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Mr. Key: As a veteran of the Defence Committee and the previous Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, my hon. Friend can rest assured that the issues will not be neglected as far as I am concerned. However, the composition of the Select Committee poses a difficulty. When my hon. Friend was its Chairman, a Minister would turn up with his parliamentary private secretary when he needed to be present. There were no Whips, merely Back Benchers. That was a different proposition. Having given the Government the benefit of the doubt--I am being charitable--on defence medical services in general and Haslar in particular, we are extremely restless that the Government have not tackled the problem. Does my hon. Friend agree that we have a golden opportunity to pursue the whole matter of defence medical services?
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before the hon. Gentleman responds, he should note that we are straying wide of the Bill's contents. I remind him and the House that another debate later on will deal specifically with the Committee.
Mr. Viggers: Indeed, but clause 1 continues the services Acts. The Bill constitutes our one opportunity in five years to challenge the Government on all military issues. I am sure that you would agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that that is within the Bill's remit. I take your point, but I just want to say that defence medical services are in crisis. That has been exacerbated by the decision to close Haslar. The Select Committee on the Bill should ask how many deployable consultants there are in the crucial grades of general surgery, orthopaedic surgery, anaesthetics and general medicine. I want the record to show that there will be a disaster if the Government continue with their plans on defence medical services.
The Select Committee on the Bill has the power to force answers from the Government and to insist on changes of policy. That should be compared with the powers of an ordinary Member of Parliament. I tabled questions for priority answer in July 2000. Those answers should be given within 48 hours, but I received the replies at the end of November. It is a profound worry that we have failed to get proper national concern about the crisis in defence medical services.
I would be ruled out of order if I dwelled on the proposed Committee, but zero out of its 10 members have been members of the Defence Committee and zero out of the 10 have experience of the armed forces. The Government have gone too far in abusing Parliament by proposing that their representation on the Committee should comprise two Ministers, two parliamentary private secretaries, a Whip and one Labour Back Bencher. The detail of the Bill has forced the Opposition to respond with two Front Benchers and a Whip.
I have one or two comments to make about the Bill's detail. I recognise that it is appropriate for warrant officers to serve as members of courts martial, but the Bill contains a mistake. I wonder whether it is similar to the mistake that was made by the parliamentary draftsman in 1996 who authorised the taking of fingerprints. It took the hon. Member for Gosport to explain that if the Government were authorising fingerprints, they should also authorise DNA samples. That was later rectified. The quinquennial mistake in this Bill is that it is drafted to allow warrant officers in the Navy to serve on courts martial, whereas if they are promoted to sub-lieutenant, they cannot serve on a court martial until they rise to the rank of lieutenant or above. That is clearly an error and it is what the hon. Member for Gosport tips as the quinquennial mistake in this Bill.
It is disturbing that the Government promised in 1991 that they would consolidate as soon as possible. That promise was repeated in 1996, but here we are, in 2001, and they are still promising to consolidate as soon as possible. Despite the fact that the Army, Navy and Air Force are moving closer together in all other ways, the lack of consolidation means that the Bill devotes pages to each of those forces and we have to read everything in triplicate. Now that members of the three forces are serving more closely together, it must be possible to co-ordinate their legal procedures. Otherwise, people who serve side by side in aircraft, hospitals or even in trenches will be subject to the detail of different laws.
When the 1996 Bill was in Standing Committee, I was meticulously careful to ensure that the Commission for Racial Equality would undertake to have a report on progress in racial equality ready in time for the Committee on this Bill. I have only one question for the Minister. Will he confirm what was confirmed to me by the CRE when its representatives appeared before the Defence Committee a few weeks ago--that its report on progress in promoting greater recruitment and retention of members of the ethnic minorities would be ready for the Committee? I hope that the CRE is on schedule, and the report will be ready in time for the Committee to consider its decisions.
I wish to raise another point of detail, which I also referred to during the Second Reading and Committee stages of the 1986 and 1996 Bills. I represent a naval constituency, so I am pleased that it will be possible for royal naval officers to be subject to summary jurisdiction, and not only to courts martial legislation. I have always thought it demeaning and degrading for an officer to be dealt with by a court martial when charged with hazarding his ship, perhaps for reasons of expediency or after encountering difficulties at a certain time. Hazarding usually results from momentary uncertainty or indecision, and it has always seemed to me to be wrong that the ponderous courts martial procedure should be invoked. I assume that it will be possible to establish a much simpler summary jurisdiction procedure.
As to the point about the Ministry of Defence police, I am concerned that the detail may not have been fully considered. I am pleased and grateful to have had the occasional chance to spend time with the police force in my constituency on Friday evenings, and my experience is that police procedures derive not from a passing policeman noticing a burglary, but from meticulous planning and briefing. It is strange that the MOD police will be able to operate in a civilian sphere even though nothing in the Bill promotes the training or the briefing of officers for a civilian role. The Select Committee will want to pursue that point.
The Conservative Government were in power for 18 years and police numbers increased by 15,400, but in three years of Labour government we have lost 2,995 policemen. Indeed, only yesterday the chief constable of Hampshire asked me to exercise what influence I could to promote the recruitment and retention of police officers in the county, about which he is deeply concerned.
Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South): The Bill is complex and detailed, and having no military experience ensures that I feel wary about contributing tonight. However, I have great pleasure in telling the House that I was, for only 30 minutes, an Air Vice-Marshal. When I visited the Royal United Services Institute, I was told to put on a name badge. I did so. I was embarrassed to be one of only three women there; the others were the receptionist and another member of the Defence Committee. I felt that all those present had great knowledge and that I was probably considered to have little. My embarrassment ensured that I simply picked up a name badge and put it on.
I was spoken to warmly by defence attaches from Holland and other European countries. Then I was told that I was wearing a badge that was not my own. To be dead straight with the House, I did not know what to do, but hon. Members will appreciate that I shall always remember the pleasure of being an Air Vice-Marshal for 30 minutes.
It is well known in the House that I have great respect for the armed forces. I was briefly a member of the Defence Committee, which was a great pleasure, and I was presented with a serious learning curve. I am privileged to be a member of the Select Committee that will consider the detail of the Bill, and that alone persuaded me to speak. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) is about to pull me back into line, but I hope that the motion on the Select Committee will be supported later this evening.
As so many hon. Members have said, we in Britain are privileged to have a high-quality professional Army, and the nation acknowledges that. Again and again, the armed forces, with their readiness to undertake at short notice anything from civil tasks to war fighting, prove that we are privileged to have them, and their performance in those roles is excellent.
The British armed forces are often asked to perform miracles and we must all acknowledge that they face moral and physical challenges of which the majority of the population are unaware. In future, as at present, they will have to fulfil operational needs and requirements in
The armed forces of today are well aware that public opinion is very much opposed to casualties being incurred, although we ask them to go into battle, fight for us, defend us and behave in the best and most professional manner. That is a serious request. I believe that the armed forces will be required more and more in the 21st century and will increasingly have to display miraculous powers. I hope that all Members of the House will do everything they can to ensure that such miracles become a reality.
The Bill will introduce appropriate technical and evolutionary changes and its complex detail will ensure that there is no room for gesture politics. To my mind, it does not include political correctness. I was disappointed to hear the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) refer to his belief that political correctness was a prime and motive force in the Bill. The European convention on human rights is of paramount value in each and every situation. It does not influence or undermine the activities of the armed forces. Quite the reverse: it empowers people and ensures that the armed forces are effective and disciplined. They know how to behave and their judgments are much more secure because they know that the convention is one of their benchmarks.
The House has heard me say many times that women have a right to serve. I have no right to tell women to serve, nor do I have a right to persuade them to serve on the front line, but I believe that if women are capable of serving, no one should tell them that they have no right to be involved in certain roles in the armed forces. I am delighted that work is being done to secure a greater and more determined involvement for women. Much of the Bill is detailed. It will establish processes and structures--a disciplined framework--that will achieve a more open, clear and fair operational system. It will deliver fair, well-balanced and disciplined judgments within and for the armed forces. None of us should equivocate about that or see it as problematic.
When we deal with military discipline, we should be concerned if there are problems. There will be a problem if we do not believe that everyone's human rights are absolute and unquestionable. Much of the detail of the Bill outlines fair treatment, open judgment and open governance. The European convention on human rights should consistently inform the structures and practices of military discipline and its judicial system. I am disturbed that the hon. Member for Salisbury believes the reverse and stated in the House that the convention would be sidestepped when and if--I emphasise the word "if"--the Conservative party is ever returned to government.
The European convention on human rights is a discipline for all of us--a known discipline. Its strength of purpose derives from the fact that it is known, it does not equivocate and it treats people equally and fairly. I find it strikingly disturbing that the House should question the convention's application to the armed forces.