Armed Forces Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:38 pm on 23rd April 2001.

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Photo of Lord Burnham Lord Burnham Conservative 3:38 pm, 23rd April 2001

My Lords, unfortunately, I do not have three-and-a-half hours so I do not think that I can even start on such a matter. I am afraid that the noble Lord has his tongue just slightly in his cheek when asking that question.

There is little in the Bill to improve the morale of the Armed Forces. Morale is not just a matter of longer telephone calls, increased pay or better preparation for civilian life. Such tangible steps are good but they leave out of account important intangible difficulties, some of which are of the Government's own making.

Those matters are intangible and difficult. Members of the Armed Forces must respect what they are doing and how they are doing it; and those outside must respect them for doing it, politically correct or not.

The follies that I have enumerated run as a theme, I am afraid to say, through the Armed Forces discipline Bill which we recently debated and the International Criminal Court Bill. We see those matters again in this Bill. Senior officers, by the nature of their appointment, become more and more agents of government rather than advocates for the armed services. Nevertheless, both the current Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Boyce, and the recently retired General Guthrie have warned of the dangers inherent in such policies even though they said--and I shall say this before the noble Baroness says it--that they have so far experienced no difficulties with recent legislation.

Having thus criticised the ethos of the Bill, it is necessary to say that we accept it in general. A number of matters are welcome: the authority to continue to operate, of course; and matters like, as the noble Baroness explained carefully, giving warrant officers the authority to sit on courts martial. I am glad that the Government were robust in another place in their opposition to certain matters in connection with warrant officers proposed by certain of their adherents.

As the noble Baroness explained, the Bill contains a considerable number of detailed changes to military law and its application. None of those is trivial but they are all minor. As I said, we shall undoubtedly move a number of amendments in Committee in the hope that we may be able to improve the Bill and retrieve some of the ground lost in the earlier legislation, to which I referred. We shall probably be looking for a declaration to exclude the Armed Forces from the application of Article 8 of the International Criminal Court statute.

But the main problem with the Bill lies, as the noble Baroness clearly recognised, in Clause 31. It is inconceivable that Her Majesty's Government should have thought it a good thing to include the highly contentious provisions designed to increase the powers of the Ministry of Defence Police in otherwise generally non-contentious--given the acceptance of the creeping political ethos--matters in the Bill. Those matters in Part 4 deserve a Bill of their own, as clearly demonstrated in the evidence given for the special report of the Commons Select Committee--269 pages of evidence.

We might think again about this matter, depending on what we hear from the Government, but we are unlikely to oppose, at least from these Benches, the Question that Clause 31 shall stand part of the Bill. I say that it is unlikely because a number of my noble friends may think differently. But we shall have much to say about the clause, as did my honourable friends in another place. They would have had a great deal more to say had the debate not been totally curtailed by the Government.

Clause 31 relates to a detailed and potentially far-reaching enlargement of the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defence Police, which is seen by some, as their evidence to the Select Committee shows, as pointing towards a total redefinition of the role of the force. That was supported in the words of the Minister.

But it is ridiculous to add those police matters to an Armed Forces Bill. The Ministry of Defence Police is a police force, the tenth largest in the country. It is not one of the armed services or part of the armed services, nor is it the same, as the noble Baroness so clearly pointed out, as the Royal Military Police. That is demonstrated by the fact that its members wear blue police-style uniforms, not the red caps and white gaiters of the Royal Military Police, although my noble friend Lord Attlee, who is more up to date, says that the white gaiters are no longer worn.

The activities of the Ministry of Defence Police, as stated, are governed by the Ministry of Defence Police Act 1987. Yet Her Majesty's Government have chosen to tack amendments to that Act on to this Armed Forces Bill, rather than to bring in a separate Bill to amend the 1987 Act. In evidence to the Select Committee, military authorities, civil police, journalists and others expressed concern about what was proposed. I accept that something has to be done as at present there is considerable doubt about the extent of the powers of the Ministry of Defence Police and who controls them. To put it kindly, the Secretary of State was unclear about the extent of his powers, nor was it at all clear where overall control lay.

For those and other reasons we shall probably not oppose Clause 31, or perhaps I should say Part 4 of the Bill. However, clearly something is wrong if, when the second permanent under-secretary asks the Ministry of Defence Police to escort oil tankers during the fuel crisis, he is told that the force does not have the power to do so. It is also not right that a Ministry of Defence policeman should have to pass by an accident because he has no more powers than an ordinary citizen. In that context I keep muttering to myself, "The Good Samaritan".

The Ministry of Defence Police must not look for trouble, as it is feared they may. The fact that they are usually armed or have arms in their vehicles is bound to cause trouble if they are out and about more, as is likely under the terms of the Bill and as the Minister made clear in her definition of their duties.

I have put a number of questions in writing to the Minister relating to the protocols that govern the activities of the Ministry of Defence Police. Four and a half of the six questions that I asked have been answered. We now know more about what the Ministry of Defence Police should and should not do and how they should behave, but such matters should appear on the face of a Bill--not this Bill--to regulate the force.

However, we have before us a Bill, a significant part of which refers to the Ministry of Defence Police and the House will have to make the best of it. Like Marvell,

"But at my back I always hear

Time's winged chariot hurrying near".

We do not know whether there will be time for further stages of the Bill before a general election is held, or whether the next Conservative government will have to take it on. If so, this part of the Bill will be amended heavily or possibly dropped from further consideration. If we carry the matter further now we shall table many amendments. Central to those amendments is one that was moved in another place to limit the occasions when Ministry of Defence Police may become involved in any crime investigation.

In Committee and on Report our amendments to Part 4 will be designed to limit the powers of the Ministry of Defence Police, although clarifying their position which, in my opinion, the Bill fails to do. Today we shall give the measure a Second Reading. There is enough in it that is either essential or good to ensure that. Even if there were not the convention to give all Bills a Second Reading unless they are absolute horrors, we support the main principles of this Bill.