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The Armed Forces Bill 2019-21 was introduced on 26 January 2021 and had Second Reading on 8 February 2021. The Bill was carried over from the 2019-21 session. It is now Bill 002 2021-22.

Unlike the majority of Government Bills, the Armed Forces Bill has traditionally been committed to a specially convened ad hoc Select Committee after Second Reading, which sits only for the duration of the Bill. The Committee’s members were appointed on 24 February. The Committee was required to report the Bill back to the House by 29 April. The Committee published their report on 22 April 2021.

The Bill completed Committee of the Whole House on 23 June 2021. The text of the Bill as amended by Committee, and proposed amendments can be found on the Bill’s webpage: Armed Forces Bill.

The former Minister for Defence People and Veterans, Johnny Mercer, sat on the Select Committee. He left Government on 21 April 2021. Leo Docherty, who also sat on the Select Committee, was appointed Minister for Defence People and Veterans on the same day.

Purpose of the Bill

The primary purpose of the Bill is to renew the Armed Forces Act 2006 (itself renewed by the Armed Forces Acts of 2011 and 2016). The Armed Forces Act 2006 provides the legal basis for the existence of the Armed Forces as disciplined bodies. Without renewal, the 2006 Act will expire at the end of 2021.

The Bill also:

  • Makes provision to continue the 2006 Act for a further period of five years, ending no later than 2026;
  • Amends the service justice system;
  • Creates a new independent body to oversee complaints about the Service Police;
  • Requires specified public bodies to have due regard to the principles of the Armed Forces Covenant in the areas of housing, education and healthcare;
  • Allows for flexible working for Reserve personnel;
  • Makes changes to sentencing and rehabilitation;
  • Extends posthumous pardons for those convicted of abolished service offences;
  • Allows for a British overseas territory (i.e. Gibraltar) to bring the Royal Gibraltar Regiment into the UK’s service justice system;
  • Aligns the time limits for war pension appeals in Scotland and Northern Ireland with those in England and Wales.

Second Reading

The Bill received cross-party support during Second Reading.

However, the Shadow Defence Secretary, John Healey, described the Bill as a “missed opportunity” and SNP defence spokesperson Carol Monaghan said it lacked teeth and scope.

The main concerns raised during Second Reading concerned the scope and enforcement of the Covenant and the rejection of HH Shaun Lyons’ recommendation regarding serious cases in the service justice system. Members also raised issues they felt should be, but aren’t, in the Bill.

Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill

Unlike the majority of Government Bills, the Armed Forces Bill has traditionally been committed to a specially convened ad hoc Select Committee after Second Reading, which sits only for the duration of the Bill. The Committee launched its inquiry on 3 March and held six oral evidence sessions, hearing from forty-five witnesses.

The Committee also launched a public survey on the Bill which received over 3,000 submissions.

Line-by-line scrutiny was held over two days, on 25 March and 31 March. The Committee published their report on 22 April 2021.

The Bill was not amended by the Select Committee. Several amendments and new clauses moved by Labour and the SNP were defeated on division.

Labour moved then withdrew two amendments to the Bill. The first would require the most serious crimes (murder, manslaughter and rape) be tried in civilian court when offences are committed in the UK. The second was for central Government and the devolved Governments to have the same due regard to the Armed Forces Covenant that that Bill places on local authorities and other public bill bodies. Both of these issues were discussed at length during committee stage.

Sharon Hodgson’s amendment to remove the reduction in the amount of time service personnel have to make a service complaint appeal was defeated on division.

Carol Monaghan and Martin Docherty-Hughes moved new clauses to increase the recruiting age to 18 and to create a new Armed Forces representative body akin to the Police Federation. Both were defeated on division.

Kevan Jones moved two new clauses that were defeated on division. A requirement for a report on the effects of Operation Banner (the name for military operations in Northern Ireland during the Troubles) on Veterans. And for the Armed Forces Covenant report to include comparisons with the terms and conditions of service in the public sector.

Members also moved clauses calling for: better data collection on Veterans; regular reports of the strength of infantry battalions; a review of the number of people who were dismissed or forced to resign from the Armed Forces due to their sexuality; and to include data on people accessing treatment for alcohol, drug and gambling disorders in the Armed Forces Covenant annual report.

Stephen Morgan said he would return to the issue of fees for indefinite leave to remain applications for Commonwealth members of the armed forces at Report stage. The Minister said the Government will provide a pathway to residency and are looking to start a public consultation shortly. The public consultation opened on 25 May.

Committee of the Whole House

The Armed Forces Bill completed Committee of the Whole House on 23 June 2021. Several opposition amendments were defeated on division, while serveral Government technical amendments were accepted without division. The Bill, as amended, was reported.

The remaining stages of the Bill have yet to be scheduled.

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