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John Reid: Yes, of course I understand the deep trauma and the tragedy and difficulties faced by parents and loved ones in this case. During the passage of the Bill we will try to introduce a degree of independent element to the complaints procedure. In respect of the insistence on an independent inquiry, without prejudicing anything that may come from the Blake inquiry into Deepcut, it is as well to remember that in the case of Deepcut, with all the difficulties we faced, the investigations were not carried out only by the armed forces. There was an independent element, from first one police force and then a second police force, and now there is a further independent element—a QC. Whatever systems and structures we set up, they cannot inevitably guarantee that such tragedies will have an explanation that is readily identifiable and readily acceptable to everyone. I know that not only from Deepcut, but, as the hon. Gentleman will know, from long experience in Northern Ireland. I fully and genuinely understand the deep feelings of the families involved and the terrible frustration and trauma, added to the tragedy of the loss
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of life, of searching for the unknown. I am aware of how difficult that is, but we have to await the outcome of the inquiry.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP) rose—

John Reid: I will take one more question, but then I shall go for a long time without interventions.

Pete Wishart: I thank the Secretary of State for giving way again on this important issue. Will he describe in a little more detail what he means by independence in relation to the complaints commission? There is an expectation among not only the families but the general public that there should be the fullest possible public scrutiny of public bodies, so does the Secretary of State accept that the best way to resolve the issue would be through an independent military ombudsman? The public would then be satisfied that the complaints are dealt with properly.

John Reid: If the hon. Gentleman can indulge me by letting me get beyond page two of my speech I might reach some of the points that are being raised.

I return to the point about the independent service prosecuting authorities who decide whether a prosecution is warranted in any case referred to them. They use the standard evidential test, based on a realistic prospect of a conviction, and the public interest test before they proceed. Another misconception is that military cases may arbitrarily be handed to civilian jurisdiction. That is not true, and I am sorry that the hon. and gallant Member for Canterbury, who raised that issue earlier, is no longer in the Chamber, as it sounded as though he believed it.

In relation to offences committed in the United Kingdom over which both our civilian and service courts have jurisdiction, protocols between the service and civilian police forces apply at the start of investigations. There are also a few offences for which our civilian courts have jurisdiction when the offence is committed by UK citizens abroad—a point to which reference was made earlier. The Attorney-General made it clear in another place that in exceptional cases he has a role in deciding between prosecuting authorities with overlapping jurisdictions, but in no case—no case—has he exercised that role without the agreement of the relevant service prosecuting authority. Therefore, the apparently widespread myth that the Attorney-General or anyone else would intervene contrary to the views of the service authorities, or without consultation or agreement with them, to allocate a case to the civilian authorities is just not true.

Let us be perfectly clear that the Government are committed to retaining a separate system of service law. In our view, and in my view, that is essential to underpin operational effectiveness. The integrity of the system is essential if we are to retain the confidence of those who are subject to it, as well as those who are not. That involves professional and independent investigations into alleged serious offences and decisions on whether to prosecute being taken by an independent prosecutor with an understanding of the service context—the one that I was speaking about earlier—but, moreover, there
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must be proper safeguards and support for those who face investigation and prosecution in the military system.

Against that background on the major questions, let me turn now to the Bill itself, which is primarily about service discipline. It establishes for the very first time a modern, single system of service law. It defines offences, provides for the investigation of alleged offences and the arrest, holding in custody and charging of individuals accused of committing an offence. It makes provision for service personnel to be dealt with summarily by their commanding officer or tried by courts martial. It will retain the right of service personnel to elect trial by court martial and to appeal to the summary appeal court or the courts-martial appeal court as appropriate. That is all familiar. It is not revolution; it is, if anything, evolution.

The most significant change in the Bill is that there will be one system, not three. In future, under the Bill, armed forces personnel of whatever service will be subject to the same system wherever in the world they are serving and in whatever unit or formation. That will enable the proper alignment of discipline and command, and it will do so across all three services, instead of relying on ad hoc arrangements for joint operations, as we must do at present. Moreover, all service personnel will be subject to the same rights, powers and duties when they are charged with an offence. That is not only clearer but fairer to all those who serve in the armed forces.

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Will the Secretary of State give way?

John Reid: Let me make a little progress, and then I will allow some more colleagues to intervene.

I want to say a word or two about the offences under part 1. All offences under the Bill are service offences. They are divided into two types. First, as now, service personnel will remain subject to the ordinary criminal law of England and Wales wherever they are serving. Secondly, the disciplinary offences that are unique to service law—many of which will be familiar, such as going absent without leave or looting—have been reviewed and brought up to date. We have removed certain offences because they are no longer appropriate or no one is ever charged with them, or because they are more properly charged under other provisions or dealt with administratively. It is not just the offence of scandalous conduct of officers that has gone. Other examples include

and billeting and requisitioning offences.

I want to say something now about the role of the commanding officer, which has featured in many interventions, before giving way to hon. Members. In our armed forces, commanding officers are responsible for the discipline of those under their command. A large part of the exercise of that discipline is done by example and leadership. Their authority is critical to the delivery of unit cohesion and operational effectiveness. As I said, that authority is primarily exhibited through their qualities of leadership and by inspiring the confidence,
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loyalty and trust of those who serve under them. Those qualities have long distinguished the British armed forces from many others throughout the world.

Ultimately, commanding officers must have the power to enforce discipline throughout the military criminal justice system. The Bill provides commanding officers for the first time with harmonised powers to deal with all people under the command of whatever service. To create such harmonised powers, we are reducing the    theoretical extensive summary jurisdiction of commanding officers in the Royal Navy. I use the word "theoretical" because in reality those commanding officers do not exercise their powers over very serious matters, not least because their powers of punishment are far too limited. That might address points that hon. Members raised earlier. We are, however, increasing the powers of Army and Air Force commanding officers to deal with the small number of additional criminal offences that are set out in part 2 of schedule 1 with which, in straightforward cases, Navy commanding officers already deal summarily. There is thus some diminution of powers for the Navy, but a big increase within the armed forces.

The summary powers of commanding officers recognise the importance of not only giving authority to COs but being able to deal with such matters expeditiously. As part of that recognition, we are also harmonising the powers of commanding officers to deal summarily with officers up to the rank of lieutenant-colonel and equivalent, subject to certain conditions.

Part 5 of the Bill sets out the duties of commanding officers in respect of allegations that a serious offence has been committed. Clause 113 provides that a commanding officer will be required to inform the service police as soon as practicable in the event of an allegation of a specified inherently serious offence, or an offence for which certain prescribed circumstances apply. The service police, who may already be investigating the matter, are in turn required to refer the case to the independent director of service prosecutions if they think there is sufficient evidence to charge a person with one of the inherently serious offences. It is the director of service prosecutions who will decide whether to bring charges on the basis of proper tests and a real understanding of the military context. That is the kernel of the relationship among the commanding officer, the investigating officers and the director of service prosecutions.

I stress that the offences that we are talking about are those that are inherently serious; they are ones of which there cannot be a minor example. They include civilian criminal offences such as murder and rape, other serious sexual offences, robbery, terrorism offences and so on. They also include some disciplinary offences that I am sure the whole House would agree are inherently serious, such as assisting the enemy and mutiny. The maximum sentence for those disciplinary offences is life imprisonment.

I want to explain why we are making the changes, so that hon. Members can perhaps understand the way in which they are meant to protect the integrity and independence of the military system. At present, if a person is charged, the commanding officer has the power to dismiss a charge—whether the offence is
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serious, such as those that I have mentioned, or not—without any form of hearing or evidence. Under existing law the result of such action means that even in extremely serious matters, such as those that I have just mentioned, dismissal excludes any further proceedings in the military system. Thus, the evidence is never heard and no decision in the case is ever taken by any independent service prosecuting authority. The case is dismissed by a commanding officer, no matter how serious, without any hearing, as I have said. That is theoretically possible. It has happened in practice. The case cannot then be tried at any other stage, whatever the misgivings, whatever the feelings thereafter or whatever the decision in the military system.

That, however, is not necessarily the end of the matter. Where civilian courts also have jurisdiction, civilian authorities may take action. The jurisdiction of the civilian courts may come into play as a result of the services being prevented from taking any further action on the matter even if there is afterthought through just such a technicality. That is what I wanted to address and we wanted to address. It is the problem that gave rise to so much dissatisfaction over one particular case.

The Bill will ensure that the director of service prosecutions will decide on serious cases, and that on serious cases a commanding officer's action cannot prevent further action by the services themselves. Some people have attacked the proposal as interfering with hallowed historical powers of commanding officers. It is simply wrong, however, that commanding officers alone must be able to decide whether to charge those under their command with serious offences such as rape or murder, and to do so without any hearing, or to dismiss a charge that has been brought without any form of hearing.

Even if that were not wrong, which I believe it is, it gives rise to allocation afterwards to the civilian courts as the matter is prevented from any further consideration under the military system. I do not think that commanding officers should be placed in that position and have that responsibility placed on them for such offences—and nor do they. As long as they have such responsibility, the services will be open to recourse to civilian law as in the Trooper Williams case, which gave rise to so much antagonism and unease throughout the House, the other place and outside.

I have explained to the House that we have taken these steps to prevent something of the sort from happening again.

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