Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 30th November 1972.

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6.55 p.m.

Photo of Mr Ian Gilmour Mr Ian Gilmour , Norfolk Central

I beg to move, That the Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts (Continuation) Order 1972, a draft of which was laid before this House on 31st October, be approved. The House will have observed that, for the first time, it is being invited to approve a single annual order which provides for the continuation of all three Service discipline Acts. Until the Armed Forces Act 1971 came into force on 1st July this year, the Navy was governed by a permanent statute, the Naval Discipline Act. By contrast, the Army and Air Force Acts have, since 1955, been quinquennial Acts which have to be renewed annually by affirmative resolution of both Houses.

When the 1966 Armed Forces Bill was considered, this arrangement led to mild parliamentary criticism and it had, therefore, to be decided whether to bring all three Services into line, and, if so, how to do this. We concluded that we should retain the long-established tradition whereby, for nearly 300 years in the case of the Army and since its formation in the case of the Royal Air Force, their code of discipline and constitutional structure has been subject to the annual approval of Parliament. We therefore decided to bring the Naval Discipline Act into line with the Acts for the other two Services and made necessary provision in the Armed Forces Act 1971. The result is the single order covering all three Services which is now before the House.

I am sure that the House will wish me to say something about the people whom the order concerns in the three Services. I turn first to the Army and in particular—almost inevitably in a debate of this kind—to its discipline in Northern Ireland. I refer directly to its discipline, because I know Mr. Speaker has said that this debate is extremely narrow, relating to the discipline of the Armed Forces. Much has been said in the House and in the country as a whole on this subject, and I scarcely need to assure the House that the standards of discipline and morale in the Army remain impressively high. Indeed the overall rate of disciplinary offences has dropped appreciably since the middle of 1971.

The House will, I know, wish me to take this opportunity to pay a special tribute to the manner in which the Army continues to do its job in Northern Ireland. I doubt that any other army in the world would have discharged its duties for so long in so provocative and delicate a situation with so much patience and restraint. The conduct, discipline and morale of the troops deserves the highest praise.

I think I should say a few words about the statement issued last week by a number of priests—exactly how many seems rather obscure—from Catholic areas in Belfast alleging widespread brutality and harassment by the Army. The Army's task is to uphold law and order and protect all sections of the community from terrorism and violence of all kinds; and troops do not open fire except to protect themselves and others when life is being endangered by terrorist action. Any suggestion that the Army sets out to shoot unarmed civilians of the community in Northern Ireland is absurd and totally false.

It is worth emphasising too that the allegations of brutality, harassment and victimisation which are made should be looked at against the backcloth of a deliberate campaign which is being conducted by the IRA and other extremists to discredit the behaviour and discipline of the security forces. The campaign sets out to gain the fullest possible publicity for any allegations against the Army, however distorted or incredible they may be—indeed, the more distorted and incredible the better.

Clearly, whilst terrorism persists there is a need for soldiers to check people's identity and to search for arms and explosives. In this they have had considerable success. But such results cannot be achieved without some inconvenience to peaceful people. In hunting down the gunmen and the bombers the security forces will continue to make every possible effort to cause the least possible hardship and inconvenience to the public.

Any specific complaint of unlawful behaviour by troops which is supported by a statement or other form of evidence is referred to the civil authorities for investigation. The Army gives all possible assistance to the civil authorities in their investigations.

In addition the Army is most ready to develop a dialogue with representative community leaders. Among the broad allegations by the group of priests in Belfast was one of lack of approachability and co-operation on the part of the Army. Yet the Army has always been fully alive to the absolute necessity for a closer link with the civil community. It does its best to encourage those with complaints to discuss them with the Army, which often produces useful results.

In a few cases complaints have been found to be justified after investigation and the soldiers involved have been brought before the courts. It is regrettable that even isolated instances of bad behaviour should occur but understandable in view of the considerable provocation to which the troops have been subjected in carrying out their difficult duties. The troops as a whole must be strongly commended for the tact and restraint which they have shown and continue to show in trying circumstances.

As I explained, the Royal Navy now comes within the scope of this annual debate for the first time. My noble Friend drew attention in another place to the Committee on Naval Welfare under the chairmanship of Lord Seebohm which has been set up to review welfare provisions for Royal Navy and Royal Marine personnel and their families, including, in the light of problems created by service conditions, ways of anticipating and preventing social difficulties, which have an important bearing on discipline and morale. I echo my noble Friend's confidence in the existing Navy Family Welfare Organisation. But I believe that the outcome of this study in depth will ensure that we are not left behind by the general advances of welfare services.

I should mention the catering fraud while talking about the Royal Navy. As I announced on 20th November, we are setting up an independent inquiry into these matters. The main object of the inquiry is to ensure that the systems of financial and stock control in the service catering organisations are as foolproof as it is possible to make them against the sort of malpractices that have given rise to the recent criminal cases.

Photo of Wing Commander Sir Robert Grant-Ferris Wing Commander Sir Robert Grant-Ferris , Nantwich

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. I have been listening carefully to what he has to say. I am sure that it would not be his wish to be out of order, but he is sailing a little close to the wind at the moment. Perhaps I should read the ruling as it has been made on several occasions in past debates of this kind. It is as follows: We are debating on this Order whether the Army Act should be renewed for one year. The only speeches which are in order are those which advocate that the Army Act"— and the Navy and the Air Force in this case— should be renewed for one year or should not be renewed for one year, giving reasons in the Act why it should or should not be renewed. This debate is very narrow". Mr. Speaker went on to say: It may have been broadened"— he was referring to an occasion in the past— but the right hon. Gentleman is right in assuming that to raise other matters would not be in order."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th December, 1965; Vol. 722, c. 972–3.] In 1970 Mr. Speaker said: … I should have to confine the debate on the Army Motions and that on the Royal Air Force Motion within very strict narrow limits."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th November, 1970; Vol. 806, c. 1452.]

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

On a point of order. It is not my normal rôle to help Ministers on points of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, what the Minister was saying was directly related to Sections 38 and 42 of the Armed Forces Act 1971, which we are discussing. If this is to be a useful debate, some hon. Members may wish to raise points that arise from what the Minister has been saying.

Photo of Wing Commander Sir Robert Grant-Ferris Wing Commander Sir Robert Grant-Ferris , Nantwich

Provided the hon. Gentleman adheres to the Act, I am sure he will be in order. I felt that it would be better to say something now rather than to let matters go on and perhaps get very badly out of order.

Photo of Mr Roy Hattersley Mr Roy Hattersley , Birmingham Sparkbrook

On a point of order. It has been regarded for many hundreds of years that this debate is one of the opportunities for the House to exercise its control over the Armed Forces. It is difficult to understand how that can be done unless we assume, as it has been assumed in the past, that matters concerning pay, conditions, recruitment and terms of engagement are related to discipline.

I hesitate to quote "Erskine May", but there is a quotation on page 729, which deals with the procedure of debate after the 1955 amalgamation of the two Acts, which makes it clear that this should be an opportunity for parliamentary control. I do not know how that is possible if the sort of speech which the Minister has begun to make is not in order.

Photo of Mr John Wilkinson Mr John Wilkinson , Bradford West

Further to that point of order. May I respectfully point out that only last week the other place was able to debate the very matters which my hon. Friend was bringing before the House? It is the duty of this House—and, indeed, its onus—to debate the matters which my hon. Friend was bringing, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to your attention.

Photo of Wing Commander Sir Robert Grant-Ferris Wing Commander Sir Robert Grant-Ferris , Nantwich

I have to see that the rulings of the Chair are carried out to the best of my ability. I felt that it was my duty to point out how I felt the rulings of the Chair should be interpreted. I am sure I can leave it to the good sense of the hon. Gentleman and that of the House to keep the matter within bounds.

Photo of Mr Ian Gilmour Mr Ian Gilmour , Norfolk Central

I am grateful for your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The House will be relieved to hear that I have truncated my speech a good deal to bring myself somewhere near the rules of order.

I was talking about the distasteful subject of the catering fraud, which I feel must unfortunately be closely related to discipline in the Armed Forces. My right hon. and noble Friend has agreed provisional terms of reference for the inquiry into the catering of all three Services. However, lie would like to discuss them with the chairman of the proposed committee before they are published. We hope to announce shortly the names of the chairman and the members of the committee to undertake the inquiry.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

As the Minister knows, I represent South Queensferry, in part of which is Port Edgar and the Royal Elizabeth Yard at Kirkliston. Could it be made clear while the inquiry is proceeding that there is no assumption that the many establishments within Navy discipline have in any way indulged in malpractice? To put it bluntly there are some people, who have been honest throughout their lives, who are feeling a little sore that they are being tarred with a broad brush. It is not the fault of the Ministry. Nevertheless the Press publicity is a bit hard on those against whom no malpractice can be alleged and who one imagines have been honest for many years.

Photo of Mr Ian Gilmour Mr Ian Gilmour , Norfolk Central

I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said. I was about to make a similar point and I hope the House will forgive me if I make it, because I think it is very important for both Government and Parliament to place on record that we have great confidence in the overwhelming majority of the members of the Royal Navy, who have great pride in their past and look forward with great confidence to the future. I am sure that neither the House nor the country as a whole will be misled by the actions of a tiny minority into having a lesser opinion of the Services in general and their standards and reputation. That applies to the hon. Gentleman's constituents as well as to those in all other naval establishments.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

What is the time scale of these inquiries?

Photo of Mr Ian Gilmour Mr Ian Gilmour , Norfolk Central

It is difficult to answer that question with any degree of clarity. I cannot give such information until the members have been appointed and the terms of reference have been published, but obviously it is in everyone's interest to do this job as quickly as possible. But it will depend on the convenience and activities of those taking part.

I turn now to the Royal Air Force—with some trepidation. My noble Friend last week outlined the difficulties we are having in achieving the right balance between expenditure on men and on other things. An economy programme in two successive phases has been put under way. In view of your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will not dwell on that, but as it was mentioned by my noble Friend in another place perhaps I might be permitted to say briefly that a detailed study in headquarters and in all commands to try to get existing jobs done with fewer staff produced considerable savings in the numbers of officers, airmen and civilians required. In the second phase, which is not yet complete, ideas for changes in the task and organisation of the Royal Air Force were invited and as a result the whole structure is being examined in detail.

Finally, after another considerable piece of truncation, I would like briefly to mention recruitment and re-engagement. The factors which cause both recruitment and re-engagement are complex, but one of the most important is what people think is the Government's attitude towards the Services and it is significant that in the context of the stable defence policy we have pursued since we took office satisfactory levels of recruitment and re-engagement have been achieved. This is also illustrated by the fact that, despite the problems I have outlined, morale and discipline in the Services remain high, and that is something for which we can all be grateful.

7.13 p.m.

Photo of Mr Roy Hattersley Mr Roy Hattersley , Birmingham Sparkbrook

All of us are in some difficulty on this first occasion of debating the amalgamated discipline Acts. Therefore, like the Minister of State, I shall make only part of the speech I would otherwise have made. So the House has at least one reason to be grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hope that I remain in order if I begin with a very necessary comment on the procedure adopted for the submission of this order. Two weeks ago today, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition explained the view of the Opposition that for very good constitutional reasons the order should have originated in this House and not in the other place.

Photo of Mr Ian Gilmour Mr Ian Gilmour , Norfolk Central

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman so early, but he is under some misapprehension as between the order and the Act. There is nothing new about the order being moved first in another place. It was moved there under the Labour Government in 1967 and 1968.

Photo of Mr Roy Hattersley Mr Roy Hattersley , Birmingham Sparkbrook

The difference is that this is a new order. We are talking about a totally new set of events, in that we are discussing naval discipline for the first time in these circumstances. The subject of naval discipline has never been started in another place. We regard this order, therefore, as we do the parent Act, as an opportunity to exercise constitutional control which the House of Commons should have over the Armed Forces.

It was not simply constitutional propriety which led us to believe that the order should have been introduced here first. There are sound constitutional precedents. They came not only from my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Robert Hughes) when we debated the Bill but also from the right hon. Member for Harrogate (Mr. Ramsden). They both discussed this very point. We believe also that there is a more practical and perhaps in a sense more contemporary reason why the order should have originated here. It concerns what I must with reluctance describe as the "devaluation" of the defence debates in the House of Commons over the last two years, as witnessed by the hour and by the day and therefore by the numbers of people who now take part in that kind of debate.

In direct relation to the presentation of this order, there is a strong and resentful feeling on this side of the House that at no time in the last two decades has there been less defence information supplied to the House than during the last two years. It is no coincidence that the situation was much better in those two decades in the period between the then Minister of Defence being in the House of Lords and the present Secretary of State being in the House of Lords. There is considerable deficiency of defence information coming our way and we regard the fact that the order began in another place as indicative and symptomatic of that fact.

Our complaint about the paucity of defence information coming to the House is underlined by the procedure laid down for the order. The core of the complaint is not that the House of Lords is getting information first and we are getting it second—that would be a trivial complaint—but that under this procedure no one is getting information at all. That is the main complaint.

I draw an example from the other place's debate on this order. There, the Secretary of State said—and got away with it—that this was a traditional opportunity for discussing personnel matters in Parliament. He made two speeches, the first lasting 13 minutes and the second six minutes. In them he produced three sets of figures for the House of Lords. He was able to tell it the number of school leavers in 1973; he told of the increase in unemployment in 1966; and he gave a number of figures for RAF redundancy which had been leaked to the newspapers a few days earlier.

If, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you allow us to pursue matters raised by the Minister of State, we hope to have more precise and adequate answers than those offered by the Secretary of State in another place, and we have a number of questions on a number of the topics which the hon. Gentleman has explored and which I therefore assume one is in order in pursuing.

The first point concerns recruiting, and therefore, with your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and realising that in this area we all proceed with some difficulty on thin ice, I have a number of questions which will enable the hon. Gentleman to explain certain things which are apparently within the terms of the order. In the Defence White Paper of last April, the Government warned the House and the country that there would be an inevitable reduction in the number of men coming forward for service in the Armed Forces. A series of figures suggested that in each of the three services recruitment is in decline. In the Royal Air Force, where it is explained that there are special reasons for limiting the recruitment figures, recruitment almost halved in the last three quarters of 1971 compared with the last three quarters of the preceding year. In the case of the Army, the figures in the last two quarters were smaller than in the last two quarters of the previous year. The position in relation to the Royal Navy is almost exactly the same. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will tell us whether the fall-off in recruitment is what he expected but has arrived earlier than expected, or whether the fall is more drastic than was expected.

Photo of Viscount  Lambton Viscount Lambton , Berwick-upon-Tweed

I want to put the hon. Gentleman right. The lowness of Royal Air Force recruiting is intentional. We are striving to get fewer but better people at this time so that the teeth are stronger.

Photo of Wing Commander Sir Robert Grant-Ferris Wing Commander Sir Robert Grant-Ferris , Nantwich

Order. Does all this relate to the Discipline Act? As far as I can see, recruitment is not a question of discipline.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May we return to this question? If Bills are to start their life in the House of Lords—[Interruption.]—and we then find that the Lords are lax but that in this House the Chair in its wisdom applies much stricter rules, surely it is a matter of the goose and the gander.

Photo of Wing Commander Sir Robert Grant-Ferris Wing Commander Sir Robert Grant-Ferris , Nantwich

I thought I had explained the position to the House. I quite see how aggravating this situation is. But I have read to the House the rulings of Mr. Speaker, and we are bound by them. If I think that hon. Members are going beyond the terms of those rulings, I have to point it out. What happens in the other place is no concern of ours. That is why we call it "another place".

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

Without wishing in any way to be impertinent, are there no "usual channels" between Mr. Speaker and the Lord Chancellor?

Photo of Wing Commander Sir Robert Grant-Ferris Wing Commander Sir Robert Grant-Ferris , Nantwich

If there were, it would not be proper for me to talk about them from the Chair.

Photo of Mr Roy Hattersley Mr Roy Hattersley , Birmingham Sparkbrook

I shall not pursue my questions on recruiting, though, as a matter of Ministry of Defence experience rather than as a matter of parliamentary procedure, I suspect that discipline and recruiting are directly related and that, by implication, it is very difficult to discuss one without discussing the other.

I appreciate that there were special reasons for the Royal Air Force recruiting at a small level. That was a matter of intention. But that is not the position with regard to the other two Services. Therefore, if possible I should like to know whether the fall-off in recruiting which was anticipated is moving at about the speed and at about the rate anticipated.

I turn now to a subject which, though related to recruiting, is palpably related to discipline, because it is related to morale. It concerns the pay of Her Majesty's Forces. The Minister of State will recall that the Pay Review Body set up by his Government reported in April and in the last paragraph of its report both summarised the present pay position and made suggestions about the future. It said that between the military salary and now the average pay increase in Her Majesty's Forces was about 9 per cent. For adult men it was rather less—about 7 per cent. It went on to say that if an increase is postponed more than a few months or a year the average increase will decline proportionately as the postponement goes on.

Let me draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to two points specific to the Pay Review Body and therefore directly concerned with morale and therefore discipline. The Pay Review Body said that if pay increases in civilian employment were to continue at a high level it would be a matter of injustice to Her Majesty's Forces were Government policy of a pay review every two years rather than every year to be adhered to strictly. It said that not only would it be a matter of injustice to Her Majesty's Forces but that the Pay Review Body, should it think it right, would feel free to make a recommendation after one year—in April 1973.

Two questions arise which were not only allowed as being in order in another place but which are, since they are concerned with the prospect of pay, involving service morale and discipline. The first is this. Can we be absolutely assured that what the Pay Review Body described as its freedom to make an interim report at the end of one year rather than two will not be impaired by the Government, incomes policy notwithstanding, that the Pay Review Body will not be subject to pressure not to make an interim report, and that if a report is made it will be implemented? In another place, the Secretary of State gave an answer which, to do it all justice possible, was less than precise. I hope that the Minister of State will give an answer of staggering precision when he winds up the debate.

Secondly, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will say something about the future of the pay structure of the Armed Forces, and not simply about a review which might come out in April. There is a feeling which has an influence on morale and discipline that in a time of decreasing real funds being available to defence some provision should be made to make sure that getting the Armed Forces into line with civilian employment which was done with some success in April 1970 will be maintained.

I turn to the next point which I can discover that it is possible to argue is related to discipline. It involves re-engagement rates in the Armed Forces. As I understand it, there is a direct and obvious connection between discipline, morale and re-engagement, and there is an obvious connection between all those and the level of the Armed Forces in the future.

Looking at the re-engagement rates in all the Armed Forces, comparing 1971 with 1970, in almost every category of recruitment re-engagement improved over the second year as compared with the first. There were 19 possible categories of recruitment. In 1972 there were more re-engagements in 17 of them than in the previous year. That is a spectacularly successful figure. But looking at the few months' figures available for this year, re-engagement rates have deteriorated as compared with the full year 1971. When the Minister of State replies, could he comment on the re-engagement rates in all the Armed Forces and say whether he is worried about the willingness or reluctance of Servicemen to sign on for a second term, and whether there are categories in which there is a problem.

I am in part referring to the problems raised by short-term service. The Government of which I was a member instituted a short period of service in the Royal Navy. Again, looking at the figures, without wearying the House by quoting them, I see that in all three Services there has been an increase in the number of men signing on for the shortest possible time and a decrease in the number signing on for longer periods. If that is the case and improved recruiting is strictly related to shorter engagements, the re-engagement rate is a crucial factor in terms of the size of the Army, Navy and Air Force in 10 years' time. Can the Minister relate recruiting, re-engagement rates and length of service and tell us what he thinks estimated strength will be in 10 years or even in five years compared with the need for men and the service that they have to perform?

I make two comments about Northern Ireland. I want first to echo the tribute paid by the Minister of State not simply to the discipline but to the morale and the courage of the Armed Forces in Northern Ireland. I was last with the Army in Northern Ireland on the day before Operation Motorman. It was a period of maximum depression for the Armed Forces in Northern Ireland, if maximum depression there was. Even on that day, when there was certainly a feeling that there were areas of Northern Ireland into which the Army could not go but into which it ought to be allowed to go, the spirit of the troops, their understanding of the problems of politicians striving for a political settlement, their willingness to take risks on behalf of politicians striving for a political settlement, their devotion to their task and their extraordinary acceptance of the obligations of their uniquely unpleasant task were a privilege to witness. On behalf of the Opposition I pay my own tribute to what was done and what continues to be done in Northern Ireland by all the Armed Forces who serve there.

I want also to make a point about complaints and about how those complaints should be processed. As the Minister of State said, it is inevitable that from time to time there will be complaints about the conduct of individual soldiers or units. I suppose that it is equally inevitable after two and a half years that occasionally those complaints are justified. I believe that it is very much in the interests of the Armed Forces that whenever a complaint is made, no matter how apparently frivolous, no matter how apparently malicious, same sort of inquiry is made into it. The Army in Northern Ireland, not with great enthusiasm, is performing a task which is basically a policing function in intolerable circumstances.

The civilian police are inevitably subject to complaints of one kind or another, some frivolous, some malicious, and occasionally justified. They have learned that the best way of combating those complaints and preserving the good name of the police force is to treat them all with a degree of seriousness and to refute the overwhelming majority which can be refuted.

Therefore, I hope that when from time to time the Opposition, who, like the hon. Gentleman, admire what the Army is doing in Northern Ireland, suggest to him that this or that complaint ought to be treated with a degree of seriousness, he will understand that we do so because we believe it to be in the interests of the forces that matters should not be swept under the carpet, but should be investigated and usually disproved. I say that, as I said at the beginning, in the light of the Opposition's continued admiration for what our forces are doing in Northern Ireland and in order that their morale and discipline may remain as high as it is.

We know that all these personnel matters, which are traditionally debated on this day, have in some way a relationship with the performance of the forces in the field. The things I have said and want to know about recruiting are related not only to pay and conditions of service, but to the esteem with which the Services are held in the public mind. No greater tribute can be paid to the way our forces have performed in Northern Ireland than that the increases in recruitment have been coincidental with the period of severest strain which shows that the tribute which the hon. Gentleman and I have paid to our forces in Northern Ireland is echoed by most families in England.