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"With current legal, political and ginger group interest in the deaths of Iraqi civilians during operation telic: our investigation and subsequent failure to offer for prosecution could become a cause celebre for pressure groups, and a significant threat to the military justice system".[Official Report, House of Lords,14 July 2005; Vol. 673, c. 1222.]
Dr. Fox: I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. As I said at the outset, the system must be transparent and fair. That means that we must consider all the elements of our civil system that could be transposed on to the military system without in any way debilitating military justice. We must also recognise the elements of military justice that are unique and must be retained, in order for the vital link between command and discipline to be maintained.
Mr. Beith : The hon. Gentleman made an interesting point about randomly selected panels. Did he look at the points raised by the Judge Advocate General in front of the Constitutional Affairs Committee, including the suggestion that the panels should be larger, particularly for cases involving more serious offences? He also questioned whether it made sense for the panels to be involved in sentencing.
The right hon. Gentleman raises important issues. One of the advantages of the Select Committee is that so much evidence can be considered and so many weighty issues can be taken into account. That was the correct procedure to use in relation to the Bill, and I hope that the Government will ensure that there is sufficient time to consider this and subsequent parts of the Bill so that the House can fully take into account the breadth of detailed knowledge available on many of these subjects.
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The Bill's bringing together the procedures of the boards of inquiry also makes sense, although, unlike the Select Committee, we believe that they should be conducted in a similar manner to the present one, and that there should be no automatic right for any individual, including next of kin, to attend the inquiry at board level. We would continue with the present arrangements, which have served well the interests of the services, of individuals and of justice.
On the question of issuing contracts for armed forces personnel similar to those for civilians, I have already noted that the position of the armed forces is different. Those who are required to operate in exceptional circumstances need to do so on a basis of contractual law that reflects those operational requirements, but which also reflects the fact that they fall within an augmentation of civil law rather than a substitute for it. Those who put their lives on the line cannot be treated in the same way, in terms of contractual law, as those who stack the shelves of our supermarkets.
An important question that the House must consider relates to the timetable for review of this legislation. It has been the practice to carry out five-yearly renewal of primary legislation relating to the armed forces disciplinary code, with an annual order to keep the matter under constant review. The case has been made that the annual review does not give adequate time for the bedding down and assessment of new arrangements. However, the annual review mechanism gives the House a chance to maintain constant surveillance over what is happening. At a time when domestic and short-term issues often crowd the political agenda, the annual review at least affords the House a regular opportunity to discuss what is happening in relation to service disciplinary procedures, and to introduce further primary legislation if required. Recent cases of primary legislation in response to European Court of Human Rights judgments demonstrate why it is necessary to consider this difficult and ever-changing subject far more frequently than every five years. We hope that this issue will be considered in Committee.
This is an important and complex Bill. Many of its measures depend on a complicated balance of judgments, and we shall consider that balance in detail during the passage of the Bill. We need a system of justice that recognises the unique position of those serving in our armed forces, and that gives them the full confidence to do what they need to do in our name. Reform in this field is justified, but it must not be used as an excuse fundamentally to alter the culture of our armed forces disciplinary codes. The armed forces are different, and they must be treated as such. The link between command and discipline is utterly fundamental. Let us have reform, yes, but let us not put the purists before the pragmatists. As we carry out these reforms, let us keep a sense of proportion and of natural justice, and an understanding of just how much we ourselves owe.
Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op):
I welcome this Bill for the reasons that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence set out. It is evolutionary, not revolutionary, despite some of the earlier comments of the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). It enhances at least to a modest degree the provisions for independence, although not to anything
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like a sufficient degree, a point to which I want to refer later. In many respects, it builds on the qualities to which my right hon. Friend rightly referred as distinguishing leadership in our armed forces. It also harmonises the law in a way that I think that we all agree is essential in a world in which there are so many joint operations, and in which our armed services face great dangers in the many theatres of operations in which they put their lives on the line for us. In some ways, the Bill maintains and enhances the commanding officer's ability to enforce discipline where that proves necessary. Listening to my right hon. Friend, it also brings clarity to the role of, and relationship between, the service and civilian courts, thereby addressing the problem of cases such as that of Trooper Williams where clarity has been lacking and that has gone on to foster angst and antagonism.
For all those reasons, I welcome the fact that we have at last arrived at Second Reading of a Bill that has been a long time in the making. As a new member of the Defence Committee, I do not want to pretend that I can yet begin to offer a well-informed view on all the 375 clauses and 15 schedules. However, I want first to deal with some issues in the later clauses that were raised by the Defence Committee in relation to the importance of independence in the system. Several hon. Members referred to them in interventions. Specifically, I want to deal with proposals about redress for individual grievances in clauses 330 to 333. Secondly, I want to comment on the issue raised by the Defence Committee most recently in its report to the House on 8 December in relation to clause 371 dealing with the duration of legislation and the provisionor lack of it, to which the hon. Member for Woodspring just referredfor annual renewal of legislation by Order in Council.
"proceeds through a service person's commanding officer, through various layers of the command chain, to the Defence Council. In those circumstances the Service Board of the complainant's Service act for the Defence Council . . . These procedures have been found, in practice, to be slow. Service Boards have been overloaded with cases which has led to delay in cases being resolved. The clauses in the Bill are designed to speed up the process."
I welcome the potential offered by clauses 330 to 333 for doing that, because all hon. Members recognise that delay in dealing with individual grievances is one of the most common causes of distress to constituents, not just in relation to complaints in the armed services but to all the many complaints that Members receive in the course of our duties. Those clauses are to be welcomed, especially if, as I understand it, they are to be accompanied by the greater availability of mediation through the welfare services.
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Even with an understanding of the very different culture of the armed services, that seems to be a minimalist and inadequate response to the recommendation of the Defence Committee, repeated in our report to the House of 8 December. We referred to the duty of care report of the previous Defence Committee, which recommended the establishment of an independent complaints commission and set out the general responsibilities and powers that such a commission should have. It should have powers independent of the armed forces, its recommendations should be binding, it should have the power to consider past cases and it should have access rights to all documentation and persons. In their response, the Government stated that they would consider introducing an independent element and the detailed implications of that.
The Bill as introduced to the House provides for the establishment of that service complaints panel, but from the information in the Bill, it appears that the independent element in the complaints system consists only of that single voice on the panel. I hope that that will be reflected on in the scrutiny of the provision in the special Select Committee. Even with an understanding of the very different culture of the armed forces, there is much more scope for bringing an independent voice to such considerations. I hope that my right hon. Friend will reflect on his thinking on the matter and on whether the mechanisms that he will need to put in place for decisions in relation to the independent panel member, even in such a limited, minimalist complaints panel, might turn out to be a sledgehammer to crack a nut. He will have to consider the sort of decision making that will have to be involved, which might become an unnecessary focal point for the continuing concern about the fairness of the grievance procedure.
To some extent, that consideration depends on the numbers and types of complaints that can be expected to be dealt with through such panels. The explanatory notes refer specifically to bullying and harassment as appropriate types of complaints. I wonder how many other types of complaints there will be and whether, if the number is small, the cake will be worth the candle of setting up a process to decide which types of complaint fall into the non-independent category, especially, if it opens up yet another avenue for dispute and delay. It might be simpler just to bite the bullet and ensure that, if there is an independent dimension to the service complaints procedure even to that modest extent, it is at least truly independent.
Certainly, there is no shortage of people with the tools of objectivity and skills in dispute resolution and arbitration. Professional training and accreditation for those who practise in those areas have progressed a great deal in recent years, and the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators and Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution are among a number of good sources. Those are also good sources of knowledge on how a strong framework of mediation can be built into the whole system. Mediation, at its best, is strong, not wishy-washy as
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some people would characterise it. It can add value to any organisation and can mean a win-win outcome achieved more often. If there is the knowledge that there is an automatic independent dimension further down the line for those cases that reach the complaints panels and mediation is worked into the welfare package, that is likely to help to resolve more cases earlier. That is surely desirable. It might head off difficult situations such as those that arose during investigation of the events at Deepcut. We do not want to resolve such cases when they have gone so far down the line. If the clause in its present form is as far as the Government will go, calls for more rather than less are likely to continue. As the hon. Member for Woodspring said, we need a system under which justice is not only done but seen to be done.
Clause 371 provides for a quinquennial review of the legislation. It is silent, as are the explanatory notes, on the current annual renewal of SDAs in intervening years by Order in Council, approved in draft by both Houses. For the reasons given in the Select Committee report, I see no case for dropping the annual renewal. It is a long-standing constitutional convention. Moreover, as a glance at the Hansard record of the annual debates will reveal, it allows for discussion of constituency experience of how the present legislation is working, of Members' experience of the armed services and of their experience of the parliamentary scheme. Matters raised in Defence Committee reports are often brought up during the annual debates, as is progress towards producing legislation. Arguably, after the Bill is passed, it will make even more sense for us to have such an annual opportunity and I do not think that the requirement for delegated legislation is likely to cause much concern to the business managers.
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