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Mr. Hancock: It is simply not true.

Mr. Keetch: My hon. Friend is right. I have been told that in my constituency those officers regularly carry firearms when they are moving from place to place. I hope that the Minister will ensure that the assurance given by the chief constable to the Committee that that will no longer be the case will be implemented. That will prevent the situation in which MDP officers who come across a crime being committed get involved in it when they are carrying sidearms. If that happened, a can of worms would be opened and no one in the House would want that.

In conclusion, whenever we discuss these matters--and we do so sensibly--we must remember that the men and women we talk about put their lives on the line. We can talk about that, but they, and those people in my constituency who have lost their lives in the past year, have delivered the goods when it matters. That is why I am particularly concerned to ensure that nothing in this Bill or previous measures affects our capability. I am glad to say that I do not believe that anything does.

10.15 pm

Mr. Bruce George: It is often said by football fans that football teams are not as good now as they were 20 years ago. The same has been said of Select Committees considering Armed Forces Bills. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) impressed us with his knowledge of the classics. Well, I am reminded of "Much Ado About Nothing". In the past, I have served on similar Committees, and we considered a series of issues, including capital punishment, gays in the military, drugs, women, race relations, human rights and what happens when a commanding officer goes bonkers. I must confess that the present Select Committee report is pretty tame stuff.

Mr. Key: I must remind the hon. Gentleman that all those exciting things happened under a Conservative Government--[Interruption.]

Mr. George: Absolutely; the commanding officers went bonkers too.

2 Apr 2001 : Column 130

I was pleased when my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) gave generous tribute to the Select Committee on Defence, including thanks for the loan of our second Clerk. That was a grievous loss; when one is dealing with a labyrinthine, bureaucratic organisation like the Ministry of Defence the disappearance of one's deputy Clerk, from a staff of four--almost absent with leave--has repercussions for the Committee. I am afraid that was regrettable. Despite that, we agreed to loan our Clerk.

Had I been Chairman of the special Select Committee, I would have had more staff than Admiral Cobbold alone, who is an excellent adviser. One cannot deal with the MOD--unless the MOD is represented on the Committee. However, if balance is restored, the Committee then functions as it should and tries to monitor the MOD--rather than the MOD monitoring itself. In future I hope that the Committee goes in with more arms.

Very briefly, I recognise the generous remarks of the hon. Members for Salisbury (Mr. Key) and for Hereford (Mr. Keetch). I assure them that their remarks will be taken into account when the final case sheet is presented to the Defence Police Federation. It remains to be seen how much it takes that deathbed repentance into account. The most important message to come out of the Armed Forces Bill Committee is that it should not operate in the same way again. I hope that the lessons will be well absorbed by the MOD; the Committee should not be packed with Government Members, and should not have two Defence Ministers on it. Perhaps the Opposition could loosen up a little, and an odd Back Bencher, like the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) could serve on it--although he is the best example of why the status quo may be correct. I do not mean that; he would have been a wonderful addition.

Most importantly, procedures should be different. I would much prefer the Defence Committee to be involved from the outset and engaged in discussion at each stage; the Select Committee should not present major changes, or, in this case, less than major changes, suddenly and dramatically. The special Select Committee was right to say that a draft Bill should be presented to the Defence Committee; when the Defence Committee has done its work, perhaps the Bill can be passed on to a more traditional environment for consideration. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury is my sparring partner; I did not realise we were sparring partners until he said so and I picked up the insult--[Interruption.] We are not complete heavyweights.

I hope that the MOD follows the advice in the report and tries to deal with tri-service discipline legislation. The previous Government must take the blame for the fact that we do not have such legislation. We were discussing that in 1987, yet nothing has happened.

In conclusion--this speech will be rather briefer than my previous appearance here--I must repeat that in terms of accountability, the MOD police have had investigations up to here. They have had endless internal investigations, inquiries conducted by the National Audit Office, regular reports of Her Majesty's inspectorate of police, and reports on them by the Public Accounts Committee. I hope that we do not have to expose them to any further investigations, apart from the next one by the Defence Committee. Let them do their work; they are a professional force and deserve to be recognised, not to be perpetually kicked in the groin.

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Despite its abortive birth, the Committee has managed to develop satisfactory work methods. The report, too, is satisfactory as far as it goes. However, I repeat my hope that when the next Committee is constituted, lessons will have been learned from the appallingly wrong decisions that were made three or four months ago.

10.21 pm

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith: I join the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), who did not exactly praise the Committee for its work, but thought that it passed muster. I agree, because the remit was fairly narrow and restrictive; had a broader brush been used, it could have got into trouble. I shall use this moment to pay my respects to all those who took part in it, as I am an old soldier who is probably in the dying moments of his membership of the House, although I shall move on, fully alive, into civilian life--or rather, normal life--afterwards.

One thing that attracts me in the report is the recognition by the Committee of how dangerous the waters are in which it moves. I do not know whether there are many people left in the House now who saw active service in the second world war--probably only three or four, if that, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath). Those people must be very much aware that unless people have seen active service, it is difficult for them to get under the skin of those in the armed services, who may seem to us like members of a restricted club.

There is often a danger that we shall try to impose on the services some of the civilian laws and legal ways of dealing with complaints, including the European convention on human rights. I know that that has a strong appeal for people, but for the armed forces, in the future as in the past, our civilian rights and laws may not have the same resonance when it comes to questions of life and death. I hope that we shall bear in mind the fact that what works for us in our civilian life will not always work so well for those in the armed services.

I feel that strongly, as someone who has also been involved in peacekeeping in India, where we had to have a discipline that was rather different from that which prevailed when I served in Belgium for a short time, during the second world war.

I am reminded of the difficulty by the words of the outgoing chief of defence staff, General Sir Charles Guthrie, who on 19 December, in his speech to the Royal United Services Institute, said:

To judge from the comments that I have heard from the members of the Committee who have taken part in the debate, that is not a failing that could be attributed to them, nor will it be in the future.

I hope that the armed forces and the Ministry of Defence will continue to share with us that great responsibility for providing a framework for discipline in which it is possible for the men and women of our armed forces to work as a disciplined team--to recognise the duty that they have to society, especially in peacekeeping, but also to remember that they are there to be tough and to defend our rights.

2 Apr 2001 : Column 132

10.24 pm

Mr. Hancock: I shall be brief, mindful that the House would be disappointed if the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) did not have time to speak tonight, as everyone has praised him and recommended him for membership of the Select Committee. He has put down a significant marker for the future.

Since Second Reading, the House, including the hon. Member for Reigate, has come a long way. I remember the contributions at that stage, and I fully expected the Bill to be fought tooth and nail. I compliment the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) on her eloquent and informative speech this evening, although it was too short. She did more justice to the Committee's work than does the report. Her six-minute sketch of what the Committee has been up to over the past three months gave the House an insight into the serious endeavours of members of the Committee--despite the obvious packing of the Committee--to get to the bottom of what the Bill is about.

I expect that there will not be a Division at the end of our deliberations tonight. I see no point in that. We all believe that the armed forces need the right sort of legislation, and we have come a great distance in producing that, although we recognise that the Bill does not go the whole way. Hon. Members who spoke in Committee and who are not present tonight made points that need to be addressed--for example, about the way in which courts martial are to operate in future. I welcome the fact that warrant officers can be further involved. They should not be debarred from sitting on courts martial where senior officers are involved. Junior Army and naval officers regularly sit on courts martial judging officers of equal or senior rank. That issue needs to be addressed. The way in which custodial sentences are dealt with and the rights of appeal need to be reformed, and no doubt that will happen in time. Hon. Members were right to put down markers in that direction.

Like the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), the Chairman of the Defence Committee, I believe that a disservice was done to the Ministry of Defence police tonight by some of the comments that were made. The MOD police have been knocked and I believe, like him, that it is about time that the knocking stopped. If we give them increased responsibility, of course we want to make sure that they are accountable, and that that added responsibility is clearly defined, not only to them, but to their civilian colleagues and the wider population in which they will operate, so that no one is left under any illusions about what that added responsibility should mean.

The involvement of MOD police overseas is a step in the right direction. I am mindful of the time and the fact that the hon. Member for Reigate wants to get in. We have come a long way and produced a good piece of legislation, but that cannot be the end of the story. I hope that the next review will deal properly with the outstanding issues and with tri-service discipline. I agree with the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West that the Committee should have a year in which to undertake such a review.

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