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Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) has thought deeply about these matters, and over several years he has contributed to the Select
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Committee along the lines that we have just heard—and he has got it right. I am exceedingly grateful to the members of the Select Committee for the power of the argument that they bring. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), who has also spoken, has been a powerful advocate on the Committee, and I feel very lucky to be the Chairman of a group of people who work so hard on these difficult issues.

It is not an overstatement to say that we have the best armed forces in the world. One of the reasons that is so is that they are not awash with money, and have to think their way through some of the problems that they face. They are also extremely brave and hard-working, highly intelligent and disciplined. They are so disciplined partly because service discipline, which is essential for the success of the armed forces both in peace and in war, is underpinned by the sort of legislation that we have had in this country over many years.

The system of military law is, however, 50 years old. There is nothing wrong with being 50 years old—I am a little older than that myself. None the less, the services are now very different from what they were like when the system of military law was introduced. In particular, they now participate in joint working, joint planning and joint operations, so to have a system of military discipline that is not joint is no longer justifiable.

The Bill brings together the systems across the services, which is wholly to be welcomed. I wish, if I may, to embarrass the ministerial team and the Bill team who have put the Bill together by congratulating them on a profoundly necessary, if possibly overdue, Bill. The amount of work that they have put into it over four years has been immense, and they have come up with a good result.

The Defence Select Committee produced a report last week that built on the report that our predecessor Committee produced earlier. We highlighted two particular issues. We have already heard from two members of the Committee and I hope that at least two   others will catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The first matter that our report highlighted was that of an independent complaints mechanism. The Bill will establish a service complaints panel, which modernises the redress of grievance systems.

Several points have already been made about the Bill's proposals. Although I wish to make one or two pernickety points about the independent complaints mechanism, I do not want to undermine the welcome that I give to the Bill as a whole. Some of the points that have been made about the independence of the tribunal that the Bill will set up bear repeating. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton has asked already why the Secretary of State "may" appoint an independent person to the service complaints panel, rather than "must" appoint. Independence has much value, and the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) articulately encapsulated the arguments for an independent element to the complaints. There is too little detail in the Bill about when the Secretary of State would make a decision about appointing an independent person to the tribunal. We have to rely on the good faith of the Secretary of State. I have no difficulty with that, but it is essential that before the House makes a final decision on the Bill's progress we
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should have much more detail about the regulations that the Secretary of State intends to introduce on when an independent person is appointed.

The whole process does not go far enough. The hon. Lady and the hon. Member for North Durham were right to express their disappointment that we do not have a wholly independent system. A previous Defence Committee called for a proactive body that could, for example, commission research into trends that might cause difficulties for the armed services and then proactively examine those trends. The proposal for a service complaints panel makes no allowance for that to happen.

The previous Committee also raised the issue of retrospection and past cases. We have to face the fact that there are boils to be lanced. The Deepcut boil has not been lanced and will not be lanced by the proposals in the Bill, but it is essential that people have confidence in the reputation of the Ministry of Defence. The hon. Member for North Durham spoke about the need to have confidence in the Ministry of Defence and he pointed out how now that the police had the Independent Police Complaints Commission they were no longer seen as a law unto themselves. The Ministry of Defence is seen that way at the moment. Everybody knows that my view of the decisions on the Mull of Kintyre Chinook crash leads me to believe that the Ministry of Defence is seen to be a law unto itself. There is much to be said for the introduction of a degree of openness and independence, which would build up the Ministry's reputation and self-confidence. The Ministry of Defence would have nothing to lose from that and everything to gain.

Another issue that has been raised by the Defence Committee was that of annual renewal. The quinquennial review will be retained, and that is good, but under the Bill the annual secondary legislation will go. I sense that Ministers are open-minded about that. The Secretary of State for Defence has written to the Committee to say that it is not the sort of ditch in which he would wish to die. I was also delighted by what my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) and the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton said about this issue. An annual consideration of the legislation that underpins the discipline of our armed forces is an essential part of parliamentary scrutiny. The Defence Committee calls on the Minister not to press that change and I hope that he will be able to give us some indication later this evening on that point.

I wish to touch on one or two other issues briefly. The Ministry of Defence does not accept the previous Committee's recommendations about boards of inquiry and, for example, the parents of dead servicemen and women having the right to attend them. The Ministry of Defence says that it is worried that the candour of the evidence could be compromised if a witness sees the deceased person's parents in the room. I understand that argument, but it is one that has to be faced in civilian courts, week in and week out. It does not seem to have a serious impact on the quality of the evidence or the behaviour of the judiciary in civilian courts. Perhaps the parents of dead servicemen or women should not have the right to attend boards of inquiry. I know that tribunals may allow the relations or other people with an interest to attend, and I hope that the possibility is exercised with great humanity. I ask the Minister to put
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himself in the position of a parent whose child has been killed in an accident but who is not allowed to attend the inquiry into the accident.

Mr. Kevan Jones: When the previous Committee took evidence on that point from parents, the problem was not only that they were not allowed to attend. In many cases, they were not notified of the outcome of, or given notes from, the inquiries. If we are to shine the spotlight on the darker crevices of the MOD, it is vital that parents are allowed the dignity of trying to find out what happened to their children.

Mr. Arbuthnot: That is unarguable.

My next and rather different point concerns offences at sea. The Minister may be able to confirm the point when he winds up, but I understand that harmonisation of the disciplinary procedures will lead to a 50 per cent. increase in the number of naval cases being heard by court martial, as opposed to being dealt with summarily. Is that the case, and will it cause difficulties to the armed forces in terms of operational effectiveness? Is it right that the Bill does not cover administrative action, which is the lowest level of disciplinary process? If that is right, is that also to be harmonised across the services?

I have spoken for long enough, but I have a few points about the procedures that the House will follow when examining the Bill. When the Secretary of State opened the debate he said that one of the great strengths of the Bill was its hybrid nature. He was right. The ad hoc Select Committee will be able to take evidence and examine the Bill line by line, for the first time in public. That follows the recommendation of the previous Defence Committee.

It is right that the detailed wording of the Bill should be examined in public. In fact, all legislation should be examined in that way. Committees should be able to take evidence about the legislation on the wording of which they are about to decide. It is not simply a good method of doing business; it should be a role model for the way we do business in the rest of the legislative process.

I very much hope that there will be a good representation of members of the Defence Committee on the ad hoc Select Committee, and I look to the Committee of Selection to achieve that. That will mean that the Select Committee is very strong indeed.

7.21 pm

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