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 am grateful for the noble and learned Lord's intervention. He is of course more learned in the law than I am and I take very much on board the point he has made so effectively.

To add to my unease, the timetable that is expected of the Ministry of Defence to put in place the requirements of the Bill by 2nd October 2000 is ridiculous. There is so much detail to master, resource and recruiting implications, regulations to prepare and promulgate, training and preparation of those engaged in the command chain, and so forth. The bureaucracy of the enterprise is massive. We do not yet know when the Bill will receive Royal Assent. If there are difficulties in the early months, it will not be the Lord Chancellor's Department, which set the timetable, that takes the rap but those in the Armed Forces. They will, as always, do their very best to achieve any task set them by the Government--once again demonstrating the professional commitment we are in danger of accepting without question and which I fear we are seeing eroded as well.

The services are expected to take on board and master a whole new disciplinary regime at a time when there are many operational and other pressures upon them up and down the command chain. If the Bill goes forward in its present guise, surely it is sensible to take it at a less frenetic pace. After all, it is much more than a solely legal, technical issue. Due to the difficulties of getting the civil courts and the appropriate authorities ready, it was necessary to delay commencement of the Human Rights Act 1998 until October next year. Let us make use of the flexibility that the Lord Chancellor drew to our attention. Let us choose a more realistic and later date for the implementation of the new legislation. I hope that the noble Baroness the Minister will indicate that there is flexibility about the start date and in the way that the convention is to be incorporated into the Armed Forces Acts.

The Lord Chancellor has said explicitly that the human rights convention was a flexible instrument. The Government must surely be willing to draw on that flexibility and do all that is necessary to safeguard, not undermine, the authority and status of a commanding officer and the universally admired quality and professionalism of our Armed Forces.