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Armed Forces Bill

Volume 181: debated on Wednesday 21 November 1990

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Order for Second Reading read.

7.49 pm

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The main purpose of the Bill is, like its predecessors, to continue in force for a further five years the Army Act 1955, the Air Force Act 1955 and the Naval Discipline Act 1957 which together form the statutory framework for discipline in the services. Unless renewed by Act of Parliament by the end of December next year, those Acts will expire.

Clause 1, therefore, is straightforward. It provides, as I have mentioned, for the service discipline Acts to continue in force for a further year and for their renewal thereafter on an annual basis by Order in Council for a maximum of four further years.

Much of the rest of the Bill, however, contains provisions designed to bring service law closer into line with changes in civil law over the past five years in so far as it is sensible and practical to do so. Consequently the Bill covers a range of subjects and in the time available tonight I shall concentrate on its main provisions.

Clauses 2 to 5 make amendments to existing provisions relating to the passing of custodial sentences on young offenders under 21 to bring service law into line with the current provisions of civil law in this area.

Under the discipline Acts a court martial and standing civilian court—which is equivalent to a magistrates court trying civilians overseas—already have sentencing powers in respect of young offenders which mirror the powers of civil criminal courts in this country. However, the grounds on which such courts may pass a sentence on a young offender of custody for life or make a custodial order which provides for the detention of the offender in an appropriate civil institution in the United Kingdom do not reflect changes to civil law made by the Criminal Justice Act 1988.

Consequently, clause 2 introduces new grounds which must be satisfied before a service court can impose a custodial sentence. Those are that the circumstances, including the gravity of the offence, are such that had the offender been over 21 he would have been sentenced to imprisonment and that the offender qualifies for a custodial sentence.

Further provisions made in the Criminal Justice Act 1988 require the court to record the grounds on which it believes that the offender qualifies for a custodial sentence, to announce them in open court and to explain to the offender in ordinary language why it is imposing a custodial sentence. We have similarly adopted those provisions for service courts.

Clauses 7, 8 and 9 are all concerned with extending the power of service courts and of commanding officers in the Navy in respect of personal injury cases. They introduce a new sentencing power which for some years has been available to civilian criminal courts in England and Wales and which reinforces the belief that it is right and proper that an offender should compensate his victim personally to the extent that he is able to do so.

Clauses 7 and 8 deal with the sentencing of service personnel and extend the power of courts martial and of commanding officers in the Navy to award stoppages from pay as compensation to cover personal injury as well as for expense, loss or damage.

The inclusion of commanding officers in the Navy in the proposals but not those in the other two services is due to their greater summary powers. Select Committees dealing with successive armed forces Bills have recognised the operational requirement for commanding officers in the Navy to have quite extensive powers of summary jurisdiction.

Clause 9 makes similar provision for civilians sentenced by court martial or standing civilian court. There is no power to award stoppages, but there is already a power to make compensation orders and again this is being extended to cover personal injury.

For that new power, the Bill makes provision for the amount of compensation that may be awarded to be limited, initially at £2,000. The powers of the standing civilian courts will always be limited to that which magistrates courts in this country could award.

A further provision which derives from the Criminal Justices Act 1988 is made in clause 10. That provides for the first time for a statutory right to compensation for miscarriages of justice before courts martial. The grounds and conditions on which such compensation will be paid are the same as the civil law provisions.

It is clearly proper that such a statutory right should exist in service as well as civil law and that we provide for the appointment of assessors of such compensation in the same way. I add that, like the Home Office, we will be retaining our existing ex gratia arrangements for the payment of compensation for miscarriages of justice which fall outside the scope of the statutory scheme. Overall we do not anticipate any increase in public expenditure, but because the clause introduces a separately defined charge on public funds, I will be asking the House separately to approve an appropriate money resolution.

I return to the subject of civilians. In particular, I shall concentrate on the significant changes that we are making in service law affecting children and young people under the age of 17. It often comes as a surprise to people to learn that civilians can be subject to service law. That is not new—arrangements have existed since 1748. Under current law, many of the provisions in the current service discipline Acts are applied to certain civilians.

The number of civilians accompanying the forces abroad, either as dependants or in a professional capacity, is considerable. There are more than 30,000 in Germany alone, although, of course, that number will be reducing. Given that number, it is inevitable that some breaches of the law occur. Nevertheless, it has long been the view that civilians should, as far as possible, be subject to the laws and punishments provided for at home and that they should not be disadvantaged by virtue of their connection with the armed forces. This is the basis for clause 6, which abolishes the power of courts martial and standing civilian courts to make a reception order. Those orders are the service law equivalent overseas of a care order as a criminal disposal and place the offender in local authority care in the United Kingdom. As hon. Members will know, such orders are being abolished by the Children Act 1989 and we therefore see no justification in allowing service courts to continue making them.

It is, however, part III of the Bill which introduces the most significant changes in the current provisions in service law in respect of children. Clauses 17 to 23 deal with the children of service families at risk overseas. Those provisions are a response to the changes in the civil law enacted in the Children Act.

The detail of the provisions is perhaps best discussed in the Select Committee to which I shall propose that the Bill is committed, although I can assure the House that we have at all times been concerned to ensure that the welfare of the child is paramount.

I shall now take a little time to explain some of the thinking behind the proposals to introduce orders providing for the assessment and protection of children at risk. Those are closely based on child assessment orders and emergency protection orders under the 1989 Act. I would like in particular to acknowledge the considerable assistance we have had from the Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen's Families Association in the framing of the proposals. It will, of course, continue to play a key role in dealing with these matters.

In this sensitive area, and even though the number of cases involved is, thankfully, small, it is right that such matters are dealt with under the law rather than administratively in order to protect the rights of both the children and the parents involved. Since 1981, service law has provided for the removal of children from their families overseas where they were believed to be at risk. The provisions largely mirror those of existing civil law.

We are building on these provisions by giving certain officers new powers to make orders for the assessment and protection of children. The assessment order is completely new, as it is in civil law, and provides in certain circumstances for an assessment of the child to determine whether he or she is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm. We envisage such orders always being made with some parental involvement and provision is made for certain people to be notified in advance that an application for such an order is being heard. The protection order is designed to deal with a case which is so serious that the child must be removed from his family as an emergency measure. The grounds for making such an order are the same as will apply to a court in this country making an emergency protection order. In these and a number of other respects, the provisions that we are making mirror those in the Children Act.

We are, however, retaining certain features of existing orders relating to places of safety. The most obvious difference between our provisions and those in the Children Act 1989 is the possible maximum length of the order set out in clause 21. This will remain at 28 days as opposed to the 15 days that will be allowed for under the Children Act. The decision to retain the 28-day limit has been taken after careful consideration and consultation with interested parties.

As the House may know, under current procedures children overseas who are removed to a place of safety under service law may be returned to the United Kingdom, where the order automatically expires after 24 hours. Thereafter, the provisions of the relevant domestic law apply. We are clearly concerned that service parents should be properly involved in those processes in the United Kingdom which determine the longer-term care arrangements for the child. In exceptional cases it can take a few weeks to make all the necessary arrangements with a receiving local authority and for returning the family from overseas. I am satisfied that it is right to provide for such cases.

We expect that few orders will be made for the maximum period and do not envisage that any will be made for that length from the outset. Clause 22 makes special provision for the periodic review of protection orders and for their discharge. No period of over six days will elapse without a requirement for the order to be tested by a review, a request for an extension of the order or an application for the discharge of the order. The fundamental aim is that a protection order will remain in force for only so long as the conditions exist which must be satisfied for such an order to be made in the first place, and never beyond 28 days. I hope that the House will welcome these changes as a sensible and practical response to developments in civil law.

Finally, I should like to mention briefly two of the other clauses in the Bill. Clauses 14 and 15 are designed to bring up to date the existing provisions in the discipline Acts for making deductions from pay in respect of maintenance. Although there are longstanding provisions protecting the pay of service personnel, we have no wish that they should escape their obligations to pay maintenance for wives and children, particularly when ordered by a court. Recent changes in the civil law have changed the power of courts in the United Kingdom to make orders, and the changes that we are making simply ensure that where courts have the power to make orders there is corresponding power to make deductions from the service man's pay.

I do not propose to comment specifically on the other provisions in the Bill. Some make small changes to rationalise or update provisions in Acts relating to the armed forces, while those of a minor editorial or technical nature are set out in schedule 2. All are covered in the memorandum printed with the Bill.

I hope that the House will agree that we have used the opportunity of renewing the service discipline Acts to make some significant and useful steps to improve them. We in the House rightly pay tribute to the work of the armed services in the responsible and sometimes dangerous work that they do. We have many reasons to be indebted to them. It is our responsibility to ensure that the special codes of law to which service men and service women are subject and which are central to the maintenance of discipline and morale provide a proper framework to enable the services to continue to operate fairly, effectively and efficiently. The Bill is primarily designed to ensure that the system enshrined in the service discipline Acts best serves those purposes.

8.3 pm

I thank the Minister for his clear exposition and explanation of the Bill. I must admit that, since the debate was scheduled, I have agonised over what many of the clauses in the Bill mean. The Minister has helped me enormously this evening, and I am sure that he will help us enormously as we progress through the deliberations of the Select Committee.

I begin by echoing the Minister's tribute to our armed forces, who work in such difficult conditions, often in danger of their lives, in this country and abroad. The Opposition join the Minister in paying tribute to service men and service women. The peculiar nature of the Bill is that it comes round every five years, so it gives an opportunity for hon. Members to address the problems of service life and discipline in general. The various clauses of the Bill contain amendments to existing Acts. Perusal of the Bill is undertaken not by a Standing Committee but by an ad hoc Select Committee. The Select Committee can consider all aspects of service life and discipline, not only the specific matters dealt with in the Bill. Those specific matters will be dealt with in greater or less detail by my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) later in the debate if he catches your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, and in the Select Committee.

Whatever we might do or say specifically or generally, we must always remember that our service people are first of all citizens and that our armed forces do not exist in a vacuum. They must be seen in the context of society at large. We should accept the need to parallel, wherever practicable and possible, military and civilian law. When a person joins the armed forces, his civilian status is modified by the superimposition of military status, with certain rights and freedoms restricted to preserve military discipline and readiness.

When the previous Bill was considered five years ago, it was clear from the proceedings of the Committee and discussions during the remaining stages of the Bill that there were several difficulties and disagreements about the work of the Committee. Some hon. Members were deeply unhappy about the procedure followed. May I give the Minister an assurance that the Opposition do not want a repetition of that? We hope to be able to work closely with the Government in examining the Bill.

However, we have some points to make on issues which were raised five years ago and are still matters for concern. My earlier remarks that the services do not operate in a vacuum and about the need, wherever possible and practicable, to bring military law into line with civilian law are pertinent. The matters that we may well want to consider in the Select Committee are the operation of emergency powers, the establishment of service personnel organisations, the composition of courts martial, drug and alcohol abuse in the services, homosexuality, the death penalty, racial discrimination, the rights of ethnic minorities and the problems of bullying in the armed forces.

I shall not rehearse the arguments about the composition of courts martial; I hope that we can finish fairly quickly. However, I wish to give the reasons why we want to discuss the composition of courts martial in the Select Committee. At the last review of the armed forces, there were strong calls for senior non-commissioned officers to be included in courts martial. That was rejected by the Government on various grounds. They used as their argument the Lewis committee report published in 1946, which, on the basis of statistics gathered at that time, said that officers who had risen through the ranks could fairly represent the other ranks.

But, of course, as a result of the war, the composition of the forces was different in 1946. According to the statistics of the Ministry of Defence, it is certainly no longer the case that many officers have risen through the ranks. In 1986, only 22 per cent. of officers had risen from the ranks. Those of us who have served in the armed forces know that only in specialised areas and specialised trades do officers rise from the ranks. Therefore, there is every reason to suppose that officers are now far more remote from the other ranks than when the Lewis committee reported.

Another argument advanced for not allowing NCOs on to courts martial was that officers had greater experience and knowledge than other ranks. Again, those of us who have served in the armed forces realise that that is not the case. I do not think that many senior warrant officers in the Army would give way on experience to any other rank. Without our NCOs, our armed services would be in great difficulties. I shall not labour the point now, but we should like to examine the matter in Committee.

The second issue is the establishment of service personnel organisations. I emphasise that we are not talking about trade unions in the armed forces, because we realise that trade unions could not play an active part in such a disciplined area. Some service men are members of trade unions, and those in trade sectors are actively encouraged to join unions, especially prior to departure from the armed forces, in order to help bridge the gap between service life and civilian life.

It is obvious to all hon. Members that many service people are disgruntled about not being able to express themselves. I am sure that we have all received letters from service men who ask us to keep their names confidential for fear of reaction from their superior officers. Obviously, that means that there is something wrong in the armed forces. I can see no reason for any Government opposing the development of some form of personnel organisation.

I have said that I recognise the difficulty of trade unions operating in the forces, but we need some organisation for consultation. I do not suggest that out of political dogma, but in a profound belief that such organisations could help to prevent the considerable haemorrhage from the forces of skilled men and women, who have been trained at great expense to a high standard of competence.

For example, in 1982, the premature outflow of personnel from the armed forces was 16,000 a year. The present rate is 27,000 a year, which means that the figure has almost doubled over the last seven years. There are obvious problems. They are not caused simply because people cannot express themselves freely, but perhaps personnel organisations could stem that outflow.

Homosexuality in the armed forces was dealt with by the Select Committee five years ago. Unhappily, it led to some acrimony and differences in Committee. I am sure that the difference between the treatment of homosexuals in civilian life and those in a military context will again be brought up in Committee. Perhaps the Government could attempt to harmonise civilian and military law on homosexuality. In Committee, we shall also want to discuss suspended sentences, because the power to impose such sentences does not seem to have been extended to Army or Air Force courts martial or to standing civilian courts, although I understand that clause 12 of the Bill proposes to give Navy courts martial the power to impose suspended sentences. Perhaps the Minister will tell us why that is so.

Drug and alcohol abuse was also discussed in the Select Committee five years ago. The Committee did not come to any substantial conclusion, and there is now an increasing need to look at this matter again. All those issues affect morale.

I represent a Welsh constituency and served in a Welsh regiment, and I have been greatly lobbied by people in regular and volunteer services in Wales about the possible elimination of the Welsh district. I know that that is not a matter dealt with in the Bill, but it relates to morale, so we are concerned about it. The Minister will know about the tribal and national loyalties that are used in recruitment to our regiments. We shall want to discuss that in Committee. Perhaps the Minister could have a word with the Secretary of State about the reorganisation of Army districts.

Other problems brought to our attention recently relate to families in Germany who have to relocate to Britain. They encounter problems about education and housing, and young married women face severe problems with their families in Germany and in Britain when their husbands are abroad in the Gulf and they find difficulty in coping.

We are disappointed that the Government are not responding immediately to the important issues raised in the recent Stephen Anderson case, especially in view of the release last January of the Peat, Marwick, McLintock study of racial discrimination and ethnic minorities in the armed forces. The study was commissioned because of universal concern about racial discrimination in the Army, especially in the elite guards regiments. We accept that the Government are not standing still on the issue, and I praise them for what they have already done. However, they are not proceeding quickly on the matter and substantial shortcomings are evident in the Government's ethnic monitoring. Those shortcomings were outlined in the 1987–88 report of the Select Committee on Defence.

The case of Stephen Anderson demonstrates that the carrying out of surveys and studies at the point of recruitment does little to outline or monitor discrimination and abuse at later stages of a service man's career. Lord Justice Taylor and Mr. Justice Morland were quite right to ask the Army Board to look again at this matter in a freshly constituted board, so that fairness and justice can be achieved. Just as important as achieving justice in this case, the judges said that the Army internal procedures were "seriously defective".

We shall look to the Government in Committee to suggest amendments to the Bill and to those procedures so that the serious defects in procedures can be rectified as soon as possible. In seeking that, we are not trying to make a political point but are trying to ensure that racial abuse, bullying and discrimination are exposed and rooted out to the ultimate benefit of all, not just the victims but the poor, twisted, pathetic perpetrators of these crimes.

The Calcutt report was published just after the Select Committee on Defence last reported to the House. I remind the House that the committee inquired into the activities of the service police in Cyprus, which led to service men being brought before a court. It was established that the activities, standards and code of practice of the police needed to be revised. The Calcutt recommendations were concerned with practice rather than the law. The Opposition were pleased to see the issue of a code of practice. Again we congratulate the Government on implementing that in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.

Calcutt made only one recommendation that might be embodied in legislation—in paragraph 6.6, about the potential conflict between the need to learn the nature and significance of a breach of security and the need to bring the offender to justice. Perhaps in Committee the Government can suggest some possibilities in that area.

My last general point is about the problems of the largest regiment in the British Army which, oddly enough, operates in a limited area of Britain. That regiment is, of course, the Ulster Defence Regiment. The last time the Committee considered this matter there was some aggravation about it. We want to return to it, because the main problem is the controversy surrounding the UDR about allegations of collusion with loyalist paramilitaries and the harassment of nationalist civilians. The Stevens inquiry, set up to investigate those allegations, reported in May, but, in the event, it concentrated more on ways in which to prevent future problems rather than assessing the scale of the existing problem.

The Stevens inquiry made a number of recommendations concerning the Army and the UDR. The key recommendations relate to better screening of recruits and members and the investigation of complaints against members of the Army. Given the tense and difficult situation that pertains in Northern Ireland, agents of the Crown must act fairly and properly. We are extremely concerned about the criminality differential between the civilian population and members of the UDR. It is significant that the level of criminality among members of the UDR is twice that of the general civilian population.

Obviously, the UDR operates under great strain and it is composed mainly of part-timers. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) has suggested that the regiment should consist of full-time members as soon as possible to effect better training and discipline.

The events of the past year and the past few days have created a new backdrop for any deliberations on defence. Those political changes will have a profound impact upon the future shape of our armed forces and our service men. Morale in the Army, Navy and Air Force as they numerically decline is a vital factor. That is why we must take this opportunity to ensure that the laws governing service life and discipline are framed for the 21st century, rather than bogged down in the 19th.

8.21 pm

I welcome clause 2, which relates to sentences for young offenders, and clause 14, which deals with maintenance payments. I also welcome the general effect of the Bill, which means that the discipline Acts relating to the Army, Air Force and Navy are brought closer into line with each other and civilian law.

The present three armed forces Acts do not cover the grey area relating to injuries to people when they may or may not be on duty. Often, it is only after the event that it occurs to an individual that he was off duty and therefore not entitled to the various types of compensation available when he is on duty. There should be a tighter definition of the terms of duty, so that all our service men know what to expect in certain circumstances. Problems often occur, for example, as a result of sports injuries.

Although problems relating to insurance are not directly related to the Bill, they have a bearing on it. Most types of insurance for people in the services are slightly more expensive than for their civilian counterparts. Those who fly, for example, carry a loading on their insurance. In the past few weeks, a number of people who have been sent to the Gulf have had great difficulty in discovering whether their insurance policies provide adequate cover.

Insurance business is changing all the time, and we should ensure that service men have a better idea about whether their policies are adequate when posted to a particular area. They should receive more advice before such postings, so that they do not take out various types of insurance that turn out to be absolutely hopeless.

I agree with what the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) said about drugs. We are lucky, because we do not have anything like the problem suffered on the other side of the Atlantic. We should not be complacent, however, because many of our young service men will mix with young people who are likely to take drugs. We must ensure that our young service men receive the best education on drugs so that they know the risks they run from them and are aware of the extra problems that drugs pose for them as service men.

In civilian life, it may be possible to take certain drugs that do not have an immediate effect upon one's job, but that is not so in the services. If someone services a high-performance aircraft while they are not in a tip-top condition, the results can be catastrophic for the hardware and the pilot. It is important that young service men are aware of the risks they run if they indulge in drugs.

I agree with the hon. Member for Rhonnda that, in times of change, it is important to pay attention to morale. There is a great deal of uncertainty in the armed forces now—units may be amalgamated and loyalties must change. Most service men are only too ready to make such changes, and many understand that change is part of their everyday life. They must, however, be kept informed about what is happening. Nothing annoys service men more than to be kept in the dark, only to find out indirectly what is to happen in the next weeks or months.

Separation can also have an effect on morale, especially when we consider the lengths of tour of service men in the Gulf or in the Falklands. People in different arms of the same service or in different services serving alongside one another may find that they have completely different conditions of service. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence recently toured the Gulf, an announcement was made about changes in the tour lengths decided upon by the Air Force and the Army. When people in different services work with each other it is important to ensure that tour lengths do not lower morale.

Another cause of poor morale is allowances—given their complicated nature, we must ensure that, when people move from area to area, they do not suffer as a result. A service man cannot refuse to go to a particular part of the world, but he may not realise that that posting has a significant change on his allowances and pay, albeit for a short time. It is important to explain any changes beforehand. If such explanations had been made before the deployment of our armed forces to the Gulf, we would not have faced the problems that arose—which, although not great, may affect morale.

It is a pleasure to welcome the Bill.

8.28 pm

You will have noticed, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the atmosphere in the Chamber this evening is rather calmer than it is elsewhere in the building. That is perhaps a significant reminder to us that, whatever political battles may take place outside, the business of the House still requires to be transacted, and perhaps no business of the House is more significant or important than the Armed Forces Bill. We discuss the Bill on the eve of a debate about confidence in Her Majesty's Government. Some of us may feel that that makes our proceedings like the porter's scene in "Macbeth", but without the textual or dramatic significance.

We should not, however, take these proceedings as a matter of course. What is happening this evening is deeply rooted in the constitutional history of the United Kingdom, involving as it does the supremacy of Parliament and the suppression of what was once the Royal Prerogative. The fact that an Armed Forces Act is required every five years to prevent the Army Act 1955, the Air Force Act 1955 and the Naval Discipline Act 1957 from lapsing is no mere administrative inconvenience; it reflects the fact that control of our armed forces and their disciplines is part of the exclusive responsibility of this honourable House.

Thus, every five years, we are given an important opportunity to review military law. I hope that the House will conclude that this is not a matter to be lightly cast aside. In the past it has been suggested that the statute should have permanent effect, but I am reluctant to allow that to happen as the opportunity that we are given every five years allows continual scrutiny of the facts and circumstances of service life.

Although the Bill deals with discipline, the invoking of its provisions—or those of the three service discipline Acts—is invariably due to a breakdown in discipline. The success of any armed service, or any unit within it, depends on self-discipline, not on statutory provisions. Reference has already been made to the special loyalty that attaches to some regiments in connection with their association with certain parts of the country. Coming from Scotland, I readily appreciate that, and there is no doubt that such geographical associations frequently make a substantial contribution to loyalty and morale. I hope that, in the changing circumstances that we all perceive, any proposals that are made will be sensitive to those associations, on the understanding that to remove them insensitively could well affect the loyalty and, indeed, the efficiency of those serving in the armed forces.

Of course, a special case cannot be made for every regiment or every regiment ever formed would have continued to exist. I hope, however, that in view of the difficult and changing circumstances that will necessarily follow the adoption of "Options for Change" or any similar proposal the Government will show the necessary sensitivity.

As has already been said, the Bill gives us an opportunity to consider more than just the proposals that it contains. My approach, which springs as much from my interest in legal affairs as from my interest in defence, is that the distinction between civilian and military justice can be justified only if it is made necessary by the special circumstances of military service as opposed to civilian life. Two examples have already been mentioned—the continued existence of the death penalty, and the law relating to homosexuality. In both regards, there is a sharp distinction between civilian and service life.

I hope that the Select Committee will examine with great care the arguments for the retention of the death penalty in service discipline. For my part, I find it very difficult to see how that penalty can still be justified in 1990, no matter how extreme the circumstances. I am in no doubt about its application in civilian life, which I have consistently opposed. Of course, I have no direct experience of service life.

As for homosexuality, there is little doubt that the climate of opinion in civilian life is much more tolerant than that reflected in the statutory provisions relating to the services. I recognise that specific considerations and difficulties may arise from the proximity in which service men are forced to work, and the nature of the relationships that are formed. It is possible for members of one rank to take advantage—both literally and metaphorically—of members of a lower rank. None the less, I feel that we should consider this issue with great care and sensitivity.

The Bill raises some very complex legal issues. I do not think that it is appropriate to deal with all of them in detail on Second Reading. I welcome the provisions relating to children. I am also particularly interested in those concerned with compensation—especially the creation, under clause 10, of a statutory right to compensation for wrongful conviction by court martial. I hope that the Select Committee will examine both the conduct and the constitution of courts martial.

I have had two experiences of courts martial, one professional and one relating to a constituent. As a civilian lawyer, I defended a naval rating and was particularly impressed by the extent to which the service lawyers went out of their way to ensure that a civilian lawyer who might not necessarily be familiar with the procedures was properly advised and, to some extent, properly instructed. I was also impressed by the skill with which the judge advocate conducted the part of the proceedings which lay within his responsibility. I came away with a high regard for naval discipline as reflected in the conduct of that court martial.

My constituency experience involved a service man sentenced, in the first instance, to seven years' imprisonment for an offence that I need not detail. By the time he had exhausted the appeal procedures available to him, his sentence had been reduced to six months and he had to be released immediately because he had already, in effect, served a six-month sentence.

As I have said, it is important to examine the constitutional implications of courts martial. A civilian on trial before a jury on a serious criminal charge is tried by a group of people drawn by lot—at random—from the electoral register. Such a person is truly tried by his peers. It may not be appropriate to institute in service discipline a system that parallels that precisely in the form of courts martial, but we should surely ask whether it is possible to ensure that the constitution of courts martial more effectively reflects the overall constitution of the armed forces.

We must also try to achieve some consistency in sentencing. I have already mentioned the experience of one of my constituents. It cannot be right for a person to be subject in the first instance to a seven-year sentence, and then find it reduced to six months. I know of no parallel in civil criminal justice—certainly I have encountered none in my professional experience—and I feel that we should devote some consideration to the way in which the powers available to courts martial are exercised.

Those are just a few of the issues that the Bill will allow us to consider. In some respects, it confers a constitutional imperative—if it did not pass into law, service discipline would cease to have any proper statutory basis. For that reason, in the House this evening, the Bill can hardly be regarded as controversial. I am happy to support it and, if the lot falls to me, I look forward to raising some of the issues to which I have referred briefly on an occasion when they will be given deeper and wider consideration.

8.40 pm

It is invariably a pleasure to follow the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell), who speaks with not only great wisdom and insight, but superb knowledge of the law. I am happy to say that I have a knowledge only of basic aspects of the law which keeps me out of trouble. Therefore, I was surprised to hear that those who serve in the Army are subject to the death penalty. I served for five years in the Army and was unaware of that. I thought that the only threat to my life was from the enemy, not from lack of service to the law. As someone who strongly opposes the death penalty, I wish the hon. and learned Gentleman well in his crusade in Committee.

As the hon. and learned Gentleman rightly said, there is no doubt that we must remember that we are dealing with a different society in the armed services when considering homosexuality. Much as I welcome the Bill, the armed services society is different from that of civilian life and, where that difference is apparent, it must show itself in the law.

The Bill is extraordinarily welcome. It comes as a surprise to many of us that civilians can be subject to military law. We can understand that in some "combat areas"—a phrase introduced by Hollywood—that application of military law should rightly apply. However, when there are so many families abroad and civilians helping with important maintenance tasks, it seems remarkably archaic that they should not have the protection of the law that we have helped to establish and create through the proceedings of the House.

The Government are to be particularly congratulated on the special attention paid to children in part III. One of the best pieces of legislation passed by the Government in their eleven and a half majestic years of administration was the Children Act 1989. It received widespread support from both sides of the House and showed the House at its best. It is particularly important that the changes introduced in the Bill will represent children's interests. As my hon. Friend the Minister said, we must at all times hold in special consideration the welfare of children, which is paramount. We would expect children resident in this country to enjoy the care and protection of the Children Act.

We all welcome the fact that the changes in the law bring military law more into line with civilian law. I certainly welcome it. I have already exhibited my comparatively scant knowledge of the law. The Bill will help to give greater clarity; it will help the soldier, sailor and airman and those who advise them to understand what the law is about.

The Bill is significant because for the first time it makes it a statutory right for members of the armed services to receive compensation for miscarriages of justice before a court martial. That was the very point made by the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East. I have been involved in a court martial and have great respect for the procedures. In many respects, those who come before a court martial seem to get a fairer hearing than they would in some civilian courts. We do not want to destroy that spirit, but a court martial can make an error, so it is a wise step to give people the statutory right to receive compensation for miscarriages of justice. I welcome the initiative taken by the Government.

8.47 pm

I welcome any overhaul of military legislation. Courts martial are important—my experience as a Member of Parliament points to that.

Several years ago, for a former constituent, I raised on the Floor of the House the matter of bullying in the British Army of the Rhine. He came to me and said that he had bruising on his back and was absent without leave. He said that his wife and mother were worried that if he went back to his regiment in West Germany in those circumstances he might face death. The bullying consisted of him and his comrades in arms being tied to the back of a lorry and being hit with a sledge hammer. As a result, he suffered serious injuries, the consequences of which he still suffers.

I raised the matter with the then Minister and received a guarantee that my constituent would not be sent back to West Germany pending a full inquiry, which was carried out. There were courts martial and this apparently outlandish story, told to me in a local hall at an advice surgery, was proved beyond peradventure. A number of people were disciplined by court martial; some were imprisoned, some expelled with dishonour from the Army and some fined. It did not bring that sort of bullying to an end because repetitions of it have been reported in the papers. I am not as familiar with them as I was with that case. The soldier who had gone absent without leave and so committed an offence was fully justified in taking the case to court martial.

As a consequence of the begrudging and unkindly attitude of the Army to what might be termed a whistle blower, an attempt was made to charge him for his uniform with which they had issued him after arrangements had already been made for him to be discharged from the Army. As I understand it, discussions continue about compensation. The Army did not bring the matter to a gracious conclusion because the soldier had exposed a sore point, a difficulty. At that time, the cold war was still being maintained and the soldier was more frightened of the British Army members involved in the bullying than of the Russians, which was not exactly a bull propaganda point for the maintenance of the nuclear deterrent.

I recognise the importance of military law, but I share the reservation that the death penalty should be removed as in civilian life. If there were a referendum on the issue I do not think there would be a majority to restore the death penalty. Arguments deployed against the death penalty are overwhelming and have been accepted by succeeding generations growing into adulthood without the death penalty. They accept it as a more just application of the law that, where mistakes are made, they can be rectified. That was not so in the infamous case of Timothy Evans, who was hanged in error. Military law should be brought into line with civilian law, and that is why I welcome the appointment of a Select Committee. It is an unusual procedure, but one that will provide an opportunity for such alterations to be made to the Bill. There should not be double standards—one for civilian life and one for military life.

I certainly support proposals in the Bill for the standardisation of the Children Act in nearly every respect within military legislation. When the Minister boasts of doing that, he should consider the validity of his assertion and examine the death penalty being retained in military law, as against civilian law.

Questions should be asked about the application of law in the armed forces. In our age the use of armed might has much wider consequences than ever before. The Minister can advise the Prime Minister to use nuclear weapons that would bring death and destruction on a scale hitherto unknown which would reduce some areas of the planet to a radioactive desert. What if someone objects to the deployment and use of nuclear weapons? What would be his position under military law and under the alterations in this Bill? What would be the position of a member of the armed forces who said that the Government were not carrying out their obligations under clause 6 of the United Nations nuclear non-proliferation treaty—a solemn and binding obligation? What if such a person refused to carry out his superior's orders to load nuclear weapons into an aircraft carrier or plane? I note that the Minister is smiling; when I first mentioned that treaty he thought that we were not signatories to it. Now he knows better because of my pressure, and I am pleased to have educated Ministers in this and other ways.

These are important matters and I want to suggest some alterations to the legislation that would help to take account of these great difficulties.

We know that it is an offence to give military secrets to the enemy, whoever he is now. Temporarily, the enemy is Iraq and Saddam Hussein, but in the longer run the Government are fast running out of targets for our nuclear weapons. What right does a service man or woman have to discuss dangers arising from cracks in the Polaris fleet, for instance? On Monday this week it was widely reported that the Ministry of Defence
"would confirm only that one Polaris boat is still at sea. 'We do not comment on the operational deployment or technical state of our submarines,' its spokesman said."
If a service man or woman is worried about cracks in the primary water-cooling circuit of the nuclear power plant of a submarine and goes to his or her superior officer, that officer can say, "Shut your mouth." The service man in question might start glowing with radioactivity halfway through the voyage, but that could not be taken into account as reasonable justification for raising the point or blowing the whistle to the newspapers. Presumably it would be regarded as an act of treachery, even though it might save lives.

The same report continued:
"According to the independent nuclear engineer, John Large, the defect appears to be cracking in the primary watercooling circuit where it re-enters the reactor pressure vessel, an appallingly difficult place to effect repairs because of radioactivity and the cramped situation—especially if there is no time to remove the reactor fuel and let the system cool off first."
It appears that someone in the services may have provided this information so that something could be done about it. There should be some means of ensuring that people who use dangerous equipment can raise these issues without the threat of punishment. They should be able to question the use and deployment of the nuclear deterrent. That is their moral right because there are no more immoral weapons on the face of the planet than nuclear weapons. I shall not go into that now because it is a little wide of the Bill; I merely point out that service people might be involved in the deployment and testing of weapons that are to be sold to countries to which the Government were urged by a United Nations resolution of 1988—passed in the General Assembly—not to sell such weapons. What are service people to do in such circumstances? The binding nature of military legislation, as amended by the Bill, places a heavy burden on them.

The United Nations resolution made it plain that member states were to reinforce their national systems of control over the arms trade. All hon. Members agree that that is splendid, but when the Opposition highlighted the supplies of arms to Iraq and the channel of arms through Thailand from western European countries, including from allies such as West Germany, people raised their eyebrows and said that these weapons could be used against our boys in the Gulf, which would be quite wrong. What should a service person, who has raised such issues with his superior officer but feels that nothing is being done and that a cover-up is taking place, do? How long have the cracks in the Polaris fleet been known to the operators of the submarines?

I urge the Minister to consider a report by the Common Market assembly. I call it an assembly because I do not give it much credence. It was a good Government job creation scheme when I found myself resting after 1983, but that is about all. The Government, however, refer to it as a Parliament. That was the title that they gave it in the Single European Act 1986. The argument in the Conservative party is about the degree of commitment that we should exhibit to the Common Market. I merely mention this to show that the European Parliament is a source of information that the Government does value.

The report, dated February 1984 and numbered PE84.688/fin./Ann II, concerns the right of members of the armed forces to form associations. I hope that this legislation can be amended later to allow trade unions to be formed in the armed forces. They already exist in the armed forces of other countries. We may not wish to emulate those countries, but I think that they provide useful examples. I note that the Minister of Trade has just come in for a chat about other matters, which no doubt are concentrating his attention and that of other Tory Members in clumps and congregations throughout the House. None the less, he will be interested to know that the right to form associations is not granted only in a minority of member states—Greece, France and Italy. In Ireland the right is available but not exercised, and in the United Kingdom the right to form an association is granted, but without the right to be consulted. The Minister said earlier that the Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen's Families Association had been consulted, and I welcome that useful development. I urge the Minister to go a little further. Associations have a valuable part to play, but it would not be a long step, after associations, to form independent trade unions. Service men and service women would be more likely to trust trade unions to deal with these matters.

The Minister said—I do not dispute it—that the House and the nation at large are indebted to those who serve in the armed forces. If we are indebted to them and if there is a move to form trade unions, why not recognise our indebtedness by providing the armed forces with the opportunity to form independent trade unions? In some of the member states of the Common Market professional organisations have the right to be consulted. However, they have no negotiating rights. In Belgium, Germany, Netherlands and Luxembourg those organisations have the right to be consulted. Denmark is the one member state in which professional organisations have negotiating rights.

When I asked the Prime Minister whether she had been to Denmark, she said that there had been useful talks and negotiations with Denmark. She did not tell the Prime Minister of Denmark how wrong it was for the professional organisations to have negotiating rights. She said that Denmark was a loyal member of NATO. The armed forces personnel in Denmark have the right to enter into negotiations. If that happens in Denmark, it could happen in the United Kingdom.

In the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, another member state, article 11.5 of its constitution guarantees the freedom, by law, to form trade unions. Service men are allowed to organise or join non-political unions. The majority of them are members of the Syndicat Professionel de la Force Publique, which is part of the Confederation Generale de la Fonction Publique. If it is good enough for Luxembourg, it should be good enough for other member states. The Minister may say that there is only a tiny number of people in Luxembourg, but it is a member state of the Common Market and is represented in all its institutions.

The report makes it clear that in Denmark service men have the same negotiating rights and the same right to conclude agreements as all other Government employees. There are various groups of professional organisations for serving officers, reserve officers and serving soldiers. Those associations negotiate on general pay and working conditions with the Ministry of Defence. They voluntarily renounce the right to strike. Agreement has been reached, therefore, with the trade unions that the right to strike should not be exercised.

In the Netherlands, as in the Federal Republic of Germany, officials and service men are not entitled to take part in negotiations. However, the associations must be consulted when the legal status of service men is affected by ministerial rulings, and so on. A central consultative committee has been set up for this purpose with the Secretary of State of the Netherlands as chairman. It meets twice a month and discusses all legal conditions and provisions which affect service men and the policies, guidelines and general principles of the personnel programme. That is exactly the kind of body which could provide effective negotiating and consultative procedures, if they were enshrined in the sort of legislation that we are discussing.

At a lower level in the Netherlands, there are consultative committees in each navy unit, at company, battalion and barrack level for the army and for each air force base or unit. They consider individual cases or questions relating to working conditions. That is exactly the point that I made about the cracks in the Polaris submarine power plants. Instead of courts martial and the panoply of military law bearing down on people, thus intimidating them into not presenting important information, consultative committees would allow such matters to be raised without confrontation. In the Netherlands, there is freedom of the press, including the right to distribute broadsheets. There is no right to strike, but soldiers in uniform may stage demonstrations when they are not on duty.

The Netherlands is a member of NATO and of the Common Market. Provision is made in other member states of the Common Market for dealing with these matters, thus reducing the need for the confrontation that is created by the application of military legislation. In the Federal Republic of Germany, which is even stronger following unification,
"the right to form associations to safeguard and improve working and economic conditions is guaranteed to everyone and to all trades, occupations and professions."
That quotation is from article 9(3) of the basic law. Article 17(1) says:
"The right to form associations is therefore a fundamental right under the constitution and this right may not be restricted by laws concerning military service."
The idea of trade unions for our armed forces is not new—they operate in some EC countries.

The Government should seriously consider that. Indeed, they may have to do so. The Conservative party is arguing about the advance of unification. The Prime Minister, having capitulated on everything else, is saying, "We do not want economic and monetary union as a step towards a federal state." There may be a measure in five years' time to harmonise all these standards. Make no mistake, the Common Market is shifting towards a common foreign policy and a common defence policy, but hon. Members do not seem to understand what is happening.

Our service men and women should have at least the same trade union rights as those of our EC partners. That would ensure proper and adequate representation where the first procedures of discipline are used and at courts martial. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) spoke highly of the procedures in courts martial because he attended one as an impartial observer. Some courts martial are not impartial because accused persons' representatives are part of the military. However, that would be improved by an independent body for the armed forces.

I therefore offer a critical welcome to parts of the Bill. I hope that the Minister will at least examine my proposals, but I say that with little hope because, until last week, one of the characteristics of this Conservative Government was complacency. Circumstances have a funny way of catching up with people and their complacency is blown to shreds, as happened to the Government this week. I hope that they will closely consider my suggestions because they will help to improve the law. I do not deny that the Bill makes improvements, but there is always room for improvement, even in this broken-backed Conservative Government.

9.7 pm

I welcome this composite Bill. I well remember that some 30 years ago we had to have such a Bill every year and to deal with each service separately.

I particularly like the provisions for compensation and for children. I emphasise the importance of bringing civilian law into line with military law, in so far as that is possible. Most people agree that civilian life is not the same as service life. Service men are confined and live in special circumstances.

Two things will have to be considered very carefully—the death penalty and homosexuality. The conditions in which service men live are so different from those of ordinary people, except possibly prisoners.

Leave in the three services is different. Perhaps there could be equality of leave for troops serving in the Gulf in the different services, although I know that that might be difficult because the three services are so different.

When I served on courts martial, I always thought that more civilian expertise should be involved. That now happens and is an entirely satisfactory procedure. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister would explain how disciplinary action will be altered when there are more women in the services.

The Opposition referred to loyalty. It is important that men from certain areas have particular affiliations. So far as it is humanly possible, Scottish regiments or county regiments should be preserved. That will be an extremely hard task. I come from a regular cavalry regiment, members of which were drawn from all over England. Preserving the regional character of a cavalry regiment is not so important, but it is particularly important to have loyalty to territorial and yeomanry regiments. Men like to be with their comrades. There is tremendous loyalty to the regiment to which one belongs. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider that point.

I am afraid that trade unions are not to my liking. They may be suitable in civilian life, but they are certainly not suitable for the Army. On that point, I disagree with the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer).

Great thought has been given to the changes in the Bill and I welcome it as a whole.

9.12 pm

Like other hon. Members, I welcome the Bill. I should like to make three observations. First, it was a tradition in most Government legislation that, wherever members of the armed services subject to military discipline happened to be, they were treated as far as possible as though they were in this country. For example, under the Representation of the People Act 1983, service men have the right to vote, wherever they may be. That happened long before the voting reforms introduced by the Government.

There has been an extraordinary two-sided division in the tax and allowances system. In the case of a service man subject to full military discipline and serving in Germany, Cyprus or the Gulf, his wife and his dependants pay the same income tax and national insurance contributions as their civilian counterparts, but they are not eligible for the same social security benefits as their civilian counterparts. Last year, I dealt with a case involving the wife of a soldier who had served 22 years and had been subject to full military discipline. The wife would normally have been eligible for severe disablement allowance, but because her husband had served abroad for so long she found that she was ineligible. That is an injustice. It is hard that service men who have been paying the same taxes and national insurance contributions as their civilian counterparts should be ineligible for certain social security benefits because they have served their country abroad.

Secondly, I wish to refer to military discipline as it affects NCOs—especially senior NCOs—and warrant officers in the Territorial Army. There is a curious anomaly whereby officers serving in the Territorial Army are subject to military discipline in the same way as their regular counterparts but other ranks—still, I believe, even including warrant officers—are subject to military discipline only when they are training. That has a perverse effect and in some circumstances undermines the status of those TA personnel vis-a-vis their regular counterparts, the permanent staff instructors who serve with the unit.

To take an example, let us suppose that an exercise is planned for a small group of soldiers involving the use of weapons or explosives or some other form of activity which could lead to difficulties. In some units, it is extremely difficult to gain approval for such an exercise if neither an officer nor a member of the permanent staff is present because there is no one who can be made legally accountable if anything goes seriously wrong. I therefore suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that we might consider the possibility of making warrant officers and senior NCOs in the TA subject to the same military discipline as their counterparts in the Regular Army.

Finally, regimental affiliations were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Sir A. Glyn) and touched on by the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) and are extremely important to discipline. The Government are absolutely right to examine the number of sites that we occupy at present as not only the armed forces themselves but the defence research establishments are spread over far too many sites. Nevertheless, although I was not an infantryman during most of my territorial service, I believe that we should tread wearily when it comes to the eight infantry depots, two of which gave exceptional value for money during the Falklands war. A very large proportion of soldiers who fought in the Falklands had come recently from two of those depots—the airborne forces depot at Aldershot and the Guards depot at Pirbright. Some of them went straight into action only weeks after leaving the depots and performed extremely strongly.

The culture and disciplines in the various regiments tend to vary and the two depots to which I have referred are at the extremes. The Brigade of Guards whose depot is at Pirbright consists of admirable regiments—I know that my hon. Friend the Minister was a distinguished member of one of them—strongly based on firm, old-fashioned discipline. At the opposite end are our airborne forces, who have always based their principles on self-discipline, initiative in service and, if my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) is to be believed, quite a lot of fighting off duty.

I understand that it has been proposed that the airborne forces and the Brigade of Guards should be put into the same depot, so that they would share the same NAAFI, the same canteen. That is the surest recipe I can imagine for a breakdown in discipline, fighting off duty and the destruction of both cultures. I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that, of all the ways to save land and improve efficiency, the review of the eight infantry depots is the last that he should consider if he wants value for money and wishes to encourage the fighting culture of the armed forces—by which, of course, I mean fighting of the kind in which we want them to engage.

Like other hon. Members on both sides of the House, I welcome the Bill and look forward to hearing the outcome of the Committee's deliberations.

9.18 pm

This is one of the relatively rare occasions on which we have the opportunity to review the workings of the machinery of discipline in the armed forces. Although our debate is overshadowed somewhat by events taking place elsewhere in the Palace, it is none the less an important debate, as the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) said, because discipline—both individual and collective—lies at the heart of the efficiency and effectiveness of our armed forces.

We have had a brief but wide-ranging debate. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East mentioned the sensitivity about and attachment to the regimental system, and several hon. Members took up the same point. The Opposition are well aware of that. My hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) pointed out in a recent debate that, when the "Save the Argylls" campaign was running strongly in Scotland, many of his friends were so attached to the Argylls that they signed the petition five or six times.

The hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) referred to homosexuality and the death penalty, although I hasten to add that he did not link the two. He revealed that he had been "involved" in a court martial, although he did not reveal in what capacity. Perhaps it is just as well that, until this evening, he was unaware that the death penalty was still in use in the armed forces.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) made possibly the most wide-ranging speech. He managed to discuss the death penalty, the important issue of billing, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, cracks in the cooling systems on Polaris submarines, the representation of service men and women throughout Europe, the European Commission and the leadership contest in the Conservative party—all in a debate on a Bill that deals with Army discipline. That was a testimony to his skill.

The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) raised the important issues of inequalities in taxation conditions and the anomalies in discipline regulations in the Territorial Army. He gave us all food for thought. The hon. Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Sir A. Glyn) emphasised the importance of bringing civilian law and military law together. He made it plain that he is opposed to trade unions in military life, although I suspect that, if we pushed him a little further, he would be opposed to trade unions in civilian life as well; but I might be wrong about that.

We have had a wide-ranging discussion tonight, but many of the Bill's details will be discussed later in the ad hoc Select Committee. This quinquennial review occurs so rarely that it is vital that the Government use the occasion to address problems related to morale and discipline that are persistently raised in the intervening years. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) said, there are a number of issues—such as service personnel organisation or the composition of courts martial—which we feel the Bill fails to address. We have mentioned them briefly tonight, and we will return to them in Committee.

It is important that we get the Bill right, because another major review is unlikely for another four or five years. Of course amendments can be made from time to time, but the Bill essentially sets the course for the next five years. The Opposition approach the Bill on discipline in the Army and in the other forces on the premise that has underlain that of successive Governments, namely, that military law should approximate to civil law as closely as possible, allowing for the particular need, which we accept, for discipline in the armed forces. We therefore welcome the fact that the Bill incorporates many of the features of civil enactments and in particular the Criminal Justice Act 1988 and the Children Act 1989.

It is right that the standard of justice for our service men and women should be no less than that expected by civilians. The forum of justice and discipline may differ, but the standard must be no less. It is also right that the protection of children of service families should be no less than that for civilian families. We therefore welcome the regulations in clause 4 that extend to courts martial the requirement, to which civilian courts are already subject, that a court imposing a custodial sentence on a young offender should give reasons why it is satisfied that he or she qualifies for a particular sentence. A court martial will now also have to explain to the offender in open court why it is passing a particular sentence. That is as it should be.

Clauses 7 to 9 similarly bring the service regulations into line with civilian practice by allowing the appropriate authorities the power to award stoppages as compensation for personal injury. It is right that, when an offender has insufficient means to pay a fine and compensation, compensation should take precedence.

Clauses 17 to 23 reflect growing concern in the country about child abuse. We do not suggest that it is any greater in the armed services than anywhere else. Part of the reason for the growing concern about child abuse may not be an increase in child abuse in general but a greater recognition that abuse exists and a willingness to report it. We welcome clauses 17 to 23 and we support the extension of the provision of child assessment orders into the armed forces, but we will want to examine more closely in Committee the logistic arguments behind the difference in the period for which orders are granted in civilian and military life.

If there are some aspects of the Bill to be welcomed, there are also some major omissions. In many ways, the Bill represents a lost opportunity—an opportunity that could have been used to tackle some of the persistent issues. I shall deal with one or two, which have already been mentioned by several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda. As my hon. Friend said, one issue is the vexed question of service personnel organisation and representation. We believe that morale and discipline in the armed forces are interlinked and that representation is crucial to morale.

The hon. Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) spoke of the uncertainties about "Options For Change" and the insecurity that is felt by many service men because of the lack of information. Some form of service personnel organisation would help to overcome those difficulties through the provision of information, and would indeed contribute to morale. The persistent claim that officers can best and fully represent the views and interests of other ranks and that there is therefore no need for any other representative mechanism does not hold water. It may be the view of the Government, it may be the view of the Ministry of Defence, it may even be the view of many officers, but it most definitely is not the view of the ordinary soldier, sailor or airman.

The Minister of State may ask, "How do you know?" because he knows that I am far too young to have gone through conscription. With the courtesy of the House and with some assistance from the Minister of State, I managed to spend a month with the Army this year. It was not some formal ministerial visit, when the world smells continually of fresh paint, but a hands-on operation, courtesy of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. From my recent experience in the Army, I can tell the Government that the grievance that was most often and most loudly declared by the toms, apart from pay, accommodation and the poll tax, was about representation. When will the Government face the fact that complaints and grievances can be adequately dealt with only by proper consultative procedures?

As my hon. Friend made plain, we are not calling for trade unions, although my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South did, and we are certainly not advocating any involvement of service personnel in political activity. However, there is scope for allowing service personnel to join a properly constituted organisation that can make representations on their behalf. Several organisations are highly effective in representing the views of ex-service personnel—for example, the Royal British Legion. Their loyalty to and support for the services is unquestionable and unquestioned. Why should similar organisations representing active service personnel be any less supportive? The people in today's professional armed forces are highly responsible; of course they can be trusted properly to run such an organisation. We shall return to that matter in Committee.

There is another issue which the Government have ducked. It is a tenet of British justice that an accused person is entitled to a trial by his or her peers. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East raised that important principle. We accept the difficulties of applying that principle completely and directly to the armed forces. However, the Government have refused even to move in that direction. In refusing to include senior NCOs in courts martial, they are failing to take account of changes which, as my hon. Friend pointed out, have taken place in the past 44 years in the constitution of the officer corps of the armed services.

As my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, after the second world war, when the Lewis committee looked at the issue in 1946, most officers had come up through the ranks and could not be accused of being remote from other ranks. Nowadays, only one officer in five comes up through the ranks, so the Government have not moved far enough in the direction of allowing service men to be judged by a group of their peers as far as possible.

Nor do we accept that senior NCOs are necessarily unqualified in terms of experience to sit on courts martial. Given the considerable experience that many NCOs serving in Northern Ireland have developed in dealing with questions of civil law, the Government's argument begins to look rather threadbare.

The Minister may recall that, in paragraphs 12 and 13 of the report of the Select Committee on Defence in 1985–86, the Government were asked to consider giving courts martial or standing civilian courts the power to give suspended sentences. In clause 12, that has been done in relation to naval courts martial, but there does not appear to be any such move in relation to the Army or the Air Force courts martial, or to standing civilian courts. I hope that the Minister will address that point and explain that selectivity, or will he do so at some future stage?

Many other issues could be mentioned tonight. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East asked about equality of treatment for homosexuals, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South asked about bullying and the hon. Member for Wyre spoke about the problems of drug abuse. We shall return to those issues in Committee.

One matter which merits attention now has only been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda. It has been the subject of considerable attention and at least some activity since the last Select Committee report. I refer to racial discrimination in the Army. Following concern about racial discrimination surfacing in 1986, when the Commission for Racial Equality felt that it had to go public in expressing its anxiety, the Defence Select Committee reported on its investigation in a report entitled "Ethnic monitoring and the armed forces" and, as has been mentioned, earlier this year the Ministry of Defence published a study of the subject commissioned from Peat, Marwick, McLintock.

Why is there no mention of that issue in the Bill'' When does the Minister expect to be able to bring forward proposals on that matter? In particular, does the fact that there is no mention of it in the Bill mean that the Government are satisfied with the present position? If not, why was the opportunity not taken to deal with the matter in this legislation.

If the moral issues involved in racial discrimination were not compelling enough—I believe that they are—there are pragmatic considerations to which the Government should attend. Despite the cuts which might be expected with "Options for Change", there is no doubt that, during the next few years, recruitment will prove difficult. We must ensure a fair and equitable distribution of representation of the ethnic minorities in the Army. There are good moral, administrative and pragmatic grounds for that. That is another issue that we shall pursue in Committee.

As I have said, earlier this year I spent about a month with the armed forces, and I wish to record my deep appreciation for all that they did for me and my colleagues. But Opposition Members also want to make plain their deep appreciation of the commitment and dedication of our service men and women. In many ways, that goes without saying, but it bears repetition tonight, when many of those same service men and women await the outcome of diplomatic and economic pressure on Iraq.

They would not be human if they did not face the future with some trepidation. We know that they will also face the future with resolution, courage, determination and discipline which is the hallmark of the British armed forces. As we conclude the debate tonight, we are entitled to reflect that the Bill and the regulations on Army discipline will be applied only in a minority of cases. For the vast majority of our service men and service women, the normal discipline is self-discipline and dedication. We owe them our gratitude and commitment for their discipline and dedication, and the Opposition gladly give it.

9.34 pm

With the leave of the House, I first welcome the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid), following what I believe was his first speech from the Front Bench. He will find that debates on defence are normally pretty friendly—too friendly, some of us would say. I have heard a terrible rumour that it was the Leader of the Opposition who recognised that his Front Bench spokesmen on defence needed sharpening up. That is why we are more than happy to welcome the hon. Member for Motherwell, North, who will add to the quality of our debates. He did extremely well this evening as he had obviously read the Bill, which put him in a somewhat exclusive minority.

Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers), the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) and the hon. Member for Motherwell, North, mentioned the composition of courts martial. The inclusion of service men below the rank of commissioned officer in courts martial was last fully considered in 1985, when it was concluded that such a proposal would not improve the quality of the court nor the prospect of the appearance of justice being done. There is no evidence of any desire in the services to change the composition of the courts martial and the present system enjoys a high degree of confidence from all ranks.

The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East mentioned the lack of consistency in sentencing. He particularly raised the case of someone who was sentenced to seven years and whose sentence was then reduced to six months. Sentencing guidelines are available to courts martial. In a serious case, for example in the Army, a judge advocate trained in sentencing would advise the court about the appropriate sentence. Sentences are subject to confirmation and review, again with the advice of the office of the Judge Advocate General. Permanent presidents of courts martial also receive training and advice from the office of the Judge Advocate General about sentencing. Without knowing the full facts of the case raised by the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East, one can only speculate as to why the sentence imposed was so drastically reduced on review.

The hon. Members for Rhondda, for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) and for Motherwell, North raised the old chestnut of whether the services should have their own trade union. We take the view that active involvement in trade unions or professional associations would run counter to the principle that service personnel should not engage in any activity which might conflict with their service duty.

The hon. Member for Rhondda said that service men cannot express themselves, if I remember his words correctly. I found that a slightly patronising remark. When I have gone around talking to service men in all three services, I have found that the one thing from which they do not seem to suffer is an inability to express themselves. They have raised many complaints with me and have told me how they believe that their conditions should be improved, and so forth

I regret that the Minister has introduced such a discordant note. He has completely misquoted me and seems to have misunderstood what I said. I said that at some time all hon. Members have received letters from service men, many of whom asked to remain anonymous. They expressed their problems without any difficulty, but wished to remain anonymous for fear of recrimination or retribution from their superior officers. If the Minister does not recognise that as a fact of life, he is living in cloud cuckoo land

There is an understood chain of command through which people can register complaints. They use that, and they often register complaints to Ministers. The hon. Gentleman should look at the record tomorrow to see whether he said that service men cannot express themselves, because I wrote it down as he mentioned it.

The hon. Member for Rhondda and the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East referred to homosexual activity. I believe that their general feeling was that there should be increased harmonisation between military and civil law on this matter. The Bill makes no change to the law on homosexual activity. It therefore remains the case that service personnel may be prosecuted under the discipline Acts for homosexual activity which would not be an offence under the civil criminal law. That is in recognition of the different circumstances in the services, where people live in closed communities on and off duty and often under stress. Such conditions and the need for absolute trust and confidence between all ranks require that potentially disruptive influence of homosexual practices to be excluded. That view was explained and endorsed by the Select Committee in relation to the last Armed Forces Bill, in 1986, and nothing has occurred since then to give rise to a change of policy.

The hon. Member for Rhondda spoke of the military districts and the reorganisation about which he has heard rumours. I am afraid that I am not in a position to tell him what proposals we are bringing forward on that, but I hope that I shall be able to do so shortly. I can tell the House and my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) that under "Options for Change" we are taking a radical look at the whole infrastructure of the three armed services. There is no way in which we can do that painlessly. It will result in depots being closed and in restructuring of the armed forces in many areas of the country. I am afraid that if we are to get the so-called peace dividend and to make savings on the defence budget there will be local problems. We shall, of course, deal with them as sensitively as we can.

The hon. Members for Rhondda and for Motherwell, North raised the question of racial discrimination. In particular, the hon. Member for Rhondda mentioned the Anderson case. We recently received the final judgment in the case of Stephen Anderson. The Ministry of Defence will consider that judgment to decide what changes are necessary in service procedures to conform with the guidance in the judgment or whether to appeal against the judgment on any aspect. In the meantime, a re-hearing of Mr. Anderson's case will be set in hand. As originally proposed by the Ministry of Defence, a board of inquiry will be set up to investigate all facts relevant to the case prior to consideration by the Army Board in the light of the judgment. Any changes required as a result of the Anderson case will not require primary legislation. The procedures involved are set out in Queen's regulations.

On the general point of racial discrimination, I can tell the House that the services are fully integrated, non-discriminatory organisations and that no discrimination is tolerated. Any complaint of racial discrimination by a member of the armed forces will be fully investigated under a redress of grievance procedure and, if proven, action will be taken against those involved. It concerns us that there is still far too low a percentage of people from racial minorities entering the armed forces and we are doing all that we can to address that problem and to stimulate recruitment in areas with large numbers of people from racial minorities.

The hon. Member for Rhondda also mentioned the Stevens inquiry and the Ulster Defence Regiment. In his report, Mr. Stevens said that his was an extensive and thorough inquiry by some of the most experienced detectives in the United Kingdom. He emphasised that both the Regular Army and the UDR had co-operated fully and whole-heartedly with the inquiry. We welcome the conclusion that the passing of information was neither widespread nor institutionalised but was restricted to a small number of individuals. We have no difficulty in agreeing with Mr. Stevens's conclusions that procedures for screening recruits and handling information need to be tightened. We have already taken some initiatives and, as Mr. Stevens makes clear, further steps were taken during the course of the inquiry. A dedicated unit has been established to screen all applicants to the UDR, and transfers from the Regular Army will be subject to the same full screening process. The procedure for the control of recognition material was tightened up in June 1988 and further stringent methods were introduced last autumn. Mr. Stevens recognises those initiatives.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) spoke about compensation for injuries and the problems relating to whether an individual is on or off duty. My hon. Friend mentioned sports injuries. Service men are entitled to claim compensation for injuries caused during a service sports activity, which is treated as an on-duty event, in the same way as that person can claim for injuries sustained in the course of his employment. He would need to demonstrate that his injury was attributable to negligence on the part of the service, but the Department, provided that it is satisfied on that point, will offer an appropriate compensation payment.

My hon. Friend also referred to the increased life insurance premiums charged to members of the armed forces. In normal circumstances, those increased premiums apply to personnel in high-risk occupations such as air crew or divers and we already refund 90 per cent. of the additional cost of their premiums within set limits. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that that scheme was recently extended to include all personnel serving or under notice to serve in the Gulf who choose to take out new policies. We have also negotiated special insurance schemes for such personnel.

My hon. Friend also raised the question of drug abuse. I am aware that many hon. Members are much concerned about the extent of drug abuse in the armed forces. Although there are, almost inevitably, some cases of such abuse in the armed forces, it is not a major problem. Nevertheless, it is a subject which is treated with the utmost seriousness and my colleagues and I take a close personal interest in it. The services are well aware of the need for constant vigilance and steps have been taken to improve protection from and the prevention of drug abuse. A service education programme on drug abuse includes information on the dangers of crack. I gather that 85 per cent. of those convicted of drug offences within the armed forces are dismissed.

My hon. Friend also referred to the need to keep service men informed of the changes as a result of "Options for Change". I recognise that need, but we always have a difficulty because the House likes to be informed first about what is going on. It is difficult to ensure that the services are informed simultaneously, but we make every effort to do so.

The death penalty is another old topic which came up for discussion. My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) did not realise that the death penalty is still valid for offences under the service discipline Acts. It might be of interest to know that the death penalty still applies for assisting the enemy, serious misconduct in action, obstructing operations, mutiny and failure to suppress mutiny. The important point about those five offences is that they require a positive act of treachery—for instance, deliberately assisting the enemy or actively preventing operations against the enemy. Such acts are likely not only to jeopardise national security, but to put the lives of other service men at direct risk. The nearest civil criminal offence of this nature would be an act of high treason, for which the death penalty is still mandatory.

The hon. Member for Bradford, South mentioned bullying and related a horrific story about a person he knew who had been bullied. The services take a serious view of bullying and it has been made clear throughout the forces that bullying and ill treatment will not be tolerated. A range of measures to combat bullying have been introduced, including the banning of initiation ceremonies. In the Army a new man-management training package has been developed. Of the 252 allegations of bullying in the Army reported since January 1986, 92 were substantiated and disciplinary action was taken. In 145 cases the allegations were not substantiated. Others are still under investigation. There have been three substantiated cases in 1990. Allegations of bullying substantiated by courts martial or summary disciplinary action are as follows: in 1986, 16 cases; in 1987, 31 cases; in 1988, 17 cases; and in 1989, 25 cases. The figures are bad and we should do something about them, but they are not so appalling as some might imagine.

My hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Sir A. Glyn) raised the pertinent question, now that women are playing a much bigger role in the three armed services, as to whether there would be any change in the disciplinary arrangements. No change is necessary to take account of the increased number of women in the services. For a long time, female personnel have been subject to the same disciplinary provisions as their male counterparts. The only change is that a women's wing is being constructed at Colchester to take account of the larger numbers. In practice, as in civilian life, women are much less likely to commit crimes than men are.

My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury raised the question of unemployment benefit, and the difficulties that people in the services have in that respect. I reassure him that discussions are continuing between the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Social Security about the payment of unemployment benefit to spouses of service personnel overseas. I know that my hon. Friend will be glad to hear that.

The hon. Members for Rhondda and for Motherwell, North raised the question of suspended sentences for courts martial and standing civilian courts. As the hon. Member for Rhondda rightly pointed out, clause 12 extends to naval courts martial the power to suspend sentences of imprisonment and detention, as recommended by the Select Committee on the last Bill. However, we have decided not to extend the power to courts martial in the Army and the RAF, or to commanding officers in those services exercising summary jurisdiction. Court martial sentences in the Army and the RAF—unlike those in the Navy—are subject to confirmation, and the confirming officer has wide powers to alter sentences, although he may not impose a greater or more severe sentence than that imposed by the court. To give courts martial the power to suspend sentences in their own right would inhibit the powers of confirming officers who have the final word on sentence, and who may already suspend sentences of imprisonment and detention

I do not understand the Minister's logic. If the court has the right to suspend sentences in the Navy, why cannot the same apply to the other two services? The argument that further confirmation is required does not hold water. We shall return to this matter in the Select Committee discussions, where we shall want to hear far more substantial arguments than the Minister has produced today

I think that it would be right for the Select Committee to examine the matter in more detail. If it troubles the Committee, we shall be more than happy to examine the matter again.

I commend the Bill to the House. It will do much to bring the legal system covering the armed services into line with their civilian counterparts. That is the least that we can do for them in recognition of the magnificent role that they play.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Select Committee.—[ Mr. Chapman.]