Select Committee on Armed Forces Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 1004 - 1019)

TUESDAY 6 MARCH 2001 Afternoon sitting



  1004. Good afternoon. Can I extend a very warm welcome indeed to Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, Chief of the Defence Staff. Thank you very much for making yourself available to the Armed Forces Bill Committee this afternoon to give us your views and to give us the opportunity of asking questions. Is there anything, Admiral, you would like to say by way of opening remarks?

  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) No, thank you.

  1005. Can I ask you directly then whether there is anything in this proposed Armed Forces Bill which you think could make Service discipline more difficult to maintain or any proposals in the Bill which you think might help improve Service discipline?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) I do not think there is anything in the Bill which would make discipline more difficult to maintain. There are some areas where I think it will improve the way we actually conduct our discipline. The idea, for example, of having warrant officers able to sit on courts martial gives us the opportunity to use the experience of these excellent people within the service, and I am sure that will be perceived as a good thing, which in turn must reflect on the overall discipline. I think some of the powers which are being given to our Service police in terms of search will also be helpful to smooth the way in which discipline is conducted. On the whole, I think if it will have any impact at all, it should be a beneficial impact.

Mr Keetch

  1006. Can I take this opportunity to congratulate you on your appointment as Chief of Defence Staff. I am sure all members of the Committee and Members of the House of Commons will be very pleased to see you take up your new role. The suggestion has been made on the floor of the House of Commons that some of the changes we have recently made to armed forces discipline have in some way actually dented our capability as a military nation. We are all very proud of our Armed Services heritage; I am very proud of my Service connections. Is there anything that we have done in recent times that you feel has actually dented our operational capability in terms of the changes that we have made to discipline?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) No. The changes which have had the most impact in recent years, of course, are relatively young. It is only about five months or so since they came into being, and there is nothing to indicate that they are affecting operational effectiveness. I will not deny that they are causing more of a bureaucratic load. I do not use the word "bureaucratic" in a pejorative sense at all. There is an increased load on the command, but as they get more used to operating new practices, so the way will be smoother and they will work the system more quickly. I am sure that we must be seen to be reflecting the proper standards of investigation and so forth that one would expect, which would leave us whiter than white if we were ever challenged in the appeal courts, wherever they may be. This is a necessary bureaucratic burden at the moment which will become less of a burden as we get used to using it.

  1007. We were told of that burden when we visited forces around the country and around the world during the course of this Bill, but in terms of the changes to summary discipline, for example, which the Armed Forces Discipline Act brought in last year, again, there might be more forms to fill in, as is the case wherever you are, but apart from that, it has not affected our military capability, so far as you can determine?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) No, it has not, and indeed, some of our worst fears on the bureaucratic side which could have bounced back into operations are not being realised; for example, the number of appeals against summary findings is much lower than we expected. Again, it is very early days, and the number of appeals may grow as time goes on, but I come back to the point that so far, in the short time we have been operating it, I have not been given any cause to be concerned about operational effectiveness.

  1008. I take it, knowing you reasonably well, that you would insist that you told Parliament if you felt we were doing such a thing.
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) As I have said in other committees and in other places as well, operational effectiveness is my benchmark and my line in the sand, and I can assure you that if operational effectiveness were being affected by anything, I would make that perfectly clear.

Mr Davies

  1009. Following on from that, CDS, do you think it was a good idea to make the European Human Rights Convention directly applicable to the military in this country, or do you think it would have been more sensible to have sought a derogation for the military, as the French have done, from the application of that Convention?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) If I am right, we are going back a few decades now to when we made that decision in the first place. It is easy to say in a rather selfish way that if we had derogated we would not have to worry about these sorts of things. On the other hand, I think it is better for us in the longer term if we are seen to have been exposed to all the initiatives that have come up through the legislative chain and the human rights chain, and to test our operational effectiveness and the way we do our business against those, and where there are sensible areas for us to have exemptions, for those to be examined and for us to prove our case that we need to be exempted for good operational reasons, rather than a blanket exemption. Indeed, there is a good example of that, I think, in the way that we have handled the Disability Bill, and ministers were able to argue that it would not be sensible for operational effectiveness were we to comply with that particular Act.

  1010. Do you think there will be other areas where there will need to be exemptions or derogations?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) There may be, Mr Davies. It is possible, but I do not think we should have a blanket exemption right across the board from now and for ever. We approach each of these Bills as they come up and look to see where it is appropriate for there to be exemptions.

  1011. Let me ask you about another piece of prospective legislation, because it is very important for this House to get the best military advice before we legislate. Do you have any concerns about the potential impact of our ratification of the treaty setting up the International Criminal Court on military morale or operational effectiveness?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) I do know a bit about this Bill, and I think we need to be very careful indeed that when the Bill is taken through Parliament, we do not put ourselves in a situation where a junior person carrying out orders which he believes to be entirely proper can subsequently find himself in front of the International Criminal Court. So far I have been told that this is unlikely to happen, because the national court would have the opportunity to investigate the case if it were pointed in that direction by the ICC.

  1012. Is it good enough to hear that it is "unlikely to happen", or would you prefer to have a more concrete exemption or derogation or protection in law?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) I cannot say that "unlikely" fills me with huge confidence. I would be much happier with a completely unequivocal statement, but I guess that is probably the best I will get.

  1013. This is again an area where if an exemption or derogation could be achieved for the military, you would like us to achieve it.
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) If there are ways which guaranteed that the word "unlikely" could be removed, that would be more comforting.

  1014. The Americans do not want anything to do with this at all. Do you think that is perhaps the solution?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) I have heard two different stories about where the Americans stand over the last few weeks.

  1015. You have not discussed this with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) No, I have not.

  1016. Have there been any other discussions with the American military on this, so far as you know?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) Not to my knowledge, no.

  1017. Do you think it might be a good idea to initiate such discussions?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) I am not sure where it would necessarily take us.

  Mr Davies: If the Americans think they have seen a way of achieving the protection you want, perhaps we might compare notes.

  Chairman: Mr Davies, I am not sure the Americans have a direct relationship with the Bill that we are looking at at the moment.

Mr Davies

  1018. I think, Admiral, if you want to take that as an excuse not to answer my question, you are probably able to do so, but if you want to answer the question, you are welcome to do so.
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) I am not sure. There are so many other factors that come into play with myself talking to my military counterparts in America and there are so many other authorities that I do not think it would be an exercise which would necessarily lead to a useful conclusion.

  1019. Do you have any other areas that have not emerged from the discussion we have just had where you think it would be right in order to maintain operational effectiveness, in order to maintain the military ethos in this country and the morale of the people serving in the armed forces, that we should provide additional legal protection against some of these hazards?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) I am as confident as I can be at the moment that we are taking what actions we need to in the light of legislative Bills coming forward to have exemptions where appropriate. Three or four years ago we were not well set up.

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