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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Don Touhig): This has been an important debate, with significant contributions. I shall try to answer as many points as I can, but I hope Members will forgive me if I cannot cover every point.

We place an enormous responsibility on the shoulders of our servicemen and women. We ask them to operate in circumstances that are often difficult, unpredictable and dangerous. We ask them to perform tasks that have no parallel in the civilian world. Sometimes they make the ultimate sacrifice. We, and they, demand very high standards of behaviour, whether overseas on operations or training at home. Discipline is essential and service law is essential to enforce it. Ultimately we all want an effective, efficient fighting force. At the heart of discipline in any military unit is the commanding officer, and as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear in his opening remarks, this key role is retained and reinforced in the Bill. There is no doubt we need a separate system of law for the armed forces, and it needs to reflect the increasingly joint nature of their work. The Bill delivers that.

I shall cover as many points raised by colleagues as I can. The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), at the Dispatch Box for the first time in his new role, spoke several times about perception and mentioned the Royal Military Police giving warnings in Basra to our troops there. He said that there is a perception that, in Iraq, they will face investigation if they kill or seriously injure someone in battle. This is an important matter and I want to deal with it clearly.
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As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, our forces operate within the rule of law and have robust rules of engagement. No soldier has ever been prosecuted for killing an enemy in battle. If there is a credible allegation of, say, murder, it is right that the service police carry out an investigation. The Bill offers protection to the accused in that respect as well. He went on to quote the noble Lord in another place who stated, as was mentioned several times this evening, that our forces are under legal siege. I totally reject that. It is important that we get the message across that there have been 80,000 deployments in Iraq since we have been there. As my right hon. Friend said earlier today, there have been 184 investigations and 164 have been concluded. Our forces are not under legal siege at all.

Linda Gilroy: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Touhig: If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I want to cover as many points as possible, although I would normally give way.

The hon. Member for Woodspring pointed out that he agrees that perception is a key problem, and I hope that Conservative Front Benchers will join me and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in debunking the perception that our forces are under "legal siege", because they are not.

The hon. Gentleman suggested opting out of the European convention on human rights, as the French have done. The French reservation is often quoted erroneously, because it no longer impacts significantly on the French military justice system following legislative reforms in 1982 and 1999 that provided for greater involvement by the civilian courts. The French model does not commend itself to us at all.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether serving personnel are at risk of prosecution by the International Criminal Court, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State addressed the matter in his intervention on the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) a few minutes ago. It would not be right to go into further detail on the case of Colonel Mendonca and others associated with that matter, except to say that my right hon. Friend has clarified the situation.

The hon. Member for Woodspring raised his concern about the reviewing authority. Under review, a person who was not present in court and who has heard neither the accused nor the prosecution can quash a conviction or change a sentence that is decided by the judge and the service members of the court martial, so long as he considers the new sentence to be no more severe. That power has no parallel in any other part of the British justice system, and we think it appropriate that it should be changed.

The hon. Gentleman discussed extra risks to soldiers caused by the extension of military jurisdiction to murder and manslaughter in the UK. A civilian jurisdiction already exists in almost all cases. It will still be right for the civilian system to consider other cases, specifically offences in a purely military context for which a military court may be more appropriate.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the number of summary hearings. At the present time, 95 per cent. of military justice matters are dealt with summarily, and we believe that that percentage will not change greatly as a result of the Bill.
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The hon. Gentleman referred to the randomly selected panel. The important point is that members of the panel are selected independently and that those who are too close to a case are excluded.

The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members discussed the five-year review and the annual review. The Government will be happy to take the views of the Defence Committee as we consider the legislation, because it is important that everybody gets a chance to have their say.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) raised a number of matters, including the duration of the service discipline Acts, a matter which we are prepared to consider. She also mentioned annual renewal, and if it is appropriate for the Committee to make representations, we will certainly listen to them.

The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore), who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, expressed concern about the delay in publishing the explanatory notes. I apologise for the delay, which has happened on many occasions to all Governments, which is no excuse, but we felt that the important thing was to concentrate on getting the Bill ready. I am pleased that the explanatory notes were issued a few days after we published the Bill, but I am sorry that they were not available immediately.

The hon. Gentleman and several other hon. Members pointed out that much will be left to regulation, and I understand those concerns, which I have discussed with members of the Defence Committee and others. A great deal of work clearly remains to be done on the regulations, and I have no doubt that hon. Members will press me to provide as much information as possible. The matter is complex, but I understand that when hon. Members are asked to endorse legislation, they want to know exactly what powers they are conferring on the Secretary of State and how the Secretary of State will use them.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether we will produce draft regulations on redress. As I said, we will aim to cover those details in Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) asked about the complaints commission. Some, including the Defence Committee, have expressed the view that complaints from service personnel about bullying and harassment are best dealt with by an independent ombudsman. I can see that that might be superficially attractive, but the fundamental problem is that setting up an alternative source of authority would undermine the chain of command. I believe that it is vital for the ethos and operational effectiveness of our armed forces that the role of the chain of command should be preserved. No doubt we will discuss that in Committee.

My hon. Friend mentioned the independence of service inquiries. In some cases, an independent investigation is vital—for example, in inquests and special independent inquiries. That is another matter that we will consider in Committee.

The right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), who is Chairman of the Defence Committee, welcomed the Bill. I pay tribute to him, his Committee and his predecessors for the pre-legislative scrutiny that they carried out as we prepared the Bill. I thank him for the compliments that he paid to the Bill
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team. Ministers stand up here in the Chamber, but the people on the Bill team do a huge amount of work behind the scenes. I am grateful to them and to the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks.

The right hon. Gentleman made several other points that I will try to deal with. He expressed concern about the 50 per cent. increase in naval courts martial. In setting the limits of commanding officers' powers and jurisdiction, we looked very carefully at which criminal offences naval COs try summarily and asked the Navy which of those should be included in the Bill. Those that they wanted have been retained for naval COs and given to COs of other services. Eight offences are listed in the Bill. We do not think that that will result in a significant increase in courts martial, but the situation will have to be monitored with the progress of time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) raised several matters relating to family concerns. She will fully understand I am not in a position to comment on matters that are still under consideration. She said that everything that the Ministry of Defence does as regards our armed forces should be open to scrutiny. I remind her and other Members that we have five days a year when we debate defence matters in this House, so the opportunities are there to hold Ministers to account.

My hon. Friend asked why the Bill removes the link between imprisonment and dismissal. We think that the current rule is too harsh. If a member of the armed forces is sentenced to imprisonment, he must be dismissed—there is no possibility of looking at extenuating circumstances. In most cases, imprisonment will result in dismissal, but fairness demands that that is not applied rigidly. My hon. Friend asked whether service personnel will retain their rank in prison. The answer is no. In the rare circumstances in which a serviceman is sentenced to prison, he does not retain his rank. The offender will have no rank while in prison. On his release and return to service, he will, having paid his debt, revert to the rank that he held before being in prison. He will of course have lost any seniority that he would have gained during his imprisonment.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of family members attending boards of inquiry, as did the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire. We recognise that in the past we have not always done well in that respect. That is why we have reviewed how best to meet the concerns that have understandably been expressed. Under the new arrangements introduced last year, we endeavour to ensure that the next of kin are much better informed about the progress and outcome of inquiries. I have no doubt that we shall revert to that matter in Committee.

The hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) was generally pleased with the Bill. He raised several matters that I might answer better as we go through our work in Committee but I shall consider carefully his detailed points and, if it is appropriate, I shall write to him. He specifically mentioned annoyance by flying, which clause 35 covers. Clause 35 will be engraved on my gravestone. The Bill sets out all the disciplinary offences and the clause does not provide for a new offence. At the RAF's request, the offence is being retained. Few
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complaints of low flying result in prosecutions but I am sure that, if the hon. Gentleman gets the opportunity to serve on the Committee, he will revert to the matter.

I shall examine the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) and, if appropriate, I shall write to him in detail.

The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) started by saying that the cuts that the Government had imposed on defence were wrong. I am not sure where he gets that information. The Conservative Government's record on defence cuts was shameful. The Government have increased expenditure on defence and we are proud of that. The hon. Gentleman said that he starts out as a sceptic about the measure, and I suspect that he will remain one. Again, he did not help by referring to a blizzard of investigations.

It is important that all we do as a Government is open to scrutiny and criticism in the House but we do the morale of our armed forces no good by suggesting that they are under legal siege or that there is a blizzard of investigations. [Interruption.] I do not care about the source of the comments. I simply stress to colleagues that, if they continue to repeat them without any basis in fact, they do great damage to the morale of our forces.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the standing court martial. I give him the benefit of the doubt—perhaps he was not in the Chamber but seeing his new leader when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to the matter. If he reads Hansard tomorrow, he will realise that his question has been answered.

The hon. Gentleman said that the court martial was inquisitorial rather than adversarial. Frankly, that is nonsense—it is a load of rubbish. In an inquisitorial system, an examining judge asks questions to elicit answers and reaches a view about whether he is satisfied that the case is proved. The court martial is adversarial because there is a defence and a prosecution. Witnesses are called and it is exactly the same as a Crown court.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to civilianising the military system and removing the powers of commanding officers. I cannot understand how he interprets that from the Bill. He should examine it more closely. Perhaps because of our failure to get the explanatory notes out early, he may need to devote more time to reading it. I suggest that he does that—he will learn a great deal more as a result.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) raised many issues. He mentioned the Bermuda Regiment. When on duty, it is part of the British forces. I note his point about the appointment of the Governor of Bermuda being in the gift of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. I will mention my hon. Friend's interest and, when there is next a vacancy, perhaps he will be considered for it.

The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) made several points. I shall write to him should that be appropriate. Specific reference was made to the Judge Advocate General's views. I have a letter from the Judge Advocate General in which he welcomes the Bill and is pleased to give it public support.

The current military justice system is effective but needs to be brought up to date. Just as training, equipment and operations have been updated since the cold war, we need to modernise the legal system that
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personnel use at home and carry with them in operations. The Bill is an historic measure that fulfils a promise that we made in the armed forces strategic defence review. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill read the Second time.

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