Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Does the hon. Lady have any idea who is asking for the annual review to be dropped?

Linda Gilroy: As I said a moment ago, the explanatory notes are silent on that. Perhaps when he sums up, my hon. Friend the Minister will give us some indication of how strongly the Government feel about a matter that I am sure will be closely scrutinised by the special Select Committee. Perhaps at that stage some arguments will be advanced in its favour or perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to tell us tonight that the Government have an open mind and may table a modest amendment at either the Select or Standing Committee stage.

Along with my colleagues on the Defence Committee, I shall follow closely the progress of this long-awaited and very important Bill.

6.33 pm

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), both because of the issues that she raised, to some of which I shall return, and because of her work on the Defence Committee. The Committee's work is very important to the quality of our debate. The right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) is present and he may wish to speak later.
12 Dec 2005 : Column 1154

Let me also belatedly congratulate the new shadow Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). As ever, he has brought his energy and intellectual sharpness to the debate and I look forward to what will happen over the next few months. At the very least, he maintains the Scottish stranglehold on the defence portfolio on both sides of the House. I apologise for having missed his debut last week when he responded to a statement on a very serious matter, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) responded on behalf of my party. It was a reminder to all of us of the seriousness of the context in which today's debate takes place.

All of us rightly pay tribute to the professionalism, dedication and bravery of our armed forces time and again. As was pointed out earlier, as we debate in the safety of the Chamber, they put their lives at risk in many parts of the world. We must never forget that.

The importance of the Bill is obvious from the difficult demands placed on servicemen and women day in, day out. The Secretary of State highlighted that when he spoke of the terrible growth in asymmetric warfare in recent years and the difficulties involved in dealing with enemies and others who do not operate according to the value systems and rules that we observe and expect others to observe. Recent court cases have drawn attention to issues that have been raised here today. I am sure that they will bring some of the Bill's proposals into sharp relief and make our scrutiny all the closer.

Proper service discipline is fundamental to our operational effectiveness and it is fundamental to our role in the world that our armed forces operate within the law and not above it. In considering appropriate legislation for the armed forces, we must try to balance complex and sometimes competing priorities. As others have said, the Bill represents a significant overhaul and modernisation of service legislation and we broadly support it. Given the changing nature of warfare and peacekeeping, which demand interoperability and joint operations, it makes sense to consolidate the Service Discipline Acts and to harmonise legislation with civilian justice where that is appropriate. We support the objective of ensuring consistency and fairness across all the services.

Today marks the start of the long process of passing the new legislation, but the process of scrutiny has been under way for some time. The House is indebted to the work of the Defence Committee, whose first report of the Session on the Bill draws the House's attention to key issues to which I, like others, will return. The Committee's work builds on that of its predecessor in the last Parliament, whose report on the Tri-Service Armed Forces Bill and duty of care report have made invaluable contributions to our considerations. The same can be said of the report from the Constitutional Affairs Committee, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), which was published today. We should also express our gratitude to the Library for its rapidly produced briefing paper, which is important to our debate today and to the detailed consideration that will follow.

The one disappointment—here I echo the hon. Member for Woodspring—is the delay in the publication of the official explanatory notes. I join others in paying tribute to the quality and hard work of those responsible for that complex task, but
12 Dec 2005 : Column 1155
parliamentary scrutiny is not assisted when explanatory notes are not available for several days after the publication of a Bill.

The unique status and importance of the Armed Forces Bill is reflected in the special procedures allowing its consideration by a Select Committee. The details of the timing and the balance between the Select and Standing Committee aspects are still to be established, but we support the broad thrust of what has been said about the time that will be available between now and the end of April. A single day for recommittal to the whole House for the Committee stage and Third Reading seems barely adequate, but on balance we support the programme motion.

Let me turn to the proposals in the Bill. As past White Papers and recent experience show, joint operations are an increasingly common feature of service life. Training for such missions, and the operations themselves, throw up critical issues. Commanding officers do not have disciplinary powers over all whom they command, and naval commanding officers in particular enjoy different powers from those of their Army and Air Force counterparts. That is unacceptable in this day and age and clearly needs to be changed. We welcome the proposals that have been put forward to do so. The existence of separate Service Discipline Acts makes the use, interpretation and amendment of legislation more complicated than it need be and perpetuates inconsistencies. In that context, harmonisation makes sense.

The Bill is intended to equalise the scope of offences that can be heard summarily by commanding officers and the sentences that can be imposed. At the same time, the CO's ability to dismiss charges for offences for which he or she has no summary powers is to be taken away and investigative responsibility is to be handed to the police, independent of the chain of command. Those are large changes, already the subject of much discussion and debate this afternoon, but we believe that they are right and proper. Like others, however, we will want to look carefully into the detail.

We need to ensure that the operational effectiveness of commanding officers is not compromised by the changes to their roles. As others have highlighted, they will require appropriate training in due course. On a broader plain, we must not overburden any of our armed forces with legal constraints that undermine their ability or confidence to take appropriate action, not least in hostile circumstances in which lives are at risk. However, we also have a duty to those same armed forces to ensure that they are treated in a manner consistent with domestic and international law and a wider duty to observe our international obligations and equip the services with the procedures and disciplines that ensure that they can carry them out. The detail of the Bill will be considered in Committee so that it can be assessed against those tests, but we support its underlying principles in that respect.

The report of the Constitutional Affairs Committee, following evidence from the Judge Advocate General, raises a number of important issues for the House to consider in respect of the administration of justice, which changes significantly under the Bill. It highlights the military court service—currently run by the Ministry of Defence, but recommended to be brought under and resourced by the Department for Constitutional Affairs.
12 Dec 2005 : Column 1156
The appropriate type of court martial should be chosen, it is argued, by judge advocates, not by the prosecution. Another issue, already debated this afternoon, is for more serious offences to be put through the court martial, which surely creates a strong argument for larger panels, not least for offences punishable by imprisonment of 14 years or more. The Secretary of State's willingness to revisit that issue should be welcomed on both sides of the House. These are serious matters that require close scrutiny and we will listen carefully to the Government's response.

The Judge Advocate General also made observations about the length of time that trials take. In his evidence to the Select Committee, he specifically raised his concern that

He recognised that specific issues and unique circumstances affect the timing and length of inquiries, but he identified at least one area that could be improved—the quality of the papers and evidence supplied by investigators to the prosecuting authority. That is partly about procedure and expertise and partly about resources. The Bill should provide us with the opportunity to examine those matters in more detail, but we will surely also have to examine the way in which resources are allocated within the armed forces justice system to ensure that investigations are carried out appropriately and in good time. The Minister of State's written statement last week on the recent 3 Para trial was welcome.

Deepcut, in particular, and bullying and harassment more widely in the armed forces have become a growing cause of concern for us all. In our most recent debate on "Defence in the UK", that was an important area of focus. The latest available Army "Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey" to April this year is striking in that regard. As I mentioned in that debate, one key set of findings highlighted that 25 per cent. of soldiers had cause to complain about unfair treatment, discrimination, harassment and/or bullying—and more than half of them were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the objectivity and fairness with which the complaint was handled. If ever there were a time to reform the system of redress and grievances, it is now.

The Bill takes steps in the right direction with the creation of the service complaints panel and other measures, but as the Defence Committee stated in its new report—and as highlighted by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton—the proposals fall some way short of the independent complaints authority that the Defence Committee's predecessor Committee advocated in the "Duty of Care" report in the last Parliament. It specifically recommended that the commission should have independence from the armed forces and the MOD, power to look into past cases, access to all papers and relevant people and that its recommendations should be binding. Those tests are not met by the Bill as it stands. Much will depend on the secondary legislation to define what exactly a "service complaint" is and to clarify the time limits and the circumstances under which an independent member of the panel will be appointed.

The new Committee's report argues that

12 Dec 2005 : Column 1157

The Government must, at the very least, publish the draft regulations that will govern this aspect of the Bill. Otherwise, I hope that we will all want to amend the legislation in Committee.

Having set out some specific areas of concern about the Bill, which we will hope to explore further in Committee, I want finally to raise a couple of issues that relate to our role as legislators in this place and Parliament's duties to scrutinise the Executive. The Bill runs to more than 240 pages with 375 clauses and 15 schedules. Notwithstanding its bulk, much detail is absent from the provisions—on the service complaints panel, for example. That leaves us having to take a great deal on trust. Beyond that, there is perhaps a more fundamental issue.

This legislation, as the Select Committee points out, will no longer be subjected to annual renewal or the appropriate consideration by Parliament that goes with it. That represents a major change in the powers of the House and one that we do not believe is right. For centuries, Parliament has placed limits on the Executive's rights in regarding the Army and other armed forces in respect of total numbers and the expenditure that goes with it. We appreciate that, these days, the debate often centres on whether or not we have enough soldiers, but the notion of placing limits on the Executive is still extremely important. In this of all eras, the principle of accountability has surely not become an anachronism.

Other than administrative convenience, the change seems to offer no advantage and there are no new safeguards to give effect to the principles of parliamentary scrutiny and accountability. We will listen carefully to the Minister's response in the wind-up, but hope that the proposal will be rethought in Committee and annual renewal reinstated.

We demand much of the military personnel who serve this country, face dangers that we can barely understand and take risks with their lives that we can hardly imagine. We have a vast duty of care towards them, which, as a minimum, requires that the service discipline and laws under which they operate are clear and take account of the extraordinary things expected of them. The Bill is the starting point for that process. While there is much in the detail that we will want to scrutinise further and amend in Committee, we support its aims and will support its passage in the House tonight.

6.49 pm

Next Section IndexHome Page