HC Deb 02 November 1966 vol 735 cc493-6

Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

The Clause deals with the vital question of relations between British Service men and civilian authorities in other lands. I apologise for not having given the Minister warning of the point that I am raising, but if he could say what action is contemplated under subsection (6), with particular reference to paragraph (c), I would be grateful.

I should certainly understand it if the hon. Gentleman were unable to answer me without notice, but I should also be grateful if he could say a few words about the other side of the Clause, so to speak. In other words, I ask him to say something about the work which has been going on to try to protect the position of British Service men overseas by reaching agreement on their legal status with certain countries.

I am particularly worried by the possibility of trouble in the Persian Gulf area, an area into which we are moving an increasing number of troops and where the question of legal and criminal jurisdiction over British Service men is, to put it mildly, complex and somewhat uncertain.

I am sure that in this area there will be a substantial attempt by hostile provocateurs to stir up trouble between the civilian population and British Service men. It is remarkable that attempts so far to stir up trouble between our Forces there and the civilian authorities have had such little success. I gather that, in fact, there has been no friction and that it has been possible to deal with the trouble which has arisen there promptly and effectively by procedures similar to those outlined in the Clause.

It is a matter of satisfaction and pride that the relations between British Service men and inhabitants of the Gulf area should have been so good. However, it is not a matter of surprise, because over the last 20 years relations between British Service men and civilians overseas have been quite remarkably good, in the face of great provocation, in a number of extremely difficult areas—Palestine, Cyprus, Kenya and other parts of the Middle East.

Too much reliance should not be placed on the geniality of British Service men in their relations with civil authorities. I am concerned about what may soon happen in Aden, where British Service men are only too well aware that, if they manage to arrest terrorists, no form of effective punishment can be meted out to those they catch, because of the breakdown of the civil courts and the knowledge that our military presence there is soon to evaporate.

In considering the Clause, it should be recognised that a breakdown of civil authorities in a country can put a savage strain on the traditional good sense and patience that British Service men have so often shown in so many parts of the world.

5.15 p.m.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

I deal, first, with the last point made by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart), about the Persian Gulf. There are a number of different rulers in the Federal area, but I am advised that as part of—not a new move, but a redeployment in the area—full discussions are taking place on the point to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I am also advised that we are fully aware of the difficulty in that area. I assure the hon. Gentleman that this will be very closely considered.

Subsection (6) says: The Defence Council may make regulations with respect to all or any of the following matters "— and then it refers to the manner in which persons are arrested and to the making of reports.

May I give some background information on this point. The whole question of Servicemen and civilians subject to Service law abroad raises problems. There are in most places international agreements relating to the status of British Forces abroad. On the whole, these provide for Servicemen, civilians and their dependants against whom the overseas authorities intend to exercise jurisdiction to be taken into British Service custody pending trial by a Service court.

The difficulty which has arisen is that at the moment there is no statutory authority by which this can be done. Up till now Servicemen or civilians have been taken into custody by the Service authorities and with the Serviceman's consent. This of itself raises many problems as to the meaning of "consent". This is the only lawful arrangement possible at present, unless the custody is authorised by local law.

This is why the opportunity has been taken in the Bill to regulate this practice by Statute and to give the Service authorities power to hold a man in custody so that the United Kingdom can implement its obligation under these agreements.

This again raises many problems as to how long the individual should be kept in custody. The local area concerned may be very tardy in deciding to act. There are a hundred and one problems. Therefore, subsection (6) provides that this shall be dealt with by Regulation. It is our intention to make Regulations requiring anyone exercising the power of arrest or taking into custody under the Clause to report at once by signal to the Ministry of Defence. Regular reports at frequent intervals will also be required.

The requirement to report is one of the safeguards against the power of keeping in custody being abused, if, for instance, the overseas authorities delay in bringing the arrested person to trial. If satisfactory progress with the trial of the arrested person is not made, the Government will take such steps as may be possible to hasten proceedings through the Foreign Office, or the C.R.O., whichever might be appropriate. It is not possible to be precise in the subsection. The whole problem is difficult.

Subsection (6) is included to ensure that matters are handled properly in the case of someone in an invidious position, or perhaps someone not in an invidious position, who has come under arrest into custody, in exactly the same way as if he were under Service law of the former sort. The subsection attempts to make absolutely sure that the person concerned shall not be held for too long. In the world today there are many occasions when this might happen. We have a Visiting Forces Agreement with the Germans because of the large number of civilians we have there. I am advised that this works perfectly properly.

Again, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the problem might occur in other parts of the world. We are looking into the particular case he mentioned. In the wider context, the purpose of subsection (6) is to make absolutely sure that no British subject—I will not say "languishes", but is in custody for too long. It is a question of balance. It cannot be laid down precisely. This is the purpose of the Clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.