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7.34 pm

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): The hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) always makes an original and thoughtful contribution, whether in the Chamber or in the Select Committee on Defence, of which he is a valued member. As members of that Committee, he and I are concerned about what we call the footprint--the place of our armed forces in the community--and the varying motivational factors that cause people to volunteer for the forces in the first place and to remain in them.

Recruitment and retention are two very different matters. People join the armed forces perhaps from a sense of adventure or because they wish to see the world. They may wish to participate in sport or adventurous pursuits, but later on--perhaps when they are married with children--they are much more concerned about the treatment of their families and their ability to see them as much as possible. Such matters are very important. That is why the study of personnel issues that the Defence Committee is currently carrying out is important and will produce significant results. That is one of the reasons why

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I regret that none of the members of the Defence Committee have been proposed as members of the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill. It would have been helpful to have the experience of individuals such as the hon. Member for Ilford, South and others on that Select Committee.

When I first joined the House, a large number of right hon. and hon. Members had served in the armed forces; they were often referred to as honourable and gallant Members. Their number is now comparatively modest, and we now value not only those who have served in the armed forces and who bring their experience to bear in the House, but those who have served on the armed forces scheme, which enables Members of Parliament to spend about 20 days with the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines, building up their experience of the armed forces. It is my experience that when individuals who have not previously served in the armed forces rub shoulders and spend time at close quarters with people in the armed forces, they are always greatly impressed, as is the Defence Committee, by the quality, determination, courage and sense of humour of those who serve in the armed forces. It is a privilege for those of us who are members of the Select Committee and others to meet those in the armed forces and to experience those qualities at close quarters.

Anyone looking at the 41 clauses and eight schedules in the Bill might think that it deals in detail with matters of military law and similar matters. Of course, it does, but to think that that is all that it does would be completely to misunderstand this potentially dramatic Bill. The hon. Member for Ilford, South referred to the glorious revolution of 1688, but I would go back to Charles I, James I and Elizabeth I, who had to call Parliament, although they did not want to do so, because they wanted the money to fight their wars or the authority to maintain a standing army.

The Bill is a crucial part of parliamentary procedure because clause 1 states that Her Majesty may from time to time provide for the military Acts to continue and that, effectively, the Government may maintain a standing army. Such a Bill is put before the House once every five years and authorises the House of Commons, through an Order in Council, to continue the standing army. The quinquennial Bill is central to our parliamentary privileges; without it, there would be no Army. That gives immense power to that Select Committee.

The current procedure, which was set up in 1952, allows the service discipline Acts to continue under the auspices of the quinquennial Act, which goes to the root of our democracy. It enables the House to consider every aspect of military activity, so it is not just related to military law and discipline. For example, I chaired the Standing Committees that considered the 1986 and 1996 Bills. The 1996 Bill dealt significantly with homosexuality, which was the centre of media interest in that Bill, yet there was no reference to homosexuality in the 1986 Bill. The Standing Committee is entitled to consider every aspect of military activity and effectively to hold the Government to ransom on such issues, if it so wishes. That is its constitutional importance.

It is important that the Government should treat the House with appropriate respect in this as in other matters. To deal with a matter briefly in parenthesis, I regret that senior Ministers often do not attend debates. The Chancellor of the Exchequer failed to attend an important

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debate on the economy. The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions failed to attend a debate on transport, giving as his reason, through a junior Minister, the fact that he was dealing with transport matters. Ministers should regard the House of Commons as being central to their own responsibilities.

Although it is not unprecedented for the Secretary of State for Defence not to be present when these important Bills come before the House every five years, it is my memory that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King)--my boss when he was the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland--was always courteous when he was Secretary of State for Defence, and attended the House whenever he could when a junior Minister was taking through legislation. It is always regrettable when the relevant Cabinet Minister is not on the Front Bench for an important piece of legislation. It is a courtesy to the House, and an important part of parliamentary privilege, that Cabinet Ministers should regard this place as sufficiently important to attend it on such occasions. However, that is not how this Government treat Parliament.

I want to consider in detail the difference between an ordinary Select Committee and the Select Committee that considers the Armed Forces Bill. The Select Committee on the Bill has it in its power to say to the Government, "No, you cannot have legislation to maintain the standing forces unless a point of detail that concerns us is clarified."

I am a member of the so-called quadripartite Committee, which is potentially the most important Committee that the House has created for several years--a joint Committee of the Select Committees on Defence, on Foreign Affairs, on International Development and on Trade and Industry. It sits to consider strategic export controls, and has done so for some time. Let me give an example of the way in which the quadripartite Committee reports and the way in which the Government deal with its reports. Paragraph 2 of a Government response to the 11th report of the Defence Committee, the seventh report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the seventh report of the International Development Committee and the 11th report of the Trade and Industry Committee considers open individual export licences. The quadripartite Committee stated:

What was the Government's response to that considered view? They said:

They did not agree with the Committee--end of story. There was nothing much else that the quadripartite Committee could do.

The major conclusion reached by the Committee appears at paragraph 24 of the Government response and it should ring through the corridors of Whitehall. It was pretty authoritative stuff. The Committee concluded:

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We then had the most wonderful piece of Whitehall gobbledegook--I defy anyone to explain exactly what it means. The Government continued:

I just do not know what that means, but it is the Government's response to the considered conclusion of the quadripartite Committee.

Mr. Blunt: May I offer a suggestion to my hon. Friend? The final paragraph means that the Government think that parliamentarians are unable to understand what Parliament wants.

Mr. Viggers: Yes, that would figure; it is certainly not inconsistent with my interpretation.

Let us contrast that case with what happened to the Armed Forces Act 1996, section 26 of which gives the Minister power to grant a long lease to the Royal hospital at Greenwich. The Select Committee considering that Bill was concerned that Greenwich, with its unique architectural, historical and traditional values, should not be passed over to inappropriate use. The original clause certainly protected Greenwich against inappropriate architectural use, but the Select Committee took evidence in Greenwich and we agreed with local opinion, which was reinforced by those with national views on the subject of architectural heritage, that there should be extra protection for Greenwich. We decided that we wanted to make it clear to the Government that we would not pass the Bill unless the future of the hospital was not only consistent with its architectural heritage, but with its maritime and cultural traditions.

I remember that the Select Committee concluded that some uses could be entirely consistent with the architectural heritage of Greenwich but would not be appropriate in relation to its cultural heritage. For example, we all have the highest regard for McDonald's, the fast-food chain. Hypothetically, it might conceivably decide that it wished to take over the site and make it into a hamburger university--and I believe that the company already runs such a university. However, the Select Committee thought that it would be entirely inconsistent for a fast-food chain to take over Greenwich, since although it might maintain the architectural heritage, it would not be appropriate to the area's maritime tradition.

I remember discussions with Ministers. The issue was discussed on the Floor of the House and in Committee--and I recall one discussion that took place in the voting Lobby. It was not exactly a quiet discussion; it delayed the Division because good strong military language was used. I made it clear to Ministers that we were not prepared to accept the clause unless it was amended, so the Government had to change it.

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The Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill has enormous powers--if it chooses to use them--that the Select Committee on Defence does not have. The right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), the hon. Member for Ilford, South and other members of the Defence Committee all know that, when we produce our reports, they may have some influence: they will be read in certain circles; certain parts of them may be picked up by the media; and they may have some effect in promoting thinking about personnel issues in the armed forces. However, we have no absolutely no power, and the Government therefore give us a bland response. They thank us for our interesting report, but we have no power to enforce any of the recommendations that we make. The Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill is different. It has real bargaining power if it chooses to use it.

Who has been selected for the Select Committee on the Bill? Will it include members of the Defence Committee? The proposal suggests that it will not, so people who would have brought much-needed knowledge to the issue and would have given the Committee teeth with which to impose its thoughts will not be represented.

What should the Standing Committee on the Bill consider? Of course it will consider the Bill's 41 clauses and eight schedules, but it is clear that it will have complete power to refuse to pass the provision for standing forces. The Standing Committee has a wide-ranging mandate and can consider anything that it wishes.

If the Select Committee on the Bill has teeth as well as influence, with what issues should we be concerned? We should be concerned about the pensions of armed forces personnel. The Select Committee on Defence recently heard representations from the Officers Pensions Society, which represents all members of the armed forces--officers, other ranks and pensioners. We recognise that there is a problem with pensions--a so-called trough. Pensioners who retired in 1977 at, for example, the level of major, are getting about £1,500 a year less than someone who retired when armed forces salaries were higher. It is within the mandate of the Select Committee to consider that trough and require the Government to do something about it.

As the chairman of a pension fund in my spare time, I believe that a private sector pension fund would attempt to do something about the trough, but the public sector has failed to act. If the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill has teeth and power, it will be able to hold Ministers to account and try to force them to do what Governments have not done for many years. Many service personnel in our constituencies plead with us to do something, but individual Members of Parliament do not have the necessary power. However, that Committee has the power to hold the Government to account on the old-fashioned principle of supply and can ask the Government to give it what it wants or refuse to agree to the Bill.

The Defence Committee has also been concerned about Gulf war syndrome, but it has been difficult to get facts and information out of the Government on that matter. We now have the issue of depleted uranium. There would be no difficulty getting such information if we had the teeth that are possessed by the Select Committee on the

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Bill. Members of Parliament should be concerned about medical issues in general. I know that I am back on my hobby-horse of defence medical services, but once every five years, when a Bill is before the House, we have the opportunity to refuse supply to the Government until we are satisfied that they are doing what we think is right.

Members of the Defence Committee and others are deeply concerned that more than 15,000 service personnel have been medically downgraded for more than a month. More than 9,000 members--nearly 10 per cent.--of the Army have been medically downgraded for more than a month. When members of the Committee asked witnesses about medical downgrading and the number of service personnel who are unfit, we were told that they would write to us. That was about four to six weeks ago, and we still have not received a letter. However, if we were members of the Select Committee on the Bill, we could make those witnesses tell us what is happening in the armed forces and why so many personnel in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines are unfit.

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