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Mr. Touhig: If there are grounds for the scheme to be changed, obviously priorities will enter into the process. On the basis of my experience in dealing with the miners' compensation scheme, I think that priority should be given to the oldest, the most infirm and so on, so that they can gain some recognition.

I shall consider the point made by the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), and if we review the scheme we may decide that it should be taken on board. I shall want to get the priorities right, and it may well form part of my considerations.
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Orders of the Day

Armed Forces Bill

[Relevant documents: The First Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2005–06 (HC 747) on the Armed Forces Bill and the Second Report of the Constitutional Affairs Committee, Session 2005–06 (HC 731) on the Office of the Judge Advocate General.]

Order for Second Reading read.

4.52 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill results from a comprehensive review of service law, the first comprehensive review since, I believe, the 1950s—about half a century.

I served on the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill in both 1991 and 1996, so long ago that there was a Conservative Government—[Interruption.] At that time, they were the future. We identified the need for a comprehensive review of the Service Discipline Acts, but nothing happened. In the 1998 strategic defence review, over which I had the pleasure of presiding under the tutelage of the then Secretary of State, George Robertson—now Lord Robertson—the Government recognised that a single system of service law would better serve today's armed forces, which increasingly train and operate together on both the practical and the theoretical sides of combat and warfare, and in many other tasks. I believe that the Bill will deliver just that. It represents four years' work, at the centre of which have been the armed forces themselves. I commend the work that has been done since his appointment by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, who has had to master the detail of a four-year summary of half a century of consideration of laws, some of which date back to centuries ago. It is a Bill that has at its centre the armed forces themselves. In that sense, it is a Bill for the armed forces and it has their full support, primarily because it meets their needs in a way that has been absent for decades.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): As my right hon. Friend will be aware, a statement was made on Friday about the decision not to prosecute the soldiers involved in the fake pictures that appeared in the Daily Mirror, which put at risk the lives of all armed forces personnel serving around the world. How does that fit with the changes in the Bill? The Crown Prosecution Service said that there was no case to answer, although we know that people abused their positions and used Army equipment to stage faked photographs that put so many lives at risk? Lives will continue to be at risk, as no one is going to have to face a court for what they did.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. That sounds suspiciously like a failed urgent question to me. The hon. Gentleman should make briefer interventions.

John Reid: I shall have to give a briefer answer than is merited by the seriousness of the question. Prosecutions taken under military law by the armed forces prosecution services or investigations conducted by the special
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investigations branch are independent of Defence Ministers and the chain of command. That applies even more, if it were possible, to the Crown Prosecution Service. Decisions on whether to prosecute a case or not to proceed with it are quite properly taken independently of any responsibility, authority or power of Defence Ministers. It is therefore not possible for me to comment in practical terms on the reasoning behind the decision that my hon. Friend mentions and it would be quite improper for me to comment on it in judicial terms. I hope that my reluctance to answer does not in any way suggest to my hon. Friend that I underestimate the seriousness of the issue that he raises.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Before the intervention of the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), the Secretary of State was saying that the armed forces support the Bill. Whatever the service boards may say, does he not recognise the dismay of many in the chain of command, particularly in the middle ranks, at the fact that for serious non-summary offences, commanding officers are to be taken out of the loop? They are the very people who most understand the pressures that their men face, yet they are to be taken completely out of the decision on whether to prosecute.

John Reid: I shall return to the specific point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but I ask him to accept that—however gallant, committed and sympathetic to the armed forces either he or, indeed, the officers with whom he may have discourse from time to time may be—the chain of command has to be preserved. Incidentally, that is one of the main purposes of the Bill—to protect the military service system.

The chain of command is represented by the chiefs of staff and those immediately under them, and when I say that the armed forces support the Bill, I mean it. They do: they operate their support through the chain of command, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did not mean to impute that the case was anything other than as I described it. I am sure that he did not mean to question the truth of my statement about the representations that were made to me by the chiefs of staff and those who work with them or that the armed forces do not fully support what they said. I will turn my attention to the point that the hon. Gentleman raised, as I acknowledge that it is an important one and I agree with him about its seriousness and import.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): Conservative Members are concerned about the challenge to the absolute authority of commanding officers. That is what affects discipline and morale and there is real concern that such authority is being challenged.

John Reid: I will attempt to explain as I go through my opening speech that the measures that have been taken are intended specifically to protect the system of military justice, which is self-sufficient and separate from civilian justice. In a democracy, there is sometimes the mistaken belief that military justice has to be exactly the same as that in civilian society. That is not the case, but wherever possible it is right—and, indeed, self-protecting—to ensure that the military system of justice approximates to the norms of civilian society, so far as is
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commensurate with operational effectiveness. The more that it does so, the more that we will protect the existence of the separate military system on which all of us in this House place importance.

I hope that, as I go through my speech, the hon. Members for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) and for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) will see exactly why we are proffering these suggestions and proposals. Among other things, we want to avoid a repeat of the circumstances that led to the Trooper Williams case being dismissed before the trial finished and it being tried outside, in a civilian court. The intention is to prevent a recurrence of that situation, as I hope the hon. Gentlemen will see as I go through the argument.

Given the comments that have already been made, I should point out that, like every person participating in this debate, I am immensely proud of the British armed forces. I am second to none in my admiration of them, and the whole House will share such admiration. We owe them our respect and gratitude, but we also owe them an effective system of military justice because they deserve it. I will shortly set out some of the Bill's key provisions, but given the issues raised and the suggestions made in interventions—indeed, some of them have also been made in the press—let me deal directly and head-on with what the Bill is not about and lay some myths to rest.

This Bill is not about political correctness—one of the few offences, gladly, with which I have never been charged up to this point. It is not about creating a civilian system and, fundamentally, it is not about undermining the role of the commanding officer. It is about protecting and modernising our justice system and its relationship with the chain of command.

No one, least of all those in the services, thinks that service personnel should be above the law; indeed, it is central to the degree of respect with which our forces are regarded throughout the world that they operate within the law. But plenty of nonsense has been written and spoken about police investigations and the risk of prosecutions in respect of operations. There seems to be the almost muddle-headed notion in some quarters that service personnel are reluctant to open fire because they fear that they will be prosecuted if they kill or seriously injure someone. That notion is utterly wrong and potentially dangerous.

We train our forces to operate effectively and within the law that we lay down.

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