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Defence

Volume 114: debated on Wednesday 8 April 1987

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

11.40 pm

I beg to move,

That the draft International Headquarters and Defence Organisations (Designations and Privileges) (Amendment) Order 1987, which was laid before this House on 12th March, be approved.

With this it will be convenient to take the following motion :

That the draft Visiting Forces and International Headquarters (Application of Law) (Amendment) Order 1987, which was laid before this House on 12th March, be approved.

The two draft orders are complimentary.

Headquarters United Kingdom Air was first established as a NATO major subordinate command in 1975 and since then has been manned by personnel from the Headquarters Royal Air Force Strike Command. It has now been decided to bring this headquarters into line with other NATO major subordinate commands by establishing a small international staff to integrate the command more closely with NATO which has agreed to provide funding for this measure. We are also taking the opportunity to designate the Commander Submarines, Eastern Atlantic as an international headquarters following the granting of international status by the NATO Defence Planning Council in 1982.

The International Headquarters and Defence Organisations (Designation and Privileges) Order 1965 designated the headquarters of the three major NATO commanders and three subordinate NATO commanders and also the NATO Channel Committee at Northwood and conferred on them such capacities, immunities and privileges as are needed to achieve their efficient organisation and operation. The effect of the first draft order is to add Headquarters United Kingdom Air and the Commander Submarines, Eastern Atlantic to the list of subordinate headquarters covered by the 1965 order.

The second draft order similarly amends the Visiting Forces and International Headquarters (Application of Law) Order 1965. This order was made under section 8 of the Visiting Forces Act 1952, which provides for the application to visiting forces of law relating to home forces.

11.43 pm

We welcome the fact that CINCUKAIR and COMSUBEASTLANT are to become international headquarters. Our air and submarine forces play a vital role in NATO's collective defence. Therefore, it is sensible that representatives from the armed forces of our allies should be constantly available and we welcome the installation of a small international staff at these places.

Of particular importance to NATO is CINCUKAIR because one of Britain's most important roles in war would be as a staging post for the reinforcement of Europe. Air defences are absolutely critical if allied defence plans are to have any credibility, yet according to senior RAF officers our air defences are in peril. We rely on 30-year-old Lightnings which leak and 30-year-old Shackletons with no adequate radar and not enough pilots. By making CINCUKAIR an international command headquarters we will give our allies every opportunity to voice their concern about the lamentable state of our conventional air defences, and then perhaps the Government will do something about it.

I have one question to ask about CONSUBEASTLANT. Will the command remain at Northwood, which is already an international headquarters? If it is to stay there, why is there a need for the change?

I should like to move to the amendment order for the Visiting Forces Act 1952 so that it may apply to the two new international headquarters. Since that Act came into effect in 1952, we have had a number of reservations about it. Indeed, on Second Reading, Mr. Eric Fletcher, the former Labour Member for Islington, East, said :
"This Bill … removes from the jurisdiction of the courts of this country a very large number of people … There has not been anything like that in this country since the Middle Ages … when there was a certain Papal jurisdiction which could defeat the claims of the English common law courts." —[Official Report, 17 October 1952; Vol. 505, c. 586.]
It looks as though the Visiting Forces Act is taking over the role of the medieval papacy. Therefore, I have a number of questions to put to the Minister.

Can the Minister assure us that, despite the internationalisation of these establishments, they will at all times be guarded by British service personnel? Can the Minister assure us that any foreign service personnel working at these two establishments who break British law will be brought to justice and that they will be kept in the United Kingdom pending investigations of any allegations against them and not flown quickly home to avoid investigations, perhaps resulting in injustice to British citizens? Will civilians in the United Kingdom have recourse to the law on compensation if they are the victims of motor or other accidents involving foreign service men from these two establishments?

These two orders, although small and technical, are important. We welcome the fact that these headquarters will be part of an internationally recognised headquarters and that international staff will be there. The Labour party regards Britains contribution to NATO as the most important part that we play in having an effective defence for our country.

The Visiting Forces Act will be a continuous source of embarrassment to successive Governments until something is done to satisfy public worry about the effects of the apparent exemption of visiting forces from the ordinary course of the law. That is a problem. We realise that the Visiting Forces Act had the best of intentions, but to give every member of visiting forces the equivalent status of a foreign diplomat or ambassador seems somewhat overgenerous in the circumstances. There is a need for this matter to be properly considered again by the House.

11.46 pm

We welcome the integration of NATO commands which is evident in the two orders. When I hear the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) waxing eloquent about Labour's commitment to NATO, my mind goes quickly back to that recent Washington visit and the attempt to explain how NATO could continue with no American nuclear forces as part of our strategic deterrent. But, thankfully, that issue goes wider than these two orders.

What has happened to the great Liberal tradition of democracy when majorities at party conferences are overturned on the whims of leadership on exactly that same principle?

I am glad to say that the majority at every Liberal conference I have ever attended, which has been all of them in recent years, have supported the maintenance of NATO's strategic nuclear deterrent on British soil. As long as the deterrent is necessary, they will continue to do so.

I share with the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North concern about aspects of the Visiting Forces Act. They have been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) as well. I have one point to put to the Minister which should be fresh in his mind. He will have been looking at the Act because these orders extend its application. Why do not the relevant Government Departments—in part the Home Office and not just the Ministry of Defence — collect and retain information about how the Act operates in practice? My hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil pointed out that it was necessary to obtain from readily available information in the United States the details that
"420 members of the United States air force had infringed British law in relation to drug abuse and that 388 of them had been removed from the jurisdiction of the British courts". —[Official Report, 20 March 1986; Vol. 94, c. 402.]
We all know that there has been a serious problem in the American forces and the American authorities are doing their best to deal with it. It is not intended as a criticism to raise the matter in that way. The concern is that the information is simply not being collected. This gives the impression that British Government Departments do not know how serious the problem is, do not know how much it is impinging on British life in the areas concerned, do not therefore know whether the problem is properly controlled, and do not, of course, know the extent of punishment of those service men.

I should like the Minister to say whether, in the light of these extensions, he is doing something about the obvious gap in the information that Government Departments ought to hold.

11.50 pm

I wish to say something on the subject referred to by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith).

Last Friday I attended a political meeting in Dumbarton. There was much concern, as the hon. Gentleman has suggested, about the relationship between service men and a drug problem. I shall not exaggerate; I do not believe that it is widespread, but it is there, and we require a statement on the policy of the Ministry of Defence.

Part of the debate relates to the efficient organisation of COMSUBEASTLANT. On 27 January, I received a letter from my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) saying that he in turn had received a letter from his constituent Mr. George Turner, of 23, St. Philip's street, Blackburn, Lancashire. My hon. Friend wrote :
"I should be most grateful if you could let me have any up to date information about this so I may decide how to pursue the matter for him."
The letter that he received from his constituent read :
"As a retired ex Royal Air Force Technician, (30 years service), I am curious as to whether any disciplinary action was taken against the submarine Commander regarding the `lost' ship's log —a most serious offence, and definitely a court martial offence … I would be grateful for any information."
On 10 March, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces wrote a letter with the reference number D/US of S(AF)RNF 2301. It stated :
"As Mr. Turner may be aware, a Board of Inquiry was held into the apparent disappearance of HMS Conqueror's navigational log for April to September 1982, once this had been discovered in October 1984. The then Secretary of State for Defence"——

Order. Is the hon. Gentleman referring to the second order or the first? He must relate his speech to the orders that we are discussing. It seems to me that he is now dealing with an internal disciplinary matter of the Royal Navy.

I was referring to the efficient organisation of COMSUBEASTLANT, which is quite clearly in the explanatory note. The Minister properly said that it was about the efficient organisation of COMSUBEASTLANT, and I do not know what the Clerk was suggesting.

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not make those accusations. I merely want to keep him to the orders. One is addressed to the desirability of extending the privileges to the two headquarters, and the other to the desirability of the change in legal status of the headquarters.

In his opening remarks, the Minister clearly said in our hearing that the debate was about the efficient organisation of COMSUBEASTLANT. Those were his words.

I shall be brief. Let me add that the Ministry of Defence knows about the reference to the letter.

I now give a recent quotation from the principal warfare officer on board a Navy frigate. He says :
"I was in the Falklands and when we got back I was responsible for all the records and logs on our ship. We thought something odd was going on because instead of being told to send our log books off to Hayes as normal, we were told to collect all our log books together and send them to the Ministry of Defence. It had never happened before, and I know for a fact that this order was given to all the ships and submarines as well. I know exactly where the Conqueror's logs are, they're at the Ministry of Defence. Everyone in the Navy knows that. The so-called missing log book is a load of rubbish."
I think it is fair to ask, after all this time, the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn was asked: what became of those log books? Is not this an opportunity for the Ministry of Defence to come clean, and say that no log book ever went missing from that ship? I take it on my own responsibility that I was told by members—in the plural—of the crew of the Conqueror that, if I thought that any of them had pinched the control room log book of the only nuclear submarine that has ever been used in earnest to put as some kind of ornament on their sideboard, I must be out of my mind. No one did that. There was a very efficient debriefing. No log book ever went missing. It was used by the former Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), as a smokescreen on the morning that he was to appear before the Select Committee.

It is all a load of hooey. I believe that, rather than in the submarine control room headquarters, the log book of the Conqueror is sitting in the Ministry of Defence, where it ought to be, and that it is known to Ministry of Defence Ministers that it is among the public records. It is all a load of rubbish, and it is legitimate to raise the matter in this debate.

11.55 pm

When the Minister of State for the Armed Forces introduced the order, he drew attention to the Visiting Forces Act 1952. It is reasonable that hon. Members should ask him, when he replies to the debate, to deal with the effect that the new orders will have on the operation of the 1952 Act and to say whether he will inform the House in future about offences that would be tried by British courts if the Visiting Forces Act did not give almost complete immunity to members of foreign forces.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) referred to Mr. Eric Fletcher, the previous Member of Parliament for my constituency, who in a debate in 1952 said :
"This Bill, in effect, removes from the jurisdiction of the courts or this country a very large number of people. In other words, the members of the visiting Forces and their civilian components will be able to commit crimes which cannot be tried in the courts of this country. That is something which, prima facie, shocks those who have been brought up to respect the deep-seated constitutional principles of our land." —[Official Report, 17 October 1952; Vol. 505, c. 586.]
He went on to say that there had been nothing like it in this country since the middle ages.

It is extraordinary that the Act should have been on the statute book for so long and that its provisions should be allowed to be extended by the passing of orders late at night. The large number of American forces stationed in this country — about 30,000 of them — have complete immunity from prosecution under both the civil and criminal law. Questions have been asked on a number of occasions about the number of offences that have been committed that have been recognised as offences by the American forces leading to the removal of those individuals from this country, but Ministers on the Treasury Bench have been absolutely silent.

We are entitled to ask when the Minister expects to be in a position to tell us about the operation of this Act. It is unacceptable that he should be able to move yet a further extension of the Act, but not answer questions about the number of drug offences, motoring offences or other offences that have been committed by members of visiting forces who have been allowed to get off scot-free.

The Government say that the collection of information is difficult. There must be something very badly wrong with the arrangements under which American forces are stationed here if no information is passed to the Ministry of Defence about what members of the visiting forces have done.

I hope that the Minister will tell us what information is collected in the Ministry of Defence and whether local police and local courts keep any records of offences committed by members of the visiting forces. I object strongly to the Visiting Forces Act. I see no reason why forces from a foreign power stationed in this country should be exempt from British law. I find it even more offensive that we do not even know what offences they have committed and that all we have is the information collected by Duncan Campbell and others, which has been printed in the New Statesman. I hope that the Minister will answer those points.

11.59 pm

With the leave of the House, I should like to reply to the debate.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) asked whether COMSUBEASTLANT would remain at Northwood. It will. He asked why, if COMSUBEASTLANT had international status in 1982, it was now necessary to involve it in the orders. Although it had international status agreed by NATO in 1982, there has not been a convenient opportunity formally to designate it for the purpose of this legislation until the orders came forward. This is a tidying up provision. We have taken advantage of the opportunity created by the designation of UKAIR to designate COMSUBEASTLANT at the same time.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Members for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) raised various points about the Visiting Forces Act 1952. It is important to make one or two general observations because from what has been said, it is clear that there is considerable misunderstanding about it. Although the Act is British legislation, it reflects a NATO-wide agreement involving reciprocal arrangements regarding the jurisdiction provisions for military personnel stationed in each others countries.

Exactly the same legal rights which are given to American service men in Britain are enjoyed by British service men in Germany. They are important to our service men there. The Act has now been on the statute book for more than 30 years, and the criticisms that have been expressed by Opposition Members must be seen against the background of several Administrations being responsible for overseeing the Act, which has evidently proved satisfactory to successive Labour Governments.

In view of what the Minister has said about reciprocal arrangements, can he say whether the German civilian authorities are informed—and publish the information — of the misdemeanours of British service men stationed there as part of the British Army of the Rhine?

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I shall continue with my speech as I was about to deal with that matter.

The hon. Gentleman is clearly under a misapprehension about the effect of the Visiting Forces Act 1952 if he talks of American service men having widespread immunity from United Kingdom law. The provisions are somewhat complex, but they do not represent overall immunity. The hon. Gentleman might like to read, in Hansard of 19 December 1983, the detailed and excellent exposition of the Act's effects by my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), when he was Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department. If he does, the hon. Gentleman will see that the full effect of United Kingdom law applied to all offences committed off duty, which are the great majority. Even for offences committed on duty, there is reserved to the host country a right to request the Government of the visiting forces that the right of jurisdiction should remain with the host country and that the Government of the visiting forces should surrender their right to exercise jurisdiction. It is not correct to suggest that this legislation creates some wholesale immunity or exemption from the effect of British law.

The statistics on offences show that more than 2,000 American service men have been convicted in the United Kingdom courts, and that the vast majority of those convictions relate to road traffic offences, which were specifically mentioned by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North. As to the adequacy of the statistics that are collected within the Government about the operation of the Visiting Forces Act—a point raised by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed — I will draw that matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. His Department has the lead ministerial responsibility for this legislation, and I am sure that he will note the points that have been made on that score in this debate.

I thank the Minister for giving way again. I am interested in what he says about civilian offences committed when troops are off duty, but I am concerned about the actions of American forces on duty — for example, when they have been travelling with the cruise missile conveys in the Salisbury plain area. I have reason to believe that offences have been committed by those soldiers against British civilians, but no action has been taken and no redress is possible for the civilians, because those service men were on duty at the time and the Visiting Forces Act therefore grants immunity. For example, there was a problem when an American vehicle ran into a churchyard wall, causing it severe damage, and slightly injuring some people at the same time.

Any particular details that the hon. Gentleman produces will be examined.

I stress that the provisions of British law apply to American service men here, whether they are on or off duty. The only issue is over the rights of jurisdiction. and those rights can be applied by the Government of the visiting forces in respect of their service men for offences that have been committed on duty, but that does not mean that while visiting service men are here they are not subject to United Kingdom law.

The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) will, I hope, be aware that these orders relate to the designation of COMSUBEASTLANT, which is a NATO headquarters. He was referring to a matter that arose in not a NATO, but a national, context. He will be aware that the loss of the log of HMS Conqueror has been the subject of successive parliamentary statements, and the outcome of the board of inquiry was the subject of detailed investigation by Parliament and of a statement made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) when he was Secretary of State. I am afraid that I cannot add to that.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That the draft International Headquarters and Defence Organisations (Designations and Privileges) (Amendment) Order 1987, which was laid before this House on 12th March, be approved.

Resolved,

That the draft Visiting Forces and International Headquarters (Application of Law) (Amendment) Order 1987, which was laid before this House on 12th March, be approved.—[Mr. Portillo.]