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Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts (Continuation) Order 1998

8.3 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Gilbert) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 11th May be approved [33rd Report from the Joint Committee].

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The noble Lord said: My Lords, as noble Lords will be aware, this is a formality through which we go every year. The purpose of the order is to continue in force for a further year the Army and Air Force Acts 1955 and the Naval Discipline Act 1957, which together provide the statutory basis for discipline in the three services. The House will be aware that since 1961 an Armed Forces Bill has been brought before the House every five years, with the primary purpose of continuing in force the Acts that provide the disciplinary powers of the three armed services. Each Armed Forces Bill is an opportunity for both the services and Parliament to review service discipline.

Between each five yearly Bill, this disciplinary code is renewed annually by the continuation order procedure, involving an Order in Council which is approved by resolution of each House. The House will be aware that the last Armed Forces Bill was considered and enacted in 1996. I am asking the House today to give the necessary annual renewal to the discipline Acts by agreeing to the order. That completes the formal part of what I wish to say to your Lordships.

I wish to take this opportunity to touch on a few things that have happened since the last time I addressed your Lordships on this subject; advise noble Lords on the progress in the Ministry of Defence on certain matters which might be termed social problems; and update your Lordships on changes to the service discipline structure which have been agreed.

Last year noble Lords will recall that I mentioned that we were examining the recommendation that membership of courts-martial be extended to warrant officers. I am able to advise the House that it has been agreed that membership of courts-martial trying other ranks be extended so warrant officers may also serve on them. The requisite legislative changes will be made in the next Armed Forces Bill in 2001.

During the passage of the last Armed Forces Bill in your Lordships' House, there was discussion about the introduction of a pilot scheme for a military provost guard service. The trial period of the military provost guard service is successfully coming to its end and a full report will be provided, initially to another place, in due course.

We at the Ministry of Defence are still concerned with the problems of racial harassment and bullying which have occurred from time to time. We are delighted that on 25th March of this year the Commission for Racial Equality decided to abandon altogether the question of legal action against the Household Cavalry. As a result of the considerable efforts that have been made over the past two years, across all three Armed Services, we are now in a situation where Sir Herman Ouseley, the chairman of the CRE, has gratifyingly described our performance as,

    "a model of leadership in action".

We are delighted with the excellent progress which has now enabled the commission to recognise the willingness of the Armed Forces to make real and permanent progress in this field. In particular, we have agreed a five year partnership with the commission, a copy of which has been placed in the Library of the

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House. Its purpose is to ensure continued compliance by the Ministry of Defence within the action plan which was annexed to the 1996 CRE-MoD agreement to promote racial equality within the Armed Forces. I think that noble Lords will wish to join with me in congratulating all ranks on what we have achieved so far.

We are also pressing ahead in our determination to seek further employment opportunities for women in the services. From 1st April of this year, the number of posts open to women in the Army increased to 70 per cent. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence on 27th October last year commissioned a review of all those areas of employment currently still closed to servicewomen across all three services in order to see whether or not it will be possible to expand employment opportunities. That review is nearing completion and Ministers will be considering its recommendations in due course.

Another important element in these matters is training. All the services are agreed that equal opportunity training must be consistent across all three services. That is why the tri-service centre being established at Shrivenham is so important. The centre began to provide training for service advisers in March this year. I am pleased to say that by the end of this month a series of five-day courses will have been run to which a total of 73 personnel will have been trained in such issues as behaviour and personal perceptions, as well as service equal opportunity policies and legal responsibilities. We aim to train no fewer than 900 trainers and advisers in this financial year.

In terms of senior officer training, your Lordships will recall that I mentioned on 17th March of this year that this was being made mandatory for service officers of the rank of brigadier and equivalent, and above. We anticipate that the first courses will begin later this year once design work on them has been completed. The aim of the course is to enable senior officers, service and civilian, to implement the department's equal opportunity policies and to understand the role of leadership and personal example, starting at the very top with the Chief of the Defence Staff and his Chief of Staff colleagues, in developing a culture throughout the Ministry of Defence and the Armed Forces which encourages fair treatment for everyone.

I conclude my brief contribution by paying the normal and very well deserved tribute that all Ministers like to pay to the men and women who serve in our Armed Forces. We are all aware of their professionalism and dedication. The fact that so many services from around the world send their forces to this country for training is probably the most vivid testimony one could have to the standards and morale of our services.

To ensure that our services can maintain those excellent standards for which they are renowned, it is absolutely vital that they have a suitable environment in which to operate. That is essential for good morale and discipline. That is what the Service Discipline Acts seek to provide. I therefore invite your Lordships to approve the order before the House.

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Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 11th May be approved [33rd Report from the Joint Committee].--(Lord Gilbert.)

Earl Attlee: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for explaining the background to the order. Before making any comments, I have to declare an interest as I am currently commanding a TA REME Recovery Unit. We operate under the 1955 Act.

The House usually takes the opportunity to debate defence with the order. We have had many defence debates recently. Suffice it to say, we are well aware that there will be changes to the various service discipline Acts at the time of the quinquennial review. No doubt the House will debate the measures according to their merits, as suggested by the Minister.

I am grateful for the Minister's comments on G1 matters. Many noble Lords will be aware that recently I had the opportunity to make some small contribution to the regular Army's efforts. I was enormously impressed with its capability and with the way it looked after me. I can assure your Lordships that the regular Army is in fine fettle even though it is under extreme pressure. As to the order itself, we welcome it.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I too do not wish to detain the House. As the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, has remarked, we have had a number of debates on this issue and I had a chance to welcome the report from the Commission on Racial Equality some weeks ago. We all welcome that report.

The balance between discipline and justice always has to be delicately drawn. The concern with racial harassment and equal opportunities in the services is clearly to be welcomed. As a party we have remarked that, as more women serve in the services, the increasingly delicate issue of sexual harassment has to be taken on board. But there is also the question of sexual orientation which has not yet been fully grasped by the armed services. That is a matter which has been overzealously pursued by the military police and others in the past. My party is committed to subjecting that to the equal opportunities approach in the armed services and shifting the attitude of the military authorities to it. Apart from that, on the larger issues we look to the quinquennial review in 2001. On that basis we are happy to support the current order.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie: My Lords, perhaps I may ask one question about the future of courts martial for sexual misconduct. Reports of these occur regularly in the newspapers and one reads that they are apparently in the public interest. I do not believe that that is the case. I believe that these courts martial should be held in private. No other industry puts its staff on trial in that way. I have the impression that the Armed Forces are made a fool of by this process. I well understand that these are offences within the military legal code but I wonder whether they can be conducted in private?

Lord Gilbert: I am grateful to noble Lords for their brief contribution to this debate and for the general

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support given to this order. I took seriously what the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, said about the Army being under severe pressure. That is a matter that concerns us in the Ministry of Defence, but such research as we have done has informed us that this fact is not readily recognised by the general public.

That is a serious matter which we hope to address in the future. People outside this place, outside the services and the Ministry of Defence do not understand what "overstretch" means. They understand overstretch when it comes to people working in hospitals, for example, because they see it and it impinges on their lives. But they do not understand what it is when we talk about the services being subject to overstretch. That is a matter to which I and my colleagues shall devote a considerable amount of effort in the months ahead. I am sure that I shall have the support of this House when I say that I hope all noble Lords will do everything they can to persuade members of the public that they know what overstretch is and why the services are suffering from it.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, mentioned the question of sexual orientation. He is well aware that there are a couple of legal cases of some importance going through the courts outside this country. The services are waiting to see the results of those decisions.

As to the suggestion made by the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, these matters are extremely unfortunate. One regrets and deplores every one of these courts martial. His suggestion is an interesting one but I do not think that it will commend itself to the services. Like the general public, they would far rather see justice being done in these matters in public. I shall report his remarks to my colleague, the Minister for the Armed Forces, but I do not think that I can encourage the noble Earl to think that they will be particularly enthusiastically received. With that, I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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