 55, had become the youngest Field Marshal in British history, apart from Wellington.

A common love of gossip and intrigue cemented the relationship between the prime minister and the soldier until their Irish quarrel destroyed it. Lloyd George’s mistress, Frances Stevenson, bitterly regretted the rupture. She called Wilson ‘a great and loveable man’ in her diary on the day of his murder.

That verdict was far from being unanimously endorsed. Wilson was loathed by some of his British contemporaries as heartily as he was adored by others.

Irish republican hatred of him intensified during his four months as an Ulster Unionist MP. At the request of the new Northern Ireland government, he drew up plans for a Special Constabulary in the Province. The IRA denounced him as the instigator of a Protestant militia formed to carry out ‘pogroms’ against Catholics. In fact, he emphasised that ‘encouragement should be given to Catholics to join equally.’ He told Northern Ireland ministers in Belfast that ‘it was essential to secure the confidence of all law-abiding people in the ability of the Government to govern.’

False IRA propaganda was widely believed. Was it spread to try and justify an organised terrorist plot to murder him? The two young assassins believed the republican propaganda, but there was no plot. Peter Hart, a historian who has examined all the evidence in detail, concluded that ‘we must accept the assertions of the murderers that they acted alone, in the (grossly mistaken) belief that Wilson was responsible for Catholic deaths in Belfast.’ The two men were arrested, tried, sentenced to death, and hanged at Wandsworth prison on 10 August 1922.

Sir Henry Wilson was the first MP to be murdered in London since the prime minister, Spencer Perceval, 110 years earlier. He was the second MP to be killed by Irish terrorists, almost exactly 40 years after the first victim, Lord Frederick Cavendish, Gladstone’s nephew by marriage, in Phoenix Park, Dublin.

In his final words at Liverpool Street station on 22 June 1922, Sir Henry gave thanks for the memorial to ‘men who died doing their duty’. He added: ‘In doing what they thought right, they paid the penalty.’ It was his own epitaph.

BIBLIOGRAPHY – Major-General Sir C.E. Callwell, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson Bart., G.C.B., D.S.O : His Life and Diaries, 2 Vols.( Cassell, 1927). Peter Hart, ‘Michael Collins and the Assassination of Sir Henry Wilson’ in the journal Irish Historical Studies, Vol.28, November 1992. Keith Jeffery, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson: A Political Soldier (Oxford University Press, 2006). A.J.P. Taylor(ed.), Lloyd George: A Diary by Frances Stevenson ( Hutchinson, 1971).

The new amnesty on Troubles prosecutions is not really about Northern Ireland at all

16 Jul

The Government’s decision to attempt a de facto amnesty from prosecutions for killings committed during the Troubles has, predictably enough, angered all sides in Northern Ireland.

Unionists are outraged that the perpetrators of some of the IRA’s worst outrages will face not even the spectre of justice. The families of those killed by security forces personnel feel much the same. The Irish Government is threatening court action.

But this probably doesn’t matter, because although Brandon Lewis has introduced it, in terms of Conservative politics this policy is probably not really about Northern Ireland at all.

Instead, it’s basically the result of a much more general campaign by Tory MPs to protect the troops from so-called ‘tank-chasers’, lawyers who profit by prosecuting allegations against British soldiers. It became a scandal which culminated in Phil Shiner, “once the most feted human rights lawyer in the country“, was struck off in the face of professional misconduct charges. His firm had spent millions of pounds of public money bringing thousands of cases, none of which stuck.

When ministers moved to insulate ex-servicemen against the threat of potentially vexatious prosecutions brought long after the fact, the Northern Ireland Office excluded cases pertaining to the Troubles. It is that exemption which, by circuitous means, ends if these proposals go ahead.

There is a good case for setting limits on prosecuting the military. It is not only a question of justice and due process for individual ex-servicemen, but also a fact that the prospect of getting thrown to the wolves will directly impact the performance of today’s troops on the ground. Arguably this is especially the case in a counter-insurgency theatre such as Northern Ireland was, where the law is pretty much explicitly a front on which the battle is fought.

Such considerations must obviously be balanced against the demands of the peace process. But contra the attitudes of previous Secretaries of State, that is a decision for the Government – indeed, the Prime Minister – to make. The Northern Ireland Office is not a sovereign fiefdom, to set policy as it pleases.

That isn’t the same as saying this move is the right one. Beyond the obvious objections about letting people get away with crimes, it is problematic that the Government has decided to go with a tit-for-tat amnesty for both sides. It creates a false sense of equivalence between the Armed Forces and the IRA, and facilitates republican efforts to rebrand their terrorist campaign as a ‘war’.

On the other hand, there are no novel missteps here. London has been playing into republican hands on that issue ever since it first made the mistake of affording ‘political status’ to prisoners serving time for terror offences. Likewise, Labour’s outrage over the amnesties is all very well but it was Tony Blair who both released IRA prisoners from jail and oversaw the issuing of the so-called ‘comfort letters’, a de facto amnesty that collapsed the trial of the Hyde Park bomber.

When Boris Johnson elevated Claire Fox to the peerage, I noted that the cause of Ulster seemed to have thinned in the blood of the modern Tory Party. The shields in the Commons paying tribute to Conservative MPs murdered by republican terrorists did not stop the Prime Minister putting an apologist for their murderers in the House of Lords. Today’s “protect our boys” approach to military prosecutions seems to be a product of the same trend.

Ultimately, the Belfast Agreement has done what Lloyd George’s creation of Stormont did before it: allow mainland politicians to put Northern Ireland out of their minds. As ever, the price of that is paid, one way or another, by Northern Ireland itself.

Snap guide to this session’s Government legislation 4) The Armed Forces Bill

20 Jun

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”.

Responsible department

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.

Arguments for

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”.

Arguments against

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.