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Mr. Howarth: Indeed, Madam Deputy Speaker. It was for the further elucidation of the House that I was seeking an undertaking from the Minister that he will provide us with some indication of what those costs might be. However, I have nothing further to add to the questions I have posed.
Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): I welcome both the motion and the words of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence about the importance of the issue to which it relates.
The well-being of members of our armed forces is absolutely vital. They undertake a hugely important task in countries across the world, and we need to ensure that their well-being is properly safeguarded.
The Armed Forces Bill, to which the motion relates, will give us all a valuable opportunity to address the vital issue of accountability and to ensure that when, sadly, deaths occur in the armed forces, they can be properly investigated. The Deepcut and Beyond families group will be looking for answers about the deaths of their children, and I hope that the money resolution will result in the setting up of an independent scrutiny body.I hear the Minister's remarks about his views on the possibility of an ombudsman, but I hope that he will listen to the voices of parents and families and take them into account.
John Bercow: The hon. Lady's speech follows that of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who was sounding dangerously like a consensus politician a moment ago. The hon. Lady is obviously sympathetic to the establishment of an independent body. Has she any idea, in ball-park terms, of the capital and running costs that might be envisaged?
Mrs. Humble: There are such bodies in other countries. Canada has an independent ombudsman, and Germany and Australia are looking into the idea. There would be opportunities for the Ministry of Defence to look at the expenses in other countries. The important thing is to get this right. We have an opportunity once every five years to consider the armed forces and, in this Bill, issues relating to the operation of courts martial and inquiries. Our armed forces need the best possible focus for such things.
On the sad occasions when something goes wrong, that needs proper investigation. I welcome the money resolution, and the fact that members of the Select Committee on Defence will have the opportunity to examine a vital issue in more detail. When it comes back to the Floor of the House, other Members, too, can engage in that important debate.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD):
This is a very narrow debate. I welcome the money resolution, as it will enable the Committee to use evidence from other countries to find out how such a proposal could be implemented in this country if that was the will of Parliament. However, it would be inappropriate for any member of the Committee to prejudge and pass personal comment before we have heard the evidence. Having served on the Committee, I am aware how important it is to maintain the ethos and the culture of the three armed forces alongside the need to harmonise the disciplinary procedures, but the money resolution will enable the Committee to widen the debate to find out whether other measures could assist Her Majesty's armed forces with those procedures. If the evidence that we find suggests that that is the way forward, so be itbut equally, if the evidence states that it would not be beneficial, we should not proceed. It would be inappropriate for any member of the Committee to pass judgment before the evidence has been heard.
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Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I too welcome the money resolution, which will give the Committee the opportunity to discuss the very important issue that has just been highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble). Having dealt with the Ministry of Defence over the past five years as a member of the Defence Committee, I find what the Minister refers to as constructive engagement rather strange; usually we just get a "No" from the MODso I thank him for proposing the money resolution.
I am rather saddened by the comments of the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who clearly seems to have prejudged any debate that might take place in Committee. I thought that these days, he was a new Conservative, looking for consensus on issues about which people are clearly concerned in the wider community.
Any such ombudsman or commission needs a narrow remit. It need not be a large organisation that will cost millions of pounds. We must remember that this is not the first time that such a recommendation has been made. The Defence Committee called for something similar in its report on the duty of care during the last Parliament. The independent review of armed forces manpower and career remunerationthe Bett reportrecommended extending the terms of reference of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration to allow the ombudsman to deal with complaints from service personnel about administration issues. That is important, and I hope that hon. Members will not say that such a proposal threatens the armed forces. Frankly, I think that it will help them to try to repair the damage to their reputation that has clearly been inflicted by some of the press coverage over the past few years.
Mr. Touhig: With permission, I should like to comment on the remarks that have been made today. I have already said that this is an unusual procedure. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) asks how much the procedures that the money resolution will allow the Committee to consider would cost. We have not calculated any of the costs at this time, but as a guide it might be helpful to know that, although on a rather larger scale, the annual operating cost of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland is about £70 million.
The hon. Gentleman spoke of the consensual way in which we have approached the Bill in Committee. I commend all members of the Committee for their work. He also mentioned that he might get another letter from me. When the Bill is finished with, my goodness me, I do not know what I will dobut I will not be writing any more letters to the hon. Gentleman. It will be gap in my lifeand, no doubt, a gap in hisbut I am sure that we will find other things on which to have exchanges.
Of course, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) says, the Bill addresses issues of accountability, but I am not tempted down the road that she suggests at the moment, because that is a matter for the Committee to debate. However, I am glad that she welcomes the provision that the money resolution will allow, and I share the view of the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) that we must await the debate in Committee.
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My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), too, welcomed the money resolution. I make it clear to him that, as I said in my opening remarks, the Government are not persuaded of the need for an ombudsman or anything similar, but we are convinced of the need for a debate, and the money resolution will allow us to have that debate.
John Bercow: A number of references have been made to the special Committee, and within the space of a few minutes it has already become clear that in the Chamber are senior, important, very respected, influential and busy people who probably have many commitments and full diaries, who are sitting on that important Committee. I confess that I am not one of them; I was not asked. However, I am uncomfortable about the idea of a cosy private correspondence between the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), so I simply ask the Minister whether he will allow other Members to be party to those exchanges. Can we have a copy of all such correspondence between him and my hon. Friend placed in the Library?
Mr. Touhig: We would need to extend the Library. However, I will ensure that my correspondence with the hon. Member for Aldershot is copied to members of the Committee, and I am sure that it can be made available to anyone else who needs it.
The Government are responding to a formal request from the Chairman of the Select Committee to which the Armed Forces Bill has been committed to facilitate deliberations on one aspect of the Billthe redress of complaints process. We are happy to do that, because we think that it is an important Bill for our armed forces and we are keen to have the debate on this issue. The Select Committee is appointed solely for the task of examining
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the Bill, and this approach has been used for considering successive Armed Forces Bills since 1955. We are engaged in that process now, and I trust the House will feel that there is merit in the resolution. I again commend it to the House, so that we can have the debate in Committee.
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