Orders of the Day — Armed Forces (Discipline)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:46 pm on 14th July 1988.

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Photo of Mr Sean Hughes Mr Sean Hughes , Knowsley South 11:46 pm, 14th July 1988

In view of the hour, I shall not venture down the road of historical reference with which the Minister opened his remarks, much though I might be inclined to do so. We experienced the niceties of the 1688 debate recently, and, although as a Catholic I may have my own views about just how glorious that revolution was, I shall refrain from exploring the subject tonight.

Let me say in my immediate response to the Minister that he should perhaps consider making the leaflet for recruits available to all service personnel rather than merely to recruits. Let me also say that Opposition Members hope that an indication at least of the contents of the Armed Services Bill will be available in time for the estimates debate in the autumn.

In the past, our debates have concerned themselves with the generalities of discipline and morale in the armed forces rather than merely with the technicalities of the Acts whose continuation is the subject of the order. Hon. Members have concerned themselves with what an hon. Member referred to last year as the niggles that we all hear whenever we visit a unit. I believe that that is right. Morale and discipline are composed of the minutiae of life in the services, and it is therefore incumbent on us to discuss them.

I join the Minister in his praise for the men and women who serve in our armed forces. It is easy to praise them at times of national crisis, and to forget that in the humdrum preparation for crisis they forgo much of the personal freedom which we as civilians enjoy and exercise. It was right that the Select Committee of 1976 refused to give up the annual affirmative orders when such a proposal was considered.

As the Minister pointed out, one aspect of life in the armed forces that has been of concern to hon. Members is that of bullying. Nothing could more sap morale and diminish discipline than such behaviour. During the Army debate on 26 January, the Minister asserted his belief that the problem of bullying and ill treatment was riot widespread. I simply do not know, nor can anyone know, the incidence of bullying in the armed forces. None of us would want to stand accused of either exaggerating or understating the problem. The Minister devoted a considerable part of his speech to the Government's response to some of the bizarre examples of bullying and, to that end, he outlined a programme on which he hoped to make rapid progress. Perhaps he can inform the House tonight whether it is now possible to report any measurable progress on that matter.

There were six items in that programme. I should like to draw the House's attention to two of them. Although Opposition Members welcome the fact that he Government are taking the question of bullying seriously, we remain concerned about the first suggestion—that there should be a more thorough screening at the recruiting and entry stage of young men who, as the Minister put it, may not be robust enough to cope with the toughness of military training"—[Official Report, 26 January 1988; Vol. 126, c. 257–8.] As the item under discussion was bullying, that appeared to equate some aspects of bullying with tough military training. It was an unfortunate use of words which I am sure the Minister did not intend to lead to misinterpretation. As this is the first opportunity to put the record right, I hope that the Minister will do so when he replies.

The final proposal in the Minister's six-point plan was a formal ban on harmful initiation ceremonies. Clearly the experience of such degrading ceremonies is hardly conducive to good discipline in the armed forces. Perhaps the Minister can tell us how such a ban has been enforced and whether there has been any measurable effect in the past six months.

One other matter that has given cause for concern of late is that of racism in the armed forces. In an earlier debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant) asked soldiers to write to him about individual cases of racism. The Minister replied that that was the wrong advice and that it would be more effective and in the best interests of British soldiers to take up such allegations with their commanding officers. This is an extremely sensitive matter, and I must be honest with the House and say that in the past 12 months only one allegation of racism has been drawn to my attention but, ominously, it was withdrawn on the ground that identifying the individual or regiment might have repercussions and that it would have been impossible to prove motive. I do not try to concoct any theory on that matter. I do not know the extent of the problem. However, I know that hon. Members and journalists have identified the matter as one of real concern and I hope that the Minister will assure the House that he continues to monitor the matter closely.

Another item of concern that has been expressed to me both in conversation and correspondence has been the question of private contractors at barracks, which affects morale and discipline. For the record, I should add that the incidents to which I refer concern private contracts at Army institutions, although common sense would suggest that such incidents must be happening generally throughout the services if they are happening in one particular service. The complaints that I have received had not been limited to private soldiers.

I understand that, as a result of privatisation, various contracts are now being awarded on the basis of competitive tendering to cover such services as gardening, cleaning and catering. The substance of the complaints is that the contractors sometimes—I shall not over-egg the pudding by saying often—fail to deliver the full service and, as a result, the commanding officer must order his men to finish off the job.

It has been suggested to me that in some instances the work of the private contractor has been so unsatisfactory that the commanding officer has had to order his men to provide the complete service again. I tabled a question to the Minister earlier in the year and his reply informed me that there have been some such instances but they have been infrequent and confined generally to the early stages of contracts. I think that the problem is greater than that and I hope that the Minister will give it his attention. The use of young soldiers to carry out work that has been contracted out does not lead to good morale or good discipline.

In civilian life, expectation of pension is considered a legitimate aspect of working conditions, and with that goes the question of how we treat the widows of those so employed. If discipline is dependent on morale and not only on punishment, the morale of service men and women cannot but be affected by how we treat the widows of those who have served their country in the past. The Minister replied to a debate on this subject shortly before the Christmas recess. I hope that the Government will be prepared to reconsider their position on war widows' pensions. The problem has been identified in two early-day motions.

I ask the Minister to explain the use of section 24 of the Armed Forces Act 1971 in respect of unauthorised disclosure of information. I apologise for not giving him notice of my question. Section 24 provides the following provision to substitute for section 60 of the Army Act 1955: It shall be a defence for a person charged with an offence under this section that he did not know and had no reasonable cause to believe that the information disclosed related to a matter upon which information would or might be directly or indirectly useful to an enemy. Under the proposed reform of section 2 of the Official Secrets Act 1911, the Government have recommended that it should not be necessary for the prosecution to adduce evidence of the likely damage to the operation of the security or intelligence services when information relating to security or intelligence has been disclosed by a member or former member of one of those services. Let me suppose that someone who is serving in one of the military intelligence agencies discloses information about his job that he knows will not be of use to the enemy but will reveal, for instance, that a defence contractor overcharged the agency. He could not be prosecuted under section 24 of the Armed Forces Act 1971. Under the new proposals for the reform of the Official Secrets Act, however, he could be prosecuted and would have no defence in law. The law would then be made to look an ass.

I ask the Minister to tell us whether section 24 will be amended so that it is compatible with the proposals in the White Paper on the Official Secrets Act. I hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the Minister will catch your eye and will be able to respond to the issues that I and others have raised during this brief debate.