Armed Forces Bill should address issues

The ship of state collects idiosyncrasies like a sailing ship collects barnacles.

This week we dealt with one such, a bill with its origins in the 1688 Bill of Rights. The Armed Forces Bill gives the legal basis for a standing army in peacetime. Very important.

But the Bill has become more than a basis for keeping a military over the years. Since 2006, we have debated and legislated on military matters within the scope of the Bill on a five-yearly basis. And, unlike most bills, this one receives scrutiny from an ad hoc select committee, rather than the normal public bill committee.

I focused my contribution in the second reading debate on Monday on the military covenant (on which I wrote a book) and the Service Justice System (SJS).

The military covenant is a‘pledge to ensure the UK Armed Forces community is treated fairly’. My book about it called Tommy This an’ Tommy That was available at all good bookstores but sadly is now out of print a bit like Fly Fishing by JR Hartley. The 2011 bill introduced the principle of the covenant into law, and this one continues in that vein, placing duties onpublic services to ensure there is ‘no disadvantage’ accorded to service personnel and veterans. It does not aim to create rights, but instead reaffirms society’s responsibilities.

The second main area covers SJS – military justice. As I said in my contribution, service people should not be dealt with any more or less harshly than civilians in relation to the criminal law, either as victims or perpetrators; otherwise the central ‘no disadvantage’ plank of the covenant is merely rhetorical.

However, it is worrying that a rape victim’s assailant tried at court martial is significantly less likely to be convicted than if the case had been heard in a civilian court. This is at odds with ‘no disadvantage’.

The committee overseeing the bill will doubtless discuss thebest way forward on such matters – Judge Lyons’ SJS review recommended that serious criminal cases go to the civilian courts, but the MOD has pushed back.

Lyons also recommended a Service Police Complaints Commissioner, which is in the Bill. This is aimed at creating an independent line of redress if a service person is dissatisfied with the outcome of a complaint. However, I wonder why we’re creating separate bodies when we already have one in the form of the Independent Office for Police Conduct that deals with county forces.

It’s a good bill but it’ll be interesting to see what the scrutineers of the Armed Forces Bill Select Committee makes of it. We already know that the Opposition wants it to go further – but then Oppositions always have to find an angle.

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