Armed Forces Discipline Bill [H.L.]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:10 pm on 29th November 1999.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Defence Procurement), Ministry of Defence 5:10 pm, 29th November 1999

My Lords, we have had a useful and constructive Second Reading debate on the Bill. We have had many useful insights into some of the issues that are likely to be debated in Committee. I had anticipated that the quality of attention brought to the matter by noble Lords would more than make up for any shortfall in the number of those contributing to the debate. I am pleased to say that that has indeed been the case and I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords for bringing their wisdom and experience to bear on our discussions. Like the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, I am impressed by the array of not only noble, but noble and gallant colleagues who have given us the benefit of their thoughts. Your Lordships may be assured that I have listened very carefully to the arguments that have been put today.

I disagreed quite fundamentally with the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, on one point in his contribution. The noble Earl commented that the British public believes that the effectiveness of our Armed Forces somehow relies on their tanks, aircraft and ships. I really do not think that the British public is that naive. It is well understood that the question of discipline in the Armed Forces is absolutely crucial to the effectiveness of those forces. Perhaps I may say that the argument put with such characteristic succinctness by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, when he said that the heart of this debate is the balance between justice and discipline, is the key issue here. We shall seek to strike the right balance between what on the one hand is right for individuals, and on the other hand does not compromise the effectiveness of the Armed Forces. Furthermore, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Renton, for having so clearly brought that most important point to our attention.

First, I shall address some of the detailed points that have been raised by noble Lords before returning, towards the end of my remarks, to what I believe is the essential point on the role of commanding officers and others. The noble Lord, Lord Burnham, opened by asking whether we really need the legislation before us. I have to say to the noble Lord that we do need it to amend the Army Act 1955, the Air Force Act 1955 and the Naval Discipline Act 1957. Primary legislation is required because no powers for secondary legislation are provided in those measures.

The noble Lord also raised the question of the European Convention on Human Rights and whether we should again examine the possibility of derogations from that convention. That point was also addressed by the noble Lord, Lord Vivian. Noble Lords will be aware that the United Kingdom ratified the European Convention on Human Rights in 1951 without derogations from the convention itself. We do not believe that any derogations are necessary. It is important to remember that derogations would require renegotiation of the convention and that would need the agreement of all parties to the convention. The Government do not believe that there is a case for that. We believe that members of the Armed Forces are as entitled as all other United Kingdom citizens to the protection of their fundamental human rights through the law. However, that does not, of course, mean that those rights should be allowed to jeopardise the operational effectiveness of the Armed Forces, or indeed that they would so jeopardise their operational effectiveness.