Armed Forces Discipline Bill [H.L.]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:22 pm on 29th November 1999.

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Photo of Lord Inge Lord Inge Crossbench 4:22 pm, 29th November 1999

My Lords, perhaps I may, first, thank the Minister for having the courtesy to write to me outlining some of the changes proposed in the Armed Forces Discipline Bill. It will not surprise noble Lords to know that I agree with much of what has been said, especially the remarks made by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall. Therefore, I believe I can be brief. However, I should like to highlight and reinforce some of the points that have been made.

I understand why some changes are necessary and why it is necessary to be more compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights. However, I must have been talking to different people from those to whom the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, spoke. The view that I have had quite clearly expressed to me from those in the Armed Forces--be they on the Left or on the Right of the service--is that this is the best deal that they felt they could negotiate.

Perhaps I may just touch on some of the points that have been raised. I turn, first, to the authority of the commanding officer. I cannot stress strongly enough, as has already been said, the critical importance of the commanding officer, both in peacetime and in war; indeed, you cannot separate the importance of the commanding officer in peacetime from that of the commanding officer on operations. Anything that undermines his authority must mean that the great majority of people in his command will suffer. I am quite clear that the proposed changes, especially as regards the summary appeal court, will affect--and have a bad effect on--the authority of the commanding officer.

Secondly, military discipline needs to be responsive; that is, responsive both in the investigation of the offence with which the person is charged and then, after the investigation, in terms of the case being heard and dealt with quickly. There have already been complaints that we are not responsive enough in the military as regards investigating some charges or offences quickly enough. I believe that this proposal will undoubtedly further delay the process of dealing with offences. That will be particularly so on operations. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, said, "Surely you can talk to people and communicate with them, whether you are in the jungles of East Timor or in Kosovo". Of course you can; but that is a misunderstanding of what the military is trying to concentrate on at a time when on operational service. We should not separate the two situations.

I should particularly like to talk about the summary appeal court, so as to ensure that the changes really make it responsive to Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. When you discuss this with the people who are trying to bring in this legislation, they will tell you that, if need be, they will have to hire on an "as needed" basis additional judge advocates to deal with these cases. The idea of people with no experience of military ethos, operations or the military code having to chair such meetings and then bringing in two officers from outside the chain of command to hear their report, will, I believe, not only undermine and create tensions but also mean that the soldiers, sailors and airmen will suffer. I believe that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, said that they will be in danger of being taken behind the barrack block, and I have a worry that commanders will not in fact hear such cases. It will become too complicated, so they will not bother. The effects on military discipline will, I think, be very considerable.

Thirdly, as has been mentioned, the costs as regards the additional barristers, lawyers, military men, and so on, who will be required to implement these changes will be considerable--and this at a time when the £9 million needed could be so much better used elsewhere in the defence budget. Like other speakers, I very much hope that the money to fund this will be found outside the defence budget. It would be ironical to bring in such changes and charge them to the defence budget when we know that some of the personnel proposals made under the Strategic Defence Review cannot be funded at present.

Finally, in addition to reinforcing what has been said, I express the hope that the Minister will reconsider some of these changes to see whether they can be improved. It is worth bearing in mind that the Armed Forces are having to deal not only with a very considerably increased operational load at the moment, but also, for very good reasons, they are having to deal with changes--for example, how they handle ethnic minorities, which I totally endorse--and new legislation on homosexuals. Now, in addition, they will have this further task of dealing with the changes under the Armed Forces Discipline Bill. As one regimental sergeant major said to me, "You know, Sir, we're spending more time actually worrying about minorities than we are about most of the people for whom we are responsible".