Armed Forces (Discipline)

– in the House of Commons at 10:12 pm on 27th June 1985.

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Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces) 10:12 pm, 27th June 1985

I beg to move, That the draft Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts (Continuation) Order 1985, which was laid before this House on 11th June, be approved. The purpose of the order is to continue in force for a further year the Army and Air Force Acts 1955 and the Naval Discipline Act 1957, which together provide the statutory basis for discipline in the three services. Annual parliamentary approval for the special legal position of the service man is a long-established constitutional concept, and the current arrangements for a quinquennial Armed Forces Act and annual extension of the Service Discipline Acts by Order in Council were endorsed by the Select Committee examining the last Armed Forces Bill in 1981.

As the House will understand, I cannot anticipate the provisions of the next Armed Forces Bill, but, as the current Act expires on 31 December 1986, the House is aware that it can expect to have a relatively early opportunity to consider service disciplinary primary legislation once again. I shall, however, give the Government's view on certain of the recommendations and observations of the Select Committee on the 1981 Armed Forces Bill.

It may be helpful if I remind the House that, in the debate on the order last year, I gave the Government's response to the Select Committee's recommendation regarding the detention and treatment of those who are subject to service law overseas and who are certified to be suffering from mental disorders. That response appears in the Official Report of 3 July 1984 at column 267.

Another of the Select Committee's recommendations was that social inquiry reports on young service offenders should be more readily available to courts martial. Naval courts martial already have such information provided by the naval personal and family service.

I am glad to tell the House that, in co-operation with the Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's Families Association, SSAFA, we have introduced for a trial period of a year, beginning on 1 May this year, a system which will allow social inquiry reports to be provided in cases where a young army or RAF service man is appearing before a court martial charged with a serious offence. These reports will usually be provided by SSAFA's qualified social workers. Social inquiry reports may also be called for in other cases, if appropriate.

Additionally, the background information on character and circumstances, which is now routinely provided to a court martial on all offenders, regardless of age or seriousness of the offence, has been improved. I believe that these two changes will materially strengthen the quality of the information provided to courts martial dealing with young offenders.

I should like to take this opportunity of expressing my warm gratitude to SSAFA for the help that it has offered us in this important area, and indeed for the excellent work that it and its predecessors have done over the past century on behalf of service men's families. I know that the whole House will wish to congratulate SSAFA upon reaching its centenary anniversary and wish it well for the next hundred years in the very valuable and very important work that it does.

The Select Committee considered the powers under the service discipline Acts to hold temporarily in a place of safety any children of persons subject to service law overseas who are considered to be at risk, and asked for a report to the House on the working of those powers. Since the introduction of this new power on 1 May 1982, only three place of safety orders have had to be made, and two children have been transferred to the United Kingdom under administrative arrangements. To date the present system has worked satisfactorily, but we are considering whether the existing statutory powers should be strenghthened in relation to the transfer of a child back to a place of safety in the United Kingdom.

The Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation brought it to the attention of the 1981 Select Committee that the Charity Commission had ruled that the Royal Star and Garter Home for Disabled Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen could not extend its beneficiary class to include ex-service women. The 1981 Select Committee recommended that the Government should give active consideration to intervening in this matter, whether legislatively or otherwise". The House will wish to know that a separate trust has now been set up, which enables disabled ex-service women to have their own wing at the home.

The Select Committee also urged that the rebuilding of the military corrective training centre at Colchester be completed as expeditiously as possible. I am glad to tell the House that the rebuilding of the detention quarters at the MCTC was completed at the end of May this year.

The Committee rightly highlighted the potential danger to the armed forces of the rising tide of drug abuse observable elsewhere. While there is no sign that drug abuse is a major problem in the British armed services, the House can be assured that the prevention of drug abuse in the armed forces is taken extremely seriously. I and my ministerial colleagues in the Department are personally closely involved in that issue, and additional preventive measures are now being taken.

In March this year we set up in the Department a tri-service drug abuse prevention group both to monitor and to make recommendations on further improvements in the prevention and the detection of drug abuse. A new tri-service drug abuse prevention film is in the final states of completion, and all three services are strengthening their drug education programmes and reviewing their guidance on penalties for drug abuse.

In the Department and in the services themselves we take the view that drug abuse in any form is subversive to discipline and morale, totally incompatible with the formidable responsibilities that every individual in the services assumes, and cannot be tolerated. We shall spare no effort to ensure that the cancer of drug abuse does not take a hold anywhere in our armed forces.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman , Greenock and Port Glasgow

I listened sympathetically to what the Minister said about drug abuse, and detection and prevention of that form of abuse. Are similar measures being taken vis-à-vis alcohol abuse? It is my view that, in civilian life, alcohol abuse is a greater problem than drug abuse. I wonder whether that is so for the armed services, too. If it is, what preventive measures are being taken?

Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

The Select Committee referred in its 1981 report to the problem of alcoholism, which is a matter that it has considered. I assure the hon. Gentleman that a close watch is kept on alcoholism in the services. Education on alcoholism is given as well. I am confident that it is a limited problem in the armed services.

Photo of Dr Alan Glyn Dr Alan Glyn , Windsor and Maidenhead

While it is known that alcohol abuse in the services is at the moment limited, drug abuse was also limited 10 years ago. Is my right hon. Friend aware that this problem could affect many more than it now affects?

Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

I take note of my hon. Friend's warning. I assure him that as I go round the services—hon. Members on both sides of the House who spend time with the services will endorse this—I notice that there is a great awareness of the dangers of alcoholism. The overwhelming majority of service men and women realise that the fitness that is required in the services and the training and fitness required for the battle fitness test means that someone with a strong propensity for alcohol would not do well in his service career. The service environment ensures that over-indulgence in alcohol would be a painful thing for someone doing the everyday jobs.

The annual debate on the continuation order inevitably tends to highlight the sectors where breaches of discipline may occur—the two interventions that we have heard show that. However, as the House recognises, the British Armed Forces are conspicuous not for breaches of discipline but for adherence to it. This is because our service men and women recognise that service discipline is a critical protection for themselves in the highly skilled, often fast-moving and sometimes dangerous work that they do. Anyone who is lax, disorderly, dishonest or disobedient is a serious liability. The service discipline Acts are a vital protection for those who serve in armed forces, and I commend the order to the House for approval.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara , Kingston upon Hull North 10:22 pm, 27th June 1985

I join the Minister in congratulating the SSAFA on its centenary and the work that it will do with young offenders and the mentally disturbed.

The right hon. Gentleman passed over one point rather quickly—the renewal of the Act, which must take place by 31 December next year. The Bill will have to be published early in 1986, if not before Christmas, to enable a Special Select Committee to be appointed to look into the matter. I believe that it is one of the quirks of the House—perhaps quirks is the wrong word to use about this august body—one of the customs of the House that every hon. Member is entitled to serve on that Committee.

The Minister has given us a sign of some of the changes that might take place in that legislation, and some of the actions that the Government have taken on the recommendations made by the last Special Select Committee. In many ways, what he has announced is welcome. There are no state secrets in this matter, and the Secretary of State for Defence is a believer in open government — hence his announcement of the Crickhowell decision yesterday rather than in a week's time. In the interests of open government, it would be helpful if the House could see the papers going around the Department on a variety of matters that are likely to appear in the new Discipline Act. These are not state secrets but will be discussed. There might be contrary opinions, but we all want the good welfare of and discipline in the armed forces, and it would be helpful to have some ideas of the discussions that are taking place.

We have been given an idea how the Government have met some of the Select Committee's recommendations. There were other recommendations, however, and it would be helpful to know why the Government are not able to accept some of them and why they have taken a given course of action.

I welcome the Government's decision to establish a special trust to deal with the disabled and wounded at the Star and Garter home. There was an anomaly and I only regret that it was not possible for the Charity Commissioners to find some way in which to amend the trust that established it rather than the Government having to establish a special trust, because there is still a distinction which I should have preferred not to exist.

We must also welcome what the Minister said about the SSAFA report. The Select Committee said that its terms of reference did not allow it to take evidence outside the United Kingdom. That Committee would have liked the opportunity at least to visit Germany to see conditions there and to talk to people of all ranks involved. The largest proportion of our armed forces abroad are in Germany and they face some of the most difficult problems. I hope that the Government, when establishing a special Select Committee, will enable it to take evidence outside the United Kingdom.

As for the role of SSAFA, we must welcome the decisions that have been made, especially with regard to young offenders. I am not at all certain what the role of the SSAFA welfare officer will be. I am not clear about his legal position or the status of his report. To what extent is it privileged? Is he completely analogous to a welfare officer who gives a report to a civilian court? Will he be properly protected?

The Minister said little about morale in the services, but discipline and morale go hand in hand. A force with high morale is well disciplined and, in those circumstances, we should have to have no recourse to these Acts. We know from what has been reported to us, however, that morale has suffered quite a blow in the past few years. The outflow is greater now than for some time and increased by more than 8 per cent. this year over last year. The outflow for some ranks is as high as 10·7 per cent.

The Government might tell us—they frequently have—that, compared with the Labour Government, they are restricting the flow. The Government have now been in power for six years, so they are now responsible for the outflow. It is remarkable that, to save £17 million, the Government are prepared to lose two Harrier trained pilots who cost £200 million in terms of training, service and input. Those figures are not mine but appeared in the Daily Telegraph. The straight training of a pilot officer can cost £3 million. We need to lose only three replacements and £17 million has gone. Moreover, overseas allowances are being swallowed up. It was a case of the Government saving the candle ends and losing the whole electricity supply, when they took that decision. It has caused morale at all levels to fall. Some Conservative Members have tried to argue that if the forces had learnt about the decision in a different way — if the commanding officer had learnt about it and told his men differently — morale would not have fallen. It is a real blow to morale to get a wage cut.

It is not fair to regard the allowance merely as a straightforward cost of living allowance—it is more than that. It is compensation for serving abroad, and meets the additional expenses incurred living abroad, such as the extra cost of returning home for a single service man, telephone calls to the girlfriend, and extra presents taken home for mother and father. Those matters are all real, and increase expenses. Single service men, especially single privates and leading aircraft men, have suffered most from the cuts in Germany, and it is affecting their morale. Hon. Members on both sides of the House who have been abroad and visited the troops have all returned and said that that matter is rankling the forces. They are extremely upset about it.

If there had been a by-election in Aldershot, instead of in Brecon and Radnor, the cuts in local overseas allowances would not have been made, in an attempt to preserve the Army vote. I am not wishing that the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) should have to fight a by-election. It is interesting that now that the Prime Minister is safely ensconsed in Milan, he felt it safe to go again to the Members' Dining Room for a meal.

I wish to turn to the question of drugs, which the Minister raised. The whole House will welcome the steps that have been taken, especially because when we last raised the matter in the House the Minister seemed to cast the figures for drug abuse lightly aside when he referred to them as microscopic. We now have a special unit which, I presume, will base its experience on the successful work in reducing drug abuse in the Royal Navy. I should like to know the numbers engaged in that work within the tri-service unit. Are there any special corps of the respective police forces of the armed forces involved in it, designated specifically for the purpose of chasing drug offenders and preventing drug pushing? That is especially interesting regarding Germany where there is easy access to drugs which come to northern Europe, especially through the Dutch ports. What is the cost of the unit? I believe that the Select Committee will want to look at that in considerable detail when it investigates these matters because that matter engaged its attention last time.

In replies to my questions no distinction has been made between hard and soft drugs, and their abuse in the services. It would be interesting to know whether the new units will concentrate their efforts first on preventing hard drugs and then on educating service men out of the abuse of soft drugs. We welcome the decision that has been taken.

That, to a certain extent, finishes my words of congratulation. During the past year there has been an enormous volume of matter and detail, which the new Select Committee will want to study, but which should be mentioned as the House has not yet had a proper chance to discuss it and, therefore, hon. Members have not received answers to any questions that they may have. The first is the suggestion in some of today's newspapers—I do not wish to go into the merits of the case—that there was a slackness in procedures when dealing with the spy case. The NCO who gave evidence admitted that he had not kept a full check when men were taken out for interrogation by the special branch. I do not suggest that anything untoward happened, but the fact that records were not kept must be examined, because it is important in all cases to pay meticulous attention to detail in the procedures followed, not only in the interests of the accused but in the interests of the men who look after prisoners.

Secondly, this has been a remarkable year for lost documents. Documents have been found in rubbish heaps and have fallen off the backs of lorries, and now we hear of documents being stolen from the home of a rear-admiral. Will disciplinary proceedings be taken against that rear-admiral for having some restricted documents in his home, or were they documents that he was allowed to take home? These are important matters, because we can perceive a general air of laxity. The documents that were found on the rubbish heap contained details of Tornado servicing. The documents that fell off the back of a lorry contained naval secrets. Some restricted papers concerning Trident were stolen from the home of a rear-admiral. I am sure that the Select Committee will wish to examine those matters. I do not expect precise answers to those queries, but I believe that the Minister should be aware of the anxiety that has been caused.

This year, we had an interesting change in Queen's regulations, which did not have to come before the House, extending the curb placed upon members of the armed forces to join movements or take part in marches. That seemed to restrict considerably the political activities of members of the armed forces. I do not suggest that service men should parade round in their uniforms demanding the removal of the Prime Minister. But there should be opportunities for service men to take part in normal marches and demonstrations. They should not be disciplined, as citizens — albeit special citizens — for taking part in normal political activities. What if there was a demonstration against the loss of housing benefit—a matter which we discussed in the House earlier today? Would that be regarded as a movement or a march in which a service man could not participate without fear of disciplinary proceedings? We must examine the new restrictions that have been placed on free discussion and free participation in political activity, in addition to the rigorous rule that has existed until now.

This year, we have also seen the development of pink and yellow cards. The pink card is given to service men serving at Greenham or Molesworth, and wherever we store missiles or other weapons, enabling them, in certain circumstances, to shoot at unarmed fellow citizens of the United Kingdom. Those cards have a restricted legal value. For example, in Northern Ireland the yellow card has been regarded as a policy document, not in any way as the conclusive defence of a soldier. The issue of such cards has made the Army more an instrument of government than an instrument of an objective state.

It is possible, under many of the regulations, for such matters not to be properly examined, because they do not conform with the old common law procedures, which allowed troops to be used to quell civil disturbances only at the request of a magistrate. The matter could always be examined in the courts. The new proposals in these documents can give a false sense of security to the service man involved, who might believe that he is protected by the regulations and the advice given on the cards. That defence would not stand up in court.

Secondly, it might be used as an excuse or justification for action which otherwise would not be permissible. There are two different ways of looking at the problem which is a difficult one for the troops. We must study it carefully, because pink cards are also issued to American service men. They are not bound to carry them as our service men are, nor are they subject to our courts as our service men are.

There have been some recent incidents in Northern Ireland where it seems that the yellow card procedure has been completely ignored. I do not wish to develop that matter further, because those incidents are still before the courts. They are matters which cause anxiety.

I should like to deal with some of the discipline problems that arise from the visiting forces legislation. There has been an increase in the number of foreign forces. They are not subject to our common and civil law, as our armed forces are. That requires careful re-examination. I hope that that is something to which the Government can agree. It is time to re-examine the Visiting Forces Act 1952. It might be something for the Select Committee on Defence to study. It is a matter of contention. The British soldier is put at a disadvantage compared with a visiting soldier.

There are other interesting discipline matters. There is the strange position whereby the mark 19 automatic grenade launcher, which can fire a ball of steel through an inch of steel at two miles at 350 rounds a minute, is being deployed at Greenham common. The Under-Secretary has said that it is a standard infantry weapon for use against armed attack. We have been told, however, that our troops, subject to our discipline, are responsible for the perimeter fence at Greenham common, and Molesworth. We have had the spelendid example of the Secretary of State wearing his first and only battle honour on his flak jacket at Molesworth.

There is the problem of the use of those automatic grenade launchers by the United States army. Why do they have 19 of them at Greenham common? If they must be there, why are they not controlled by and under the discipline of the British armed forces? They are infantry weapons to be used against armed attack, but who are they going to be used against?

Photo of Bruce George Bruce George , Walsall South

I appreciate my hon. Friend's anxiety. Although he may be opposed to the siting of cruise missiles in this country, is he not reassured that if anyone tries to raid or gain control of those nuclear weapons, such as the Spetsnatz, about whom we have heard a great deal, they can be repelled? Would he like to see the boy scouts guarding nuclear establishments? Whether or not one agrees with nuclear weapons and cruise missiles, it is important that if sensitive nuclear weapons are potentially available to terrorists or a major enemy, I find it reassuring — that they are properly guarded.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara , Kingston upon Hull North

The Front Bench is always grateful for my hon. Friend's support on these matters. The issue is who controls those weapons. I was going on to argue, had my hon. Friend let me continue — in my usual courteous way I was prepared to give way the moment that my hon. Friend raised himself to this feet—about from whom those weapons were going to protect us. They will not protect us from an airborne attack or from the special manoeuvre group troops. The only people from whom they can protect us are the Greenham women.

I see no reason why those arms should be in the hands of American personnel who have no responsibility for the defence of the perimeter rather than in the hands of the British Army or the Royal Air Force regiment. That means that we have no control over them. We want to know why they are there and why 19 of them are needed with a capacity of 350 rounds per minute, which rounds are capable of going through an inch of steel at two miles. If I lived in any of the surrounding villages I should be a good deal more worried, consciously at any rate, about those weapons getting into the wrong hands than about the cruise missiles getting into the wrong hands.

Photo of Mr Paul Dean Mr Paul Dean , Woodspring

Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman is straying somewhat from the motion, which relates to terms of service, discipline and punishment in the armed forces.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara , Kingston upon Hull North

I was considering the discipline to be applied and the distinction between United States and British personnel in the use of these weapons. Why are they treated differently not just in terms of the orange card but in terms of the weapons issued to them?

At the time of the increase in wages and the cut in overseas allowances, the Government were criticised for being more interested in money and efficiency than in man management and contented forces. The Ministry of Defence responded to that criticism by claiming that a parcel of measures designed to improve terms and conditions of service, living conditions and general morale had been knocked on the head by the Treasury. The Daily Telegraph stated: A package of improved 'conditions of service', strongly advocated by the Defence Ministry, has been under protracted and sterile negotiation with the Treasury.In failing to implement any of these measures, along with the pay increases, the Government lost a major chance to show goodwill. We are prepared to support the Government in showing good will to the armed forces. We should therefore be happy to know what was in that package to which the Treasury took such exception. What was in the package which made it impossible for the Treasury to agree to such a gesture of good will? If the Minister will tell us, we shall be happy to support him in fighting the Treasury to obtain that package for our armed services.

It may be, of course, that there was never any such package and that the claim was no more than a smokescreen put up by the Ministry of Defence to defend itself against accusations from all parts of the House that morale in the forces was very low indeed, as those of us who have visited them know.

Photo of Dr Alan Glyn Dr Alan Glyn , Windsor and Maidenhead 10:48 pm, 27th June 1985

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), as I know that in his heart he is a great supporter of our armed forces and all our service capabilities.

I was interested to hear the hon. Gentleman's comments about the loss of documents. We must all be concerned about any possible leakage. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister agrees that any such loss, no matter how small, must always be treated as a very serious matter. However apparently insignificant a document may be, it could nevertheless be of value to the enemy in piecing together the jigsaw.

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman that the services should indulge in political activities. They should remain aloof from politics and serve the Government, be it a Conservative, a Labour or any other Government, and not meddle in politics. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the legal position of the orange card ought to be defined. I do not know what power it confers. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces could tell us.

I know that the hon. Gentleman's party is worried about the role of the visiting forces, but the important question is not who owns but who protects the cruise missiles. The hon. Gentleman put his finger right on the matter when he asked who is responsible for guarding them. I am not concerned about the niceties of the position of visiting forces but about whether we are sufficiently cognisant of the responsibility that is placed upon us to ensure that those weapons are properly guarded and are not activated without our authority. It is a very grave responsibility.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's remarks about SSAFA's centenary. It renders a unique service to service men and to their families. The whole House is united in the hope that SSAFA will continue its good work for another century. It does not seek publicity, but it is always there to provide a service, and service men acknowledge its value.

As for service discipline, it has never been higher. The hon. Gentleman referred to the 8 per cent. of service men who have left the Armed Forces, but that does not affect discipline, or the service that they render. Service discipline remains intact.

I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister of State's reference to young offenders. We realise that these young people face great difficulties. I welcome also the attack upon drug abuse by the Ministry of Defence. I think that alcohol abuse could also be a problem in the future, and I am glad that my hon. Friend said that this problem is already being tackled.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North referred to the loss of the service man's overseas allowance. The Government may be open to criticism because the commanding officers were not given sufficient time to put this over to the men under their command. Perhaps we may be guilty, but nothing in life is perfect.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara , Kingston upon Hull North

I was not suggesting that the fact that the commanding officers did not have the opportunity to put it across properly meant that the matter was justifiable or that that was a suitable excuse. I was arguing that it was wrong for the Minister to advance that as a reason why it was taken so badly. I was simply saying that a wage cut is a wage cut, and that was the way it was faced.

Photo of Dr Alan Glyn Dr Alan Glyn , Windsor and Maidenhead

Perhaps I misunderstood the hon. Gentleman, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will answer that point. I apologise if I did misinterpret the hon. Gentleman. I thought he expressed the view that I take—that this was looked upon as a cut and that adequate notice was not given to commanding officers to explain the situation. I am sure my hon. Friend will touch on that important point which affects army discipline.

I note what was said about the Disabled Trust. We ought to have done this many years ago, and I welcome any movement in that direction.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North mentioned the rebuilding of the barracks. I also represent a garrison town, and I have a particular interest in the rebuilding of Victoria barracks, Windsor.

I know that the Government are doing everything they can to speed this up. I appreciate that there are certain difficulties, but it is not on for soldiers to change in a barracks and then to go on parade. If our soldiers are to perform the functions required of them in Windsor, it is important that those barracks are rebuilt as swiftly as possible. There are technical difficulties which the Government must overcome — for example, there are great problems with regard to the Property Services Agency — but this rebuilding should take place at the earliest possible moment. I have had tremendous co-operation from my hon. Friend's Department. I hope that will continue so that we can ensure that the barracks are rebuilt.

This is a discipline matter, because the conditions under which our soldiers are asked to operate will in the long term affect the desire of people to serve in the brigade.

I welcome many of the things said by my hon. Friend and reiterated by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North. Never before in the history of our nation have our services been called upon to play such a difficult role, under difficult conditions, in so many parts of the world. That involves the use of sophisticated weapons, and our forces are discharging those duties with great distinction. I wish them well in the future.

11 pm

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman , Greenock and Port Glasgow

My practical experience of military discipline is severely dated. It is many years since I served with the Royal Military Police, but, like many hon. Members, I continue to take an interest in the wellbeing and welfare of the personnel of the armed forces.

Like the hon. Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Dr. Glyn), I am concerned about alcohol abuse, but I was somewhat reassured by what the Minister said about this form of addiction. I believe I am right in saying that the Minister's Department has statistics which detail the number of members of the armed forces who have been proceeded against for offences relating to drug abuse. The Minister may also have statistics of those who have been dismissed from the services because of drug abuse. Does the Minister's Department have any statistics of those who have been proceeded against or dismissed from the services for alcohol abuse or offences brought about by alcohol abuse?

I, too, welcome the involvement of the professional welfare officers employed by SSAFA to deal with what with in civilian circumstances one would call social background reports. These welfare officers, in some instances, have to work with social work departments and other civilian agencies. It certainly is a step forward.

If we have highly efficient disciplinary procedures, it is essential that we also have a humane grievance procedure, which I believe in the main we have in the armed forces. I wish to ask the Minister about the counselling that members of the armed forces receive when, perhaps for medical reasons, they have to leave the forces unexpectedly early. Had it not been for the absence of my secretary—and and it was not without leave—the Minister would have received a letter today concerning a constituency case. A letter is on the way to the Minister.

A young lad in my constituency who was serving with the Parachute Regiment was dismissed from the forces because of a medical complaint. This confused, bewildered young man came to my surgery last week, wondering what he could now do in civilian life. From what he said to me under my questioning, and with my military experience, albeit outdated, I was left with the impression that this young man had not received much counselling or, if he had, that it was of the most perfunctory kind. If that is the case—and, in fairness to the Minister, he does not have the details yet—it is a matter of deep regret.

We need an effective disciplinary code for those who serve in the forces. At the same time, a human grievance procedure is required. As part of that procedure—and I define the word grievance widely, with which I think the Minister will agree—it is important that those who have to leave the armed forces unexpectedly early and involuntarily should be afforded the courtesy of effective and humane counselling in order the better to equip them for the changed circumstances with which they are faced.

Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces) 11:04 pm, 27th June 1985

With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall reply to the comments that have been made during this brief debate.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) devoted much of his speech to comments on morale in the services. I do not in any way contest his comment that, over the past two years, there has been an increase in outflow from the services and in the number who are exercising their right to premature voluntary exit. I must repeat the points that I made in the recent debate on the Defence Estimates. That increase has taken place from a record low level over the past 10 years. The rate of premature voluntary exit from the services is barely more than half the rate during the last two years of the previous Government when it was at an all-time high for the previous 10 years. The position now is altogether much more healthy than at the end of the period of the last Administration.

This Government, unlike their predecessors, have a good record in fulfilling the recommendations of the Armed Services Pay Review Body. We have not allowed service pay to fall behind those recommendations in the way that was done under the previous Administration. We believe that, whatever the disappointment that those in Germany felt about the last LOA review, our service men and women in Britain and overseas are confident that in the present Government they have a Government who, are trying to give service men and women a fair deal in relation to the recommendations of the independent Armed Services Pay Review Body.

I understand the degree of disappointment that was felt when the LOA settlement was announced, but I must repeat what I have said previously: the LOA system operated by the present Government is, in essence, exactly the same system as was operated by our predecessors. It is a system to give compensation for the differences in the cost of living between this country and the places overseas where our service men and women are asked to serve. Where that cost differential narrows, it is inevitable and inescapable that there will be reductions in LOA, just as where there are widenings in that disparity, it is inevitable and inescapable that LOA will be increased. I must stress that in the same cycle of reviews in which LOA in Germany went down, in many other places it increased. That was very much welcomed by the service men concerned.

I refer the House to the full and excellent description that was given of the reasons for the last results of the LOA review in Germany by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement in his reply to the Adjournment debate on 20 May.

Photo of Dr Alan Glyn Dr Alan Glyn , Windsor and Maidenhead

We all understood the reasons on 20 May. The reason why an earlier announcement was not given to the commanding officers has not been explained. It is difficult for soldiers to understand the complexity of these arrangements. When LOA increases, they are delighted. When it decreases, they are disappointed. The reasons for the fluctuations have been well set out, but why were the commanding officers not given longer notice to explain to their men exactly why this settlement had to take place?

Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

I accept my hon. Friend's point. We shall look again at the mechanics of the way in which the results of LOA reviews are made public. In an area as large as Germany, there are large numbers of units and at any one time many men are out of the barracks training, and so on. Immediately the LOA result is posted on unit notice boards, the announcement goes public over the British forces broadcasting network in Germany and, naturally, becomes an immediate subject of interest to the media. It is inevitable, because on the day the notice is posted there will be many people out of barracks on exercises, and so on, that quite a number of them will hear through the instantaneous media, but I take my hon. Friend's point. I have looked very closely at how that particular announcement was handled this year and as and when the next LOA review takes place we will see whether there are lessons to be learned.

The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) referred to my comment about the attack we are making on drug abuse. He asked whether the new group is going to concentrate on hard drugs. The remit of the group is to look at all drugs right across the board—hard and soft, and solvent abuse as well. As part of the close attention which we are paying to this subject, we are refining and somewhat extending our statistical work and seeking to provide ourselves with better centrally held information on the types of drugs that are abused so that we have a proper, informed basis for further work and have details of the types of drugs that appear to be the main threat.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North also referred to the question of the rules of engagement cards. I cannot agree with the construction that he put on the cards in use by service men in the United Kingdom. The cards follow basically the same policy as has been followed for many years by successive Governments, and are wholly consistent with the policy of minimum force which successive Governments have accepted. The Select Committee on Defence has recently carried out a very rigorous and detailed study of the security of military installations in the United Kingdom. It has had copies of the rules of engagement cards and evaluated them very closely. Its conclusions on these cards certainly did not in any way bear out the construction which the hon. Member placed upon them.

The hon. Member referred also to the Visiting Forces Act 1952, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Dr. Glyn). There, too, I felt that the construction which he placed upon that legislation was seriously at variance with the legal reality. The suggestion that United States service men are wholly outside the ambit of the process of law in this country is simply incorrect. I would refer him to an excellent and definitive description of the legal construction that should be put on the Visiting Forces Act that was given by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department in the detailed speech which he made on 19 December 1983. It would be well worth while those interested in that legislation referring to that speech.

I would remind the hon. Member that the Visiting Forces Act which applies to our own country reflects an agreement between the members of NATO, a number of whom agree to have the forces of other countries stationed on their soil—not least, of course, ourselves. The legal position that United States service men enjoy in this country is in broad terms exactly the same as that which our own service men enjoy in Germany. That is something with which we are entirely content.

I would like to endorse the comments which my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and Maidenhead made about the very demanding tasks that are placed upon members of the armed forces and the very creditable way in which they carry out those tasks.

My hon. Friend also referred, as did the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North, to certain incidents involving the loss of documents. I assure the House that the loss of any classified document, whatever the level of classification, is a matter of concern that is always investigated in great detail, and we do our best to seek the lessons that are to be learnt.

In the size of the organisation that the Ministry of Defence runs, the weight and volume of such documentation is enormous. For the transit of that documentation, we are in many cases dependent on the services of others who, by and large, work well for us. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North referred to some classified documents falling off a lorry. In fact, they fell off a post office van. That is being investigated carefully by the post office, and the lessons in that case will have been learnt.

I was sorry that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North chose to jump to instant conclusions, and to make his remarks on the record, about a report that appeared in the newspapers today about the loss of a classified document from the home of a particular senior officer. The hon. Gentleman, without informing himself properly of the facts, said that that officer should be disciplined.

I wish to make it clear that the officer concerned suffered a burglary of his home in which he lost a considerable number of personal possessions — the House will feel sympathy with him over that—and I am advised that only one document of the lowest possible restricted level of classification was taken. That one document was held in his home perfectly properly and correctly, under the normal rules, by the officer concerned. Therefore, the suggestions that the hon. Gentleman made were without foundation, and I am pleased to put that on the record.

This has been a useful and wide-ranging debate, and I hope that the House will now feel it possible to reach a conclusion on the order.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,That the draft Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts (Continuation) Order 1985, which was laid before this House on 11th June, be approved.