Armed Forces Discipline Bill [H.L.]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:03 pm on 29th November 1999.

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Photo of Lord Craig of Radley Lord Craig of Radley Crossbench 4:03 pm, 29th November 1999

My Lords, I recall during the debates on the Human Rights Act 1998 drawing your Lordships' attention to two specific features of the legislation which concerned me and other noble Lords. One was to do with the way in which human rights cases brought by service personnel would be heard by our national courts under the new legislation. The second was my concern about the progressive upheavals at the very heart of service discipline. On top of the impact of the new human rights' legislation on the Armed Forces Acts, service courts martial and other legal arrangements had had to be changed. There was a climate of uncertainty about the provisions of the Armed Forces Acts.

Responding to those points, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor sought to allay the concerns which I and other noble Lords expressed. He indicated his willingness to,

"consider designating military courts as the proper venue for the consideration of complaints on convention grounds by Armed Forces personnel".

The Lord Chancellor appeared to accept that there could be problems for the Armed Forces if local civilian courts were to take a variety of views about similar cases brought before them. However, he went on to say,

"I urge your Lordships to be of the view that the convention is a flexible instrument. It poses no threat to the effectiveness of the Armed Forces".--[Official Report, 5/2/98; col. 768.]

I was heartened by what the noble and learned Lord said. Those assurances did much to allay my concerns. But not for long. We did not get the single military court for which I pressed then and subsequently, nor the use of military courts which was hinted at by the Lord Chancellor. In spite of the concerns expressed, we were steamrollered, and civilian courts will be used. Yet another derogation in the authority of the Armed Forces Acts was imposed upon the Armed Forces. So much for the assurances of the Lord Chancellor that there would be no threat to the effectiveness of the Armed Forces. It proved an empty promise.

Now we are considering a Bill which, far from appearing to treat the convention as a flexible instrument, goes to extraordinary lengths to dot every "i" and cross every "t" in the treatment of the convention within the Armed Forces Acts. The detail is mind numbing and the scope for misunderstanding and error seems to be almost infinite. I make no criticism of the drafters of this Bill, but the result of their efforts to apply the convention rules is not a good example of military precision and unambiguous detail. Is that what the Lord Chancellor meant by "flexibility"?

All of us share the high regard which our Armed Forces so rightly enjoy in this country and throughout the world. The Minister expressed that point strongly in her opening remarks. That outstanding reputation rests on four pillars. The first is the quality and commitment of the individual as a volunteer. The second is the ethos of his or her service and all that that means in terms of corporate commitment, pride and loyalty to service. The third pillar is the professionalism achieved by the most rigorous and applied training for the operational roles which may be faced. The fourth pillar--I do not put them in any ascending or descending order of priority any more than one could claim that any one of the four legs of a chair was more important than any of the others; all are of equal importance--is discipline, both individual self-discipline and service discipline. If we erode one or more of those pillars, then we start to undermine the stability and professionalism which are the much-admired hallmarks of the British Armed Forces.

I fear that there may be too many in government and advising government without enough experience of the forces who consider that the services must accept, regardless of any impact upon them, all this revision of the tried and tested methods of managing their discipline. But service discipline is an operational as well as a legal matter. I wish that Ministers would heed closely some of the well-founded advice that they have been getting from those who have spent a lifetime in the services.

As I, with others, stressed during the passage of the Human Rights Act 1998, I was concerned that we were,

"in danger of allowing it"-- that is, the Bill--

"to undermine the essential ethos, military discipline and responsibility of commanding officers within our Armed Forces".--[Official Report, 5/2/98; col. 762.]

I accept that there is a legal requirement to bring the Armed Forces Acts into harmony with the requirements of human rights legislation, but the Bill seems bent on implementing every jot of the requirements without in any way exploiting in the interests of our professional forces the flexibility of the convention that the Lord Chancellor stressed and prayed in aid to gain your Lordships' acceptance of the human rights legislation as it affected the armed services.

We should be bending over backwards to protect the Armed Forces from any derogation of their strength and quality rather than be bending over backwards, as the Bill seems to do, to knock the Armed Forces into line with every detail of the convention at any cost.