Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal): Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying rather wide of the terms of the debate.

Mr. Howarth: I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I entirely accept your ruling. However, as was pointed out earlier, this wide-ranging debate offers a five-yearly opportunity to consider military matters. We are dealing with morale and the impact of the Government's proposals on morale. I wish to place on record the fact that in my constituency of Aldershot there is grave concern about the Saville inquiry. I do not believe that any winners will come out of it; it can lead only to further tears.

On that rather unhappy note, I conclude my remarks. I hope that the Minister will take on board our reservations about the Bill--that it will advance the cause of political correctness to the detriment of the qualities and conditions of our armed services, about which so many hon. Members have today been complimentary.

9.20 pm

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): I am sure that when Sir Charles Guthrie, the Chief of the Defence Staff, made his controversial and pointed swan-song speech a few weeks ago, he did not think that it would be used as a bridge-building exercise between him and the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), but it served that purpose this evening when the hon. Gentleman agreed with so much of what Sir Charles said. That speech will be interpreted in many ways, not least when attempting to discover when tosh is not tosh--it is only tosh when those on the Conservative Front Bench interfere and table a motion, the substance of which uses his words. Today's

9 Jan 2001 : Column 963

debate will receive widespread comment within the Ministry of Defence, which will reconsider what Sir Charles Guthrie said and how it could be so viciously misinterpreted.

The debate has been good humoured, as all defence debates are in this place. It has brought many of the usual suspects to the Chamber. I am disappointed that the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) is not here because this is one of the few times that I will not speak for half an hour, and therefore he would not get fed up.

Many Conservative Members, including a former Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), contributed to the debate, but they did not give an example of when good order and discipline might be affected by the Bill's substance. They made allegations, but, when challenged, did not give a clear idea of what the problems might be.

If the hon. Member for Reigate moves an amendment to get his name on the Select Committee, I shall support it. He deserves to serve on it, and the Committee deserves to have him. I served with him on the Defence Committee and enjoyed our shared moments. Other hon. Members should get the benefit of his company.

We have been told that there will be endless appeals. What is wrong with someone having the right of appeal against disciplinary action if they believe that there has been an injustice? There is nothing wrong with giving people the right to go to another court and take the issue further up the chain. It is offensive for hon. Members to say that the men and women in our armed forces, who daily put their lives on the line to protect other people's human rights, should not have the same rights. For the Conservatives to say that one of the first things that they would do when they are back in government--they did not say when that would be--

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): In a few months.

Mr. Hancock: I doubt that that is true, but optimism springs eternal from the Conservative Front Bench.

However, I do not doubt the integrity of members of the armed forces who presented to the Defence Committee the case for what we are discussing tonight. They were not given a smooth run, but, as always, were vigorously interrogated by all members. Not once did they retract or alter the substantial improvements to the armed forces discipline procedures that they recommended to the Committee. They believed that change was long overdue, and many hon. Members have reflected on the clear need for that. Senior officers in all three services advised us that the changes would not present the enormous obstacles that have been mentioned tonight. They represent a significant and useful step forward that will give our armed forces and those men and women who are covered by the legislation a fair opportunity to have the same rights that any of us would expect to have. There is nothing wrong with a Government introducing such a proposition to the House.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way as I probably will not have the chance to make a speech. Does he agree that biggest

9 Jan 2001 : Column 964

anomaly of all is having different disciplinary rules for each of the three services? Does not failing to incorporate those procedures into one set of rules represent a huge lacuna?

Mr. Hancock: I agree, although the Bill is a stepping stone to achieving the once-and-for-all change that will unify those procedures. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that some of his hon. Friends are very much against the change that he proposes. Some say that it is against the regimental ethos and that great damage will be done if individual regiments are unable to pursue their own codes of disciplinary conduct, which they may have had for a century or more. I do not happen to share that view; I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It will be an enlightened Administration who achieve the unification of the different disciplinary Acts that cover the men and women in our armed forces.

We have an opportunity here. I am not pessimistic, and I believe that the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, under the excellent chairmanship of the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire), will amend the Bill should the need arise. Those who are selected by the House to be members of it will keep an open mind and be willing to make improvements where necessary. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), the Chairman of the Defence Committee, chuckles. I am optimistic that the Defence Committee will one day not always let him get his own way, so I live in hope of lots of things happening.

I have much enjoyed the debate and believe that the Government need help and support to ensure that we discipline our service men and women in a proper and fair manner. We must give them no more rights, but no fewer, than any of us would expect and desire should we be in their position. We must do the Bill justice by giving it firm support on Second Reading and a helpful passage through the Select Committee.

9.27 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) for giving me three minutes in which to make three important points.

This quinquennial Bill allows the Government of the day to make provision for the standing armed forces and covers a wide range of subjects. First, I want to discuss a huge anomaly. During consideration of the Armed Forces Discipline Act 2000, in which I was involved, the Government spent a great deal of time ensuring that our law complied with the European convention on human rights. However, there are different disciplinary regimes for each of our armed forces. Surely it would make a great deal more sense to have a combined set of disciplinary procedures.

Secondly, we uncovered and discussed at great length in Committee the default in respect of the summary appeals procedure. The 2000 Act is inconsistent with the legislation that pertains in the civil courts, where a sentence can be increased or decreased on appeal. Allowing a sentence only to be diminished will give free licence to, and indeed encourage, every service man who feels in any way disadvantaged to appeal. The Bill represents an ideal opportunity to remedy that defect, and I hope that the Committee will table amendments to do something about it.

9 Jan 2001 : Column 965

Thirdly, clauses 33 and 37 contain great powers to pass secondary legislation. The use of secondary legislation is an increasing and unwelcome trend under this Government. That was also the case, it must be said, under the previous Government, but the trend has been accelerated by the present Government.

If one examines clauses 33 and 37, one sees that, in effect, almost half the Bill can be amended by secondary legislation. It is a trend on which Ministers and civil servants are increasingly embarking, and it is an undesirable one. On the whole, when legislation is imposed on citizens of this country, it should be imposed properly, through primary legislation passed through both Houses of Parliament and subject to proper scrutiny by elected representatives.

Our armed forces are the most respected in the world. Deterrence is the best form of defence. Let us hope that, with their political correctness and by giving excessive rights to armed forces personnel, the Government do not diminish that effectiveness. I want our armed forces to be the most feared in the world, because hopefully that will deter any future conflicts.

9.31 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): I apologise for the state of my voice, which is unlikely to get better as I proceed.

I shall start by putting some right hon. and hon. Members out of their suspense. We have not said that we will urge our colleagues to oppose the Bill on Second Reading. We hope that we will be able to pass the reasoned amendment. If we do that, the Government will have to come back with a better Bill, which will be a good thing.

In the unfortunate and entirely hypothetical eventuality that we do not succeed in persuading the majority of the House to support the amendment, we will have to take stock of the decision of the House and of the fact, which has been mentioned several times this evening, that we need a Quinquennial Bill, or the individual armed forces discipline Acts will expire. We will take a responsible decision accordingly.

A large number of right hon. and hon. Members have taken part in the debate, which is good, particularly as so few hon. Members from all parts of the House will take part in the Committee. I regret the fact that the Committee is so restricted in number and that the Government have decided to pack it with parliamentary private secretaries, in addition to Ministers and Back Benchers. We would have preferred a larger Committee.

The right hon.--it is a pleasure to call him that--Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) began by paying tribute to the military police, with which we all agree, and made a number of important points. He made a devastating remark which I wrote down, so I hope that I have got it exact. The right hon. Gentleman said that the composition of the Committee is a classic case of the Executive dominating the legislature. I could not agree more. That is a disturbing tendency on the part of the Government, to which I have referred in many contexts. Many of my hon. Friends on the Front and Back Benches have been doing that for the past three and a half years. I trust that the point will not be lost on the electorate in a few months' time.

9 Jan 2001 : Column 966

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) spoke not only with the distinction of a former Secretary of State for Defence, but as one of those who were instrumental in launching the doctrine of expeditionary warfare at the end of the cold war, some 10 years ago. He emphasised the deeply disturbing fact that, far from reducing the deficit in the numbers in our armed forces, the Government are moving backwards. They recently pushed back from 2005 to 2008 the time when, under a Labour Government, we would get our forces back up to strength. I trust that we will not have a Labour Government for much longer, and that those numbers will be up to strength very much sooner.

I shall surprise the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) and embarrass her by saying that she did not say a word with which I could disagree, even if I tried. She said that combat effectiveness was crucial as a criterion for judging the contents of the Bill. I thoroughly agree with that; it is exactly the position that the Opposition will take. She said that there was in the House a dangerous lack of knowledge about military matters on the part of people who had first-hand experience of them. I agree with that. We may not be able to do anything about it, but we should be aware of it. She made the point that, in those circumstances, it is important that the Committee meet as many serving men and women and their families as possible.

The hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) made an entirely tasteless and unjustified attack on the heir to the throne, in the light of which I have little inclination to engage with his speech.

The hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) is a frequent and well-informed participant in our debates. I do not think that he will be embarrassed when I say that we have something in common in that our fathers both served in the RAF, and he speaks with genuine feeling about military matters. In particular, he spoke about support for families and the need to look more favourably at what we can do for stepchildren, comments with which I have much sympathy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) has long experience of these matters and I deeply regret that he will not be a member of the Standing Committee. He set out some of his experiences of Government responses to recommendations of Select Committees on which he had sat, and what he said was pretty devastating. The Government clearly treat Select Committees, as they do the rest of the House, with complete and growing contempt. He set out several points that he would like to be taken up in Committee. One concerned the pension anomalies, another the fitness of military personnel and another the military medical services, a theme that he has made very much his own in the past few years. I hope we will be able to take up those matters, provided that they are not timetabled out. Again, that is something that the Government are likely to try to impose on the House. We shall see later this evening what will happen about that.

I am sorry that the only participant in the debate whose comments I missed was the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) and I apologise to her for that. My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) spoke about the invidious European convention on human rights and its impact in Britain, and he spoke about the culture of risk aversion, which, he said, is not something which might potentially be created by an excess of bureaucratic

9 Jan 2001 : Column 967

legislation and interference, as the Chief of the Defence Staff suggested, but is already here. I fear that he is all too right about that.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) spoke against the fragmentation of the military police force. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who, again, is a knowledgeable participant in these debates and whom I regret, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate, will not be members of the Committee where they would have made memorable contributions, spoke in favour of warrant officers taking part in courts martial. I thoroughly agree with his argument on that which I found convincing. He was concerned about the extension of the powers of the military police and he was also rightly concerned about the apparently inexorable extension of the jurisdiction and jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) strongly supported the Bill, as the Liberal Democrats appear to be doing. My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), in a marvel of succinctness, managed to put over in three minutes, three important points--the need for a tri-service Bill, the unfortunate asymmetric aspect of the appeal procedure in the new Armed Forces Discipline Act 2000, and the excess of secondary legislation under the Government.

Two major themes have clearly emerged from the debate. One is the need for a tri-service Act, and the Government's utter failure to bring one forward. It is no use after nearly four years simply saying that they are sorry that they could not quite get around to it; that they could not manage it. This is simply another example of administrative incompetence. Let me remove all ambiguity on the subject by saying formally to the House that the next Conservative Government will bring forward a tri-service Bill and we will get the matter straight.

The second big theme which has emerged is that of political correctness.

Next Section

IndexHome Page