Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Blunt: The House, and especially the Government, have a responsibility to ensure that those rights can be defended effectively. There is no point standing up for those rights and defending them in action if we then diminish the quality of the armed forces, which, in the end, are the vehicle by which we will defend the rights that we have fought for and defended for hundreds of years, both in the House and elsewhere. The idea that we will allow a body of law to be created, under the convention by the European Court of Human Rights, which will undermine our ability to defend rights that the House holds dear for our country is ridiculous. I am sure that a few moments' contemplation of exactly what he is asking for will cause the hon. Gentleman to reflect further.

It is for the House and our Government, discharging their responsibilities as Ministers of the Queen and part of the chain of command for the armed forces, to ensure that our armed forces are dealt with fairly under the law. I believe that, by and large, those duties have been discharged fairly. When there have been cases in which service men have been treated unfairly by the system, Members of Parliament have been the first to champion their cause. For example, the support that I gave to the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) in his calls concerning Major Stankovich is a case in point. Some Labour Members would have championed the case of the hon. and gallant Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce), who has just joined the House. I would not have joined them, but that is another case in point. The rights of the armed forces can and should be protected here. We should not put at risk the fighting ability and the military effectiveness of our armed forces in order to defend the rights that we seek to defend in this House.

Mr. Hancock: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. He does justice to the calls that many hon. Members have made on behalf of members of the armed forces. However, the truth is that no matter how good a case has been made in the House, none of those people has ever got the justice that he deserved. They did not have the protection of the law behind them. Many people who have suffered hideous accidents through no fault of their own have been unable to get compensation. Surely the hon. Gentleman can give the House some examples of where having the Human Rights Act 1998 in operation would deter the British armed forces from doing their job properly? One example, please.

Mr. Blunt: There will never be perfect administration of justice across the board, whether at European or United Kingdom level. I happen to have confidence in the

9 Jan 2001 : Column 952

institutions of the United Kingdom--that is, while we still have them. Our nation will be in some peril if it has the misfortune to re-elect the Government, but I hope that that will not happen. There is no reason why United Kingdom institutions cannot protect the rights of our service men any better or worse than measures at the European level. I have confidence that they will provide such protection.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) had an interesting discussion. Does my hon. Friend accept that there must be a balance between giving service men rights and discipline? If we get the balance wrong, discipline could be prejudiced in our armed forces, thereby ensuring that their effectiveness is not as great as it should be.

Mr. Blunt: My hon. Friend makes the point eloquently. I shall detail--the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South asked me to do so--some of the cases in which the European convention on human rights affected or is affecting the military effectiveness of our armed forces.

The convention is posing a genuine problem. It underlay the Government's reasons for introducing the Armed Forces Discipline Act 2000, part I of which contained changes in custody that were driven by a particular case. I think that it was the Hood case in the European Court of Human Rights that drove all the changes in custody procedures for the armed forces. I believe that the soldier in the case had absconded four times before claiming that he was put in custody improperly. It would be nothing other than absurd to suggest that he should have won his case, but he did. We then had to change the custody requirements of our armed forces when there was no practical case to suggest that that should happen.

Those provisions were driven by a particular convention case. The rest of the Act, however, was driven not by a case that came before the European Court of Human Rights, but by fear of what might happen there. We imposed enormous damage on our armed forces by introducing the Act, elements of which led to the establishment of the summary appeal court, which has now been in place for three months. Not only has the court cost about a battalion's worth of salary because of the extra lawyers and staff who are required to make the thing work, but it is already having a deleterious effect on the armed forces in operation.

Dr. Julian Lewis: My hon. Friend has so far spoken about the effects, anticipated and otherwise, of the European convention on human rights on the armed forces in peacetime. What does he think the convention's effects will be in conditions of war? In those conditions, serving members of the armed forces who think that their inalienable human rights have been wronged will have no practical capability to go running to court, because the country will supposedly be fighting for its survival.

Mr. Blunt: I must correct my hon. Friend, as derogation from the convention can be obtained for the armed forces in wartime. The convention applies in peacetime and in military operations short of war. The latter is the sort of military activity in which we have engaged since 1945, and since 1951 no Government have sought to achieve a derogation for the armed forces.

9 Jan 2001 : Column 953

The Under-Secretary wrote to me after Second Reading of the Bill that became the Armed Forces Discipline Act 2000. I asked how many of the cases dealt with summarily by subordinate commanders and commanding officers would go to appeal. The hon. Gentleman's letter stated that of the 24,000 cases dealt with summarily,

I have news for the Minister. In my old regiment, the first case taken to the summary appeal court was dealt with by a squadron leader--a subordinate commander--and the punishment was as severe as two days' restriction of privileges. I do not know whether the Minister has the facts at his fingertips, but we are talking about three months of operation. How many appeals have taken place, at the very beginning of the system?

I wonder whether, once soldiers, sailors and airmen cotton on to the fact that the appeal is a "free hit", given that the punishment can only be reduced and cannot be increased, the rather complacent analysis in the Minister's letter to me of 25 February 2000 will prove to be a little awry in practice. I know from the limited amount of research that I have been able to conduct, talking to friends in the services, that a number of cases submitted for summary jurisdiction have been appealed. I have yet to learn what percentage of cases will eventually be appealed.

We should bear in mind the effect of the appeal court on the summary justice system. It used to serve as a fast and effective way of dispensing justice at unit level; now it takes a commanding officer, an adjutant and a chief clerk about an hour to prepare each case. Only members of the services will recognise the burden that that places on the chain of command in the administration of discipline.

We had a system that operated swiftly, which was seen to operate fairly and was respected for doing so, and which allowed for appeal to a court martial by those who did not wish to accept the commanding officer's award. That system has now been made very bureaucratic so that it can survive the summary appeal process, during which lawyers crawl over the evidence to be presented.

Mr. Hancock rose--

Mr. Blunt: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I should like to make progress.

In three months, last year's Act has already led to a wholly different approach to the administration of justice in the services at unit level--something that we were promised would not happen. Let us consider the provisions relating to powers of entry, search and seizure. The explanatory notes explain the reason for those powers, stating:

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) mentioned room inspections. At present, a commanding officer has what are described as "inherent powers", which the Bill will replace with statutory powers. What

9 Jan 2001 : Column 954

effect will that have on administration within a unit? A soldier will say, "Hang on a minute; I do not want my room to be inspected." If he stands his ground, and if we do not continue to rely on the commanding officer's inherent powers, the commanding officer will not be able to inspect service accommodation because he is not a policeman.

The Minister will say that the Bill is not intended to have that effect--that it is not intended to make such a change in the standard of administration of military discipline within units. We understand that it is not meant to do that, but there is a serious risk that, by moving from the inherent powers of the commanding officer to statutory powers designed to withstand the European convention on human rights, it will have precisely that effect. Why are we taking risks with the administration of justice and discipline within the armed forces? It is because we are frightened of the convention. We must extricate the administration of military discipline and justice and the administration of the services from the convention.

We must ask: when is an inspection not a search? Of course, there are difficult balances to be struck in a modern Army. Commanders seek to respect a single service man's privacy and accommodation. Their attitude to the administration of single soldier's accommodation is rather more modern than decades ago, but 18, 19, 20 or 21-year-old young men and women are not, naturally, the tidiest beasts in the world.

Within the whole area of room inspections and the administration of military accommodation within lines, there is an amount of training in personal administration and discipline and that needs to be protected. It is for commanding officers of modern Army units, naval units and Air Force units to make those judgments. The Bill will take away from commanding officers that discretion in judging how best to administer their units.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) raised the issue of clause 33 and the wide powers that it gives. I do not entirely understand the need for the clause. I hope that the Minister will be able to explain that in his winding-up speech. Under section 70 of the Army Act 1955 and the Air Force Act 1955 and section 42 of the Naval Discipline Act 1957, all civil offences are de facto military offences. There is effectively a catch-all section in those Acts, so there is nothing in the argument--if that is what the Government are advancing--that clause 33 is needed to ensure that service men are subject to the same civil laws as everyone else. It is already there in the Acts, even in their unconsolidated form. As I understand it, the only argument is about the administration of civil law within the military.

It seems odd for the Government to say in the explanatory notes that the reason why clause 33 is required is because

in the quinquennial Acts. The services have been able to rub along for quite a long time with wholly different laws, with an Air Force Act, an Army Act and a Naval Discipline Act.

In this increasingly purple age, the Government are putting such a priority on consolidation that we will not see a consolidated Bill until 2005. The Minister for the Armed Forces even suggested that legislative scrutiny

9 Jan 2001 : Column 955

would not be possible; it would not be possible to publish the Bill in time before the Quinquennial Act. I hope that I have misinterpreted his remark and that the consolidated draft Bill will be published some time in 2004 to allow a proper period of pre-legislative scrutiny of what will be quite complicated legislation, bringing the three Acts together.

Next Section

IndexHome Page