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Mr. Brazier: Will the Secretary of State give way?

John Reid: No. The hon. Gentleman raised the matter, but then he was not present—no doubt for very    important reasons—during 20 minutes of my
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explanation. It is not fair to other hon. Members for him to return and ignore everything that I have said—if he had sat here, he would still have ignored me, but it would at least have given me a degree of generosity towards him, which I do not feel compelled to extend tonight.

I have made it clear that prosecutions will be independent from the chain of command and from Ministers. The investigators in the special investigation branch and the service prosecutors do a professional job, sometimes in the most demanding, difficult and dangerous circumstances—they conduct investigations in conditions in which civilian police would not operate, and they have my admiration and support. The Bill reinforces their relationship with the director of service prosecutions in a similar way to the relationship between their civilian counterparts and the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Where the commanding officer is considering what action to take on offences over which he has powers—the hon. Member for Aldershot has raised this point—legal advice will, as now, be available. Under the Bill, he may choose to deal with an offence summarily, or he may decide to refer the matter to the prosecuting authorities, because he does not want to exercise his summary powers and believes that a court martial would be more appropriate. He may discontinue proceedings, but that would not prevent further action by the services at a later stage, if it were justified.

If the commanding officer deals with the matter summarily and finds it proved, he will go on to award a punishment. Where he refers the matter to the director of service prosecutions, the director will decide whether to bring a prosecution and what the charge shall be. In all cases tried by court martial, the director of service prosecutions will determine the charge, but the commanding officer will bring it formally by notifying the individual concerned, which, as I have said, will free up and reinforce his role in implementing the CO's duty of care in ensuring that someone under his command who is subject to proceedings under service law is properly supported and advised.

I have spent so much time on that aspect of the Bill because it is central to the military criminal justice system. I want briefly to turn to other matters in the Bill that involve further changes to the current system.

Lembit Öpik rose—

John Reid: I shall give way one last time, and that is it.

Lembit Öpik: I do not want to start a major debate about Deepcut, but the Secretary of State will be aware that one of the findings in that case involved the question of mindset—the police had a questionable mindset in that they were willing to accept an explanation of suicide on relatively superficial evidence. Will the Secretary of State assure me that he intends the Bill to address the question of mindset? Will he ensure that an objective analysis is made of any accusations with regard to impropriety within, in particular, the training element of the armed forces?

John Reid: I understand the hon. Gentleman's concentrating on Deepcut and its importance. He will understand, however, that the essence of an independent
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review, which people constantly demand in such circumstances, is that I do not decide what I am going to do before it reports. Let us wait for that report. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will pay attention in the course of the debate to the general matters that the hon. Gentleman raises.

The Bill creates two military courts—the court martial and the summary appeal court—to replace existing courts provided for under the Service Discipline Acts. The court martial will be a standing court and replace courts martial convened on an ad-hoc basis to deal with individual trials. Like the Crown court, this standing court will be able to sit in more than one place at a time and to deal with different cases. It is not a single court in permanent session. The main advantages of a standing court are that it will be more efficient by reducing some administrative arrangements and making it easier to arrange for preliminary matters to be dealt with.

In addition, the Bill creates a service civilian court to replace the standing civilian court that was established in 1976. Like its predecessor, this court may only sit overseas. It has powers equivalent to those of a magistrates court when dealing with offences committed by those civilians who are described in the Bill as subject to service discipline. For the court martial and the service civilian court, the Bill creates a more modern and appropriate sentencing regime which primarily reflects changes introduced by the Criminal Justice Act 2003.

Importantly, we believe that improvements in speed and efficiency will come from the changes I have described. At the moment, every single case charged must first go to the commanding officer. He looks into the matter. If he thinks that it should go to court martial, he refers it to higher authority in the chain of command. In turn, higher authority refers the case to the prosecuting authority. However, in serious cases the service police will, while keeping the commanding officer informed—that is important—send the case straight to the director of service prosecutions, who will determine any charge to be brought.

Finally, I turn briefly to two other key areas in the Bill that deal with non-disciplinary matters. The first is the redress of grievance system, which some hon. Members have mentioned. Service personnel will retain a right to complain about any matter where they think themselves wronged. However, the current system takes too long and involves consideration through successive layers in the command chain. We want to improve that. We shall introduce a more streamlined system that will reduce the bureaucracy and provide for the majority of matters that cannot be resolved by the commanding officer to pass quickly to a panel outside the chain of command with powers delegated to it by the Defence Council. Moreover, we have provided in certain cases for a person who is independent of the chain of command, not a civil servant, to sit on the panel.

The second area is that of harmonised provision for service inquiries. We think it essential that the services retain the ability to hold internal investigations to establish the facts of a matter and to make recommendations to prevent a recurrence. That is what boards of inquiry, as they are currently known, are for. As now, much of the detailed procedure and powers of such inquiries will be made in subordinate legislation.
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I have spent a considerable amount of time introducing the Bill because I am aware of its importance to the House and to the armed forces. The armed forces deserve nothing less than a fair and modern criminal justice system with all the appropriate safeguards. That is why, on becoming Secretary of State, I ordered a review of the support we give to those accused under service law. Those who serve their country are entitled to be sure that we will carry out the duty of care as seriously as they would wish us to. I have seen the outcome of that review. I am satisfied at present that the support that we give them is of a high order and in the tradition of the responsibility that commanding officers have to those under their command. That level of support must and will continue under a single system of service law.

I believe that the reforms in the Bill should be welcome to those who serve in today's forces. The Bill recognises the special circumstances, risks, dangers and demands that we place on service personnel. Its key purpose is to provide them with a fair, modern system of criminal justice that will underpin their operational effectiveness, of which every Member of this House is justly proud. I hope that the Bill will serve them well into the future. If it serves them as well as they serve their country, it will have been the accomplishment that we set out to achieve. I commend the Bill to the House.

5.55 pm

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): This major new Bill will have far-reaching consequences for all members of Her Majesty's armed forces. Conservative Members will judge it against the essential criterion that it must reinforce operational effectiveness and reinforce, not undermine, military ethos.

As the Secretary of State pointed out, the Ministry of Defence has been working on the Bill for some five years. It is therefore a little regrettable that we received the explanatory notes only last Wednesday. However, as we will have the opportunity to consider the Bill in some considerable detail in a special Select Committee, taking evidence from witnesses, we shall not oppose its Second Reading, although we reserve our position as regards Third Reading. There are grounds for supporting the Bill's objectives, if not all of its detail—not least where it brings disciplinary procedures into line with operational procedures.

As the Secretary of State pointed out, it is a much-valued tradition in the House that at the outset of each defence debate, whatever the specific topic, we pay sincere and deserved tribute to the courage and professionalism of all the men and women of our armed services, in whom this country can and does take pride.

I have long had an interest in defence matters. Indeed, one of the reasons why I was drawn into politics was the campaign against the unilateralists in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament—a battle that I look forward to rejoining in the coming months. I had the pleasure of serving for five years as a medical officer, albeit as a civilian, in the Royal Army Educational Corps tri-service centre at Beaconsfield. That gave me a useful insight into the Army medical services as well as issues relating to welfare provision for service families.

The pride in our armed forces that has already been expressed in this debate rests in part upon how officers and servicemen and women deliver military power with
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self-restraint and discipline. It is greatly to be regretted that there are increasing misgivings among the armed forces about the rules of engagement and the extent to which soldiers, in particular, are being held to account for their actions in extremely difficult circumstances. While we deliberate in this air-conditioned House of Commons, several thousand miles away in Iraq soldiers have to make life and death decisions—a situation made even more challenging, as the Secretary of State acknowledged, by the phenomenon of the suicide bomber. If they hesitate, they may be killed; if they are too hasty, they know that they may face a court martial.

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