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Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, I rise to thank all those who have taken part in today's debate. We have gone well beyond our 7 o'clock deadline, and I am afraid that I may have contributed to that in opening the debate. The speeches have been enjoyable and interesting, and all noble Lords have contributed significant points which have added to the work of the committee.
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I thank in particular the Minister for his contribution, the tone of which, perhaps I may say, was a little more inclined towards our way of thinking than that reflected in what has been written. I shall read his words carefully because I was particularly glad to hear that a working party is to be set up to look
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at the value of some of these programmes. He has made many other suggestions which appear to be extremely useful and progressive in this important area of public policy.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Thursday, 7 July 2005.

Grand Committee

The Committee met at two of the clock

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (BARONESS RAMSAY OF CARTVALE) in the Chair.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale): Before the Minister moves that the first order be considered, it may be helpful to say a few words about the procedure for today's Grand Committee. Our proceedings are essentially the same as those of the House. Noble Lords will speak standing. All noble Lords are free to attend and participate and the proceeding will be reported in Hansard. As there is more than one item of business today, each item will be called on by the Clerk. In the case of each order, the Motion before the Committee will be "That the Committee do report that it has considered" the order in question. In the case of orders which have been spoken to, this Motion will be abbreviated, which I hope the Committee will find helpful.

I should perhaps make it clear to noble Lords that the Committee is charged only to consider orders, not to approve or not approve them. The Motion to approve will be moved in the Chamber in the usual way.

Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts (Continuation) Order 2005

2.1 pm

Baroness Crawley rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts (Continuation) Order 2005.

The noble Baroness said: I should like to say a few words in support of the order. As many in this Committee will know, most years Parliament is asked to consider such an order as part of the process by which the service discipline Acts are kept in force. The main element of that process is the five-yearly Armed Forces Act. The most recent of those—the Armed Forces Act 2001—extended the provisions of the Army Act 1955, the Air Force Act 1955 and the Naval Discipline Act 1957 by a further five years. But that extension was subject to both Houses approving an order, such as the one before us, in each intervening year.

To coin a phrase, the service discipline Acts do exactly what it says on the tin: they provide the statutory basis for discipline in our Armed Forces. The order before us is critical to ensuring that those Acts remain in force. Without it, the legislation would expire on 31 August. The approval of Parliament, expressed in part through our consideration of the
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order today, is therefore vitally important in making sure that the provisions of the service discipline Acts continue for a further 12 months.

Before I move on, I should like to make one more observation about the order. The Government have given an undertaking that Ministers moving instruments subject to the affirmative procedure will tell the House whether they are satisfied that the legislation is compatible with the rights provided in the European Convention on Human Rights. The order we are considering today is a brief document that raises convention issues only in that it maintains in force three Acts that, as they have been amended over the years, reflect convention rights.

I want to say a few words about our plans to replace the service discipline Acts with a single Armed Forces Bill, which will replace the three separate systems of naval, army and air force law that exist at present. In their place, the Government will provide a single modern system of service law that will better support the Armed Forces in the joint environment in which they train and operate more frequently nowadays. This single system of service law will be underpinned by unified institutions that will deal with courts martial administration and prosecution.

In the past, these debates have provided a good chance to keep noble Lords informed of developments as details of the main proposals in the Armed Forces Bill become available. Our debate today provides another welcome opportunity, and I should now like to say a little more about our plans. In doing so, I apologise in advance for the use—some might say overuse—of two words, "modernise" and "harmonise". Those two words serve very well to describe the approach we have taken in the work that will lead us to the Armed Forces Bill. It is a system for the future, informed by our experience and the changing nature of operations.

I should say, first, that we believe strongly in the need for a separate system of service law that is fair, consistent and expeditious. There is no reason to fear that a system which is compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights impacts adversely on operational effectiveness. Our record on ensuring that it is compliant is clear. Equally clear is the outstanding performance of our Armed Forces operationally, in the most testing circumstances.

The need for the Armed Forces Bill derives from recognition of the importance of a better disciplinary framework in the many situations in which our services work together. Operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans and elsewhere have demonstrated the professional, disciplined approach of our Armed Forces. We must ensure that changes to service discipline continue to support that operational effectiveness.

The main provisions that we shall introduce in the Bill will be a summary discipline system with a harmonised range of offences capable of being dealt with by commanding officers; harmonised powers of summary punishment; a harmonised court martial system, including the establishment of a joint prosecuting authority; a modern and streamlined grievance procedure for members of the Armed Forces; a harmonised system of
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service inquiries; and provisions to continue the application of service law to accompanying civilians overseas.

In conclusion, let me say that the Government and the Armed Forces attach considerable importance to this Bill. It is expected to be large and, in part, complex. I know that my noble friend Lord Drayson very much looks forward to debating the Bill in this House after it has been introduced towards the end of the year, and I know that he hopes to engage with noble Lords in the period leading up to the Bill's introduction. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts (Continuation) Order 2005.—(Baroness Crawley.)

Lord Astor of Hever: I thank the noble Baroness for explaining the order to renew for a further year the obsolescent legal framework in which our men and women serve. We know that it is obsolescent; the Government have said so. We know that it is due to be replaced; they have said that too, and the noble Baroness has confirmed it, with the promise of a tri-service discipline Bill to be introduced later in this Session.

The Defence Committee in another place published, in the dying days of the last Parliament, a carefully considered and thoroughly well-documented report on matters that this important Bill should address and on how the parliamentary proceedings on this Bill could most usefully be conducted. Those suggestions included making time available to look at draft clauses in advance of the full text; also for as wide a consultation as possible. I venture to suggest that Members of this House and those of another place are very much among those who should be consulted. The Commons Defence Committee suggests that draft clauses would be a very good way to do that.

Perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness what are the Government's proposals for handling the successor legislation to the measure we are now debating. Why, after all these years of preparation, 10 or more, are there still no draft clauses available, only weeks before the full text is to be introduced? The noble Baroness apologised for the use of the words "modernise" and "harmonise". To some extent she explained them. I think that we will want to come back to those issues later in the year. She said that the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, was looking forward to debating the Bill later this year. I also very much look forward to debating it and to improving it wherever possible.

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