In the House of Commons, James welcomed the new Armed Forces Bill which will help prevent service personnel and veterans being disadvantaged when accessing key public services.
The Bill will embed the Armed Forces Covenant into law by introducing a legal duty for relevant UK public bodies to have due regard to the principles of the Covenant, a pledge to ensure the UK Armed Forces community is treated fairly.
James welcomed the initial focus on healthcare, education, and housing and encouraged the government to broaden the scope to cover of issues that regularly come up including family life, criminal justice and employment. He urged the Minister to reassure the Royal British Legion that the case for adding further areas is in under active review.
The Bill will also help deliver a series of improvements to the Service Justice System including an independent body to oversee complaints, overseen by a Service Police Complaints Commissioner who will ensure there is an independent line of redress if someone is dissatisfied with the outcome of a complaint; and making the complaints system more efficient by bringing the time given to personnel to lodge an appeal in line with timings offered in the private sector.
In addition, the Bill will allow reservists to benefit from the same flexible working provisions that regulars have to undertake full-time or part-time service.
James previously spent three years as adviser to then Defence Secretary and knows how important it is to look after all who serve, have served, and their families. He works with Scotty's Little Soldiers and the Bridge for Heroes to support our Armed Forces veterans and their families locally.
Text of James' speech
"The defence of the realm is the first duty of Government, and this Bill provides the legal basis for the armed forces.
In three years advising the then Defence Secretary, I had the privilege to meet many servicemen and women, at home and around the world, helping to keep Britain safe, and it is in recognition of their unique sacrifices and obligations that we have the armed forces covenant.
This pledge from the nation commits to remove disadvantages arising from being a serving or former member of the armed forces, and to consider whether special provision is justified for those who have given the most.
I warmly welcome the new duty on public bodies to have due regard to the covenant’s principles when providing housing, education and healthcare.
This is a very good start, and reflects the areas the Secretary of State is required to report on. However, the annual report typically covers a broader range of issues where personnel face disadvantage, including family life, criminal justice and employment, so I encourage the Government to broaden the scope in due course.
I hope the Minister will reassure the Royal British Legion and others that the case for adding further areas is under active review.
While I support public bodies being subject to this duty, the Bill would be improved by including Government Departments, which determine policy, allocate resource or provide national guidance to other delivery bodies. I know how committed Ministers are to the armed forces covenant, and a legal duty would help ensure that it is properly adhered to. Clearly, it also needs to be enforceable, and judicial review is expensive and slow, so it would be helpful to clarify that the local government and social care ombudsman and other bodies will have responsibilities for enforcement.
During my time at the Ministry of Defence, I helped instigate the service justice review in 2017. I did so because I was concerned about the transparency, fairness and efficiency of the system and the impact on service personnel who have been let down.
The Government have rightly accepted many of Shaun Lyons’s proposals to improve the system.
However, I am concerned that they have not accepted his first recommendation that court martial jurisdiction should no longer include murder, manslaughter and rape when offences are committed in the UK, except with the consent of the Attorney General. That is the approach that other countries have adopted, including Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence People and Veterans for the discussion we have had on this issue, and I do think it would be helpful to send a clear message from the House that, as a general principle, civilian authority should take precedence for investigating and prosecuting those offences in the UK.
This is about giving victims confidence to come forward, and also about public confidence. Another important step to improve confidence are the changes to bring the court martial system into line with the Crown court by introducing qualified majority voting where there are six lay members.
Finally, I was pleased to work on measures to enable part-time working for our armed forces. This Bill will allow reservists to benefit from the same flexible working provisions that regulars have to undertake full-time or part-time service. Churchill called reservists “twice the citizen”, and this is very much a welcome move.
Our armed forces represent the best of us, and I am pleased to support the Bill, which will strengthen our commitment to their service."