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Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend is right to press the Minister on the need for clause 33. On a quick reading of it, it seems that, by secondary legislation, the Minister can bring UK law into line with ECHR law. I suspect that the reason for the clause is that if we have an ECHR case, it will be easy for the Minister, by secondary legislation, to bring our law into line with ECHR law and to make it compliant, without having to introduce before Parliament a new armed forces discipline Bill.
Mr. Blunt: My hon. Friend has again put his finger on the real concern. The clause gives the Secretary of State widespread powers for change to avoid proper scrutiny by the House. That is something that we should avoid. If the price for avoiding that is that the armed forces have to wait a maximum period of five years before they can consolidate a degree of administration of justice, while service personnel are forced to remain subject to the same laws as everyone else under sections 70 and 42 respectively of their own Acts, it is a price well worth paying. I suspect that a different agenda is being played out.
The Bill has welcome elements. The continuance of the Acts is necessary under part I and I welcome the fact that royal naval officers are to be brought within the remit of summary jurisdiction. However, I have to question why it is necessary to bring lieutenant commanders and wing commanders within the ambit of summary justice. Officers of that rank and seniority should be regarded as worthy of the greatest possible respect. It is the rank that, typically, commands units of the Army, Navy and Royal Air Force. One has to ask, if summary justice is good enough for lieutenant commanders, why not apply it to brigadiers and generals?
The armed forces have struck the right balance so far by applying summary justice to the rank of major and its equivalent. I hope that in Committee the Government will consider amendments on that point. If I am unlucky enough not to defeat the motion on Committee membership, I will not be able to serve on the Committee, and if such amendments are not aired before, I shall table them on Report. I do not believe that we should raise the rank structure in the other two services to meet some requirement of the Navy. I do not understand the requirement driving the provision to apply to the rank of commander in the Navy and I should be grateful for an explanation from the Minister.
I am somewhat agnostic about whether warrant officers should be able to sit on courts martial. There will be occasions when they can bring experience to a court martial and they may well be able to spread the burden of manning them more widely because courts martial can be time consuming. However, warrant officers will need to be selected with care. There are warrant officers who are good at their jobs but may not have the intellectual firepower to cope with sitting on a court martial. Of course, there are educational requirements and tests to
There are other provisions in the Bill that appear to have merit, but they need careful scrutiny. I am sorry that I will not have an opportunity to help scrutinise the Bill in Committee, but that subject can be debated at length later--and I fully intend to do so. The handling of the Select Committee procedure has been disgraceful and will also be pursued later.
The Bill will need careful scrutiny. Ministers guiding it through Committee will have to be flexible when it comes to amendments. They will have to be much more flexible than they were during Committee consideration of the Bill that became the Armed Forces Discipline Act 2000. The Government did not accept a single amendment in the whole of that Bill's Committee stage. When he presented the Vehicles (Crime) Bill, the Home Secretary said that, in his experience, he had known of no Bill that could not be improved in Committee. He should have been a member of the Committee considering the Armed Forces Discipline Bill, when Ministers debated with minds that were closed. That is a matter of enormous regret.
This Bill is a missed opportunity to put right the damage done by the Armed Forces Discipline Act 2000 and to consolidate the various legislation on discipline. The attempt to consolidate the relevant Acts began in 1991, and it is hard to believe, 10 years down the track, that this opportunity could not and should not have been taken. The Bill also wastes an opportunity to roll back the invidious effect on our armed forces of the European convention on human rights.
I shall finish by referring to General Guthrie. My run-ins with him are a matter of record, but his RUSI lecture contained the warning that the plethora of employment legislation and litigation could lead to a culture of risk aversion. He could not be as frank as I can be, and I maintain that that legislation and litigation have indeed led to a culture of risk aversion.
I have friends in the forces who now command regiments and ships. The health and safety culture is endemic in the services, and the Army is now a completely different institution, in terms of how it is administered, from the one that I left. My friends do not consider the change to have been an improvement, as it has made the services risk averse.
That aversion to risk is now evident in the administration of summary justice. Subordinate commanders and commanding officers are becoming risk averse with regard to how they administer the summary justice system. It is sad that that should be happening to our armed forces. Ministers must listen to what the Chief of the Defence Staff is really saying, and to do that they must read between the lines. He is saying that the quality of our armed forces is falling because of the burden of legislation under which we are making them operate. It is about time that the House took note of that and began to put in place procedures to enable our armed forces to roll back the risk-averse culture. We must give them the freedom that they need to be the armed forces that our country has always deserved.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I shall be brief, as other hon. Members wish to speak. At the end of her contribution, the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) deprecated the comments of the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence. Many hon. Members of all parties agree with every word that the right hon. Gentleman said, and consider that in this case the Select Committee process has gone sadly awry. No doubt we will debate that later this evening.
The debate on the Bill is traditionally wide ranging, and today's debate is no exception. I shall say relatively little about armed forces discipline, save that I believe that the armed forces, rather than reflecting society as a whole, should be able to protect it. For that reason, I believe passionately that everyone who can serve this country in the armed forces should be able to do so in the role that best fits their abilities. That is why so much of what is in the Bill is absolutely right.
I recognise the enormously valuable role played by women in the Navy on the fighting ships that I had the privilege to visit. I saw them doing a very effective job on a front-line fighting vehicle--a warship--in every role, from stoker to executive officer to weapons officer. The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) referred to a gentleman in the Army who said that he would find it quite impossible to maintain discipline in a mixed front-line unit. I have to say to that Army officer, "Go and talk to the Navy commander or the Navy captain who is doing the job on a day-to-day basis and making an extremely good job of it."
I have rather more experience in the field of policing. Clause 31 deals with the Ministry of Defence police, and I must express some serious concerns about the proposals. I do not do so because I lack confidence in the Ministry of Defence police, nor because I disrespect their professionalism, their training or any other aspect of the valuable role that they play. I intervened on the Minister earlier to ask him where the proposal came from, and I suspected that he would answer as he did. He said that the proposal had come from the Ministry of Defence and from the MOD police to provide a natural extension of the role of MOD constables. The proposal did not come from the territorial police forces of this country. That is odd. If the purpose is to provide better policing away from defence establishments, one would expect a corroboration of that view from the territorial forces. Instead, most of what we have heard from the chief constables, the Police Federation and the Police Superintendents Association raises serious doubts.
There are good reasons for that, but first let us ask why the Ministry of Defence police might want to extend their role. The reason might be that it is a matter of convenience, as was suggested earlier, or that the MDP are conscious of a change in their role since their establishment. The Military Provost Guard Service is now
The Bill also provides for the military police to have more of a constabulary role, as it was described earlier. I have to express a degree of prejudice, because I have never been convinced that there is enormous value in having an array of separate non-territorial police forces in this country. The hon. Member for Salisbury said that he was pleased to have eight different police forces active in his constituency. I think it is nonsense to have eight police forces operating in the Salisbury constituency, all with different roles and not communicating with one another.
An expression of faith was made in the Royal Parks constabulary, and it was stated that it does a wonderful job because its officers are capable of talking to foreigners and protecting the royal palaces. The extremely good police officers in the Palace of Westminster also manage to talk to foreigners; they do a good job of protecting a royal palace without having to be part of a separate police force. Operational problems arise from having separate police forces which are responsible for their own little precincts.
The basic ethos of policing in this country is the consent of the community. It is policing in the community, for the community, by the community. The more non-territorial police forces that are not accountable to the local community take on a policing role, the more we erode the intimate connection between the community and its police force. On the face of it, this may seem a sensible move, but I think that it betrays flaccid thinking. It does not address the issues of policing.
What is the role of the constable anyway? Some years ago, a Police Foundation report identified what it saw as the inalienable roles of the sworn constable, as it described the office of constable, which could not be given to someone who was not a constable. There were three categories. One was to arrest, detain and search a citizen or property under statutory powers. I am not sure whether there is a need for MOD police to have that role outside their specific responsibilities on defence land. Why should they need to do any of those things, given that they would have to do so under a statutory power provided via the chief constable of the territorial force?
Secondly, the Police Foundation identified the role of bearing arms and exercising force for the purpose of policing. I am not sure that I want MOD police bearing arms in a public place, ready to use them outwith the responsibilities of the local constabulary. The third right, which I believe that they should have, is that of full access to criminal records and intelligence for the purposes of operational planning. Of course, they need that only if they partake in operations. There is no clear reason, to me, why they need to partake in operations outside their specific role as MOD police policing the Ministry of Defence estate and military installations.
What will the provision confer on a Ministry of Defence policeman in extending his role in the office of constable outside the current provisions, which he could not perform as a citizen? The answer is nothing. If a Ministry of Defence policeman is in uniform, travelling
Extending the role would lead to the risk of confusion in the first instance. There are practical issues about communications between the local constabulary and the MOD police potentially acting in a freelance way. There is the opportunity for the MOD police accidentally to disrupt the local constabulary's covert operations simply because they are not part of the planning loop and are not involved in the arrangements, and for no real purpose. Serious questions need to be asked about the proposal. The area of responsibility of the Ministry of Defence police should not be extended merely at their whim. Such an extension must be effected in co-ordination with local constabularies.
We should undertake a full-scale review of all the non-territorial police forces to establish their proper functions and roles. There may be a strong case for Ministry of Defence police to have the opportunity to be seconded to local police forces to provide additional support and gain experience of a wider and different sort of policing. That could be enormously beneficial. However, that they should apply their powers to citizens who are not a part of the military machine in the absence of accountability locally or a clear recognition of the role that they are playing could be dangerous, and will need closer examination.