I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
It is right that the Bill should be generally well received in the House because it makes improvements to the service discipline Acts, many of which bring service law more closely into line with civilian law. That is particularly true of the provisons in parts II and III of the Bill relating to young offenders and children at risk in service families overseas. In this way, and by the careful scrutiny given to discipline matters generally during the passage of the Bill through the House, I believe that the Acts can continue to command the respect and confidence of the service men, service women and civilians to whom they apply.
I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) chaired the Select Committee on the Bill with unfailing courtesy and fairness. The Committee conducted not only a thorough examination of the Bill itself, but a wide-ranging review of matters related to discipline in the armed forces. Its report makes a number of important recommendations for the future which will all be given careful consideration and be the subject of a full response in due course.
It is our responsibility to ensure that the system of discipline, on which the efficiency and effectiveness of the work of the armed forces so much depends, strikes a sensible balance between the rights of service men and women as citizens and the extra constraints which must necessarily be imposed. I am confident that the Bill will serve to ensure that the service discipline Acts continue to meet the needs of the services and command their confidence. I commend it to the House.
Naturally, I am disappointed that clause 17 has been removed; it was an important part of the Bill and probably the most important part of the reforms to the service discipline Acts. However, I predict that, once the recommendations of the Law Commission on the death penalty are known, there may be a majority of Members in the Aye Lobby.
Despite that disappointment, I promised earlier that we would not be obstructive about the discipline Acts incorporated in the Bill. Therefore, we shall not raise objections and we shall not vote against the Bill. That is important because, as the Minister said, the quinquennial review gives us the opportunity to reappraise the service discipline Acts and procedures in the light of practical experience, and in the context of changes in the civilian law and in public opinion and perception. Such reappraisals are important and debates such as this provide a vital opportunity to conduct them. Therefore, I should not like the debate to pass without making one or two comments.
Discipline and order are integral parts of the quality of the armed forces, whether in peacetime or during hostilities. Of all forms of discipline applicable to our armed forces, by far the most efficient, effective and prevalent is self-discipline. We should like it to be recorded at the outset that, although we have spent time in Committee and on the Floor of the House discussing breaches in rules and regulations, and the punishment and penalty for those breaches, such measures are applicable only in a small number of cases involving service men and women. For the vast majority of such cases, the best, and often the only, discipline necessary is that which springs from the service men and women's own determination, commitment and dedication, for which we give them credit.
Where the service discipline Acts have to be applied, it is important that they are seen to be practicable, efficient and, above all, fair. We in Parliament have no less a duty to our service men and women—simply because they voluntarily place themselves under the jurisdiction of military authority—than to civilians. It can be argued that, precisely because service personnel voluntarily accept the sacrifices that such a military regime entails, it is our duty to scrutinise the Acts and the Bill to a greater degree than other legislation, if that is possible.
I believe that, with one or two significant exceptions, the Select Committee acquitted itself well. The starting point for our deliberations was the premise that, wherever possible, forces law should approximate as closely as possible to civilian law. Therefore, it is right that the legal advances incorporated in two major Acts—the Criminal Justice Act 1988 and the Children Act 1989—should be enshrined in the Bill and extended to the services.
Therefore, we welcome the provisions in parts II and III of the Bill which extend the obligations of explanation to courts martial and standing civilian courts where young offenders are involved and impose a greater burden of consideration on military courts in relation to custodial sentences and young offenders. Part II also allows for compensation payments and ensures that they are given precedence above fines. It enhances the scope for the imposition of compensation payments. We also welcome those advances.
Part III reflects the growing concern about the protection of children felt throughout the country in recent years. I believe that there has been wide agreement in Committee and throughout the House that the general thrust of the changes—largely drawn from the Children Act, but modified to take account of service life—will be beneficial to all involved.
Those factors represent the major thrust of the changes in the Bill, and the Opposition support and welcome its provisions. The problem is that the Bill does not go very far. There are a number of issues integral to and related to discipline, order and morale that the Opposition would like to have seen addressed. Thankfully, most of those issues were addressed in Committee and, in some cases, progress was made. That shows the particular benefit of such an ad hoc Select Committee, rare—some would say, peculiar—though it may be, and I hope that such a procedure will continue in future.
I have been advised that the appropriate time for commenting on the wider issues related to the Bill, but not specifically covered by it, is during the debate on the continuation order. Therefore, I shall hope to speak then. Meanwhile, the Opposition will not vote against the Bill which, no doubt, will proceed on its way through the House with alacrity.
I take this opportunity to thank, not only my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, but the officials and service men of the Ministry of Defence, who greatly assisted Select Committee members with their inquiries and were hospitable and informative when they made field visits in this country and in Germany.
Like the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid), I believe that this form of parliamentary procedure is an admirable legislative mechanism. Unlike the normal Standing Committee procedure, it enables hon. Members to take the advice of those professionally engaged in the relevant activity—in this case, the maintenance of good service discipline, order and morale.
I had the privilege of chairing the Committee. The report that we produced will summarise all the points that I could make on Third Reading, so I shall not make them now. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Minister and his Ministry will respond to the recommendations that we made, which we believe speak for themselves. That said, I wish the Bill godspeed and a satisfactory Third Reading.
I join in congratulating the Select Committee and its Chairman on the production of a report that is of great assistance to those right hon. and hon. Members who have an interest in the matter but did not have the privilege of serving on the Committee.
It is clear from any reading of the notes of evidence that the cross-examination was, from time to time, robust. However, it was obviously undertaken with the best intention—that of eliciting the most accurate, helpful, and up-to-date information. The notes of evidence make interesting and illuminating reading, giving as they do a clear insight into the thinking of many of those within the Ministry of Defence who are most directly concerned with service discipline matters.
I want to touch on a matter that probably would not fall under the continuation order, but relates to the consolidation of existing service discipline legislation. It is axiomatic that ignorance of the law is no excuse. It has always seemed to me to be a necessary part of that axiom that the law should be readily ascertainable and easily understandable. For the moment, that cannot be said of the myriad bits of legislation in which provisions relating to service discipline are to be found. It is notable that one of those who gave evidence to the Committee strongly expressed the opinion that it would be in the interests of all if, at an early date, some consolidation and revision of that legislation were to take place.
I hope that the Minister understands the importance of that comment. Such action may not lie entirely within his power. Other Departments may have a more direct influence on the speed with which such consolidation and revision can be achieved. However, there is little point in creating a code or structure of service discipline of which we can be proud if we cannot be proud of the circumstances in which it can be understood and readily ascertained. That is one of the Committee's most important recommendations, and one which bears precisely and strongly on the Bill.
There is nothing more that I can usefully add, except that I shall not endeavour to delay the progress of the Bill, which seems entirely right and proper. It may not go far enough, but as far as it does go, it represents a comprehensive piece of work by those responsible for it. As it embodies some of the principles and changes to service law that the passage of time has made necessary, the sooner that the Bill passes through the House, the better.