Previous SectionIndexHome Page

9.5 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): Like the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), I agree that the debate has been wide ranging, and rightly so. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) pointed out, this is the measure by which the Crown has the authority of Parliament to maintain a standing Army, as provided for by the Bill of Rights of 1688. A copy of that Bill is in the other place and can be shown to visitors. It is a living document and it is the authority by which we maintain a standing Army. I salute the Government for having included a reference to that in the explanatory notes. The historical perspective is most welcome.

Mr. Blunt: If unusual.

Mr. Howarth: Unusual indeed.

As the director of personal services, Army, told the Defence Committee during its inquiry last year:

That is what the Bill is about. We should have Brigadier Ritchie's remarks before us at all times.

The Select Committee was right to draw attention to the preamble of previous Bills, stating

9 Jan 2001 : Column 960

That should be at the heart of our concerns. The necessity of maintaining order in our services and for

should be considered if we are to be able to meet the requirements set out by the brigadier.

How do we respond to the Bill before us? Unlike some of my hon. Friends, I welcome parts of it, in particular the decision to permit warrant officers to be included in courts martial. That is a sensible move. In many respects such officers are better schooled in human experience and life than some of the officers. They are therefore likely to bring a dimension to courts martial that will be welcomed.

Perhaps I could be allowed the liberty of paying tribute to the garrison sergeant major in Aldershot, Joe Fairbairn, who is a fantastic chap and has done a marvellous job not only for the garrison there but for the civilian community. He has been a great ambassador for the Army and for the warrant officer class and the fantastic job that they do.

I share some of the reservations of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome about the Government's proposals for the Ministry of Defence police. I am sure that the public would regard it as sensible that, in moving from one site to another, if the MOD police see a criminal act taking place, they should be able to use their training and the authority conferred on them by their position to do more than the ordinary citizen could do. That seems sensible, as I say, but the Committee must carefully consider the precise proposals.

The Minister of State says that the Government are not slavishly following the civilian systems, but the explanatory notes--and, indeed, his speech--show the extent to which the Government want to apply civilian standards and arrangements to military discipline, and there is constant reference to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. However, there are great dangers in doing so, and my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) made that point extremely well. If the Government are not slavishly following the procedures that apply to the civilian world, they are nevertheless in danger of going too far down that road. They will do the services no benefit, even if that is their intention.

The second point that I wish to make is about the references to the Human Rights Act 1998--as my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate said, the Bill refers to that Act--and the extent to which the Government think it necessary to protect us from challenge in the European Court of Human Rights, but we shall always be subject to such challenge. Ministers themselves have made that point. The hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) said that there is a constantly moving scene. The drive towards human rights in the European area--it is not a European Community issue--is such that that court seeks constantly to extend its definition of human rights.

There will inevitably be more and more cases in which we must apply the decisions of a foreign court to our armed forces. As I have told the House before, it is entirely wrong that the composition and structure of Her Majesty's forces should be determined by people other than us. So I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) that we should extricate our armed forces from the Human Rights Act 1998 as

9 Jan 2001 : Column 961

soon as possible. While recognising the difficulty, the Select Committee on Defence recommended that Ministers should give that serious consideration.

Dr. Julian Lewis: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is very sad that a convention that originated in the aftermath of the bestial war crimes of the second world war to try to prevent a repetition of those atrocities should now be so twisted and perverted as to be imposed on democratic countries and, indeed, on the armed forces of those countries, without which the second world war would never have been won?

Mr. Howarth: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I do not think that he was in the Chamber when I intervened on the hon. Member for Hereford to tell him that the origins of the convention are as my hon. Friend has so explicitly made clear.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury has come under attack, not least from the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), for supporting the remarks about women in the armed forces made by the Chief of the Defence Staff. It is important to understand the Opposition's criticism. Of course we believe that women have a role to play in our armed forces. My mother will be 85 in a few days. She served her country in the armed forces for six years, from 1939 to 1945. I have constituents who served, with enormous distinction, in the Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps. One of my constituents landed on the beaches on D-day plus one or two, within hours of the first landings. Of course women have a role to play, but most Conservative Members do not believe that women should serve in the front line of the infantry.

Mr. Keetch: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howarth: I will not, because I want to allow the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friend, the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock), the opportunity to speak. I cannot do that by giving way.

We do not believe that, as has been suggested, people have a right to join the armed forces. The duty of the armed forces is to protect this country; it is not to reflect society. Douglas Bader was disabled and was able to continue to contribute his skills to the Royal Air Force because he was already a skilled pilot. He was also very determined and would not take no for an answer. That was entirely right and proper.

It is significant that, when a member of the Disability Rights Commission was asked to comment on the remarks made by the Chief of the Defence Staff, he said:

That is what concerns Conservative Members. We do not have it in for disabled people--far from it. Indeed, the previous Government did more for disabled people than had been done for many years before. Labour Members have tried to misrepresent our views.

Our armed forces must train for war fighting and not for peacekeeping. I read with concern the idea that recruits could hold up a red or yellow card if they thought that they were being shouted at by their instructors. When people go into battle, there is noise around them. The first

9 Jan 2001 : Column 962

thing that hits anyone who sees "Saving Private Ryan" is the noise, and I am told that the film more accurately reflects battlefield conditions than many other war films that are on offer. If we do not train men for that atmosphere, they will not be able to perform if they encounter it.

It has been suggested that people who have never lived away from home before are incapable of accepting certain forms of instruction. People who joined the armed forces in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s had not left home previously, but they heard no less shouting from the sergeant major. They formed the armed forces of which everyone in the House has said that they are proud. I hope that the Minister will comment on that point.

I know that the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South and my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) wish to speak, but I wish to make a final plea to the Minister that is unrelated to the issue of discipline. However, it is an important military matter. I refer to the inquiry being conducted by Lord Saville into the activities that took place in Londonderry in 1972. It is a completely ludicrous inquiry. It has run for two years and, according to the latest figures that we have from Ministers, it has so far cost £30 million. It is deeply distressing for members of the armed forces that those who did their best, as they saw it, in difficult conflict conditions in which they had to take instant decisions are having to account 30 years later for what happened on the day. However, the one man who does not have to account for his actions is Martin McGuinness, who I believe is--

Next Section

IndexHome Page