Armed Forces Discipline Bill [H.L.]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:49 pm on 29th November 1999.

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Photo of Lord Hardy of Wath Lord Hardy of Wath Labour 4:49 pm, 29th November 1999

My Lords, perhaps I may say a few words in the gap--not from the point of view of considerable military experience but as someone with considerable admiration for our Armed Forces today and with an interest in military history.

Not long ago I was reading about a debate in your Lordships' House in which a large number of very senior officers, perhaps five-star, took part. It was a debate on the retention in the Armed Forces of the death penalty for desertion. A substantial number of them spoke and, in a modern context, their words were not attractive. In those days, the services may have relied on discipline and fierce regulation--inculcating perhaps a greater fear of the superior than of the enemy--but that has changed. It has changed because of the development of man-management and a greater sensitivity in the Armed Forces. People serving today do not have the fear of punishment, of superiors and of court martial that may have once been the case. Without wishing to embarrass the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, the Green Howards were not run so much by fear as by their respect for the noble and gallant Lord when he was their commander. I know that to be the case because at that time a number of my constituents served in his regiment. Nevertheless, I believe that one point that has been made needs to be considered by my noble friends; that is, the provision in Clause 12. As noble Lords have already said, respect for the commanding officer must be maintained; he occupies perhaps the most important position at any given time, and certainly when active service is being pursued.

I believe that my noble friend might also receive with sympathy the argument that the cost should certainly not be met from the defence budget. When I served in the Commons and my constituents asked me whether they should pursue a matter in the law, I would always tell them that if they could avoid that course they should do so, unless, of course, they were very wealthy. The services are not very wealthy at present and I trust that my noble friend will take due note of that particular request from noble Lords.