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Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda): I accept the right hon. Gentleman's argument in its broader context, but it is not strictly true that one needs to have a military background in order to be an effective Armed Forces Minister. After all, in the middle of the 19th century, during the heyday--if one can put it like that--of British military conquests, few Ministers had military experience. After the Duke of Wellington, I do not think that any did. I cannot remember Disraeli or Gladstone serving in the infantry, as the right hon. Gentleman and I did.

Mr. King: I was not seeking to make that point. I was not saying that lack of military experience disqualifies Ministers from serving in the MOD. There have been some outstanding Defence Ministers who did not have a military background, but it is a challenge and a problem, particularly understanding the points about legislation.

Sir Charles referred to the raft of legislation: measures on health and safety at work, the working time directive, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the service discipline Acts. Each one on its own is not necessarily a problem. Now a study group is being set up to discuss the impact of noise in military situations; it is examining both brass bands and combat situations. That is reasonable; I understand that. There may be a health and safety issue, but, as we gradually pile those measures together and then introduce the European convention on human rights, we get into a situation--I believe that this is now happening--where the MOD is advising commanders that they should take out personal insurance policies against being sued, perhaps by those under their command; there

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may be claims that some order led to serious consequences and they could be held responsible for negligence.

Has anyone advised Ministers to take out any personal insurance policy in turn? People used to think that all Ministers were protected against individual claims against them--it happened when I was a Minister--but I am not sure that that is true any longer. If they have been advising commanders to take out insurance policies, I should be interested to know whether they are being advised to do so, too. Sir Charles referred in his speech to a platoon commander possibly being sued by his own men.

It is a world in which there is a critical role for our armed forces and in which we are doing things that not many years ago we would never have expected to do. We would never have expected to find ourselves involved in some of the peacekeeping and peacemaking activities that are now taking place, which in certain respects are far more dangerous to individual soldiers than most of the activities during the cold war ever were. Individual soldiers face such risks to life. We need to be sure about the terms under which they work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury used Sir Charles Guthrie's quote about reducing our armed forces to the level of a gendarmerie. There is no doubt that the armed forces of some countries are not able to play the same role as our forces in peacekeeping and peacemaking because they feel constrained by the legislation under which they operate. Sir Charles Guthrie said:

The Bill has failed to address the challenge that is drawn out in part of the amendment tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends. We are proud of our armed forces. I have heard many people in Northern Ireland, the Gulf, Bosnia and Kosovo--not British comments, but others--say that nobody else could have operated in the way that the British forces did. We must preserve their combat effectiveness. The House has a duty to ensure that if we ask young men and women to serve our country and, as President Bush used to say, to stand in harm's way, we must ensure that the discipline, the laws, the rights and the arrangements under which they operate are fair and enable them to preserve the effectiveness of the armed forces of which we are so proud.

6.42 pm

Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West): I am always pleased to have an opportunity to listen to the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) in defence debates. I, too, have heard worldwide praise for the unique skills and professionalism of the British armed forces in dealing with conflict prevention and peacekeeping. Like many right hon. and hon. Members, I am committed to upholding that invaluable reputation.

I shall make some general comments, leaving the detailed and technical consideration to the Committee. I should like to refer to the speech made by the Chief of the Defence Staff to the Royal United Services Institute in December. I have had an opportunity to read that speech

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and I welcome many of its excellent points. I regret that it was so inadequately and selectively reported by the media. The reporting did not assist the serious debate that we need on the future of our armed forces.

I agree with what has been said by right hon. and hon. Members about the importance of availing ourselves of the perspective of the armed forces. Sir Charles Guthrie said:

We need to be aware of that when dealing with armed forces legislation. I hope that the Committee will try to provide as many opportunities as possible, formally and informally, to hear directly the views of armed forces personnel. It is also important for the Committee to hear the views of the families and representatives of armed forces personnel. As a constituency Member, I have been contacted by relatives of those who are serving in the armed forces, and I have had representations made to me about concerns over investigatory procedures or disciplinary matters.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): I am grateful for the hon. Lady's comments about the need for the Committee to be willing to receive family members. Will she consider those in long-term relationships who are not married? They have different rights and are often left out of the equation. The partners in such relationships made strong representations to the Defence Committee about the need for a change of emphasis. Long-term partnerships should be recognised by the Ministry of Defence and given the same rights.

Ms Squire: I am trying to remember whether any part of the Bill would cover that. I hope that the views of the Defence Committee are made available so that its extensive and thorough evidence will assist the Bill Committee.

We must recognise the unique circumstances of armed forces personnel. To put it bluntly, it is the only occupation with legal authorisation to kill in particular circumstances and where one is required to put one's life on the line. People may say that those serving in our civilian police forces can be tragically killed when enforcing the law, but they are enforcing the law in a civilian society, not dealing with conflict and those who seek to stir up hatred and violence for their own political ends.

Linked to that is the conduct of individual service men and women and the effect that they can have on the lives of fellow serving personnel. Sir Charles Guthrie talked about balancing the rights of the individual with the good of the team. That balance needs to be maintained when examining aspects of military discipline and the differing procedures that apply to service personnel and those in civilian life.

My next point backs up what has been said by the right hon. Member for Bridgwater, other hon. Members and the Chief of the Defence Staff. It refers to the tremendous changes that have taken place in the way our armed forces have been asked to operate since the end of the cold war. Many of those changes had already taken place when the House last considered an Armed Forces Bill, but change has carried on apace since then.

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Unfortunately, ethnic conflicts have come to dominate the global scene. Our armed forces operate in a global environment that many people would say was less stable and secure than in the days of the cold war. There are very few clearly defined battle lines, and the scenario is more complex than during the cold war standoff. The battlefield is confused, fluid and multidimensional and there is an ever-increasing demand that our armed forces be involved in international support operations. When we consider the Bill in detail in Committee, we need to be aware of those changes and of the additional pressures that exist.

We must also keep it in mind that combat-effectiveness remains crucial and that the order and discipline of our armed forces must be maintained. That is especially important in circumstances such as prevailed in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, where an argument between two people could--in a matter of hours, or even quicker--develop into violent confrontation between communities, and then expand even beyond that.

Such circumstances place particular pressures on our armed services personnel. It is understandable that those pressures can sometimes cause those personnel to fail to comply with the strict codes of conduct that apply to them. It is therefore vital that the Committee considering the Bill should check that the military law meets the current needs of the services and the realities that personnel deal with every day.

The fundamentals of the administration of discipline must be maintained even as possible changes to the service discipline Acts are considered. I hope that the Committee will consider the Bill in a serious and informed way, and that its members will not engage in party political point scoring. Any subjective opinions that might be expressed must not be allowed to go unchallenged, but must be tested.

I am sorry that my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) has had to leave the Chamber for the moment. However, I have chaired the Labour Back-Bench defence committee for a number of years and, despite some of my hon. Friend's comments, I am looking forward to considering in detail the Select Committee's report on the armed services.

I end by joining other hon. Members in expressing my pride at the way in which our armed forces are respected and admired around the world. All hon. Members have a responsibility to maintain those forces' professionalism, skills and reputation. We must keep that requirement at the forefront of our minds when we consider this Bill.

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