From these crowded benches this evening I hope I shall manage to remain in order if I start by saying that I believe these Acts should be continued.
The discipline of the Armed Forces is central to the splendid reputation of the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force. We should pause to note that this reputation is particularly valuable to this country when some of our allies, even within NATO, have conscript forces whose discipline does not reach the high standards which our Regular volunteer forces achieve.
I should like to mention one or two points affecting morale. First, the military salary—all tribute to the Labour Government for introducing it—seems to be good. It may be said that soldiers and sailors are now properly paid, perhaps for the first time in centuries.
Leave and welfare arrangements are good. This morning I telephoned the Royal Green Jackets in Winchester to discover whether there were any difficulties about men on leave from Ulster flying to rejoin their families living in Germany. I understand that generally the arrangements are satisfactory.
It goes without saying that the officers and men in all the Services are most conscientious and idealistic about their jobs. Otherwise they would not work all the hours God made in the way they do, under conditions which would astonish most civilians.
To maintain morale it is absolutely necessary that the forces should have the weapons and equipment which they, as professionals, know they need.
I turn now to the Royal Navy. I am glad to see the new First Lord in his place. One thing which any naval man knows is that the principal task of the Royal Navy is to protect our trade. It was, is and always will be. Our trade is world-wide, but arrangements for its pro- tection only even pretend to be adequate within the NATO area as defined.
It is a sad fact that the present Government have done very little to improve the state of affairs since the Labour Government changed their policy from the 1966 White Paper in which the definitive sentence was that
No country with a sense of international responsibility would abandon its commitment east of Suez",
and so on, to the 1967 White Paper where it was all scuttle, all come home, leave the Gulf and so on.
Specifically the morale of the Royal Navy—I was just going amidships, Mr. Deputy Speaker—is very much hazarded by the lack of proper arrangements for air support at sea. My hon. Friend the Minister of State's answer to me at Question Time today about Harriers is as vivid an example as I can give of the fact that there are not sufficient arrangements for air support at sea.
Recruiting is marvellously good, but for heaven's sake let us keep it that way. One thing which has always worried me about recruiting is that the Royal Navy has largely depended in the past on the 15-year-old entrants to HMS "Ganges". Many ratings have been recruited as 15year-olds. Their discipline and morale have been fine. They have made a splendid leavening throughout the Service. The Donaldson Report on Boy Entrants and Young Servicemen makes the point in paragraph 8 that
The Services should be seen as a tine career which a boy is lucky to get into, not as a second best to industry.
Order. I gather that there has been difficulty in the debate earlier. I should emphasise that the debate should be extremely narrow. It seems to have exceeded its bounds considerably.
I will of course abide by your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am doing my utmost to keep purely to discipline and morale subjects, but it is difficult to separate morale from discipline.
The morale of our soldiers in Ulster is wonderful, as has been said and will no doubt continue to be said by other hon. Members. A soldier's first tour in Ulster must be exciting. The bugles blow and the young men are told that this time they will fire their guns for real. The fourth or fifth tour cannot be so wonderful. One of the Royal Green Jackets units from Winchester is about to start its fifth tour of duty in Ulster. Therefore, it is up to the Government to see that the wonderful work which the troops have done there is not put at risk by being kept on this job too long. It is desperately necessary, if only for the sake of the Armed Forces, that the Government should reach a political decision as quickly as possible.
I want to make one last point affecting morale and discipline. The Select Committee which reported upon the Armed Forces Bill dealt with standardisation, which is always liable to crop up from time to time. The report said:
Your Committee does not wish to recommend the expenditure of further time and effort in an attempt to achieve standardisation for standardisation's sake".
The hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles) assured you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that he was amidships. My speech will be in the steerage, but never fear it will be on the right side of the bulkhead, I hope.
I join in the tributes that have been paid to the morale of those who serve in most difficult circumstances in Northern Ireland—my constituents and everybody else's—but may I raise one question with the Minister. Some of us were unhappy this afternoon when my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield) raised the question of the way in which the Ministry of Defence gave information to bereaved people who were the kin of those who had been killed on active service.
I must say—as I told my hon. Friend I would—that I should not have put it in anything like that language. My experience is that when these accidents happen the Ministry is extremely good with relatives and goes to an enormous amount of trouble. But this exchange having taken place, perhaps the Minister who is to reply to the debate should say something about how relatives are informed in these most depressing and often sad and macabre circumstances.
Because of what has gone on earlier in the debate, and because of what happened this afternoon, it is reasonable to ask what is the philosophy of the Ministry of Defence and what rules are applied in bearing the news to relatives of those who have been either seriously injured or killed. In my view a telegram is a bad way of conveying the news, because it ought to be broken personally.
It may be that the view is taken that as soon as possible relatives should be informed of what has happened, and I do not disagree with that, but it would be better if a policeman or some other public official went to the house, knocked on the door and broke the news gently. I say that because if someone living alone receives one of these telegrams he could suffer a considerable shock, to put it mildly. All I say is that when people have this disastrous news broken to them it is important that they should not be alone, and I hope that we may have some comment from the Minister about the Minister's philosophy on this subject.
Secondly, I echo the thoughts of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) about the other place. I do so not in any sense of malice, or of being unjustfiably rude to the Minister, but because I think that there are problems for the House of Commons when the Secretary of State for Defence is in the other place, and I shall say why.
On talking to previous junior Ministers, in both Labour and Conservative Governments, one finds that the defence set up in this country is such that only the Secretary of State for Defence can give answers on certain questions. This inevitably means that his junior Ministers stall. It may be greatly to their own disadvantage that they do so, and it cannot be pleasant to have to stall, but this happens because the Cabinet Minister responsible for defence is in a unique position.
That being the situation, it is unfortunate from the point of view of the House of Commons that for a comparatively long time the Secretary of State for Defence, with all his authority, has not been in this House. I shall not stray out of order. I propose just to touch on a matter raised this afternoon and mentioned by the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester. He and I take different views on the Five-Power agreement in the Far East, but I think we would agree that this is a question of vital importance involving our relations with Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore, and that it should be answered at the level of the Foreign Secretary in this case the Secretary of State for Defence.
I have to concede that, but events have taken place in New Zealand. The assurance that one would like is that the Government are looking at contingency plans, because if they are not there will be a muck-up in that area of the world.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook said that the presence that is given to another place has certain side effects. I shall give a concrete example of something that bothers me greatly. A very important Bill has started in the other place. It is almost being slipped in. It is the Atomic Energy Weapon Authority—
Perhaps what I have to say will be taken across the ether by some kind of transmission. I am sure that the Ministry of Defence has taken the point, but I give notice that when it comes to the House there will be a tremendous miniscule interest and I hope that I shall be a member of the Committee.
I now propose to raise a matter about which I have had helpful correspondence with the Minister. This is the question of civilian discipline and the discipline that is intertwined with promotional prospects. I shall not name the individual, but I think the Minister will recall from the correspondence that he was in BAOR. Either the Minister or his private office have taken a great deal of trouble over the case but, on reading the correspondence, I am bothered about whether the Ministry of Defence, having given its word in one direction to rather senior civilian members of staff, has kept its word in a moral as opposed to a legalistic sense. I think that in the matter of promotional prospects it should be said that a Government Department—and the Ministry of Defence more than most—has an obligation to honour its word morally and legally. I leave it there.
Just to keep the right side of the bulkhead and not to earn any more ferocious looks I choose as my text Section 38 of the Armed Forces Act 1971, coupled with Section 42. This is on naval discipline. Other Government Departments know that I am very interested in the question of pollution, particularly from discharges into estuaries.
The report of the Royal Commission on Environmental pollution says in paragraph 27(c):
the amending legislation should remove the present exemption from control of discharges of sewage from all vessels, including Naval vessels, in 'controlled waters'.
The question that I have to ask is bang in order. It is bang amidships, to use the hon. Gentleman's words.
What kind of discipline will be applied to naval officers who are found guilty of not having carried out the recommendations which we hope will be made by the Department of the Environment on the discharge of sewage and pollution into estuarial waters? There is a wide range. Is it to be:
(a) death, (b) imprisonment, (c) dismissal with disgrace from Her Majesty's service, (d) dismissal from Her Majesty's service, (e) detention for a term not exceeding two years, (f) forfeiture of seniority for a specified term or
otherwise, (g) dismissal from the ship or naval establishment to which the offender belongs, (h) disrating, (i) fine, (j) severe reprimand, (k) reprimand, (l) in the case of an offence which has occasioned any expense, loss or damage, stoppages, that is to say, the recovery, by deductions from the offenders' pay, of a specified sum by way of compensation for the expense, loss or damage
(m) such minor punishments as may from time to time be authorised by the Defence Council"?
Concerned though I am about the estuarial coast of West Lothian and its pollution, I would not go for (a), (b) or (c)—death, imprisonment or dismissal with disgrace—because I am, on the whole, a humane man.
Serious, we should like to know the thinking of the Department, if it is to take Sir Eric Ashby and his Committee seriously, as it has said it will, on how that report can be implemented. The Ashley Committee is very concerned about the possible exclusion of naval vessels from the general code of conduct which will apply to all the merchant fleet.
Therefore, how are we to ensure that the Navy—I am not saying that they are the worst offenders, but there is some circumstantial evidence that they are offenders—will comply with the national and international agreements into which this country has entered in implementing the ideas of Sir Eric Ashby and, now, numerous Government committees? When a Government boast, as this Government did at the recent conference, about what they have done on dumping, they must be sure how they will implement the policy about which they have been boasting.
So it is absolutely in order, I think, to be given some inkling of how discipline should be applied to those found guilty on naval ships of breaking the pollution laws. This is a very important matter. If we have ships of the size of a £62 million through-deck cruiser—or more than one, as the hon Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) would have it—it becomes a very important problem.
That is my major point and an important one. Although I put it a little frivolously, I mean every word I say. It is very important tonight to have some sketch of departmental thinking on what is to be done about polluters in uniform, if there are such.
This debate is an important constitutional occasion, although, judging from the constraints of order, one might be forgiven for doubting it. I shall seek to support the continuation of the Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts and in doing so I shall refer to the relevant disciplinary, morale and personnel matters.
First, any hon. Member must pay a tribute at this time to the discipline and conduct and morale of Her Majesty's Forces in Northern Ireland. I should particularly like to do so as a West Yorkshire Member on the day after the day which brought the tragic announcement of the 100th death of a British soldier this year on active service in Northern Ireland—especially so as he came from West Yorkshire. The restraint, discipline and understanding of our troops, and the forbearing of their families as well, must be very widely welcomed and highly applauded by this House.
I should also like to pay a tribute to the discipline and bearing of the Ulster Defence Regiment, which also comes under these Acts. It has a particular burden and an especially difficult one. It does not return at the conclusion of its duty to guarded barracks. Its members take the dangers of their obligation back home with them and share them with their families. Few complaints have been levelled against their conduct on disciplinary grounds. Attempts by the terrorist organisations to intimidate Roman Catholics in particular to leave the regiment have also been manifest, but the regiment's conduct has been exemplary.
On the naval side, we have all been apprehensive at the implications of the fraud revelations. I welcome the very wide-ranging inquiry, extending to catering in all three Services, which my right hon. Friend has instituted. It has also, sadly, been a year marred by the Bingham spy affair. This is not an inappropriate occasion to re-emphasise the importance of good discipline and vigilance in the field of security. It is crucial to the defence of this country.
I had the honour to visit HMS "Ark Royal" just after Strong Express, one of the most significant and large-scale NATO exercises conducted in recent years, and I was impressed by the discipline of the Fleet Air Arm in its operations. Nothing calls for more discipline and efficiency than air operations at sea. I am sure that this has been brought home not only to my hon. Friend and his colleagues but to the NATO staffs as well.
I turn now to the Royal Air Force, and would like to refer to one aspect of its activities which is well known to the general public. It might not be so widely remembered, however, that, at the beginning of this exercise season for the Red Arrows there was a tragic accident which involved loss of life. None the less, the discipline of this Central Flying School team and the way that it carried out its training throughout the succeeding part of the season was exemplary. I believe that the general public appreciated it, and it was in large measure due to the morale and discipline of the Royal Air Force.
Both the Minister of State and the Secretary of State referred at some length and in detail to the redundancy scheme which is to affect 6 per cent. of Royal Air Force personnel. I will concern myself in this debate only with that part of the redundancy scheme which affects officers, because in supporting the continuation orders, we must know the strength of the Services to which the orders are to apply.
A matter as important as redundancy will affect the morale and discipline of the Service profoundly. The noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, in the other place, asked whether those officers made redundant would have a reserve liability. My noble friend, the Secretary of State, replied:
My Lords, I think they would, but if I am wrong, I will certainly let the noble Lord know.
This is a very important aspect, because the reserve elements of the Services are subject to the Discipline Acts just as much as the regular element. It is therefore important to know whether these personnel will have a reserve liability.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister of State will be aware that I would welcome it because they are personnel with an experience extending over many years, which has been acquired at great cost to the taxpayer. If this ex- perience were not utilised to the full in a reserve capacity, we should be anxious about it. I would therefore ask my hon. Friend to clarify this.
There was also some exchange about the terms of the redundancy, on which also there is need for clarification. The Secretary of State was not very clear on this point when he said:
The pension rights will be unaltered. The pensions will be smaller because of their shorter length of service, but they will get pensions."—[OFFICIAL, REPORT, House of Lords, 21st November, 1972; c. 919, 929.]
What I am asking my hon. Friend is, what happens to those who opt for the redundancy who have not yet reached the 38/16 year point of service? As my right hon. Friend knows, in normal circumstances they are not eligible for pension.
I should also like to ask about the lump sum which will be available for those who are made redundant. The lump sum is normally three times the annual rate of retirement pay. This time I believe that it will be that amount plus about 80 per cent. of 21 months' salary. I should like my right hon. Friend to clarify that point because it is important that the public and the Service men should know exactly the terms on which they should or may seek redundancy.
As this will affect the discipline of the Armed Forces very much over the next few years, I should also like to know how long a process my right hon. Friend considers that this redundancy will be. I am certain that it is a continuing process, one which will probably last about five years. My right hon. Friend suggested that we were only at the beginning of a process of rationalisation. Therefore, upon which branch of the Service will these redundancies impinge most heavily?
I am certain again that they will impinge most heavily upon the general duties branch, that is, the Flying Branch, which in peacetime has the greatest burdens in the disciplinary sense because its activities impinge most upon the general public. Here again, it is very important to know roughly how many general duties officers are likely to be made redundant over the next five years and in what categories of specialisation those redundancies will fall. The greater preponderance, I am sure, will be in the pilot category. I should like more information about this.
Looking beyond these categories, the discipline of the Service will be very much affected according to the seniority of those who will seek redundancy. In other words it is vital for Service men to know that they have an assured career. I should like my right hon. Friend to say whether the specialist aircrew scheme has proved a success and whether specialist aircrew are to be asked whether they wish to take advantage of this redundancy scheme.
I am certain that the greatest burden of redundancy will fall on the junior officer ranks, that is, those below the rank of Squadron Leader. If that is so, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that these are people who normally have several years potential active service ahead of them? Will he, therefore, consider using their experience in some productive reserve capacity?
This has been a useful debate. I regret, however, the limitations which have been imposed. We have had a number of hints about personnel matters and morale matters that very profoundly affect all three Services. One, the Royal Air Force redundancy scheme, which formed the heart of the speech of my noble Friend the Secretary of State in the other place, has not received much amplification in this House.
In view of the limitations drawn on the order and of my serving on the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, I have been tempted to try my luck in seeing whether I can remain in order for at least five minutes.
I am glad to see the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck) present. He is now elevated to higher climes. I remember his speech at the beginning of the debate on the Address when he was taking a trip around Colchester. He did that very nicely, but he omitted the part of his constituency I knew best. I think it is now called a corrective establishment. It was known differently in days past.
Many would not agree. However, we are debating matters related to discipline. The debate could have been broader and about the forces as a whole, as it used to be. I have been trying to recollect what I was being disciplined for at one time or another in my service. I should have thought that anything went then. At one time or another I was in trouble over various matters.
We are discussing whether the Acts should be continued for a further year, and obviously no one would disagree with that. I concur wholeheartedly with all that has been said in the House today about our forces in Northern Ireland and the disciplinary situation there. As a young guardsman involved in the situation in Palestine and Egypt and places such as those, I know what a terrific strain these situations can put on young Servicemen who are in them for the first time. When troops are at full stretch, they become irksome and tired. To a great extent, however, they are not always trained to the highest pitch of performance.
I recollect some of the nasty accidents that used to happen in places overseas, accidents not only between civilians and troops but also between the troops themselves. These were things beyond the normal machinations of the day. They were attributed to complete over-stretch, at times when the forces were having two hours on duty and two hours off, sleeping where they could, in their uniforms, with rifles tied to them, and so on. In such circumstances their ability to think and react 100 per cent. is impaired.
I am glad that the tour of duty of our troops in Northern Ireland is for only a short spell; the shorter the better. I do not think it could be shortened any more than it is at present. But there will always be a few incidents. What surprises me is that there are not many more. All the offences being alleged against our troops in Northern Ireland concern the normal thing one expects in this sort of confrontation. I am glad the Minister said the number of offences occurring in Northern Ireland is steadily decreasing. I think he said that they had decreased by half.
What worries me is the disciplinary end afterwards. I am becoming perturbed about the manner of the discipline that soldiers are having to take in these circumstances. Many young men join the Army intent on making it a career. At the tender age of 18 they are thrown into a situation such as that in Northern Ireland. For one mistake, through tiredness or irksomeness, they find themselves in trouble.
I am glad that my hon. Friend has mentioned the strains and tensions, particularly in a place like Northern Ireland. Would he not agree that the young soldier, aged about 18, who was fined £30 by his commanding officer for swearing at a civilian who had been taunting him was treated in a manner which was a little over the edge?
These may be isolated cases, but they are part of the symptoms I have mentioned.
I am more perturbed about the ending of a young man's career at the age of 18 or 19, and that of the long-serving soldier who has, perhaps, seven or eight years' service and who suddenly finds himself accidentally, through the pressures in Northern Ireland, on a charge. I am amazed that such men are now being discharged from the Army for offences which the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles) would agree at one time would have meant a belt on the ear from the RSM or a fortnight in the guardroom. I am worried about the number of people whose careers are being ended through this kind of thing.
Quite a few of my friends are still in the Regular Army and give me information about morale in Northern Ireland. I have encountered and spoken to our troops there. The morale of our troops serving in Northern Ireland is of the highest order. It always has been and it probably always will be, following the long tradition of the British Army.
I repeat my point that during difficult times such as these I should like to see generosity exercised towards a man who comes up for punishment and whose Army career is at stake because of one slip.
Some of the points which have been raised in this debate will be better dealt with in correspondence. If I tried to deal with some of the other points now, I should be unduly straining your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in view of the remarks you have made about the rules of order.
The most charitable explanation of the opening remarks of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) is that he felt hard up for something to say because of the strict limitations on this debate. It is not true to say that less information has been given on defence matters over the last few years. Much information has been given. Much more information is being given by the present Government to the Sub-Committees on Defence and Foreign Expenditure than has been given by any previous Government.
Both the hon. Gentleman and I have studied the constitution. For the hon. Gentleman to try to make a constitutional point about this matter having been debated a week ago in another place is carrying matters very far. The fact that the rules of order in another place are more lax than those here is nothing to do with the Government and does not affect the House of Commons.
The hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) found from talking to Ministers in the Labour Government that they had difficulty in knowing what was going on because the Secretary of State was the only one who knew. The communications are much better in this Government than they were in the past evidently.
I did not say that the communications were bad. I said it was a question of the authority with which Ministers in this peculiarly sensitive Department felt entitled to speak. That is rather different point.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that the point I made was not made in any frivolous spirit or in terms of party debate. The complaint I made at the opening of my speech was the same one that I made at 2.40 p.m. on behalf of some of my hon. Friends who felt that they had received less than courtesy in one of the Minister of State's replies. A similar complaint was made by one of his hon. Friends. The only thing that unites the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and me is our belief that the information coming from the Minister of State and his colleagues has been inadequate.
It has been a recurrent complaint under every Government that the Defence Department and other Government Departments do not give the House enough information. The facts bear out my contention that the present Government have given rather more information than previous Governments.
I assure the hon. Member for Spark-brook that recruiting was down by only 10 per cent. on last year. The decline is roughly what we expected. It would be silly to make an exact prediction of our expectations month by month. We neither strive for nor achieve exactitude.
The hon. Gentleman was unduly alarmist in talking about re-engagement rates. I do not think they have fallen. The hon. Gentleman may have been misled by the Royal Air Force, which has purposely reduced its re-engagement. The hon. Gentleman is on to an important point, however, because we all agree that re-engagement and reduction of wastage are every bit as important as maintaining recruitment.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about pay, a subject on which, in deference to the original ruling, I did not embark. The hon. Gentleman asked me to be staggeringly precise. This is what I will aim to be. The hon. Gentleman asked me to say that if the pay review body recommended a pay increase next April we would certainly implement it, whatever the Government's pay policy was at that time.
The full two-year period will not be up until 1974, so we cannot be sure that in 1973 the pay review body will recommend a pay increase. As we do not know that and as we do not know what the position will be with the Government's pay policy at that time, I cannot be more staggeringly precise in my answer.
The hon. Gentleman also talked about complaints, as did the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) from a rather different angle. The hon. Member for Mansfield talked in an understanding and experienced way about the over-stretch from which our forces in Northern Ireland are likely to suffer.
The Army is in a difficulty about investigating them. We understand the considerable importance of investigating complaints. The analogy with the police force has been used. Where possible we like to act on that analogy, but there is a considerable legal difficulty.
We investigate individual complaints. I draw a distinction between the individual and the general complaints. The general complaints are sheer propaganda and nonsense. A minor incident is normally exaggerated by people who magnify it into a great drama. It then becomes an alleged civil offence. It therefore has to be referred to the civil authorities and the Army cannot investigate it because it becomes sub judice. Some of the propagandist attempts by people complaining about the Army take matters out of the Army's jurisdiction.
I entirely agree with what my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles) said about the high standards in the forces, though I do not think I can follow him into East of Suez and Harriers.
It will be best if I write to the hon. Member for West Lothian about the case to which he referred without naming it.
Do I detect any note of complacency? The Ashby Committee has specifically drawn attention to the naval requirement that for some reason it should be excluded from the pollution laws that are to govern the rest of shipping. If that is the situation the case must be made out, at any rate in peacetime, for excluding the Navy. It should be for the committee, not an individual hon. Member, to make that point. When it comes to the debate on the Third Report of the Environment Committee I shall be raising the matter and I hope that the Ministry of Defence will take avoiding action.
That is an important point and no one will seek to dispute it. I was seeking to suggest, however, that it was not a subject suitable for detailed scrutiny in tonight's debate.
The hon. Member spoke about informing next-of-kin of casualties and he suggested that the news should be broken by a personal call on the next-of-kin. That is often done. We take great trouble in these distressing cases and sometimes a policeman or a member of the unit calls personally. It is impossible, however, to avoid casualties being reported, and once they have been reported great anxiety is naturally created for other families. There is therefore a real difficulty here. We are doing what we can and we are taking into account everything that has been said.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Wilkinson) asked about the reserve liability of officers who are made redundant. Those officers will have the same reserve liability as other officers who leave the Service. They will get a proportion of their pension, that proportion being related to their length of service. As my hon. Friend suggested, this is a continuing process and it will take a number of years. If there are any further points which I should have dealt with but have not taken up. I shall write to the hon. Member.
Can my hon. Friend, with the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force, consider expanding the training commitment of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve in case some of those who have such a reserve liability want actively to be able to pursue at least some of their former RAF skills?
I take note of what my hon. Friend says, but I cannot pursue the matter now.
The debate was concluded on a very good note from the back benches by the hon. Member for Mansfield, who spoke most understandingly about the difficulties of our forces in Northern Ireland and the troubles they have to deal with. I believe that he exaggerated the number of people who have had to end their army service because of what has happened in Northern Ireland. I shall, however, compute the figures and let him have them later.
I thought the general drift of the hon. Member's remarks was that the stresses and strains were greater in Northern Ireland than elsewhere.
Although it has been a narrow debate and there has been criticism of the Government and the Ministry of Defence, there has been no criticism of our Armed Forces. I believe this to be indicative of the general esteem in which they are held.
I was unable to hear the Minister's earlier speech, but I do not want to let the occasion pass, having sat through 10 or 12 Sessions of the Select Committee, without taking up one of the questions we asked in the Committee. I refer to the situation in the Armed Forces in relation to drugs we were given assurances in the course of our inquiries. In my experience offences in the Armed Forces do not run exactly parallel with those in civil life which I have to deal with from time to time, but there is a certain degree of parallel. I am sorry to give the Minister such short notice, but I believe that there is a problem and I do not think the matter is as happy as I was told it was in the Select Committee.
I have just returned from speaking to Servicemen in distant parts of the globe. Is the Minister entirely happy about the situation? Can we declare a clean bill of health or has the Minister applied his mind to whether there is a full and proper knowledge about whether a problem exists? The armed forces of other countries certainly have a problem on a major scale. If the Minister is able to tell us that there is no problem in our Armed Forces, I shall be perfectly happy with that.
I should be making an exaggerated claim if I said that I had applied my mind very closely to the problem. I have not. As far as I know, we have a considerably smaller problem than some of the armed forces to which the right hon. Gentleman has probably been referring. I should like to give him a considered reply but as far as I know there is no reason for undue concern. I should be very surprised if the situation was not very much better in the Armed Forces than it is anywhere else.