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Mr. Gapes: Does the hon. Gentleman concede that before the passage of the Armed Forces Discipline Act, Conservative Governments consistently lost cases in the European courts, and as a result it was necessary to change our law to make it proof against those decisions? The hon. Gentleman is proposing that in future we abrogate international agreements, move away from co-operation with other countries and leave ourselves open to further legal judgments in the European courts.

Mr. Key: I am terrified by that prospect.

Yes, the Conservative Government lost cases in the European court. Yes, the Labour Government have lost cases in the European court. It never happened to the French, the Germans or any other nation that had taken out a reservation. That is why we say that we agree with Lord Renton that we should come out of the convention and immediately rejoin--it is a technicality--with the reservation in place. That is why I think the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) is so wrong.

We must be prepared to front up to the entire issue of political correctness in relation to the armed forces. As I have said several times, it should not be for us to decide. These matters must be decided by the chiefs of staff and the chain of command.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: Before my hon. Friend leaves the implications for the armed forces of the Human Rights Act 1998, may I ask him this? He will have seen that there are no fewer than four pages in the Bill which deal specifically with repeals that are consequential upon the enactment of the Human Rights Act. Some of the repeals relate to the abolition of the death penalty. Has my hon. Friend had the chance to study the minutiae of the four pages, and has he found anything significant in them?

Mr. Key: I am looking forward to studying the Bill in great depth over the next couple of months. That is what

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I intend to do. If my hon. Friend would be so kind as to draw my attention to particular points that he would like to be investigated, I shall do my best.

Mr. Mackinlay: The hon. Gentleman has not read the Bill.

Mr. Key: I have read the Bill from cover to cover. The hon. Gentleman was thumbing desperately through the Bill trying to reach the end while making that comment.

Last month, the Chief of the Defence Staff attracted a certain amount of controversy when he suggested that it might not be appropriate for disabled people to have equal opportunities in the armed forces. What did he actually say? He said:

I agree with the Chief of the Defence Staff. He was immediately criticised by a long line of people, who I think misunderstood what he was trying to say.

I believe that Parliament needs to have a proper debate about these matters and I believe also that the Bill is the best vehicle for that debate. I hope that the Select Committee will have the opportunity of taking evidence from organisations such as the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation, the Disability Rights Commission, the all-party parliamentary disablement group, which is so ably led by Lord Ashley of Stoke, the Equal Opportunities Commission, the human rights organisation Liberty and others. We should hear also from the Secretary of State for Defence on the opt-out for the armed forces in respect of a clause in article 13 in the European Union treaty of Amsterdam which forbids employment discrimination on grounds of disability or age.

Mrs. Dunwoody: Has the hon. Gentleman not, in effect, answered his own point? I understood that the speech to which he was referring was made to make it clear that, when it came to matters of defence, it was essential that people should be required only to do that which they were capable of doing. That was the point. That would deal with the hon. Gentleman's anecdotal accounts of people who are physically unable to deal with wet ropes and with those who put people who are incapable of carrying out certain tasks in a position where they would be required to undertake them.

Mr. Key: I respect the hon. Lady's views on these matters, as on so much else. If she will be patient for a little longer, she will understand what I believe the Chief of the Defence Staff was trying to say. There is another dimension to the matter.

The armed forces of European Union members increasingly work alongside each other under the European security and defence initiative. Some personnel

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are conscripts, some volunteers. Some are under 18. Under human rights and military law, what will be the legal basis of orders issued by a commanding officer from a country that forbids military service under 18 to a 17-year-old British regular soldier? On 20 December, the Prime Minister's spokesman made it clear that the Prime Minister backs General Sir Charles Guthrie and stated that

I think that I know what he meant, but he did not put it clearly and the Government need to clear up the confusion that has been caused.

Back in 1995, the Conservative Government established the "Positive About Disabled People" programme. The Ministry of Defence, then and now, has an action plan to recruit more people with disabilities and to help disabled employees to develop their full potential at work. Only yesterday, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence told my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) in a written answer that the MOD employs some 6,000 people with disabilities--about 6 per cent. of its civilian work force, which is about the same percentage as in the whole civilian work force. We know that the military has always sought to employ comrades injured in service, so that is not the issue.

We have an opportunity to listen to and learn from those who believe that there is a case to be made for a rethink of the status quo. I shall certainly be prepared to do that, but the nub of the matter is whether it is right that anybody--anybody at all--should be able to apply for regular front-line infantry service. That is all that the Chief of the Defence Staff was seeking to clarify.

Mr. Mackinlay: The shadow Minister is uttering at the Dispatch Box the same twaddle and Bumbledom that a very frustrated Douglas Bader heard before the battle of Britain--it is nonsense. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) has pointed out that people should be judged on the basis of capability, and if they can fulfil a function, their applications should be examined on their merits.

Mr. Key: The hon. Gentleman is wrong. Group Captain Bader was fully trained as an operational pilot and had an heroic record. He was injured in service. The hon. Gentleman is suggesting that people with a disability--an injured leg or, indeed, no leg--should be able to train as fighter pilots. That is a problem.

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

Mr. Key: Yes, but then I must make progress.

Mr. Blunt: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, because there is a danger of a serious misunderstanding arising over the nature of service life and what service men must be able to do. Even Downing street appears to have it right, which is welcome news to me, and a surprise to the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). There is no such thing as a non-combatant role in the armed services. It has been said that blind people could be radio operators, but radio operators have to be able to operate in a combat environment just like any other soldier. That is why we cannot start recruiting disabled people as service men.

Mr. Key: My hon. Friend, who has direct experience of these matters, makes his point extremely well.

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Just how far are the Government prepared to go with their agenda of political correctness? That matters very much because the Bill will give the Secretary of State wide powers, particularly in that respect. They are certainly prepared to go as far as the parade ground over sergeant-majors and military bands. The Minister for the Armed Forces took a roasting in the press and media when he confirmed that a team of MOD scientists, academics and civil musicians were reviewing noise levels. He is not present and I fully accept that he has to go to other forums to explain his remarks to the nation, so I shall constrain my remarks, especially as he did me the courtesy of providing an explanation. However, the matter represents a low for Ministers and the MOD and I hope that there will be a steady improvement. The point about brass bands and sergeant-majors has been appropriately derided.

On the face of it, part IV, which will extend the jurisdiction of the MOD police, looks sensible. I served on the Committee that considered the Ministry of Defence Police Act 1987, which attracted considerable hostility from Home Office police forces. That has largely evaporated. However, there was always unfinished business, and the issue of jurisdiction was at the top of the list.

The proposals cannot go unchallenged, not least because of the objections of the Police Federation of England and Wales, which believes that there are good reasons why the public, if they knew the full position, would object to an extension of the Ministry of Defence police jurisdiction. The Police Federation claims that Ministry of Defence police officers do not have relevant experience, and it does not consider that the Ministry of Defence police has an appropriate approach to recruitment, or that its officers have the necessary training to encourage appropriate interface with the public. The Police Federation is concerned that Ministry of Defence police officers have not been appropriately trained and do not have the appropriate level of experience to deal with the general public.

The Police Federation also believes that the Ministry of Defence police is not sufficiently publicly accountable, so its powers should be limited to MOD matters alone. We shall explore these issues in detail in Committee. There are further concerns about the Ministry of Defence police often being armed--a concern which, I believe, is voiced by the Police Superintendents Association.

Most members of the public do not realise that there are so many different kinds of police in this country. It is a great strength that we have so many police forces, particularly the Home Office constabularies, county by county and the Metropolitan Police. There is a great deterrent effect in the combined effort of all the police forces. Until Christmas, I had seven police forces operating in my constituency. Just before Christmas, I noticed an eighth which had suddenly come on the scene. For some years I have had in my constituency the Wiltshire constabulary, the Ministry of Defence police, the Royal Military police, the Military Provost Guard Service, the UK Atomic Energy Authority police, the British Transport police and the Ministry of Defence guard force. Then I saw a brand-new shiny white police car in Salisbury. It was doing its rounds and inside was a gentleman in military uniform. Down the side of the police car was written Army Security Service.

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I wondered what that was, as we have not had a Bill on the Army Security Service, so I tabled a parliamentary question. I understand that the Army Security Service is part of the Military Provost Guard Service and that it has put a fleet of 23 white police cars on the roads. I welcome it. It will be an added deterrent and assist the Home Office constabulary in deterring crime. People like to see cars that look like police cars, even if they are not police cars, so the force cannot do much harm. However, its appearance makes the point that Parliament must keep an eye on the proliferation of police forces and their powers.

The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) mentioned the Royal Parks constabulary. As someone who, in a past incarnation, was a Minister with responsibility for the Royal Parks constabulary, may I say what a high regard I have for that force, because of its specialist work in dealing with a specialist segment of people in our capital city. It can deal with foreign people who cannot speak English as well as it deals with everyday criminals in the royal parks. It is a remarkable institution that deserves far more recognition and acclaim than it gets.

The hon. Gentleman was right when he pointed out that a problem arises if a Ministry of Defence policeman sees a crime being committed. The answer that I was given by the Royal Parks police was that such a policeman would be expected to do his duty as a citizen. That is all very well, but the Ministry of Defence policeman would have no legal cover beyond that which he had as a civilian.

I commend the Ministry of Defence police for its work with young people in the DARE--drug abuse resistance education--programme, which is an anti-drugs and alcohol programme in schools. It is a remarkable programme, which is hugely successful in my constituency.

During the passage of the Armed Forces Discipline Bill, the Ministry of Defence tried to estimate the cost of implementing the changes that would flow from the Act. It estimated that there would be about 1,500 appeals a year to the summary appeals court. On that basis, the estimated cost of implementing the changes would be £6.5 million a year. The start-up costs of £1.5 million would cover the cost of additional computer systems, personnel, accommodation and office equipment. It was estimated that 55 additional service personnel and 35 additional MOD civilians would need to be employed.

In its fourth report, the Select Committee on Defence asked witnesses why the estimated number of appeals had been revised from 850 to 900. The Committee was told by the head of the Armed Forces Bill team at the MOD that that could be explained by a re-assessment of the nature of appeals, which were more likely to be against sentences than against the findings of summary proceedings, and significant additional investigative work would not therefore be necessary. The Committee reported that all three services had told it that good progress had been made in recruiting the necessary additional lawyers and had not encountered problems in attracting the right calibre of applicants.

We will wish to probe in Committee the question of additional costs and manpower. We will also return to one of the scandalous unanswered questions of last year's Armed Forces Discipline Bill--the lack of proper legal aid for our service men and women when faced with courts martial. With all the professionalism and good will in the world, the Army legal service cannot get away from

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the fact that its members are part of the chain of command; they are not perceived to be independent and impartial. We return to the human rights judge and jury syndrome. The Army declares that it wants as broad a range of choice of legal practitioner as possible to be available to forces personnel. That is not the reality. Last year, the Lord Chancellor specifically excluded swathes of the armed forces from assistance by the Legal Aid Board, and the Government have failed to remedy that. There are no relevant provisions in the Bill.

In the strategic defence review, the Government acknowledged the benefits of a tri-service discipline Act to replace the three service discipline Acts now under consideration. They have failed to deliver. They have also failed to deliver consolidation of the three Acts, even though that has been in progress since July 1991. We have heard what the Government have said: they have decided to abandon consolidation; but if it has taken 10 years to reach the point of abandoning consolidation, what hope is there that the Government will instruct the Lord Chancellor's Department to give the necessary priority to the Law Commission and others to undertake the massive job of producing a single tri-service Act? We have heard a commitment this afternoon on a time scale for that. It is an extremely tight commitment, to which we will hold the Government, but we shall not need to wait because we will be there and make sure that it happens.

In the Select Committee's special report on the Armed Forces Bill, printed on 30 April 1996, at paragraph 37, the Committee recommended that the Government ensure that the necessary resources and parliamentary time were made available. Their hopes have been dashed. We expect early progress in that area.

I invite the House to decline to give a Second Reading to the Armed Forces Bill. The Government have failed to address the challenge to military combat effectiveness from the gathering tide of legislation, whose authors do not understand that military life is and should be different, and that training for, and taking part in, battle is not like going to the office. The Government fail to take into account that the culture of risk aversion developing in society is anathema to service men and women whose profession requires a degree of decisiveness, flair and courage which sits badly with some of the more restrictive practices of modern civilian employment legislation.

The Government do not recognise that the chiefs of staff are not in the business of designing armed forces for the good times, but have to advise what will work when conditions are tough, dangerous and frightening. The Bill encourages a further creeping advance of litigation which will breed a cautious group of military leaders who may step back from courageous decisions for fear of being pursued through the courts. The blame for that belongs with the Government.

The fears that I have expressed are not just those of Her Majesty's loyal Opposition; they are widely held in all three services, which is no doubt why they were expressed in terms by the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Charles Guthrie, in his speech to the Royal United Services Institute on 19 December 2000. I end by repeating his words:

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