Session 2010-11
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General Committee Debates
Northern Ireland Grand Committee Debates

Armed Forces Bill


The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Mr James Arbuthnot 

Cunningham, Alex (Stockton North) (Lab) 

Docherty, Thomas (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab) 

Doyle, Gemma (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op) 

Ellwood, Mr Tobias (Bournemouth East) (Con) 

Francois, Mr Mark (Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household)  

Jones, Mr Kevan (North Durham) (Lab) 

Lancaster, Mark (Milton Keynes North) (Con) 

Lopresti, Jack (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con) 

Osborne, Sandra (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab) 

Pincher, Christopher (Tamworth) (Con) 

Robathan, Mr Andrew (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence)  

Russell, Bob (Colchester) (LD) 

Wright, David (Telford) (Lab) 

Georgina Holmes-Skelton, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

Column number: 81 

Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill 

Tuesday 15 February 2011  

(Afternoon)  

[Mr James Arbuthnot in the Chair] 

Armed Forces Bill

2.10 pm 

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Andrew Robathan):  On a point of order, Mr Arbuthnot. May I apologise to the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife for the fact that, although he was promised the information that he now has in front of him by 2 o’clock at the latest, it has only just arrived? I assure him that there was no intention in any way to obfuscate or disrupt the proceedings. 

Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab):  Further to that point of order, Mr Arbuthnot. I thank the Minister for his strenuous efforts on behalf of the Committee to try to expedite matters this afternoon, and I accept that we are not going through a ministerial process. I hope that he will understand that we want to take some time to read through the document before we comment further. 

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab):  Further to that point of order, Mr Arbuthnot. Although we have just received the document, there is a chance that we will reach the related clause, so I ask your guidance. I think that you said that we could introduce amendments throughout this afternoon. Would it be possible to deal with that clause later, or perhaps on Thursday? 

The Chair:  The words that I used were, I think, not quite that I would take amendments throughout the afternoon, but it is within my discretion to be as amenable as I can be, and I shall continue to be. If any motion is proposed about a change in the order of proceedings, that matter will be dealt with when such a motion is proposed. At the moment, that is something that might be appropriate for discussion outside the Committee. 

Clauses 3 to 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.  

Clause 11 

Testing for alcohol and drugs on suspicion of offence 

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill. 

Thomas Docherty:  I do not wish to labour the point. Given that the clause relates to alcohol and drugs policy, I hope that the Minister will look favourably, perhaps either on Thursday or even when the Bill is considered on the Floor of the House, on the fact that we might seek technical changes if we feel that they are

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necessary. I do not wish to object to the clause, but I seek an indication from the Minister that he will be helpful on the matter. 

2.15 pm 

Mr Robathan:  I wish to be helpful. I reiterate my apology for the fact that the document has been delayed for more than a few hours—two weeks perhaps. Having read the submission, I do not think that there are any grounds for concern. However, if the hon. Gentleman considers that there is a concern, he may wish to table an amendment later in the proceedings. 

I note that the provisions that relate to specimens being of a quantity to enable them to be divided into two parts for analysis are required to reflect the requirements of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988. As I think that the hon. Member for North Durham and I have already established, we are not necessarily keen on giving lawyers too much work. I am not a lawyer, but I assume that this is the right way forward. Of course, if the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife wished to table an amendment on Report, we would consider it. 

Question put and agreed to.  

Clause 11 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.  

Clauses 12 to 23 ordered to stand part of the Bill.  

Clause 24 

Byelaws for service purposes 

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD):  I beg to move amendment 9, in clause 24, page 27, line 18, at end insert 

‘(c) consult with stakeholders responsible for the enforcement of such byelaws, including the Ministry of Defence Police.’. 

Timing is all important. [ Laughter. ] I am delighted that colleagues were able to filibuster sufficiently to get to this stage. It is one of those days when everything is crashing in, but I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak to the amendment. Hon. Members will recall that the chief constable of the Ministry of Defence police appeared before the Committee, and that organisation is very much a species that is, if not extinct, close to extinction on garrisons. 

I need to press the MOD elsewhere, not during proceedings on the Bill, on precisely what its long-term intentions are for the MOD police. So far, they continue to exist, even though as a skeleton of what they used to be. Evidence has been given in respect of my own Colchester garrison that the number of MOD police has gone from 30 to three in the past 13 years. No doubt, those of us who visited the garrison yesterday will have been made aware of the views of some of the families who sense that they no longer have the number of police in their community that they had and, indeed, that the nature of their community is changing. 

Under the amendment, for so long as the MOD police exist in the garrison environment, as opposed to other places of work, they would be considered as stakeholders in byelaws. Whenever anything relates to the enforcement of byelaws, among those who are consulted must be the MOD police. The amendment is as simple as that. They currently exist, they are stakeholders in enforcing byelaws and they should be consulted. 

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Mr Robathan:  I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his defence and, indeed, upholding of the MOD police. I agree with him; they do an excellent job. Of course, they, as with everything else, are subject to review at the moment, but I do not envisage that we will see the disappearance of the MOD police. I am sometimes surprised by such things, but I do not expect to be on this. 

May I put the amendment in context? The purpose of the clause is to amend the Military Lands Act 1900—legislation with which everyone in the room is very well acquainted—to remove the requirement that the Secretary of State for Defence should seek the consent of the Board of Trade when he makes byelaws in respect of certain sea, tidal water and shore areas that injuriously affect certain public rights that relate to navigation, the anchoring and grounding of vessels, fishing, bathing, walking and recreation. 

The change is needed because the wide-ranging responsibilities of the Board of Trade have been gradually reduced and redistributed since 1970. I am not entirely clear whether the Board of Trade still exists, but I expect that if I were to read on, I would discover whether it does or not. I seem to remember that Lord Heseltine became President of the Board of Trade a few years ago. 

The need to check that byelaws can be operated is well recognised, but I am not sure that it is necessary to legislate further to ensure that that happens. Such byelaws are rarely made, but it has been standard practice to consider carefully how they can be policed. The MOD police jurisdiction in relation to the defence estate is laid down in statute, so they have a role in this respect. That fact, together with the fact that they are part of the MOD, is sufficient to ensure that they are consulted wherever necessary. My hon. Friend said that he wants to ensure that the MOD police are stakeholders. In fact, they are one of the primary stakeholders, because they will police any right of way. 

As a further safeguard, the military lands Acts require that proposed byelaws be publicised and that an opportunity to object be given. Such objections could come from my hon. Friend or, indeed, the MOD police, but they would have been consulted already, as well as local people. Those Acts also require that the Secretary of State considers any objection before making his decision. I hope that that will sufficiently reassure my hon. Friend. 

Bob Russell:  I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that response. His words are now on the record. Indeed, if I pressed the amendment to a vote and lost it might do more harm than good, as that might be interpreted by a subsequent Secretary of State for Defence as meaning that the MOD police should not be consulted. With the assurances that Committee has just been given, spelling out what is already in statute, and the Minister’s interpretation and words of support, I am content to beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment. 

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.  

Clause 24 ordered to stand part of the Bill.  

Clause 25 to 33 ordered to stand part of the Bill.  

Schedule 1 agreed to.  

Column number: 84 

Schedule 2 

Judge advocates sitting in civilian courts 

Question proposed, That the schedule be the Second schedule to the Bill. 

Bob Russell:  I seek your guidance, Mr Arbuthnot. Those of us who visited Colchester garrison yesterday had the privilege of sitting in on part of a court-martial hearing and, in private session, meeting the judge. You will recall from that conversation that there could be capacity in the courts-martial system to carry out the sentencing in cases involving military personnel that have been heard in magistrates courts. 

I wonder whether we can investigate with officials whether there is any prospect of that happening. It struck me that the judge, who was fair and generous in considering the pros and cons of the case, thought that there are often cases where military personnel appear before magistrates, probably in locations where there is not much of a military footprint and where a referral of sentencing, either after a guilty plea or when someone is found guilty, to courts martial would result in a sentence more appropriate to a military person, especially when the military wish to retain them in Her Majesty’s armed forces, rather than having a civilian prison sentence in serious cases, which would ruin their military career. I flag that up because it was a useful part of yesterday’s visit and I wonder whether we can take forward the judge’s excellent suggestion, as it would benefit everyone. 

Mr Robathan:  I am grateful to my hon. Friend for referring to that important matter. I chair the Service Justice Board, which met last month and gave the Judge Advocate General, Mr Jeff Blackett, the opportunity to give his view on the issue. He is very much of the opinion that more cases should be tried in courts martial. There was a great deal of sympathy for that—it is a sensible opinion—where there is spare capacity and where it is appropriate. I am afraid that there is some discrepancy across the country about where the police and the Crown Prosecution Service think that might be appropriate. 

We believe that it is possible for more cases to go to courts martial, rather than be tried in civilian courts, but—again, I stress this at length—where appropriate, particularly in cases that only involve military people outside the wire. However, we must consider the fact that soldiers are citizens first and soldiers second. We have agreed to study that very subject, so that we can make best use of courts martial where appropriate, without undermining in any way the civilian justice system. The Solicitor-General and a Minister from the Ministry of Justice were present at the Service Justice Board meeting. 

Thomas Docherty:  The Minister will be aware that justice is a devolved matter for the Scottish Parliament and there is, of course, a separate judiciary and process. Further to the helpful clarification that he has just given, can he confirm that any discussion involving the MOJ and CPS will also involve their counterparts in Scotland, so that there is no separation between the two systems? 

Mr Robathan:  I will ensure that we inform them. 

Column number: 85 

2.30 pm 

Bob Russell:  A further point made in the discussions with the judge yesterday was that there appears to be a lack of consistency at magistrates courts around the country in that magistrates and magistrates clerks are not necessarily fully briefed and aware of their powers in respect of desertion and someone being absent without leave and so on. May I ask the Minister through you, Mr Arbuthnot, whether he will refer that matter to the working party that he described earlier? 

The Chair:  Order. That is not a matter for me; it is an appropriate matter for debate under schedule 2. 

Mr Robathan:  Yes, that can be looked at as well. There is a big issue about consistency. I shall try to quote off the top of my head from the Judge Advocate General’s submission. I have probably got this wrong, but he said that the problem is that in magistrates and

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other courts a soldier—or an airman or a sailor—would appear with some fresh-faced young lieutenant who would plead his case and win over the court. It might surprise my hon. Friend to know that, once upon a time, I was that fresh-faced young lieutenant and I did win over a court—not that there was anything the matter with that and not that I was not quite right—but there is a need for consistency, and not just in how the serviceman’s representative officer will be judged by the court. 

Question put and agreed to.  

Schedule 2 accordingly agreed to.  

Schedules 3 to 5 agreed to.  

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Mr Francois.)  

2.32 pm 

Adjourned till Thursday 17 February at Ten o’clock.