Error in military punishment laws went undetected for 14 years – minister

About 19,000 punishments were imposed under the two regulations but the Government said the validity of all convictions was not affected.

Thousands of punishments were imposed on military personnel over a 14-year period under laws incorrectly signed off, according to the Government.

Defence minister Baroness Goldie apologised for the admin blunder, which meant the two regulations were “never legally constituted” in 2009 and needed to be urgently revoked and remade after the error was detected in recent weeks.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) said the validity of any convictions will not be affected.

Defence minister Baroness Goldie
Defence minister Baroness Goldie (Andrew Milligan/PA)

The Armed Forces Act 2006 sets out the most serious punishments available to the court martial and commanding officers when an offender has been convicted of a service offence or the charge has been found proven.

The 2006 legislation also allowed a regime of less severe punishments – including stoppage of leave, restriction of privileges and admonitions – and further requirements relating to service supervision and punishment orders to be made by the Defence Council via regulations.

These were published in 2009 although Lady Goldie said it has subsequently turned out an error had occurred.

The statutory instruments were only signed by one member of the Defence Council rather than the required two.

The MoD’s initial estimate is that about 19,000 punishments were imposed under the two regulations issued in 2009, approximately 30% of all punishments given by commanding officers in this period.

An MoD spokeswoman said: “The Armed Forces Minor Punishments Regulations was remade last month following a recently identified issue with the initial signing of the regulations.

“This will not affect the validity of any convictions made under the regulations.”

Appeals can be made against such punishments, although the MoD noted if the 2009 minor punishment scheme was not in place then personnel would have faced disciplinary action under the terms of the more severe 2006 system.

The error was discovered while amendments were considered to one of the 2009 regulations.

A letter from Lady Goldie to MPs and peers, dated July 26 this year, highlighted an “urgent requirement to revoke and remake” the two regulations from 2009.

The minister wrote: “The reason for needing to take this action is that, in accordance with the letters patent, Defence Council regulations must be signed either by two members of the Defence Council or by the secretary of the Defence Council for them to be legally made.

“I can only apologise on behalf of the department that there appears to have been an administrative error with these two sets of regulations in that they were only signed by one member of the Defence Council – the then minister for defence, Kevan Jones.

“Although this error has gone undetected for 14 years, it does mean that these instruments were never legally constituted.

“My imperative was to rectify this omission as soon as possible after it was identified, particularly as these minor punishments are used regularly in summary hearings, and in the court martial.

“Given this somewhat unique situation, the department was therefore given exceptional approval by the Parliamentary Business and Legislation Committee to revoke and remake the Regulations and lay them today, noting that this would be in breach of the 21-day rule for the laying and coming into force of secondary legislation, and the protocol that legislation is not laid during parliamentary recess.

“I wanted to bring this matter to your attention as soon as possible and to explain the reasons for the highly unusual action that we have had to take.

“I should also like to reassure you that a check has been completed of all other Defence Council regulations that were made in 2009 (and since), and there are no others which were incorrectly made.”

Mr Jones is the Labour MP for North Durham and was a defence minister at the time the regulations were made.

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