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Mr. Gill: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Sir Nicholas Bonsor: I am afraid that I do not have time to do so.

The Government would welcome a positive recommendation from that debate, which will allow the Russian Federation to join the main stream of European life, through the Council of Europe. A Europe in which Russia adheres fully to Council of Europe ideals and plays a positive and constructive part in the activities of that organisation will be a safer, freer and happier place.

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Royal Irish Regiment

1.29 pm

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I am privileged to have the opportunity to raise this subject. In doing so, I must in the first instance pay tribute to the work of the Royal Irish Regiment and its predecessor, the Ulster Defence Regiment, for serving the people of Northern Ireland and of the United Kingdom as a whole.

I am equally aware that, as more than 40,000 soldiers served in the regiments, there are likely to be some who did not match up to the required standards. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the overwhelming majority served faithfully, displaying remarkable courage, loyalty and devotion to duty. They did not have changes that Regular Army regiments have. Whether the latter came for three-month, six-month or two-year spells of duty, there was always a change, but soldiers in the Royal Irish Regiment, as in the Ulster Defence Regiment, were on duty virtually 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and lived in the communities they served. They and their families were, accordingly, constant targets.

In that context, I must raise some concerns that have surfaced among some constituents, which have been shared by colleagues in my party as we have discussed the matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) mentioned one of his constituents, whose commanding officer had assured him that he would be retained until a particular date. The CO was transferred and the new CO saw no reason to stand by the commitment. Chancy decisions have kept coming to light and raised concern.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) shares cases with us, as some of the rest of us have discovered, in which the tendency has been for soldiers to be discharged, as far as we can discover, only through guilt by association because somewhere along the line a relative had some strange connections. For example, a Scotsman who had served for years in the regiment was discharged--apparently because a distant relative had been brought on a charge before the courts many years previously and been acquitted. We suspect that that was the only reason for his discharge.

I shall illustrate my argument with the cases of three constituents. The first is Private A. C. I recognise that all Members of Parliament face the difficulty of delays in responses to correspondence. I wrote to this soldier's commanding officer on 6 February 1995. I was speedily acknowledged in a letter dated 8 February, which contained the information that the case was going to regimental headquarters--the focus for such matters. On 28 April, Lord Henley responded from the Ministry of Defence, simply to confirm that the soldier's

Private A. C. had put in for a non-commissioned officer course and was recommended for it. Under section 9.414 of the Queen's regulations of 1985, he was simply discharged. Lord Henley assured me that there was

In a small community where people know one another quite intimately, whether as serving members of the regiment, relatives or neighbours, how could no stigma be attached when no rational explanation for the discharge was forthcoming?

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Private A. C. refused to sign the form for his discharge. Recruitment to the regiment was still going on and, although a part-timer, he was on full-time duties. When I pressed the Department, Earl Howe responded, on 28 September, concerning the discharge on 27 February, saying that there was

How can one claim that no stigma is attached to a person who is discharged in such circumstances? He was even barred from applying for re-enlistment. As the old statement has it, there is something rotten in the state of Denmark, and the matter raises concern.

What a way that was to treat someone who has served his country. It reminds us of the heroes of the 1914-18 war, when it was Tommy this and Tommy that, but when they came back it was tommyrot, was it not?

The second case is that of W. D., who joined on a part-time basis in October 1972. He rose to the rank of sergeant in October 1979 and was made redundant from his civilian job in 1984. At that point, he was asked to become OPS/maintenance, with full-time hours, but still on a part-time contract. Throughout his service, his confidentials never fell below "Very Good". In 1985, he suffered two aneurisms, which resulted in two operations in 13 weeks. In August 1994, when interviewed by his officer commanding, he was told that he would not be signed on again in October 1994, although, interestingly enough, another officer took him back for six months to work in the officer commanding's office.

In October 1994, W. D. was still three years under the upper age limit. At the same time, a corporal of the same age and in the same circumstances, was signed on for one year. That was the norm for those over 50 years of age with medicals--they were signed on yearly until the upper limit.

W. D's discharge declared him fit for a job in the RIR, but not for his civilian trade, which had been that of a welder-steelworker. When asked to sign the reason for his discharge, he wrote

As I understand it--the Minister may be in a position to clarify and confirm--the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act 1993 provided for application of certain parts, for example section 31 of the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978, to the armed forces. No enabling order has been made to implement that, however. Why not? Is that a way of saving money at the expense of those who have already served the kingdom for a comparative pittance?

If the relevant legislation had been in operation, it would have enforced the EC rules maintaining that there should be no difference between part-time and full-time workers. It should be emphasised that, although on a part-time contract, Sergeant W. D. had been working full-time hours since becoming OPS/maintenance in the regiment, working between 48 and 56 hours per week. The regiment advertises under an equal opportunities banner, but in cases such as this it seeks cover under servant of the Crown legislation.

Having pressed the matter because I was concerned about it, I received a response from the Minister of State for Defence Procurement. In a letter dated 29 August, he

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admitted that W. D. did not have a clean bill of health, and had been medically downgraded to a category below the minimum necessary for retention in the Army. He further stated:

    "he left on completion of his engagement on 25 April 1995".

W. D. did not have much option; he was not re-engaged.

The letter continued:

As W. D. had been working full-time hours on a part-time contract, the Ministry did not consider it worth while to compensate him for his discharge.

It was interesting to discover that W. D. was not medically downgraded in November 1984 and January 1995 after his operations; he was re-engaged for successive three-year periods in 1985, 1988 and 1991, and for six months in October 1994. In a letter dated 6 November 1995, Earl Howe admitted that W. D. had been medically downgraded, but claimed that his condition--largely attributable to smoking--did not merit a medical discharge. Perhaps I have a simple mind, but the reasoning appears twisted; perhaps the Minister can help me to unravel it. If W. D. had a medical condition and was not fit to continue, surely he could have been medically discharged and thus have qualified, if not for redundancy, at least for a pension after the service that he had given the regiment.

Would it be possible for W. D. to be supplied with his medical notes? Having requested such notes on behalf of a constituent in similar circumstances, I was denied them on grounds of confidentiality, but I had requested them not for myself but for a patient, and I believe that patients' notes are no longer confidential to doctors.

The third case that I wish to raise is rather different. It concerns someone whom I shall call J. G. My investigation revealed a degree of contradiction between the view of the commanding officer and the regiment, and that of the soldier concerned. The case, however, belongs to a category that causes considerable concern. The number of part-time members of the regiment was being reduced, usually on grounds of residence, when it was claimed that the soldiers concerned posed a security risk. J. G. found that unacceptable, as do I. He had served in North Antrim, but was then transferred to Belfast--to my constituency, in fact. While he was working there, it was suggested that he posed a security risk in the area, but if a volunteer accepts the risks involved I must be persuaded that he or she should not be allowed to serve. Indeed, people in such circumstances can often pick up information that is vital to the security services.

This case appears to involve a clash between a serving soldier and an officer. I do not refer to the commanding officer. I received letters about the case from the then Minister of State for the Armed Forces, the right hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley). Only because I continued to press the matter did I receive a glimmer of information, suggesting that J. G.'s failing could have been an over-enthusiastic commitment to his regiment. He was not prepared to hide his membership of what he considered to be a proud regiment in which he was doing useful work.

That resulted in a 25-minute interview that was described as unfortunately becoming confrontational. Only three months earlier, however, the commanding

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officer involved had commended J. G. for his work on a course in England following a letter to the CO from the Chief Constable praising J. G.'s role in a bomb disposal incident.

I believe that those three examples may be repeated throughout Northern Ireland. If someone is not doing his work properly, a good employer should sack him, giving reasons; but something is wrong when an employer suddenly dispenses with people whose work has been commended, and gives no adequate reason. It appears that soldiers in the RIR and UDR who had given long and faithful service have been released as part of a money-saving exercise. Those soldiers were not overly well paid for the hours that they served. It is scandalous if they were discharged on questionable grounds, and if those who were medically unfit for Army duties were not given proper pensions or redundancy payments.

Finally, may I ask the Minister whether a study akin to that into the Royal Ulster Constabulary is being carried out into the future role of the Royal Irish Regiment? I should like to think that a regiment that has played a useful part in the service of the country during a period of internal trouble, and whose main company is working with the rest of the Army, can continue to give service in Her Majesty's forces.

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