Armed Forces Discipline Bill [H.L.]

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

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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, the noble Lord was admirably clear in his remarks. He left the House in no doubt that his judgment was as he has just reaffirmed it. My point in mentioning the noble Lord's intervention was that I thought it crystallised absolutely the argument about the Bill; namely, whether we have struck the right balance between justice to individuals on the one hand and Armed Forces discipline on the other. The argument that he raised crystallised the point, although we might have rather different views as to whether or not the legislation meets the point. I believe it does. Perhaps the noble Lord will take a different view, but during the Committee stage I hope I may be able to persuade him a little more to my way of thinking.

From these Benches we appreciate that there are those who fear that any change to service discipline procedures will undermine the military ethos and discipline. I suspect that the issue arises every time there is a change to military ethos and discipline. However, I assure the House that we do not believe that that is so. Similar arguments could have been put forward in 1996 over Armed Forces discipline when the noble Earl, Lord Howe, commented on the test of the discipline system for what we must remember are volunteer Armed Forces in a free society. He said that it was to get the balance right between rights and duties. The noble Earl warned then against complacency and urged the need for a constant watch on discipline.

The noble Earl also said at the time that the absence of the right of appeal against courts martial sentences was an unnecessary limitation on the rights of servicemen and women. That is the view we take as to the need for the present changes. The view was supported by the Front Bench opposite in 1996.

I am sure that, as has been the case with previous measures of this nature, the Bill will result in detailed thought as to how we can deal with the interesting issues which have been brought up this afternoon and how much further we can improve the system of administering discipline. Yes, it is part of the Government's human rights agenda, but it is no part of the Government's human rights agenda to undermine Armed Forces discipline. The Government fully recognise that discipline is vital in the pursuance not only of our defence policy but ultimately of our foreign policy.

Yet underpinning our consideration of what needs to be done has been an overriding concern and awareness which has run like a thread throughout our debate today. As the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, said, the Armed Forces are not just another job. They have a unique role, a point made passionately by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. The men and women who serve in them have unique responsibilities. We expect a great deal of them. Your Lordships know as well as I do how admirably they fulfil those expectations. The ability to maintain effective discipline is a vital ingredient in our Armed Forces' success. It is the accumulation of generations of hard-won experience. I can assure your Lordships that this Government will not cast that legacy aside.

I commend the Bill to the House and am confident that it will help to preserve that which all noble Lords hold dear. I ask your Lordships to give it a Second Reading.