Seeking a Compromise on the Armed Forces Bill

With the Conference season in full swing Parliament is enjoying the Autumn recess. This does not mean that the Parliamentary work stops – most of last week was taken up meeting with Peers of various political persuasions who are concerned that those provisions of the Armed Forces Bill dealing with the Armed Forces Covenant need further strengthening.

Underpinning these conversations was the realisation that whatever the principled positions of concerned Peers politics is at the end of the day about the art of the possible. There is no point pressing to a vote a series of principled amendments that if accepted are likely to be overturned by the Government at a subsequent stage in proceedings.

This understanding, true at the best of times, holds doubly so for this Coalition Government. Over the last eighteen months the Coalition Government has shown itself particularly adverse to accepting amendments to its legislative programme.

The Localism Bill  is one of the most comprehensive and far reaching pieces of legislation to be considered by Parliament in recent years. Noble attempts to improve this complex Bill have so far fallen on death ears. Each and every amendment has so far been rejected by the Government.

On those occasions where the Government has been defeated in the Lords, as it was over certain provisions of the European Union Bill, the Government has generally sought to reverse any decision when the matter returns to the House of Commons.

None of this is to bemoan the vagrancies of our Parliamentary system or to make the case for Parliamentary reform. It does however point to the need to take a pragmatic approach to any engagement with the legislative process.

In the case of the Armed Forces Bill, this pragmatism has resulted in the Bishop of Wakefield joining forces with other prominent Peers from across the House to table a composite amendment.

The new amendment is less invasive. It does not seek the appointment of an independent reviewer.

It does, however, press the case for Government Ministers, other than the Secretary of State for Defence, to report on those provisions of the Covenant that fall within their Department’s remit. Responsibility for the Covenant would therefore be shared more widely across Government.

None of this is to say that this amendment will fare any better than others. But, re-reading the Government’s response to those amendments already debated by Committee it is evident that this is an area where the Government acknowledges the weaknesses of the original Bill.

Our chance of improving the Bill will hopefully be improved by tabling a compromise amendment that has broad support amongst Peers and which is at the same time sympathetic of the Government’s position.

This new amendment will be debated by the Peers in Grand Committee on 4 October.

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