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Mr. Brazier: The second case relates to Corporal Clegg. The hon. Lady appears not to take account of the fact that, from time to time, it is the soldier's job to kill people. The court ruled in that casethis was eventually quashed a long time later by a second appealthat in a split-second decision he had wrongfully killed someone. That does not impinge on his integrity.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. Of course, we are discussing the armed forces, but similar things can be said about the police. In no way do I underestimate the split-second decisions that soldiers must make. Nevertheless, on one hand some of the families whose children have died in the armed forces see action that is veiled in secrecythey cannot get answers about their children from the Armyand on the other they see the Army defending soldiers in circumstances where they may have doubts about the action that was taken. I am not making any remark about the particulars of individual cases; I am simply drawing to the attention of the House the
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concerns of families about what might be seen as two rulesone for them and one for other peopleand we must have accountability, consistency, fairness and openness in all those decisions.
Mr. Kevan Jones: Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a big difference between actions on the battlefield or, for example, in Northern Ireland, and the actions of individuals who are in charge of soldiers that relate to bullying that subsequently, in some very tragic cases, leads to those individuals taking their own lives?
Mrs. Humble: My hon. Friend is right, but I should like to ask the Minister whether, if the Bill is passed, a soldier convicted of the abuse of power, of bullying, of rape or of murder will no longer be subject to automatic discharge. Will they maintain their rank and position in the armed services throughout their prison sentence? If that is the case, it would certainly cause a lot of concern to many of the families whose children have diedoften, they believe, as a result of bullying in the armed forces.
The purpose of the Bill is to update and streamline legislation. It must therefore be fair and it must offer transparency. Without that, the good work that so many of our soldiers do could be undermined. I regularly meet current and former members of the King's Own Royal Border Regiment and the Queen's Lancashire Regiment. Some time ago, I met representatives of the Royal Green Jackets, who are based not too far from Blackpool, and they told me about the excellent work that they had done as peacekeepers in Sierra Leone.
I know of the very good work that is undertaken, but the Bill is an opportunity to reassure military personnel, their families and the general public that, when things go wrong, they will be investigated. Usually, things go right. Members of Parliament do not get people queuing up at our advice surgeries to tell us that everything is going swimmingly; they queue up to tell us when things go wrong. Our responsibility is to ensure that we have an appropriate response when things go wrong. The Bill is our opportunity to do that, so I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will reconsider the Defence Committee's reports on independent oversight, because that will give many of the reassurances that many families need.
Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con):
I congratulate the Secretary of State on winning the game of musical chairs that has been running for about 20 years. He is the final Secretary of State to sit on the chair when all his predecessors have been denied one. It falls to him to win the elusive prize of achieving a tri-service Act. That is purple prose in any language. I also congratulate the Bill team at the Ministry of Defence and the parliamentary draftsmen and Treasury counsel on what has been a mammoth operation. With previous Armed Forces Bills, we have heard some quite extraordinary reasonsor should I say excuses?wheeled out about why progress has not been made. That has never been the fault of the Ministry of Defence, which has always seen the merit of updating service law. So I am absolutely delighted that the Bill has appeared before the House, and I warmly support it.
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I also support the legislative process that we are about to use. I believe strongly in the value of pre-legislative scrutiny, for the reasons that Members on both sides of the House have already mentioned. I have argued for 15 years that we should use such a process for other legislation because it has enormous advantages, not least because it empowers the citizens of this country to have a direct input in the way in which policy making becomes law. That must be good for democracy, and it might even encourage people to vote.
There is no part of my constituency that is not directed affected by the Ministry of Defence and the military and civilian people whom it employs. It contains Land Command, Larkhill, Bulford, Porton Down, Winterbourne Gunner, Boscombe Down, Salisbury plain training area, Westdown camp and Rollestone camp. There are low-flying zones and artillery ranges, and more than 11,000 Ministry of Defence employees. The Bill is thus important to many of my constituents.
if that is all that can be achievedto inform our scrutiny of the Bill. We are told throughout the Bill that the Secretary of State will make regulations on almost all matters of detail. We need sight of such regulations, and so do the public.
I also endorse what every person who has mentioned the matter has said so far: there is a need for annual review of service discipline legislation. I understand Ministers being persuadedprobably by the Treasurythat it would save a bob or two if we did not need to have this performance. I can understand the Whips Office saying, "You don't really need yet more legislation, do you? Surely once every five years will do." I hope that Defence Ministers will be able to win the day because I suspect that the idea did not come from them. After all, the House of Commons has reviewed the matter every year since 1689. Parliament should not yield willingly such an important check on the power of the Executive.
Mr. Gerald Howarth: May I reinforce the point that my hon. Friend is making? Under the Bill of Rights 1689, no standing Army may be maintained without the authority of Parliament. Is it not the case that this is the modern procedure by which the Bill of Rights is respected by the House, and that removing the provision would thus have serious constitutional implications?
John Reid: I agree entirely with the principle under the Bill of Rights that every Parliament should reauthorise that the standing Army should be maintained. That is why we have agreed that there should be a Bill each Parliament. The question is whether we need to legislate every year. The hon. Gentleman is half right because the suggestion did not originate in the Ministry of Defence, but he was wrong to say that it was the responsibility of the Treasury or the Whips Office.
Like the Secretary of State, I served on each of the previous two Armed Forces Bills. He will recall that those Bills turned out to be Christmas-tree Bills, not only because their Second Readings occurred just before Christmas, but because the original Bill became festooned with more and more decorations. I thus wish to ask Defence Ministers to explain several aspects of the Christmas-tree nature of this Bill.
Clause 35 is titled "Annoyance by flying". The military has to undertake low flying and MPs have to be sympathetic about the situation in their constituencies each year. However, neither the clause nor the explanatory notes gives anything like a convincing reason why we need to put yet another obstacle in the way of military pilots. The clause says that it is an offence if a person subject to service law flies an aircraft so as to annoy or be likely to annoy anyone, unless he can reasonably avoid flying in such a way. Come on, Mr. Deputy Speakeris this a military matter, or is it not? We are talking about not recreational flying from grass strips, but fast jets, Chinooks and other kinds of aircraft and helicopters that are on military business. If I am fortunate enough to be chosen to serve on the Committee that considers the Bill, I shall be pressing Ministers for an answer to why we need clause 35.
Clause 42 is entitled "Criminal conduct". The Secretary of State touched on an important matter in his opening comments. It is important for people to realise that the Bill does not address torture or any other criminal offence that is not necessarily a military offence. Clause 42 points out that anything that is a criminal offence in British law is an offence if it is carried out by members of HM forces, wherever they are in the worldthat is my understanding of the clause, but perhaps the Minister will clarify that. That is important because it means that wherever in the world British service personnel are, they will always occupy the moral high ground when it comes to making decisions of life or death. It will also apply to the behaviour of members of HM forces, whether they are in Ayia Napa or elsewhere in Cyprus. We did not cover ourselves in glory in Cyprus 40 or 50 years ago and did not always occupy the moral high ground. I do not think that we did that with internment in Northern Ireland, or that the Americans have done so in Guantanamo Bay. We want to maintain the honour, courage and bravery of Her Majesty's forces and their personnel.
Clause 51 relates to the jurisdiction of the service civilian court. It is important because many people do not realise that the Bill applies to civilians who are subject to service discipline. Indeed, it can apply to the children of serving personnel overseas. It applies to contractors and service families, so the jurisdiction of
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the service civilian court is important. I will want to probe in Committee to find out exactly how the situation changes under the Bill.
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