DEFENCE – ARMED FORCES (SERVICE COMPLAINTS & FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE) BILL – 2 February 2015
[The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Anna Soubry): It is only right and fair that at this stage I pay tribute to the great work that Dr Susan Atkins did in her time as commissioner. I found it a great pleasure to work with her. I think she started her job in a different place from where she ended it, and I think she made huge strides. I have no doubt that she faced many difficulties in her appointment, but she seized them robustly, she took no prisoners, and she undoubtedly improved the system. I hope that the members of the House of Commons Defence Committee, who I know took a keen interest in her work, will agree with my assessment of the great work she did, and that we will sorely miss her. I also think I speak on behalf of everybody – and if I do not, I will be intervened on, no doubt – when I say that we have an excellent replacement in Nicola Williams, who will be our first service complaints ombudsman. She, too, is an outstanding individual and, if I may say so, an outstanding woman.]
Dr Julian Lewis: As a member of the Committee when Nicola was interviewed, may I say that I was deeply impressed by the way she stood up, with good humour and resilience, to some tough questioning? Does my hon. Friend agree that what is particularly important about this Bill, given some people’s fears that the chain of command system could be subverted or clogged up, is that proposed new section 340I(1) to the Armed Forces Act 2006 states that the ombudsman has complete discretion
“to determine whether to begin, continue or discontinue an investigation”?
Does she agree that that is an important safeguard?
[Anna Soubry: I absolutely do, and I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his sensible, common-sense words. I join him in paying tribute – again – to Nicola Williams, and I think he will agree with me about Dr Atkins, too. What my hon. Friend says is absolutely right. I think – and hope – that there will be some debate and argument, and I was going to pay tribute to the Defence Committee for the great work it has done over a number of years in wanting to make huge changes to the role of the Service Complaints Commissioner. ...]
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Dr Lewis: I pay tribute to the hard work of the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Madeleine Moon), who has been a champion of the Bill. In order to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), I would share his concerns if I thought there was any danger of the system becoming clogged up with complaints that were designed to paralyse it. That is why I think that the provision in the Bill to which I referred in my intervention on the Minister is so important. The complaints commissioner has the right to investigate or not to investigate a given complaint, which avoids the danger that I think my hon. Friend would otherwise be rightly concerned about.
[Mr Kevan Jones: All I will say to the hon. Gentleman is that he should read the report of the debate we had when the Service Complaints Commissioner was introduced, because this is not about interfering in the chain of command. The present commissioner has done a very good job of highlighting the delays in the processes, particularly in the Army. Anyone who deals with complaints, whether in industry, local government or anywhere else, knows that it is better to resolve a matter quickly, rather than leaving it for a long period. The present commissioner has certainly been highly critical. When we look at some of the cases set out in the last report, we have to ask ourselves why on earth they took so long. They could have been resolved quite quickly, which would have not only improved the Army’s reputation for dealing with such matters but given the complainants satisfaction.]
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Dr Lewis: As the hon. Gentleman [Kevan Jones] will know, I have only recently rejoined the Defence Select Committee after a long absence, so I am not as well sighted on the Bill as perhaps I ought to be. However, given that so much of the concern that led to this sort of legislation was about deaths, will he comment on the role of the ombudsman in relation to complaints brought by families of people who have died?
[Mr Jones: That is a very important point. I was a member of the Defence Select Committee when it looked into Deepcut – as, too, was the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock). We could not help but think that the way the families were dealt with was truly shocking, both in terms of basic human decency and because it meant that, unfortunately, the truth could never be arrived at. That was unfortunate for the families, obviously, and for members of the armed forces who were accused of things they clearly did not do.]
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Dr Lewis: My right hon. Friend [James Arbuthnot], being as long in the tooth as I am, will recall that during the Cold War years this country spent between 4% and 5% on defence. Therefore, is not 2% a pretty modest aim for us to have in the present international climate?
[Mr Arbuthnot: My hon. Friend is right, if ambitious, but who could argue that the world is a safer place now than in the Cold War years? I think it is far less safe because we live in a multi-polar world. Mutually Assured Destruction brought us, curiously, some stability.]