Yesterday in Parliament Peers considered in Grand Committee the Armed Forces Bill. Most of the amendments under consideration, including that by the Bishop of Wakefield, related to Clause 2 and how the Bill’s provisions regarding the Military Covenant might best be strengthened.
The Bishop’s amendment was the most ambitious and substantial under consideration by the Grand Committee and as such it provoked a healthy and lively debate amongst Peers. His amendment seeks greater flexibility in interpretation of what is meant by welfare and greater independence from Government in the way that the health of the Military Covenant is audited and reported.
Despite the support of several Peers it is evident from the Minister’s response that the Government remains resistant to the Bishop’s proposals on the grounds that it amounts to a costly and unnecessary bureaucratic invention that dilutes rather than strengthens Ministerial accountability.
The Minister was right to highlight that setting up an independent office to review annually the Military Covenant would not be cost-free. But to claim that it would be ‘costly’ is to locate the amendment within a financial discourse that stresses the need for retrenchment in this new age of austerity.
It remains true, however, that the Bill’s existing provisions are not financially neutral. Making annual reports to Parliament would take MoD staff time and resources. The creation of an External Reference Group to help support the Ministry of Defence in its endeavours would also make some demand upon the public purse.
The Minister appears to have overlooked the possibility that contracting out this task to an independent body might result in financial savings.
As we have seen with the work of the Inspectorate to Prisons, reports by independent bodies can sometimes serve to cast a spotlight in dark areas that the government would rather keep out of public sight. These reports usually come with a long list of costly recommendations that the government of the day struggles to meet.
This brings me once again back to the main weakness of the Bill. As it currently stands the Government is allowed both to set its own exam questions and mark its own homework. That might be the most cost-effective solution but it is far from clear that these proposals would help to strengthen the Military Covenant. Members of our Armed Forces and veterans deserve a firmer guarantee than this.
None of this is to say that the Bishops’ amendment is necessarily the right way forward. But it is clear when reading Hansard that there is a fairly considerable majority opinion from all quarters of the House that holds that things still need to be looked at further if the Covenant is to be as effective as it could be.
Lets hope that Government looks again at Clause 2 and brings forward its own amendments. If not, I’m sure that the Bishop of Wakefield will put his amendment to the vote at the Report Stage.