International Criminal Court Bill [Lords]

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Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Blunt: I shall not give way. I merely relate my experience of how soldiers work, how they think and how they approach the discipline system. I can understand that hon. Members who do not have service experience might find it difficult to understand, but with the benefit of my experience I am telling the Committee that soldiers have confidence in the military justice system; they have more confidence that that system will be fair and just with them than they do in the civil system. Not surprisingly, it is the military justice system that they see working day to day—minor parts of the system when they are under commanding officers' orders, but they might occasionally see friends and colleagues end up in front of a court martial.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston): Is the hon. Gentleman also of the opinion that where police complaints are concerned, only police should investigate?

Mr. Blunt: I understand that that is precisely what the police do.

The point is that if a service man is to be handed over to an international jurisdiction, it is preferable for the services for it to be seen to be a part of the service discipline system that makes that order. That will be regarded with much more respect and understanding in the services than if the service men were transferred from the military justice system that they understand to a civilian justice system that surrenders them to an international jurisdiction.

Mr. Browne: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but it is a conclusion arising from personal perception. He has military experience that most of us do not have, although I have taken part in a court martial and know something of the military system of justice. Without going into the detail of my experience, I do not entirely agree with his observations. Can he, from his experience, tell me why our service men apparently get better justice before the military service courts than they would get in the civil system? Secondly and most important to the way in which they will respond to this amendment, does he agree with them?

Mr. Blunt: I did not catch the last phrase.

Mr. Browne: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a better system of justice in the military courts than there is in the civil courts, and what shall we do about it?

Mr. Blunt: My view is that the military system is more just than the civil system, which I believe has more faults than the military system. The military system is not without its flaws, but I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman's experience of taking part in a military trial was that the defendant was able to get a fairer deal than he might have anticipated: perhaps he enjoyed success against a member of the Army Legal Corps that he might not have done had he taken on a member of the Crown Prosecution Service. However, the perception within the military is that when one goes in front of a court martial, it will bend over backwards—not least at the hands of the Judge Advocate General, who conducts the proceedings at a military court martial—to ensure that the proceedings are absolutely fair and explicit. One comes into the military court martial system from what was, until we passed the wretched Armed Forces Discipline Act 2000, a system of justice at unit level that was rough and ready but just. It has not had to be, until now, involved with the details of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, or concerned with the least serious military order offences. To go before a court martial is to go before a system that is palpably fair.

3.30 pm

The principle involved is of concern to a service man. If he is to be surrendered to an international jurisdiction, is it better for him to be surrendered by a military court, which he understands as part of his chain of command and is a system to which he belongs, than to be handed over to a civilian system, which is foreign to his conduct? The situation will be one in which he has committed an offence as a soldier. Are we to allow our service men confidence in a system that will be responsible for their surrender to another jurisdiction?

Mr. Browne: There might be one in the pipeline, but will the hon. Gentleman say whether there is to be an amendment tabled that suggests that all civilians should be dealt with by such a system, if it is fairer?

Mr. Blunt: I think that the hon. Gentleman is being rather flippant. The military experience is based on the totality of being in the military. Civilians do occasionally face courts martial: for example, before the fall of the Berlin wall, when the British Army of the Rhine was in place, civilians working for the forces in Germany were subject to military discipline and, on occasion, spouses of military personnel faced courts martial.

If you told the average civilian population that they could face a military court martial, I do not imagine that they would think that they would receive justice in front of a court that was totally foreign to them. The hon. Gentleman has therefore proved my point. Service men will have more confidence in decisions made by a justice system of service courts because they are familiar with it. A civilian in front of a court martial would wonder, ``What on earth is going on'', if he was not supposed to be under that jurisdiction. My point, which the hon. Gentleman has kindly adduced, is that the military are more likely to have confidence in service courts.

Mr. Browne: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Blunt: No—the hon. Gentleman has been helpful enough in making my case. I look forward to the Solicitor-General's response. I hope that he will make it clear that he will accept the amendment and thus show faith in the service court system and give our armed forces confidence in the process on which we are embarking.

The Solicitor-General: Unfortunately, the amendment is based on a faulty premise. The hon. Gentleman suggested that service personnel are never subject to civilian courts—but they are. If they commit murder or offences of the sort referred to in part V of the Bill, they are subject to ordinary courts. There is nothing unusual in service personnel being brought before civilian courts.

Mr. Blunt: The Solicitor-General does not have to go down that road. Of course, I accept his point. The amendment is not based on that premise, and he will note that it states:

    ``or service court in the case of service personnel''.

The way that it is phrased gives flexibility about whether it is appropriate to put service personnel in front of a competent civilian court or a service court, and that offers the same choice that faces service personnel in the United Kingdom. Service personnel are, however, liable to come before a civilian court for civilian offences.

The Solicitor-General: Service personnel are subject to civilian courts, so I think that my point answers the argument about the issue of confidence.

The next fallacy is more fundamental. Courts martial—the service courts that he mentioned—are not standing courts, nor are they courts of general jurisdiction. They are ad hoc courts that come into being to deal with a particular case. They deal with certain offences committed by service personnel. They do not have a general role in, for example, extradition proceedings, so in our view, there is no role for them in the process under discussion.

Military personnel will have their interests protected and safeguarded in the same way as other accused persons arrested under an ICC warrant. I do not want to enter a large debate about the alleged concern of people in the armed services about the Bill. The Ministry of Defence was involved in the negotiations in Rome and in the drafting of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office quoted the exact words of Admiral Sir Michael Boyce on the Floor of the House and I do not want to get into that debate. The MOD and the armed services are fully on board with regard to the Bill.

Mr. Blunt: I am disappointed by the Solicitor-General's response, as he will have anticipated. It is a pity that the Government are showing a lack of understanding of the armed forces with regard to the amendment, as they have shown in other respects.

I accept that the Bill as drafted provides the opportunity for a service man to go before a court to be delivered. However, it is a shame that the Government have demonstrated their lack of understanding of the armed forces through the Solicitor-General's abrupt refusal to consider the amendment.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: Did my hon. Friend hear the Solicitor-General say that the services were ``fully on board with regard to the Bill''? I do not know if that means with regard to my hon. Friend's amendment. Does my hon. Friend think that the Solicitor-General's remark squares with the public statement made by the Chief of the Defence Staff to the House of Commons Select Committee on Defence?

Mr. Blunt: My hon. Friend is quite right—it does not. There are concerns in the armed forces and the amendment would have gone a short way toward meeting those concerns. I do not want to press it, but I think that this is an example of the Government's failure to understand the armed forces as they should. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Garnier: I beg to move amendment No. 24, in page 4, line 10, at end insert—

    ``, and

    (c) that there is a prima facie case, on the evidence to be heard.''.

I do not want to undermine what my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate has just said, but I agreed with a good deal of what the Solicitor-General said, not least his remarks relating to the current position in respect of courts martial, whereby serious crimes such as murder are dealt with by civilian courts instead.

Mr. Blunt: My hon. and learned Friend is, of course, aware that that is the position in the United Kingdom. However, when our armed forces are stationed abroad, such serious issues are very properly dealt with by the service court system. I have been involved in two such cases when a soldier was accused of rape.

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