Before I call the Minister to move the draft Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts (Continuation) Order 1977, I should point out to the House, as other occupiers of the Chair have had to do on similar occasions in the past, that the scope of the debate is fairly narrow. All that the order seeks to do is to continue in existence for a further period the Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts. While, therefore, it will be in order to argue that one or more of those Acts ought to continue because of what is in them, the Chair would be bound to check any argument that the Acts ought to be amended or extended to cover matters that they do not at present cover.
With the exception of a few minor provisions, the Acts relate entirely to matters of discipline. References to other detailed subjects affecting Service life or to general defence policy would be quite out of order.
I beg to move,
That the draft Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts (Continuation) Order 1977, which was laid before this House on 13th June, be approved.
The purpose of the order is to continue in force the Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts for a further year—that is to say, until 31st August next year.
The House will recall that the Armed Forces Bill 1975, when introduced into the House, provided for the abolition of the annual continuation order. It was considered at the time that a number of alternative opportunities to debate the affairs of the Services existed and that the abolition of the continuation order would save valuable parliamentary time.
However, during the Second Reading debate a number of right hon. and hon. Members voiced concern at the prospective loss of this opportunity to discuss Service disciplinary matters. The Committee on the Bill shared that concern and amended the Bill to provide for the retention of this annual continuation order debate. The order was to be considered in the summer—rather than in the autumn as in the past—so that it could be linked with a general debate on defence matters. The Bill received Royal Assent on 26th October 1976 and it included that provision. This is, therefore, the first occasion upon which a continuation order has been moved since the Armed Forces Act 1976 came into force.
I am seized of the tightness with which the rules of order bind us on this occasion and I do not seek to make a long speech about the essence of the order or about what it implies. It might be of convenience to the House if I sought to catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so that I could seek to reply then to any points that may have been raised by hon. Members.
The standards of discipline that are required of Britain's Armed Forces are, rightly, second to none in the world. I know that in all quarters of the House there will be agreement that our Armed Forces fully live up to the expectations imposed upon them by Parliament and our people in circumstances that are frequently hazardous and trying. Our Armed Forces have earned for themselves a splendid reputation and it is no exaggeration to say that no army from anywhere else in the world could have acquitted itself with the honour and reputation that the British Army has achieved in its handling over some nine to 10 years of the critical situation in Northern Ireland. On behalf of the Opposition I wish to pay tribute to the courage and devotion to duty of the Armed Forces in spite of all the difficulties and hazards that have been in their way.
We should bear in mind—and this is a matter that bears directly on military discipline—that more than any other section of the community the Armed Forces in Northern Ireland have long hours and that involves them in substantial family separation. It is not only the Army in Northern Ireland, because, of course, the Air Force is also involved there. RAF helicopter pilots are sent from Odiham on a six weeks in, six weeks out basis and Royal Marines are also involved. One cannot ignore that and dissociate the military discipline to which they are subjected from their pay and conditions.
It was a basic part of the military salary concept that the Armed Forces should have full comparability with their civilian counterparts in matters of pay specifically to make up for the fact that they are subjected to military discipline while other sections of the community are not. Indeed, that was so far taken into account—and required to be taken into account—by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body when it was established that there was the addition of the so-called "X" factor which, as the Secretary of State informed us the other day, is reckoned at 10 per cent. That is notionally a 10 per cent, increase on comparable pay in civilian life. However, the Armed Forces today not only do not receive that 10 per cent, increase over and above what is comparable—
While I should not in any way seek to controvert your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I respectfully submit that, since a major part of the maintenance of military discipline relates to the maintenance of a high standard of morale among Her Majesty's Forces, that also means that there is a difficulty when the Armed Forces are subjected to a situation in which they have wholly lost comparability with the civilian sector and when they are required under the code of military discipline to respond to orders to work for 100 nours or more a week, particularly in Northern Ireland or elsewhere, such as on the high seas. This matter also affects personnel in the RAF.
I fully accept that we are here to discuss discipline, but I find it difficult to imagine that the various matters that directly impinge on discipline can in no way be touched upon. For example, the incidence of Armed Forces personnel having cheques bouncing or becoming involved in matters that directly involve breaches of the code of military discipline which arise specifically from the pressures put upon them by their pay and conditions—and one would have hoped that this was something—
Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that I said a moment ago that references to other detailed subjects affecting Service life, or to general defence policy, would be quite out of order.
I shall certainly accept your guidance on that point, Mr. Deputy Speaker. None the less, there are aspects of the military discipline code that are currently in danger of being infringed and that are, indeed, being infringed as a result of the circumstances to which we are not allowed to make reference in this debate. It has reached the point where in certain units there are privates and non-commissioned officers who are already making representations for the redress of grievances under Queen's Regulations—and that is something that they are specifically entitled to do—about matters of pay, to which I shall no longer make reference.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Are you saying that the House should avoid the matter of Service pay altogether? There is no way in which—and I put this to you with the utmost respect, Mr. Deputy Speaker—we can seek to impose discipline upon many thousands of men and women and to impose a disciplinary code that is unique to the Armed Forces and applies to no other part of national life unless we can also consider, perhaps in passing, their other conditions.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I entirely take your point that we do not want a free and wide-ranging debate on the general aspects of Service policy. However, there must be aspects of Service policy that affect disciplinary matters and surely hon. Members on both sides of the House must be allowed to refer to those matters to the extent that they impinge on Service discipline.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would you reconsider your decision in view of what has been said? After all, these men are serving the country in extremely difficult circumstances. The separation from their families and such minor remuneration as they receive is part and parcel of their lives. Must that not affect this debate on discipline? I say this with great respect. There have been times when such matters have been reconsidered and I wonder whether, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you would consider thinking about it again.
I am asked to reconsider the matter. I ask the hon. and learned Gentleman to look at the precedents that are well-established and appear in Hansard on many occasions. I should be quite out of order to take it upon myself to go contrary to those precedents.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am concerned and uncertain about the position. Fortunately, we have no mutiny in the Fleet or riot in the Army, and nor are we likely to have such occurrences, but discipline in the Forces includes an obligation not to question the terms of pay and conditions. Service men are not able to hold a conference at Tynemouth or anywhere else to consider their terms of pay. This is part of the disciplinary procedures. Is it not possible to raise the broader question of discipline of the Forces in so far as it affects the fact that Service men must accept their conditions of pay unquestioningly?
There are general debates on the Services and it appears that they would be the occasions on which to deal with such matters. I recall that we were dealing with exactly those points not many days ago. I ask the House to confine itself to what is in the order and not to matters outside it.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You referred to precedents and you will be aware that this debate has been going on annually in one form or another for more than 300 years. It has traditionally been regarded as an opportunity for the House to exercise control over the discipline and activities of the Armed Forces of the Crown. I am not questioning the right of the Chair to make new departures, but I submit that it is a new departure for the House not to have the opportunity of discussing matters that are directly related to military discipline.
I do not believe that any of my colleagues seeks to go wide of what is on the Order Paper. The motion relates to military discipline and, provided that we stick to what is on the Order Paper and relate our remarks specifically to military discipline, I do not see how this could be regarded as being out of order. Looking back at debates over the past four or five years, I see that there have been frequent interventions from the Chair and injunctions not to take the debate too wide, but references have been permitted to matters that are directly related to discipline.
I ask you to reconsider your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because otherwise it appears that this business must go through on the nod and it is of such importance to the Armed Forces and to the nation that many of us would feel that the House had done itself an injustice if that were to happen.
That is correct. We are debating whether the Acts should continue for another year. I do not believe that there is any basic dispute between the two sides of the House on this matter. However, we are surely entitled to refer to matters directly impinging on that discipline. If not, we are wasting our time. Naturally it suits the convenience of the Minister to have business go through on the nod, but that is not what we were sent here for.
There has been no change of precedent on this matter under this Government or previous Governments. My Conservative predecessor as Minister of State was under exactly the same contraints as I am. I have a binder full of information that it would be in order to discuss. If the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill) has not consulted the precedents or is so incompetent that he cannot keep within the rules of order, that is his fault. If anyone is detaining the House, it is he.
If the hon. and learned Gentleman will be kind enough to look at, for example, the 1972 debate, he will find enunciated there, after a review of debates that have taken place over a number of years, precisely the principles that I am enunciating.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Precedent has no bearing on this debate because we are in an unprecedented situation for the Services, especially in regard to their pay. If we do not ventilate this matter because we have not done so in the past, it is entirely meaningless for the Government to put the order before the House.
I am a servant of the House. All that I can do is to work within the orders that have been set out for my assistance. I can do only what the House has asked me to do, and that is what I am trying to do.
The Minister took me to task and explained that both his pre-decessors and mine had traditionally accepted that these motions should go through on the nod. He accused me of not doing my homework, but he cannot justify that. Perhaps he would care to refer to the 1972 debate in which his right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), who was the Opposition spokesman, said:
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 do not know how that is possible if the sort of speech which the Minister has begun to make is not in order.
Later, he said:
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."—[Official Report, 30th November 1972; Vol. 847, c. 704–7.]
He referred in detail to recruiting, re-engagement, morale, and the pay review body in a speech that took up eight columns of Hansard.
If we are imposing a strict code of military discipline on the men and women of our Armed Forces, we should be able to discuss any justifiable grievances that they may have that directly impinge on the code of discipline.
With respect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on previous occasions, going back at least for the past five years, we have been able to have some modicum of debate on matters relating directly to discipline in the Armed Forces. If your ruling is so narrow, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that we cannot even refer to disciplinary matters, I am at a loss to understand the purpose of the debate. It is something that the Armed Forces will find difficult to understand. They will be faced with the fact that the House is passing through this piece of legislation requiring them to be subject to Queen's Regulations for another 12 months without considering the grievances that they have made clear in recent weeks. It is a matter of great regret. We owe an apology to those who serve in the Armed Forces with such distinction, those long-suffering—
Order. The hon. Gentleman is overlooking the fact that the debate has been held in the House again and again and that there is ruling after ruling on this issue. For example, in 1965 Mr. Speaker ruled:
This debate is very narrow. It may have been broadened … 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. 973.]
I could give the hon. Gentleman a whole series of similar rulings. There is no more apology that needs to be given to the Armed Forces this year than on any of the other occasions.
Consideration of the order by this honourable House should be very much more than a formality. It should not be approved in present circumstances, and I shall consider, by listening to the debate, whether I shall urge my hon. Friends to vote against it.
The order should not be passed in present circumstances for a particular reason. We are being asked to authorise the Secretary of State and the Government to impose for a further 12 months a code of discipline that is unique in our national life. It applies to nobody except the Armed Forces. I am not saying anything against the code. It is an admirable code. It is entirely necessary for the conduct of the Forces and it is completely understood by both officers and men in the three Services. That can be said without any doubt.
The code is justly, fairly and reasonably administered within the Forces. I do not think that there is any question about that. It is not too much to say that the code produces the pride in the Services that is the characteristic of the men and women in our Armed Forces. It produces the individual loyalty to ship, squadron or regiment. It produces an Army, Navy and Air Force that are the envy of most of our partners in NATO. As has been already said, they are admired wherever they go throughout the world.
It is not fair to impose this discipline upon Service men unless they are properly rewarded for their service. It means that under the code that we are asked to renew, soldiers, sailors and airmen are in a completely different category from any other person employed in the United Kingdom, including any other category of public servant or Government employee.
The plain fact is that any other employed person has a means of effectively representing any disadvantages under which he or she believes himself or herself to be suffering. It seems that just about anyone in England can resort to withdrawal of labour, or what is euphemistically called industrial action. Recent events have seen that state of affairs existing de facto among groups that are theoretically or legally unable to withdraw their labour. I appreciate that I should be immediately out of order if I were to refer more than just in passing to the postal workers and the Grunwick dispute. This is not the moment to discuss whether the state of affairs that 1 have mentioned is good or bad. whether it is for better or worse for the nation. The only point that I am making is that the Services are in a unique and special position.
That being so, a particular responsibility towards them lies on the shoulders of the Secretary of State, who is not here, and on the Minister of State and other Ministers representing the three Services. Those Ministers are, so to speak, the only friends in court of Service men and Service women. It is my submission that Ministers are not fulfilling that duty towards Service men and women. I am not so worried about the conditions of service day by day within the Armed Forces. To a large extent, those conditions are within the control of the commanding officers and the officers of the Service units.
There is a small correction that should be made to the hon. and gallant Gentleman's remarks. He said that Ministers are the only friends in court of serving officers and personnel of the Armed Forces. I think that he will agree that hon. Members on both sides of the House have very much in mind the interests of those concerned.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We are trying to do our duty but we are suffering a slight impediment in carrying it out. I think exactly as the hon. Gentleman in this respect. We should be here to represent our views in accordance with our duty. As you understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker, some of us are at a loss to understand why we should find it so difficult.
The training of officers involves great emphasis upon concern for the welfare of their men. That is drummed into officers from the earliest days of their training. It is always pointed out to them that it is the men who are the greatest single factor, not weapons or technicalities. Conditions of service are under the control of individual officers, with the exception of pay and allowances. Those matters are clearly not within the control of uniformed officers. Only the Government have control. I believe that the Government are not playing fairly at present.
This subject was recently debated. The debate on the generalities, and especially on pay within the Forces, has not received enough attention from the Government. We have not had an adequate answer from the Government.
With the utmost respect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it is discipline that we are discussing. That is what I am keen to discuss. I am anxious to keep in order in doing so.
Discipline is directly related to the attention that conditions and discipline within the Forces receive, especially from the media. You know and I know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, how men within a ship who are cut off from outside contact are extremely interested or thrilled when some attention is paid to their pay, disciplinary conditions and other conditions by the media or by us in this House.
I was saying that the debate on the broader issues has not received sufficient attention from the Government, from the Secretary of State or from the Prime Minister. Not enough fuss was made by the Opposition. Only two Government Back Benchers spoke. I believe that no Liberals or nationalists spoke.
The debate that we had about Service conditions, including discipline, which was the most important aspect of it, did not receive enough attention from the Opposition Benches to keep the debate going throughout the day. I very much regret that fact.
Much more telling than anything else in this context was the remark made by the commanding officer of the 3rd Battalion Light Infantry in Northern Ireland faced with the difficult problem of maintaining discipline within his unit when it went to Northern Ireland and came under fire from a sniper on its first day there. He said "The Government get a better Army than they deserve". That was a much more telling remark than anything that I could say either in or out of order this afternoon.
I understand that we must not go over the debate on Forces' pay. However, we know that it has not kept pace on a comparability basis with other workers. The Secretary of State and the Government know that.
Yes, 1 heard it, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I entirely take your point. I was concluding that part of my speech by saying that the Government are sheltering behind the skirts of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, which is not doing its job properly.
Turning to another subject and keeping strictly in order, I am not one who wants more industrial muscle within the forces by way of trade unions. Nor do the Service men themselves want that. I am sure I am right in saying, because my bamboo wires still work, that Service men do not want anything like that.
I am not one who thinks that morale is bad in the Armed Forces. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have tended to say, when making points about pay, which we must not do now, that the morale of the Armed Forces is bad. I do not think that it is. From recent observance, I believe that it is marvellously good given all the circumstances. It is not yet bad. It is still amazingly good. It is a great tribute to the Armed Forces.
However, any serving or retired officer knows what is in the minds of our Service men and women. The Secretary of State and his Ministers must know that the Government are not playing fair with our Armed Forces. The nation must ask itself the simple question "Are we being fair to our Service men?" The answer is "No.".
Men and women go into the Armed Forces not for profit but to do a worthwhile job under the disciplinary conditions that we are discussing today. Even if they cannot be rewarded generously, they should be rewarded fairly, but they are not. Until they are, I do not think that this disciplinary code should be imposed upon them. Therefore, I am opposed to the order.
I listened with great care and attention to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles), who deployed his points with great skill and perhaps with some difficulty in view of the confines of the discussion, which we understand. However, contrary to my hon. and gallant Friend, I support the order, which renews the provisions of the Acts governing disciplinary conduct for each of the three services.
Discipline is the corner-stone in each of our three Services. It is very much to their credit that discipline is held so high and is so successful in the Services. We have only to look at the conduct of our Forces in Northern Ireland to realise that we are resting on the benefits of discipline properly executed and carried out. I think that we should specifically consider the officers and non-commissioned officers who enforce discipline. After all, it is important that discipline is neither too harshly nor too leniently applied. When we consider all three Services, but with particular reference to Northern Ireland, we can appreciate that the recipe is right. The leadership given by our officers and non-commissioned officers is second to none in the way that discipline is carried out.
In referring to Northern Ireland, I think that as a by-product of discipline and conduct there we should pay tribute to our Forces for their immense patience and steadiness amid all the anxieties and difficulties with which they have to deal. It must be a difficult task for men who have suffered the loss of a companion or fellow officer who has become the victim of the cruel and vicious activities in Northern Ireland. It is the discipline within our Armed Forces that enables them to sustain those losses and to carry on with their job unaffected by them.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House who were fortunate enough to see Her Majesty's review of the Fleet at Spit-head will, I am sure, have come away with the distinct impression that the discipline, which was so evident, is as good as it has ever been and that the Royal Navy put on an immensely valuable and impressive show.
Those who visited the ships at anchor in the review will have been impressed by the amazing smartness of the ships and the general well-being and good spirits of our sailors. It is some time since there have been any difficulties in the Fleet. Of course one recalls the mutiny at Spit-head, but that was many years ago. It is a source of great pride that the Fleet is so well conducted. I cannot think of any particular disciplinary problems that have arisen. That, to my mind, is one reason for wanting to ensure that the present standards of discipline are continued. Therefore, I think that the order should be approved today.
I referred to discipline as being fundamental to the the three Services. But it is also fundamental to the conduct of civilians who are covered by the Acts in regard to secret information, which is vital to all our Services and to the security of the country. It is immensely important that our secret information is kept secret and that we take all necessary precautions to ensure proper discipline is exercised to prevent possible spy activities.
The discipline governing the morale and actions of those serving in our Armed Forces is only one aspect of the general conduct that evolves from it. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester referred fleetingly to pay and conditions in the Services. Of course, pay and conditions are as important as discipline. It is for the Government to ensure that the areas referred to by my hon. and gallant Friend are appreciated and that we understand that a breakdown of discipline could occur if the general and reasonable demands of our Forces were not heeded.
The general conditions governed by these Discipline Acts are another aspect of service in the Armed Forces. I propose to refer particularly to service in the Royal Navy. Conditions have got better and better. Some of the old discipline sections would not necessarily apply now. The general conditions on board ship have greatly improved. I speak from having served on board ship and slept in hammocks. Ships now have cabins and bunks and generally better accommodation than in the old days. I hope that these better conditions, which have contributed to the good discipline of the Forces, are not brought in at the sacrifice of the weaponry that we necessarily need in our ships.
Undoubtedly the general conduct which is so good in our Forces—in particular in the Royal Navy—rests not only on discipline but on the conditions for which the discipline was designed. With the change of conditions, we must be careful that we do not sacrifice any of the Navy's fighting power. That is what discipline is really about. It is about having the crew ready and willing, in a state of anticipation to fight off any aggression and to use the ship to its fullest. Our Forces are an example to others throughout the world. Undoubtedly the discipline which is the cornerstone of that high standard is something that other nations will need to study carefully if they are to reach our standards.
I turn now to the Discipline Acts themselves. I should like to speak about courts martial. Many people believe that a court martial is a rather amateur approach to the way in which the defendant is defended. He is defended by a friend and officer, perhaps from his own ship or regiment. The system works extremely well. There is a good appeals procedure. We have a system of corrective investigation which decides what punishment is applicable and which works with fairness. I have always believed that fairness is the most essential part of discipline. It has to be applied in a straightforward and organised way. That is what courts martial achieve.
Many crimes are committed in the Forces. The one that stands out in the Navy is that of sleeping on watch. It carries a sentence of imprisonment. Anybody who is found sleeping on watch damages his own reputation and that of the part of the ship for which he is responsible. That crime could also have a devastating effect on the ability of the ship to carry out its tasks. I am thinking of navigation through difficult waters, dealing with a fishing problem or with an aggressive situation involving an enemy submarine, for instance. There is no doubt that sleeping on watch is the most heinous of crimes. I can think of a number of people who might have been found guilty of that and who would never again be caught asleep wherever they were.
Another crime is that of neglect of duty. Sleeping on watch is part of that neglect. All Service men have a duty to keep awake when on duty. The offence of neglect of duty is punishable by dismissal with disgrace. I cannot think of anything worse than being dismissed with disgrace.
A Service man may also be charged with conduct which is to the prejudice of naval discipline. There are various scales of punishment for that. Loss of pay is the punishment which affects the soldier, sailor or airman most. His pay is vital to him and his family, and he may lose some of it for a minor offence. For instance, a Service man might return late from being on shore or on vacation. He would then be brought up before the first lieutenant. His case might be taken to the captain's table, to the adjutant and on to the commanding officer's table.
Losing a day's pay is a real penalty these days because pay is now so important in the Forces. There is so little of it. Considering the many tasks that Servicemen have to perform, including serving in Northern Ireland, pay rates fall well below those that one might expect outside the Services. To lose one or two days' pay is a severe discipline.
A Service man might also be disciplined by being disrated. Pay comes into this because a Service man receives less pay for the lower rate. That would have an effect on his family. The wife of a Service man might feel somewhat disgruntled because of today's conditions. The wife of a Service man has to put up with many vicissitudes. Her husband might be sent on an assignment to Northern Ireland, for instance. That puts a strain on the family.
The Discipline Acts ensure the welfare of the Serviceman and his family. That is another reason for wanting the order to be approved. The welfare of our Service men and their families is important. The way in which their problems are tackled by civilians and officers who advise and look after Service men during periods of difficulty is a corner-stone of discipline.
A Service man might conduct himself well on most occasions, but there might be a time when things go wrong. For instance, he might get into difficulties with housing. Many Servicemen have problems when they let their homes and cannot get the tenants out. A wife might not be able to cope with a child in a hotel. Under those circumstances, the other side of the coin comes into play.
The Service man knows that he can rely on his officers to ensure that all the available assistance will be given to him. That is part of the fairness of discipline. A Service man might have been exemplary, but he knows that when things are not good for him he can rely on the discipline providing a solution by means of welfare assistance.
We must reflect on the Discipline Acts to ensure that they move with the times. We must ensure that they are fairly and reasonably carried out. That depends on the officer and non-commissioned officer structure. They must take a sensitive and sensible approach to the Acts. I have no doubt that they will always continue to carry out these tasks fairly and properly.
We must ensure that the training of our officers involves leadership and discipline. I am sure that it does and that it will continue to do so. It is important that we should not lose sight of the importance of ensuring that discipline is fully maintained and understood. The understanding of discipline is important. For instance, if there is difficulty on board a ship, the lower deck is cleared and the riot act is read. That is a pretty salutary experience for everyone on board, because everyone understands the consequences that his actions will bring about under the Discipline Acts. When men know that, they know the whole picture and the result that will occur if their actions are contrary to the Discipline Acts. It is the transmission of this formation, which is itself a part of the Discipline Acts, that is of such vital importance.
We see our Forces today at a high standard of condition. I think that during this debate we can congratulate all our Forces on the excellent way in which they conduct themselves and on the way in which they have shown that they apply discipline in exactly the right way. This is shown whenever there is a parade or a review, and when there is a difficult task that needs to be taken care of, the Forces rise to the occasion. It is the discipline, morale and spirit that always bring them through on top.
It is always useful for us to have a debate on the Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts. It is somewhat infrequent for us to have a debate of this nature. These Acts put a certain section of the population under very different conditions legally from those of the rest of the population. Therefore, it is always helpful to examine the Acts in the House.
I am rather surprised, however, that the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill) and the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles) should try to introduce the question of pay into this discussion and to indicate dissatisfaction with the pay of the Armed Forces.
The order refers to the Army Act 1955. I have discovered what the "b" in brackets means. It relates to Chapter 18, Section 151—"Deductions from pay for maintenance of wife or child". I do not know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, whether you have had the opportunity of seeing it. It seems to me of great importance.
What I have had the opportunity of seeing is the reports of earlier debates on similar orders. I have repeated the rulings that have been given by those occupying the Chair on previous occasions. As long as those precedents are left as they are, I do not think I can say anything that can alter what I have already said.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Precedent is always of interest and importance in these matters, but, of course, the discretion remains, as it always does, with the Chair. When one consults precedents, one should also consult the relevant section of the Act. To my mind, Section 151 of the Army Act 1955 is something that should be brought to your attention immediately.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Perhaps I may draw your attention and that of the House to the third paragraph on page 743 of "Erskine May", which states,
By the procedure laid down in the legislation of 1955, Parliament, in addition to their control over the number of the naval, military and air forces, and the yearly sums to be appropriated for their support, reserve to themselves the power of determining whether a standing army shall be kept in being in time of peace.
It would appear from that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that it would be in order to discuss whether we should have Armed Forces at all, what size they should be—
Order. This only shows how important it is to deal with one point of order at a time. Perhaps I can deal with them in reverse order. The point raised by the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill) would not arise under this order. As to the point raised by the hon. and learned Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Crowder), I have already allowed those matters to be dealt with in a peripheral way, and I think that we cannot take them any further.
I apologise. And Northwood—principally, if necessary. The hon. and learned Member's intervention rather emphasised the point I was making. That was that I was rather surprised that Opposition Members should have attempted to make this debate an opportunity for raising the whole question of the pay and conditions of service of the Armed Forces. I have taken part in these debates for over 20 years. I cannot recollect any previous occasion when anyone has attempted to raise the general question of pay in any debate on the Discipline Acts.
I shall address myself to that point in a few moments, but I give the hon. and gallant Member the short answer that I certainly do not think that it is necessary to do so now.
Without in any way seeking to question your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, perhaps I may say that, if the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Cronin) casts his mind back, I think he will remember that up to a few years ago these debates ranged much wider, although it is true that they have not done so over the last few years.
Order. Perhaps I should tell the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sir I. Gilmour) that I have had the privilege of looking at the report of the debate in 1972, in which he took part. I think he will find that it was not very different then from what it has been more recently.
I appreciate that the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sir I. Gilmour) also wants to raise questions of pay in this debate. I agree that on previous occasions the debate has ranged quite widely, but not in such an erratic way on a matter that is completely out of order. I am surprised that right hon. and hon. Members should take this attitude. It indicates a sort of a naivety about parliamentary affairs which is hardly consistent with an intelligent representation of the affairs of the Armed Forces.
Perhaps I may refer the hon. Member to what his right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) said on 30th November, 1972. The right hon. Member said:
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."—[Official Report, 30th November 1972; Vol. 847, c. 711.]
He then went on to speak, with no interruption from the Chair or the opposite side of the House, for a period that required four columns in Hansard on the question of pay.
At the end of those four columns, I think that the hon. Member will find a very clear ruling by the Chair, which was exactly the same as that which has been given today.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. With great respect to you, at the end of those four columns the debate was interrupted by Royal Assent, and the Opposition spokesman, the right hon. Member for Spark-brook, was able to complete all his remarks in relation to the pay of the Armed Forces without being brought to order by the Chair in any way.
I think that all hon. Members have a very high opinion of the integrity of the hon. Member for Stretford, but if he quotes something from Hansard of 1972 as representing a reason or a precedent for discussing pay and conditions, and then fails to quote from that same document that it was ruled completely out of order—
In the debate to which I referred, there was no ruling by Mr. Speaker after the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook had made that statement. Mr. Speaker's ruling came within the first five minutes of the debate. The right hon. Member for Sparkbrook was not interrupted or ruled out of order.
I become more and more puzzled by the nit-picking attitude towards parliamentary procedure adopted by Opposition Members. In the Opposition, we have a group of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen who seriously represent themselves as an alternative Government, but they are adopting bogus methods of trying to achieve changes in the conditions of service of the Armed Forces. I cannot imagine that this augers well for the future, if by any chance there were to be a Conservative Government in the distant future.
What upsets me is that although those right hon. and hon. Gentlemen are shedding tears about the conditions of pay in the Armed Forces, they are obviously crocodile tears, because when these matters were being discussed when the last Conservative Government were in office Conservative Ministers adopted a most obdurate attitude. I shall leave this subject because I do not want to transgress in the way that Opposition Members have done.
One cannot help being impressed with the very effective way in which the Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts have been administered. In fairness, I should say that this is true not merely under the present Government but also under Governments of long ago. There is good sense and practised leniency as well as a sense of what is right, which commands admiration on practically all occasions. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Undersecretary of State for Defence for the Army on the very forthright and sensible way in which he interpreted Army discipline, and the wishes of the general public, in the recent case of rape which came before the Court of Criminal Appeal recently. This was a very horrible case of rape—
If I may put the record correct, I think that my hon. Friend is misadvised. If my hon. Friend was referring to the Holdsworth case, it was a case not of rape but of grievous bodily harm.
I think that my next sentence will make clear that I am completely in order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. One cannot help being impressed at the way in which my hon. Friend the Undersecretary of State immediately used the procedures under the Army Act in a really effective way which is consistent with justice and with public opinion, even though the Court of Criminal Appeal clearly failed in its duty. I have made my point and I shall not transgress by going further into that subject.
I totally disagree with the intervention of the hon. and learned Gentleman, but I cannot refer to his intervention because if I do so I shall be out of order. There have been so many interruptions in my speech that this is the first time I have considered that speaking in the House is a gymnastic exercise.
One cannot help being impressed with the discipline in the three Services. I have visited the Army, Navy and Air Force on numerous occasions and, like many hon. Members on both sides, I was present at the splendid exibition at Spit-head last week when we saw sailors and marines manning ships' sides for hours at a time under wet, cold conditions that the Armed Forces of some other countries would not have found tolerable. It was an indication of the excellent discipline in the Royal Navy. I am sure that the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester would be particularly appreciative of that.
I have never known a cliche used with such effect to lighten a debate.
There is no doubt that discipline in the Armed Forces is of a very high order, particularly in places such as Northern Ireland, where members of the Forces are put to a very severe test. While carrying out his orders a man may be responsible for a death, serious injury or civil tumult. We must be impressed by the standard of discipline of the Army in Northern Ireland. The House can safely renew the Army, Navy and Air Force Discipline Acts. They are administered in an impeccable way, and there is no discontent about the Acts in the Armed Services. I have never heard any soldier, sailor or airman express discontent—
Pay is outside the scope of the order. Apart from the discontent that all of us have about our pay and incomes, there has never been any suggestion of any discontent in the Armed Services in regard to the Army, Navy and Air Force Discipline Acts. The Acts have been administered most sensibly and patiently, with a thorough understanding of modern social conditions by officers of the Forces concerned, and I am sure that they will continue to be administered with the same impartiality, justice and good sense, certainly as long as the present Government, remain in office.
Ritual expressions of gratitude and appreciation whenever the Armed Forces are mentioned are, of course, inseparable from any reference to them in the House. The members of those same Services, however, might be forgiven for thinking—I hope I repeat the adage correctly—that fine words butter no parsnips. It has become a habitual practice to refer to them in glowing terms, but the results of those references are very seldom seen in concrete results. It is, of course, comforting for the civilian administrators to believe that discipline is sound, just as it is disturbing for them to believe that it might be deteriorating. Frequently in the distant past expressions of appreciation for good discipline have had an element of wishful thinking about them.
Today, however, questions of discipline have enlarged considerably even from the confines to which they were restricted in the Acts, all of them now over 20 years old. The Act covering the Army was passed in 1955, as was that covering the Royal Air Force. The Act concerned with the Navy was passed in 1957. New elements have intruded on the whole question of discipline in two separate areas. Discipline formerly embraced largely the question of total obedience to the orders of a superior officer, regardless of and perhaps without thinking of the consequences.
However, there are two new elements, one in a combat context and the other in a civilian context. The first arises primarily from the difficulties which our Forces experience in Northern Ireland. It is well known and accepted in the House that soldiers are constrained from using the appropriate measure of force, even at an individual level, which they believe is necessary to ensure the safety and security of their comrades, the civilians with whose care they are charged, and even their own lives. They must consult a yellow card before they can fire a live round. I am not familiar with the precise details of how this particular discipline is imposed, but it was not embodied in the 1955 Act. It could not have been envisaged at that time. The concomitant of that is that they are not allowed to fire an automatic round.
They are also constrained in their use of rubber bullets and in the use of their vehicles. They are even constrained in the use of their individual physical force in a man-to-man encounter. In all these situations their instinctive reactions, the reactions to which they have been trained for their careers, are restricted unnaturally by the new constraints of discipline, which are alien to the proper strain of military training and which are imposed upon the soldiers out of primarily political considerations.
The second area in which there are new and unwelcome disciplines is in the civilian context. I have personal knowledge of this from constituents of mine who have been in the Armed Forces. There is a tendency now for individual soldiers, whether in or out of uniform, and particularly for members of the junior infantry battalions, to be subjected to abuse and sometimes physical assault by gangs of undisciplined civilian youths. They often identify the soldiers, the cadets, and the junior infantry members when they are out of uniform by the evident differences in their appearance. They have shorter hair and tidier clothing and they hold themselves differently. They have better manners. They tend in certain parts of the country to be subjected to assault by youths who resent them and resent what they clearly see as something superior which makes them feel uncomfortable, which they wish to contest and, possibly, to eliminate.
In many cases the soldiers, being better disciplined and stronger, consider the question of retaliation. The night after an attack, a group of soldiers might seek to even the score, but then the constraints of discipline come in. It is easy to identify the soldiers and to pull them in and punish them—and they are punished very severely. However, those who assault the soldiers find it easy to disappear, and since they are mostly youths the Children and Young Persons Act makes it almost impossible to visit them with proper penalties.
Under the Army Act any form of violence against a civilian is scrutinised carefully, and any question of combination by soldiers to protect themselves can lead to serious consequences, even of the kind to which my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks) referred.
Today, therefore, we have these two new constraints on members of the Forces. In the first the dictates of fundamental training have to be ignored. In the second the old civilian respect and admiration for the soldiers, which have been their lot for many decades and even centuries, are now inverted and they are subjected to physical assault and abuse while being restrained from properly protecting themselves.
Is it not all the more admirable, therefore, that in both these contexts discipline is almost entirely unaffected? The Services have adapted to these new contexts and they comport themselves correctly. They endure these constraints and they have submitted to these extended disciplines, which are contained nowhere in the Acts, with the proper bearing and comportment of which we are rightly proud.
This is so because they are still conscious that they are an elite and that they are superior to those who are attacking them in one way or another. They are superior physically, and in terms of intelligence, training, and motivation. It is this which allows them to remain disciplined under all kinds of provocations. It is this element which is itself an ingredient of discipline and which helps to maintain the conduct of our Forces in these difficult circumstances. It is this element for which the House should be genuinely grateful and for which we should express our thanks.
I start from my experience of serving on the Committee which examined the new proposals for courts martial and gave more power to commanding officers of units. When those proposals came before the House, some Labour Members suggested that giving commanding officers more power was a retrograde step which would enforce tougher discipline, and there were peripheral suggestions that the Armed Forces might be served by some sort of trade union.
The young man or woman who enters the Forces accepts from the beginning that it is a disciplined Service, subject to rules and regulations not applicable to the civilian population. Practically everyone I know in the Services would take the view that a court martial is preferable to a civilian court, which so often acts in ignorance of the conditions of service. Hon. Members who do not take my view need only refer to The Times. We have an example in all our minds at the moment.
The average Service man would prefer a court martial, which knows about him and his conditions of service and is far more likely to deal fairly with him. I say this to answer the peripheral suggestion that a court martial automatically imposes stiffer penalties than a civilian court. In my experience, quite the reverse is true.
Those who suggest a union are in fact suggesting that the Armed Forces should have a better opportunity of expressing their grievances to the public, the feeling being that they are constrained by the military code in a way which does not happen to civilians, who can say almost anything they please. If, in conformity with the views of some Labour Members below the Gangway, there were a union for the Forces, might not that union, like other unions, complain about pay and conditions of service and about the cuts imposed in the work force over the last few years?
I apologise for having left the Chamber to make a quick telephone call. I shall do my best not to skate on thin ice. I pay my tribute to the discipline in the Armed Services, a subject on which we are all agreed.
I spent many hours on the Committee which considered the Armed Forces Act 1975, which increased the sentencing powers of commanding officers and set up a civilian court in Germany for certain offences. How are those matters progressing, and what effect have the changes had? After all, the Committee examined those matters for some time before they were finally agreed.
The House has been in some difficulty tonight. In fact, I can think of no other debate which has gone on for so long on which I have so few notes for my reply. The rules governing debates on these orders are very tight. However, I would say to the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill) that I did not say that these debates should go through "on the nod". That phrase came from the Chair. I was prepared with a whole raft of questions which might have been raised.
The sense of the House has been unanimous, that the code of discipline imposed on members of the Armed Forces is fair and necessary. As the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles) said, it is understood by officers and men and women and is fairly and justly administered. In my visits around the Services in the short time that I have been in this position, like my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Cronin) I have never heard a word of complaint about the code or the way in which it is administered.
It is also the sense of the House that great strains are being imposed on the discipline of the Forces at the moment, not least as a result of difficulties in Northern Ireland, but that as a country we are lucky in the devotion to duty of members of the Forces of all ranks and performing all types of function.
It is too early to answer the question raised by the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew). Some of the provisions to which he referred—perhaps all of them, but I am not sure of that—came into effect only this week. If I can give more information 1 shall write to the hon. Gentleman, and if he puts a Question on the Order Paper I shall be happy to make it a matter of public record.
The hon. Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks) commented on the court-martial procedure, but I did not detect in what he said any criticisms or suggestions for improvement. If he has any such suggestions, we always stand ready to investigate them.
I thank hon. Members for their expression of appreciation to members of the Armed Forces and of the standards of discipline which they are maintaining.