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6.54 pm

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire). I begin by echoing what she and other hon. Members have said about the British armed forces. In my opinion, there is no question but that they are the finest in the world, and in my constituency of Hereford I see some of the finest of the finest.

I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) is not in his place just now, but he described me earlier as a wannabe. The only thing that I have ever wanted to be is the Member of Parliament for Hereford, and to represent in this House the people of the city and county of Hereford, where I was born. I am happy to do that, and want to remain in that role.

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However, I shall keep my remarks brief, to ensure that other Back-Bench Members have an opportunity to speak--especially my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) who, if he succeeds in catching your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, has an important contribution to make later in the debate.

The House has already heard, from the Minister for the Armed Forces, that by 2005-06 a single, tri-service discipline Act should be in place. Liberal Democrat Members are disappointed that such an Act will not be put before the House in this Session. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) said in an earlier intervention, what are known as "purple operations" are increasingly being undertaken. The strategic defence review was right to propose in 1998 that the possibility of passing a single Act ought to be examined.

Our forces are now jointly deployable. For instance, in Sierra Leone, the Marines, the Army and the Royal Air Force operated off Royal Air Force ships. It therefore becomes increasingly silly to have separate discipline legislation for each service. We look forward to 2005-06, when I am sure that the Liberal Democrat Government of that time will introduce a single tri-service discipline Act. I look forward to being part of that process.

I turn now to the reasoned amendment tabled by the current loyal Opposition. Every time I hear Conservative Members attack the European Court of Human Rights, I am reminded that a British initiative helped to set it up. The court is not a great European Union scheme to threaten British sovereignty, and Liberal Democrats support many of the things that it has achieved.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Keetch: I lovingly give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Howarth: I am grateful. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the then British Government supported the concept of the European convention on human rights, but I should like to remind him of the circumstances in which the convention was drawn up. The aim was to try to prevent a repetition of the holocaust, and all that accompanied it in the 1939-45 period. However, the British Government of the day would not endorse the convention until they were entirely satisfied that every Act of Parliament enacted by this House was compliant with the convention as it was then envisaged. What has happened is that the influence of the convention has crept and crept and crept--so much so that it now interferes with many aspects of our national life and is deeply damaging to our services.

Mr. Keetch: Life has crept and crept and crept since 1951, and time has moved on. I am happy to belong to a party that recognises and understands that. We do not sit Canute-like on the shore beneath the white cliffs of Dover, resisting Europe's becoming part of our lives. We are part of Europe, and I am proud of that.

Reference has been made to other pieces of legislation that effect so-called political correctness, including those Acts that govern armed services discipline, health and

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safety, the working time directive and human rights. They impinge on service life, just as they impinge on all our lives, and I am glad that they do. Of course it is silly to suggest that military bands should play more softly, or that sergeant majors should not shout so loudly. We understand that that is political correctness gone mad, but there is nothing in the Bill to damage the effectiveness of our armed forces.

Reference has also been made to the use of women in our armed forces. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife stated in an article in The Daily Telegraph in December:

I have been fortunate enough to go to Mount Tumbledown and to have seen the area in question. I accept what my right hon. and learned Friend wrote, and I agree entirely. However, the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) did not speak about that at all. He questioned the actions of women in those parts of the armed forces where their role is just as valid and real as that of men. I have seen women in action on warships, and I contend that in many cases they play their part considerably better than men play theirs.

Some of the criticisms made by the hon. Member for Salisbury could have been made just as well about women in the police and prison services, in hospitals or in the media. Women play a vital role in our armed forces, and must continue to do so.

Some of the things that we have heard today about women have been said in the past by Conservatives about gays in the military. We were told that gays in the military would destroy service discipline, and that the Royal Navy would crumble, the Royal Air Force would fall apart and the military would somehow collapse. However, Sir Charles Guthrie said in his oft-quoted speech to the RUSI:

Mr. Key: Quite.

Mr. Keetch: Despite what the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) has just said, some Conservative Members have constantly undermined the role of some gay service people. I am glad that the Liberal Democrats never did that. I have faith in our armed forces. I have faith that they can adapt to new circumstances, that they will accept new legislation and that they will continue to be the finest in the world. If Her Majesty's loyal Opposition do not have that faith, I am sorry.

I am bitterly disappointed that the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt)--who also had to leave before I had the chance to speak--is unable to be on the ad hoc Select Committee that is being established. He would have made a valuable contribution to it. I hope that that Committee will spend time listening to service people and their families, friends and relatives, and examining the service environment in which they live, not only in the United Kingdom but overseas. We welcome the establishment of that Committee.

We also welcome the proposals on drug testing. The use of drugs in our armed forces is becoming more and more apparent, and must be nipped in the bud. We accept

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and welcome the Bill's clarification of the rules as regards the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, and we also welcome the placement of warrant officers on courts martial. These are all welcome additions to the existing legislation. We also welcome the fact that the sons and stepchildren of service people will be allowed to marry in service chapels.

We welcome any means by which the Ministry of Defence police are enabled to reduce crime. However, we share some of the concerns expressed by the Police Federation. Of course MDP officers should intervene if they see a crime being committed while travelling from one base to another. We would expect that of any citizen in our society. However, we want to ensure that the MDP is not seen as an auxiliary police force in towns in which military bases are located. Its officers are not trained to the same level as those of the county constabularies.

The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), who also had to leave the Chamber before my speech, mentioned the Royal Parks police. Within a mile of the Palace of Westminster, one can find Ministry of Defence police, Royal Parks police, British Transport police and the Metropolitan police. Perhaps it is time for us to review the duties of those constabularies as well.

I conclude with a remark made by Sir Charles Guthrie, who was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) before he had to leave the Chamber. Sir Charles said, in his speech to the RUSI before Christmas, that

The Liberal Democrats agree with that. We support the Bill and oppose the reasoned amendment tabled by the Opposition because there is nothing in the Bill that would affect the effectiveness of our armed forces.

7.3 pm

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch). I do not always agree with most of what I hear from the Liberal Democrats; on this occasion, the hon. Gentleman referred to his fantasy about forming a Government. When he referred to that happening in 2005-06, I thought that he must have been thinking of 1905-06, as that would have been more relevant when one considers the prospects for his party. However, I agreed with many of the other comments from the hon. Gentleman.

I cannot understand why the Conservative party is proposing to vote against the Second Reading of the Bill. It is made clear in the explanatory notes that, without the Bill, we could, in effect, cease to have a legal basis for our armed forces. Given our history going back to the time of the glorious revolution of 1688, when Parliament asserted its authority based on the parliamentary victory in the civil war and subsequent developments, it seems strange that the Conservative party, which supposedly believes in our armed forces, is prepared to vote against the Second Reading of a Bill that would provide for their continuation.

I could understand an argument for abstaining on Second Reading, on the ground that there were aspects about which one was unhappy, which could be dealt with by tabling amendments in Committee. However, to vote against the Bill seems typical of Billy's bandwagon, and of the way in which the Conservative party operates on all kinds of matters at present.

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The Bill is in many respects concerned with tidying up, updating, and bringing into law statements that were made in previous years. However, it also contains a number of important provisions, some of which need greater attention.

I very much regret that, despite being a member of the Defence Committee currently involved in the personnel inquiry--during which I have gained a lot from talking to serving ratings, officers, engineers and others throughout the armed forces--I am unable to bring my expertise to the consideration of the Bill in Committee. That will also be the case for other members of the Select Committee. I concur strongly with my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George)--this is the first time that I have referred to him in that way--who expressed far more eloquently and powerfully than I can the frustration of Back-Bench Members of Parliament at the Executive simply determining how things are run.

That frustration about the way in which Front-Bench Members sometimes behave is shared by Back-Bench Members of all parties. I am not making a party political point. If one has expertise, knowledge, experience or an interest in a subject, those qualities should be used. It is a negation of parliamentary democracy and the role of Back Benchers if Committees are established and Members who have relevant knowledge and expertise are not appointed to them. That view was clearly shared by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), who has had a similar experience. He is not here at the moment to nod, but I assume that he would if he were.

I welcome the proposals allowing warrant officers to act as courts martial members, which is long overdue. The proposals relating to drug testing are vital. The drug culture in society is becoming extremely serious. Only this week, the press has carried reports about police officers and cocaine. There have been reports about drugs in the media, and in other institutions of society. Given that the armed forces and their personnel reflect society as a whole--although to a lesser extent than some other institutions--it is undoubtedly the case that drugs, a growing problem, must be dealt with. The British armed forces cannot be regarded as the American armed forces were for many years, in terms of their relationship to drugs.

The Conservative Front-Bench team's approach to the recruitment of people to the armed forces is preposterous. If people with disabilities are prevented from taking up certain occupations, we can understand the arguments. For example, people still have to comply with certain requirements to join the Metropolitan police. A constituent of mine, a young Asian woman, desperately wishes to join the Metropolitan police, but because she marginally failed the eyesight test, that force will not accept her. She is devastated. We are crying out for officers from the ethnic minorities, and she would make an excellent police officer. She wants to do that job; she does not want to do anything else. The Met tells her she can be a civilian, but she wants to be a police officer.

The same applies to many people who wish to join our armed forces--those from ethnic minorities, those with disabilities, women, and those who have a desire to do something and yet, for one reason or another, do not meet the requirements. We should say to Sir Charles Guthrie that disabilities do not preclude people from doing things. Disabilities do not mean that people are incapable of doing things--just that in some respects, they make it

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impossible. There is a question of balance, and lines will have to be drawn. There may well be people with some form of disability who could still play an excellent role in the armed services.

I have a specific example. My father was conscripted into the RAF. He was not allowed to be a pilot because he did not meet the eyesight requirements, but he was a radio operator in Burma. He did that job as a conscript. No one said that his failure to meet the eyesight requirements meant that he could not be conscripted into the RAF. Therefore, we need to consider these issues sensitively. It is not a question of all or nothing--it is not as if people must qualify to be a Royal Marine or nothing at all.

Another related matter has come out of the inquiries that the Select Committee on Defence carried out into personnel recruitment. I refer to the retention of people in the services. How do we ensure that people stay? We have discovered that recruitment offices sometimes give people the wrong impression about the kind of jobs that they will do. That leads to disillusionment--not only were the recruits not in the area that they expected, but they had been given the impression that they could transfer easily from one job to another and then found that they could not. That needs to be considered in the context of the future of the services. I shall not go further down that route otherwise I am sure that I will be ruled out of order.

The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) referred to the Secretary of State's powers to make consequential or transitional provisions as he thinks fit. That would be outrageous if it applied to the Secretary of State alone. However, it is the same as everything else subject to the negative resolution procedure--that is made clear in paragraphs 122 and 123 of the explanatory notes. Such powers would be subject to the negative procedure and if that involved a change to primary legislation in a significant number of cases, the affirmative resolution would apply. I think that a mountain was made out of a molehill on that issue.

The serious issue here is to what extent the armed forces should reflect society. We ask a lot of them, whether their job is in Sierra Leone, Bosnia or Kosovo. They may serve as UN monitors for UNIKOM--the UN Iraq-Kuwait Observation Mission--or with other international or United Nations forces. They may do the dangerous and difficult job that has been done for many years, and continues to be done, in Northern Ireland. Whatever they do, theirs is not an ordinary job. They cannot go home early on a Friday afternoon. It is a bit like the stupid hours that Members of Parliament work, but probably worse. They cannot read their children bedtime stories; they do not even see their families for months on end in certain cases. Yet we expect them to be moved at short notice. We expect ships to be redeployed after a tour of duty, when they are sent off again into the Mediterranean. The service people may expect to be at home in port for a few weeks or a few months when, at a few days notice, they are redeployed to Sierra Leone. It requires a special kind of person to put up with that, and a special kind of family. We need to give support to those individuals and their families. We need to give them the resources to make their life, while they are doing that job on our behalf, as comfortable as possible, taking account of the difficult circumstances and the reality.

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That is why it is crucial, when disciplinary action is required and regulations have to be enforced, that service people do not have a sense of injustice. It has been said that society has changed. Young people today, as anyone of us with teenagers knows well, do not accept the automatic authority of their elders. Increasingly, people entering the armed services do not automatically accept that they must do something because someone tells them to. They want to know why.

With people talking generally about human rights, the armed services must have a code of conduct and disciplinary procedures that are carefully drafted to take into account those changes in society; otherwise we will find that people will not join the armed forces. They will not accept a value system that is totally alien to what they would experience in society. That is not to say that the armed forces are not different--they are, but they are also part of our society, as are the people who join them.

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