Armed Forces Discipline Bill [H.L.]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:44 pm on 29th November 1999.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat 3:44 pm, 29th November 1999

My Lords, we all agree on the importance of discipline and order to the effectiveness of the Armed Forces in peacetime, and, above all, in conflict. We all recognise the quality of the British Armed Forces, their professionalism and their cohesion. We all understand also that command and discipline are matters both of the negative dimension of punishment for those who do not accept orders, and of the positive dimension of the leadership qualities and the morale of those who find themselves part of any unit.

The discipline system of the British armed services has changed considerably over time. The harsh regime thought necessary 200 years ago to maintain order among troops who were largely illiterate and uneducated was of course different from that considered appropriate for a highly skilled, well trained professional force today. Having read a little of the history of the subject, I must say that a certain conservatism within the Armed Forces has resisted changes in the discipline system at each stage that reform has been introduced. That is characteristic of almost any professional service.

The proposals before us represent a further change. The question which we, as a legislative Chamber, must consider is whether they strike an appropriate balance under new circumstances or whether they tip the balance too far against the necessary elements of punitive discipline in favour of the democratic principles of representation and respect.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, for giving me in advance an indication, in an informal conversation last week, of the tenor of what he was going to say today. I therefore spoke over the weekend to a number of contacts who had held senior positions of command in Her Majesty's armed services. I was relieved and pleased by their response, which I shall do my best to summarise.

The first point of which I was reminded was that the role of the Armed Forces in a post-Cold War world is, of course, evolving. We do not for the foreseeable future face the prospect of catastrophic all-out war. We are certainly no longer likely to have forces which are out of touch with the home country for extended periods of time. The noble Lord, Lord Burnham, referred to the problems of maintaining that sort of order in East Timor. Many of us have been reading a great deal about the revolution in military affairs over the past few years, including instant communications on a global basis. Even military forces in the jungles of East Timor are not out of touch with the Ministry of Defence or with UK strike command.

The world has changed and moved on and the structure of discipline certainly needs to reflect that. Expeditionary forces today remain in constant communication with headquarters and with the MoD. We are not sending forces to the north-west frontier for months at a time, or to spend weeks sailing around the Pacific, as the "Bounty" did, totally out of touch with any other force.

The second point which various people made to me is that the role of our volunteer and professional forces is to defend democratic values. I was told that we should therefore take care to ensure that they represent democratic values as far as is practicable and compatible with their functions.

Thirdly, I was told that we want our Armed Forces to reflect what is best in our own society. We should note that, among the tasks that we are calling on our armed services to fulfil, we expect them to represent Britain and British values.

In the Queen's Speech debate I spoke about the growth of defence diplomacy and the immensely valuable work that British officers and teams are carrying out across eastern Europe in a number of states of the former Soviet Union, and in Africa where they are training military forces to accept the principle of civil control of the military and the principle of the military as servants of the state rather than of those who wish to take over the state. If we want our services to fulfil and to represent those important tasks, we must ensure that the values within their discipline system are those of which we can be proud.

Can the Minister tell us whether this Bill is likely to be the last one on military discipline to come before the House in this Session? Of course, she will be aware that the matter of gay rights in the military is on the agenda. It has been put on the agenda by the European Court of Human Rights. That is a further issue of civil rights and of the representation of democratic values within the military. Can we be assured that a separate Bill on that will follow shortly?

I have already referred to resistance to change. It is necessary that anyone who is proud of the service within which he or she operates accepts change. However, I believe that warnings of disaster would over-stress the threat of change. The most robust comment that was made to me by my friends over the weekend was that resisting changes in the discipline system is the kind of approach that led the British Army to shoot a number of soldiers who were suffering from shock during World War I. We no longer do such things, but we need to recognise that further reforms must not undermine the changing Armed Forces and that they must represent a basis for more highly trained, professional, democratic but nevertheless still effective Armed Forces. I welcome the Bill.