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10.1 pm

Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West): Before we started discussing the Bill, some hon. Members told me that armed forces Bills tended to be technical, complex and boring. At times, this Bill may have been technical and complex, but boring it most certainly was not. As the House has gathered, from the start the Bill excited some controversy and there has been extensive and lively debate on many subjects. I have at times wondered whether the precedents that the Select Committee set might be used as case examples in examinations for clerks and MOD officials.

I wish to place on record my thanks for the compliments that I have received today, and I thank all Committee members for their commitment, co-operation and interest. I wish to thank Admiral Cobbold--our specialist adviser--the clerk of the Committee, the other parliamentary staff and MOD officials for their assistance and advice. I wish to thank the Liaison Committee for funding our overseas visits, which we all found invaluable in giving us a glimpse of the realities of dealing with military discipline in multinational conflict situations.

I wish to thank the Defence Committee for giving us access to its in-depth investigations of armed forces personnel issues. I wish to thank the Chairman of the Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), for giving us his views and the benefit of his experience. I wish to thank all those who assisted us with their oral and written evidence and their general advice and assistance.

Of course I would like to thank also the British armed forces, whose national and international reputation for professionalism and standards is second to none. It is one thing to sit in the security and comfort of this Chamber or a Committee Room debating military discipline. It is quite another thing to be a soldier who is subject to that discipline far away from family and home comforts, unable to go off duty--often for weeks at a time--and dealing daily with people who are seeking to kill those he is trying to protect and who would easily and happily kill him if he gets in their way.

One of the benefits of the Select Committee process is the opportunity that it gives Committee members to hear directly from those who our proposed legislation would most affect. I wish to share three lasting impressions that stayed with me following our brief visits; they say a great

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deal about the qualities of our armed forces and the situations of which we must be aware when we look at military discipline.

My first impression is of the presentation made by the commanding officer and his team in the 1st Battalion, the King's Own Scottish Borderers when we visited the Episkopi garrison in Cyprus. They told us how they had looked for the small but significant things that they could do to improve discipline and morale among the forces. Quite radically it seemed to me, they even involved the regimental sergeant-major as a key access point for the grievances of some junior ranks. Hon. Members look bemused, because they have not heard of an RSM playing that role before.

My second impression is of an instructor at the military corrective training facility at Colchester. He told me how he used his skills not only to help service personnel overcome the circumstances that had led to their misconduct, but in a voluntary capacity to raise money for a Russian orphanage. He took some of his annual leave every year to spend time at that place.

The third impression that will stay with me has influenced my perspective on military discipline and future legislation. I listened to the calm presentation of the Ministry of Defence policeman in Pristina who told me of his experience after the tragic bus bombing incident that occurred a few weeks ago. He had to deal with grieving Serbian families and, along with the military, a community that was hellbent on revenge, as well as supporting our armed forces personnel in their efforts to maintain order and to investigate and handle the horror that they had just witnessed.

Those three examples on their own say an awful lot to us when we consider military discipline. I have already spoken for six minutes and the House will know that the Select Committee spent much of its time examining the extension of jurisdiction. I wish to place on record my support for the recommendations in the Committee's report and welcome the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South about the Ministry of Defence police. Certainly, at local constituency level, I and the community with whom they deal have always had a positive impression of them.

The time has come to move on to the long-term recommendation that we consolidate the legislation on military discipline in a tri-service Bill. The Select Committee is well aware of what a mammoth task that would be and the Chief of the Defence Staff made us aware of the flexibility that the different armed forces would require. All of us on the Committee thought that we needed to increase the pressure for a tri-service Bill and--I put my bid in early--for a full parliamentary Session to consider what would be a complex but significant piece of legislation.

Challenging times are ahead for all of us interested in the armed forces and military discipline. I hope that the Committee's report will play a significant, if small, part in future considerations.

10.9 pm

Mr. Keetch: I join colleagues in congratulating the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) on her chairmanship of the Select Committee. The selection of

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its members was difficult at the outset and many voices in the Chamber expressed concern. However, by and large, members of the Committee have worked extremely well together apart from one outburst from the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who accused the Liberal Democrats of being in cahoots with the Government. For the record, I remind him that we opposed the motion that was put before us earlier tonight. I also remind him that it was at our request that the Secretary of State and the Chief of the Defence Staff came before the Committee. We played a significant role, as the record will show.

I am glad to see the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) present. In our debate on 9 January, I said that he should have been a member of the Committee. The reason I wanted him on the Committee was that I was aware of his concern that our actions now and those of the past few years might affect the military effectiveness and the core ability of Her Majesty's armed forces to do their work. When the Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, came before the Select Committee on 6 March, I put to him the same direct question that I put to the commander of every unit we visited. I asked whether the changes that we were proposing, or those to which the House had agreed in the past few years, affected our military effectiveness in any way. The Chief of the Defence Staff replied:

When I pressed him to say whether he felt that anything that we were doing would affect military effectiveness, he again said no, adding:

That underlines the statements that members of my party have been making for the past few years: the changes in discipline that have occurred have not in any way affected our military effectiveness.

We were right to visit forces overseas. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who, sadly, is not in his place, thought that we were junketing, but he was entirely wrong. Our visits were extremely important because they enabled members of the Select Committee to identify exactly what we were doing, and Her Majesty's armed forces could feel that we were doing a thorough job. During our visits to Kosovo, Cyprus, Colchester and HMS Invincible--the last of which I, sadly, was unable to attend--we spoke directly to the men and, increasingly, the women who serve in Her Majesty's armed forces. I should like in particular to express my thanks to Brigadier Hamish Rollo and Major Mark Carleton-Smith in Kosovo and to the RAF people we met at Episkopi in Cyprus.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West was right about the King's Own Scottish Borderers. We saw a regiment based in Cyprus that is making innovations not only in the handling of discipline, but in retention and recruitment. The regiment's actions in the Scottish borders to recruit additional people and to bring back people who have left the regiment should serve as a beacon for the Government.

Two aspects have not been thoroughly discussed today, but they were fully discussed in Committee. The first is the accountability of the Ministry of Defence police.

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We made a recommendation, to which I know the Minister paid close attention, regarding the composition of the national MOD police committee. We said that it

I strongly believe that that should be done. The right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) said that I was wrong to criticise the MDP, but I do not criticise them--they are right to do what they are doing. However, they must be an accountable police force. If MOD police are to go on to the streets of Hereford, Walsall or anywhere else, local people must feel that they have accountability. The Committee was right to make that recommendation and to consider the protocols between the MOD police and local forces.

The Committee also expressed concern about firearms. We were assured by the chief constable of the MDP that if forces are either going on auxiliary to support the civil police--perhaps as a result of flooding--or travelling from one base to another, the firearms that they carry will be kept in secure safes in the boots of their cars, and that they will not carry sidearms or other weapons as they move about unless they are on escort duty or some other duty that requires them. I believe that that is not the case.

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