HC Deb 28 June 1979 vol 969 cc663-89
Mr. Speaker

Before I call the Minister to speak to the first motion, I should tell the House that the scope of the debate is exceedingly narrow. I point out, as other occupiers of the Chair have in the past, that the order seeks merely to continue in existence for a further period the Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts. While, therefore, it will be in order to argue that one or more of these Acts should or should not be continued because of what is in them, whoever is in the Chair will be bound to check any argument that the Acts should be amended or extended to cover matters that they do no, at present cover. With the exception of a few minor provisions, the Acts relate entirely to matters of discipline. References to other detailed matters affecting Service life or to general defence policy would be quite out of order.

4.1 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Keith Speed)

I beg to move, That the draft Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts (Continuation) Order 1979, which was laid before this House on 25 June, be approved. The purpose of this order is to continue in force the Services Discipline Acts for a further year, until 31 August 1980. The Acts—namely the Army and Air Force Acts of 1955 and the Naval Discipline Act of 1957—are the foundation of Service law and thus of Service discipline. As the House will be aware, a Service man or Service woman is subject both to civil law, like any other citizen of this land, and also to Service law which imposes certain additional restrictions necessary for the efficient operation of the Forces. One purpose of the Service Discipline Acts is to provide the statutory basis for the Service code of discipline and for the system used to enforce that code. A Service man or Service woman is, therefore, subject to these constraints over and above the ordinary civil law of England and the ordinary judicial system.

The continuation order which has been laid before us provides an opportunity, which I am sure the House will wish to seize, to consider how well the discipline- ary arrangements of the Services are working. Discipline in the Services is of a very high standard and this has enabled them to cope with the many and varied situations in which they find themselves—from exercises in North Norway to disaster relief in various parts of the world.

I should also like to say something about the implementation of the changes made by the Armed Forces Act 1976, notably the extension of the powers of summary punishment available to commanding officers in the Army, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Marines; the establishment of standing civilian courts to deal with civilians who are subject to the Army and Air Force Acts whilst serving overseas; the introduction of new powers of sentence applicable to civilians and, in particular, juveniles under the jurisdiction of all three Service Discipline Acts; and also bringing the Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service and the Women's Royal Naval Service under the Naval Discipline Act. These new provisions did not come into force until 1 July 1977 but we can make a preliminary assessment of their effectiveness and use.

I take first the extension of the powers of summary punishment. These have been used on more than 300 occasions. There has been a corresponding decrease in the number of courts martial which have taken place during this period, although this may not be entirely due to the use of the new powers. On the evidence of the past two years, I think it fair to say that the use of these extended powers has not given rise to any major problem, and that they are fulfilling their purpose in dealing with cases where neither the interests of the individual Service man nor those of the Service require the full administrative burden of a court martial. The individual Service man still can opt for a court martial if he should so choose.

As regards the establishment of standing civilian courts and the new powers of sentence for civilians, particularly Juveniles, the picture is again satisfactory. The House will recall that standing civilian courts were intended to provide a more appropriate form of tribunal for dealing with civilians overseas, akin rather to a magistrates' court in England. A wider range of penalties was introduced which made the new court particularly suitable for handling juvenile offenders through the use of such powers as community supervision orders, orders in regard to parents or guardians, and conditional and absolute discharges. The courts are currently operating in the areas of British Forces Germany, and since their creation in 1977 until the first quarter of this year, there have been about 70 trials by standing civilian courts involving 100 defendants, of whom about two-thirds have been juveniles. The most common sentences have been conditional discharges and fines and the level of sentence has tended to be similar to that prevailing in magistrates' courts in England.

Bringing the QARNNS and WRNS under the Naval Discipline Act has made little or no difference in the daily operation of these excellent Services, while making them more an integral part of the Senior Service.

As the House is aware, the Service Discipline Acts cannot be continued indefinitely by means of an order such as the one before us today. Every five years a new Armed Forces Act is required. The next one is due in 1981. This quinquennial review provides an opportunity to keep the provisions of the Acts in line with modern Service requirements and, as far as the exigencies of Service life allow, with civilian practice. There is a high standard of Service discipline in which we can take justifiable pride. It is this which we seek to continue in the order laid before the House today.

I think that it may be helpful for me to seek to catch your eye at the end of the debate. Mr. Speaker, in order to deal with any detailed or general points that may arise on the order.

4.6 p.m.

Mr. J. D. Concannon (Mansfield)

This debate is about the continuance of the Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts for a further year. The Opposition will, of course, support the motion.

On looking at past debates I have noticed that there have been varying degrees of trouble with the Chair over the narrowness of the debate. I congratulate the Minister on having managed to get through his speech without being pulled up, because I assure him that a lot of his predecessors were not so lucky. In 1972 I chanced my arm and created a record by speaking for seven minutes without incurring the wrath of the Chair. I seem to have been one of the very few who have managed to do so.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I was very tolerant with the new Minister, and I thought that the rest of the House would not have noticed just how tolerant I was. I hope that hon. Members will not take advantage of that.

Mr. Concannon

Point taken, Mr. Speaker. I have had a little experience of these debates, and I hope that I can keep on the straight and narrow.

I first took part in debates of this nature in 1972—that was the occasion on which I chanced my arm and got away with it. On a number of occasions this order has gone through on the nod, but the 1977 debate, which was very narrow, caused many hon. Members a lot of discomfort. Then last year the order was discussed on the Adjournment motion on which we had a far-reaching debate on the Army.

On looking around the Chamber, I feel that today is a rather sad occasion. So many of those who used to take part in these debates are no longer with us—Rear Admiral Morgan-Giles, "Curly" Mallalieu, John Cronin, and Harwood Harrison. I welcome back to these debates one of our old stalwarts—the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson).

I understand that the parent Act will cease to operate by the end of 1981 and that a new Act will be required. That will give the House an opportunity to look at the Armed Forces Discipline Acts in more detail and to have a rethink on certain attitudes to discipline. I was on the Select Committee in the 1960s when we were perturbed about certain aspects of this matter. Drug taking, while not prevalent at the time, was causing us concern, but I understand that that has been stamped on very hard in the Army and is no longer a problem.

I understand that the House will shortly debate the subject of capital punishment. We were concerned about that matter in relation to the legislation that is now before us. If the principle of capital punishment is defeated, the House might like to have an opportunity to examine these matters in more detail. I doubt whether, in this day and age, the death penalty would be countenanced to deal with any offence in the Armed Forces. I believe that if capital punishment ever had any use at all—and I very much doubt that it had—that use has long since passed. If one reads the history of punishment and its effect on morale in the Armed Forces, one sees that the death penalty and the carrying out of that punishment was greatly abused by the authorities and led to a lessening rather than a tightening up of morale.

A matter that arose from a Select Committee report—a report that I fully endorsed—related to the extension of the powers of summary punishment available to commanding officers in the Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Marines. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West (Mr. Brown), who had long experience in the Defence Department, was very much involved in this proposal. The Minister could almost have moved the order formally, because he answered all my questions before I had the opportunity to put them. However, I should like to thank him for the figures he put before the House.

I wish to refer to the power of commanding officers to keep within their units those who require discipline. I am not perturbed about any reduction in the number of courts martial. Each time I appeared before my commanding officer and was asked whether I would like the matter to be dealt with by him or by a court martial at a later stage, I invariably asked for the matter to be dealt with immediately so that I could remain with my unit.

I speak from experience of these matters. I have sampled the vigours of military discipline on a number of occasions and in varying degrees. They related to my misdeeds or to the fact that I bucked against authority—and only to the occasions when I was caught. If I had been caught every time, I should still be a constituent of the hon. and learned Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck).

We are discussing whether this legislation should be continued for a further year, and nobody would disagree with that proposition. The Armed Forces in Northern Ireland are contently put to the test. This is a special occasion, and I should like to quote what I said on the renewal of these Acts in 1972. I concur wholeheartedly with all that has been said in the House today about our forces in Northern Ireland and the disciplinary situation there. As a young guardsman involved in the situation in Palestine and Egypt and places such as those, I know what a terrific strain these situations can put on young Service men who are in them for the first time. When troops are at full stretch, they become irksome and tired … I recollect some of the nasty accidents that used to happen in places overseas, accidents not only between civilians and troops but also between the troops themselves. These were things beyond the normal machinations of the day. They were attributed to complete over-stretch, at times when the forces were having two hours on duty and two hours off, sleeping where they could, in their uniforms, with rifles tied to them, and so on. In such circumstances their ability to think and react 100 per cent. is impaired … there will always be a few incidents. What surprises me is that there are not many more. All the offences being alleged against our troops in Northern reland concern the normal thing one expects in this sort of confrontation … What worries me is the disciplinary end afterwards. I am becoming perturbed about the manner of the discipline that soldiers are having to take in these circumstances. Many young men join the Army intent on making it a career. At the tender age of 18 they are thrown into a situation such as that in Northern Ireland. For one mistake, through tiredness or irksomeness, they find themselves in trouble … I am more perturbed about the ending of a young man's career at the age of 18 or 19, and that of the long-serving soldier who has, perhaps, seven or eight years' service and who suddenly finds himself accidentally through the pressures in Northern Ireland, on a charge … I am worried about the number of people whose careers are being ended through this kind of thing"—[Official Report, 30 November 1972; Vol. 847, c. 726–27.] I said that in 1972 and I do not retract one word of it. In the past five years I have witnessed the task undertaken by our Armed Forces in Northern Ireland. My admiration for their work, under trying conditions in Belfast, Armagh and other areas, knows no bounds. We must remember the glare of publicity under which they work, the backcloth of allegations of brutality, harassment and victimisation—all of which amount to a well-conducted and deliberate campaign to discredit the discipline and morale of our Armed Forces.

A small minority crack under the strain. That relates to a very small number of soldiers, and we know that one recent incident had unfortunate results. Anybody who has served in the Armed Forces for any length of time has seen these incidents happen with varying degrees of damage and loss of life. It is not my intention in this debate to criticise. No Army could have carried out its duties better. There will be incidents, however regrettable, but, bearing in mind the amount of weaponry seen on the streets of Northern Ireland—particularly in the Belfast shopping areas on Saturdays—we can only be thankful that, because of the discipline of our Armed Forces, such incidents are few in number.

4.17 p.m.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

As one who received much of his most formative education on the restrictions parade ground, I am always proud to take part in these debates.

I wish to raise one simple matter. In 1976 the Army, Royal Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts were amended to bring them into line with current practice, and my hon. Friend the Minister said that the scope of the Acts was then broadened to encompass civilians serving overseas. I wish to ask whether the air crews of civil air transports—which can, under current legislation, be requisitioned in time of emergency or war—might be called upon to fly to war zones or operational areas, and, if so, whether they would come under the discipline provisions of the Act relating to the Royal Air Force.

This is important because a large proportion of air crews of civil air transport fleets have not received their training in the Services and therefore have no reserve commitment and are not subject, if called up for duty, to the Air Force Act. Since our Royal Air Force air transport fleet has been diminished, and as this legislation is to be reviewed in 1981, I hope that this matter will be examined.

4.19 p.m.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

It might surprise the House that I am intervening in this debate. But hon. Members might like to know that I come from a military background. My father was a professional soldier, one of my uncles, who was awarded a military medal, was killed in France in the First World War, and I served in the Royal Air Force during the last war. Therefore, I have an interest in this subject.

The problem is that hon. Members are forced to debate this order in a narrow sense. It reads: The Army Act 1955, the Air Force Act 1955 and the Naval Discipline Act 1957 shall continue in force for a period of twelve months beyond 31st August 1979, that date being the date on which they would otherwise expire I believe that there is a good case for saying that these Acts should not be allowed to continue until the House is given Government assurances. I think that that request is legitimately within the rules of order. It does not mean that I can deal with what is contained in these Acts, but surely I am allowed to seek assurances.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) mentioned Northern Ireland. He referred to the fact that some of our soldiers are under immense nervous strain as a result of their service there. Some of our younger people fear repeated visits to the Province. They do so because service in Northern Ireland is not the normal work of a soldier. They are returning in a police role to police the people whom they consider to be their kith and kin. Many of them are Protestant or Catholic, and they find themselves in immense difficulty. I know from contact with constituents that there have been tremendous problems in this direction with some of our young people.

My right hon. Friend stressed, quite rightly, that they are only a minority. Some of them have almost broken under the strain. They have been subjected to disciplinary charges when they should have been given a bout of hospitalisation and removal from that duty. This gives rise to a serious political problem, but it would be out of order for me to go into that now.

I am seeking clear assurances from the Minister that when young soldiers encounter this difficulty the authorities will adopt a different attitude towards discipline from that which has been adopted in many cases in the past. I cannot go into detail on those cases, but I have communicated with my right hon. and hon. Friends in the past when they were in office about some of them.

We must get into line with the positive developments that have taken place on the question of discipline in the Armed Forces of our NATO allies. We must get away from the old-fashioned concepts of discipline. Many advances have been made, but it is not good enough that a soldier is able only to call upon an officer to defend him when charges are made. The time has come for Service men to be able to elect representatives to act as spokesmen for them in any disciplinary matter. That raises the question whether we are to accept what happens in Germany, Holland and other NATO countries, where trade union organisation is permitted.

I know that Conservative Members go berserk at the suggestion that there should be some form of trade union organisation in the Armed Forces. They regard it as a subversive suggestion. I am not trying in any way to undermine the Armed Forces, but we must bring them up to date and into line with what happens in the armed forces of our NATO partners.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley) was looking into this matter when he was Secretary of State. That ended with the election, of course. However, I hope that the new Government, in spite of their reactionary concepts in every other direction, will be able to follow my right hon. Friend's example, consider the position in other countries and examine whether Service men should have the right to join trade unions of their choice.

I admit that there is a problem here. It is argued that Service men might not like the idea of outside trade unions negotiating on their behalf. The police have the Police Federation, which is not a trade union but which certainly provides proper representation. The federation has considered whether it should join the Trades Union Congress. If there is a strong feeling among Service men that they do not want an outside trade union to represent them in negotiations on, for example, conditions, we should at least consider giving them the right to form a trade union.

Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)

A company union.

Mr. Heffer

I do not think that it would be a company union. I do not regard the Police Federation as a company union. It is an independent organi- sation, and I hope that ultimately it will join the TUC. It does a good job. Of course, some soldiers may have belonged to craft trade unions before joining the Service, and they might want to retain membership of those unions. But my proposal is aimed at a union to represent Service men on matters of wages, conditions, discipline, and so on.

Before we allow the order to pass—I understand that it normally goes through on the nod—I hope the Government will agree to consider the possibility of bringing the Services up to date by giving the rank and file some form of trade union representation.

4.27 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) argued in favour of trade union representation in the Armed Forces, and I can see that there can be arguments in favour of that. One of the weakest arguments for it, however, is to say that because some of our allies have such a system we should have it too. Some of our allies have it, but others do not, and there is no discoverable relationship between the efficiency of the forces and whether they have trade unions.

Mr. Wilkinson

Their hair is longer.

Mr. Kershaw

Yes, their hair is longer, but the trade unions, being old-fashioned organisations, might not like long hair.

If there were trade unions in the Armed Forces, that would mean 100 per cent. trade unionism. Clearly, there could be no question of voluntary membership. That would cause chaos. But only a quarter of the civilian work force in this country is organised within trade unions, and one of the facts of military law is that it should not be too far removed from civilian law. It is desirable to avoid the impression that the Armed Forces live in a different fashion. If, in the civilian world, only a quarter of the work force is unionised while in the Armed Forces the figure is 100 per cent., that would be a divagation from civil life, which would have to be justified before it was put into effect.

The right hon. Member tot Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) referred to the death penalty. As he said, the time to discuss it will he next year, but it might be worth trying to separate in our minds one or two of the aspects of the matter. First, we should consider the death penalty in terms of the different crimes for which it is, or might be imposed. It is unlikely that the House will vote to reimpose the death penalty for civil murder, but that is the crime that one uses for purposes of comparison. Civil murder is an offence so different from those for which the death penalty is prescribed in the Armed Forces. The death penalty in the Armed Forces applies for various offences in the face of the enemy—the penalty for standing up to the enemy may be death, but the penalty for running away may be a term of imprisonment. Those considerations are quite different from those appertaining to the penalty for civil murder.

In civilian life the death penalty is retained for treason in time of war. If it could be said that a citizen who commits the crime of treason may be hanged but a soldier who commits a similar offence may be tried under military law and that penalty would not apply to him, we would find ourselves in a muddle of logic.

The right hon. Member for Mansfield referred to the troops in Northern Ireland. I feel deeply that what he says is true. A constituent of mine—a particularly poignant case—is a young ex-soldier of 18. He suddenly discharged his weapon at a civilian building and was charged in the civil courts and convicted. He appealed against that conviction but the appeal was turned down. I shall not comment upon the penalty that was exacted by the civil court. Nevertheless, it was imposed, and thereupon he was discharged from the Army as well because the offence related to the use of a firearm.

That is an offence for which the Army discharges the offender. However, he has not been convicted by the Army of anything. I believe that he was punished twice. He was a young man who had set his heart upon a military career from his school days and had determined to do nothing else. For his career to be cut short at the age of 19 is a harsh penalty. I believe that it was basically unfair and, no doubt, he, too, will believe that he has been treated unfairly. As the right hon.

Member for Mansfield said, he is an example of a young man who needs not punishment but treatment for a short time to restore him to health.

I welcome back to our debates my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) after his enforced absence. He mentioned the problem of air crews being subject to military discipline. I agree entirely with his remarks. However, I should like to add the addendum that when our forces are mobilised it will be necessary to move a large number of troops to Germany. Most of them will travel by air. They will be sent at the last possible moment because it will not be the wish of the Front Bench of the day to exacerbate the matter by mobilising sooner than is necessary. Of course, the fear exists that they will be mobilised too late. Nevertheless, we may anticipate that events will be hard, harsh and urgent when the troops finally leave these shores to take up their position in Germany.

It will be necessary and desirable that they should land as far forward towards the front line as possible. I believe that they should land closer to the area of danger than, perhaps, others would feel. Under those circumstances, they will be flying with civilian crews. There is no question of the RAF taking over the aircraft, because at such short notice they will not know how to fly the aircraft and they will not have the available crews. Therefore, civil airliners, requisitioned for the purpose under our law and flown by civilian crews, will not be subject to military laws in areas where hostilities may be breaking out.

What can be done about civilian crews who refuse to fly into areas of danger? There may well—after all—be trade unions, in effect, inside the forces. Therefore, I hope that these matters will be reconsidered when the Act has to be renewed next year. I hope that the legal position of the air crews will be borne in mind.

4.34 p.m.

Mr. Clement Freud (Isle of Ely)

If I understood the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw) correctly, he opposed the unionisation of the Armed Forces that was suggested by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), on the ground that it would be preferable to have the same sort of industrial practices in the Armed Forces as pertain elsewhere.

On that basis, I should like to raise a disciplinary point. A constituent of mine had been looking forward for some months to joining the Women's Royal Air Force. She had undergone the medicals which enabled her to do so. She went to Cambridge and did her attestation, and then she was sent to Hereford for yet another medical—her third. At that point she was discharged from the Air Force, for failing the medical. She had spent a substantial part of her adult life looking forward to joining the WRAF, she had spent seven months waiting to join, and during her first week of service, and after her third medical, she found that she was medically unsuitable. As a result, she received seven days' severance pay.

That is an industrial practice that would not be accepted anywhere else. If she had been in civilian employment she would have been able to go to an industrial tribunal, and I do not doubt that the sympathy of the tribunal would have been with her. However, because she joined the Air Force on a Monday and was discharged on a Wednesday she was paid seven days' terminal leave. Had it not been for my intervention that would have been all that she received, but after investigation, and a wait of five weeks, she received another seven days' terminal pay. However, the end of the road has now been reached.

I give notice to the Minister that I intend to find out how often that sort of practice occurs. It is wrong for the Defence Department to deal with individuals in a way that no industrial company would. It is playing with the lives of people. In times of war, perhaps, it might be acceptable, but in times of peace it is the worst sort of incompetence. I am well aware that if the Air Force were a quango it would have been given notice. I do not believe that the Air Force has the right to treat people in a far worse manner than industry does. I should like to know how many people are discharged within a day or a week of attestation. Perhaps it is easier to allow medicals to be undergone away from the Air Force so that people can join and then be kicked out. If it is easier, I believe that it is wrong, and I intend to do something about it.

4.38 p.m.

Mr. Churchill (Stretford)

I compliment the Under-Secretary on the finesse with which he avoided falling foul of the Chair in this narrowly-drawn debate. He was infinitely more successful than I was with one of your predecessors, Mr.. Deputy Speaker.

The right hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) touched upon the strain of the military discipline that is imposed by the dangerous and difficult circumstances in Northern Ireland. That strain results, above all, from the overstretch of the Armed Forces due to shortage of numbers, repeated tours of duty to Northern Ireland—some units having been there eight or even nine times—and the long hours that are served. Other hon. Members have mentioned specific instances where the strain has caused men to snap under the pressure.

I urge the Under-Secretary to reexamine the whole question of the number of hours served on duty in Northern Ireland. Until recently, and perhaps even now, they were running at an average of 110 a week. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will feel that to subject men to those sorts of hours of duty comes close to recklessness and irresponsibility. I urge my hon. Friend to seek ways of reducing the overstretch and the long hours to a more acceptable level, say about 90 hours a week, if circumstances permit.

4.41 p.m.

Mr. Antony Buck (Colchester)

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. He has a superb job, as I know, having held the same post myself in the past. I hope that he enjoys-it as much as I did and has a successful tenure of office. He has the good wishes of all hon. Members. I see Labour Members nodding in agreement. There is a substantial element of bipartisanship in the way that we deal with matters affecting our Armed Forces, and it is right that that should be so.

I could not deal with the order other than briefly and remain in order. It is appropriate that I should say a few words because the centre for Forces' discipline, particularly the Army, is in my constituency. The right hon. Member for Mansfield, (Mr. Concannon) does not mind my revealing that he has personal experience of that institution. Perhaps he is the greatest expert in the House on disciplinary matters, since he has been on the receiving end of Colchester.

One of the principal "old boys" has made a distinguished contribution to the debate. Perhaps that is a commendation of the work done at Colchester. The right hon. Gentleman also earned the admiration of us all for his work in the Northern Ireland Office in the previous Government. It helps to be Colchester-trained.

I should like the Under-Secretary to deal with the ever-present possibility of the rebuilding of the military corrective training establishment in Colchester. It is just about the last of the hutted camps. A remarkable amount of work is needed to keep it clean, and Nissen huts are renowned as being uneconomic. The whole place needs rebuilding, and I shall be grateful if my hon. Friend can say when that will be done. Successive Governments have let secondary building programmes slip and I should like to know where the rebuilding at Colcester stands in the current programme.

The morale of the Armed Forces was boosted by the recent pay award. I understand that there was an immediate reduction in the number of petty crimes and disciplinary offences in the Armed Forces. I commend the Government wholeheartedly for announcing immediately after the election—even before the Queen's Speech—that they were improving Service pay. That has had a profound effect on discipline.

The biggest strain on Service discipline is that of serving in Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill) referred to the number of hours served by soldiers in the Province. Of equal importance is the frequency of tours of duty. Some units have done eight or nine tours, and it is not an attractive pattern to have a tour in Colchester, agreeable though that place is, an occasional tour in BAOR, and Northern Ireland coming round with greater frequency.

The previous Government increased the numbers in the Armed Forces by creating a new battalion. There was no announcement in the House, and the Government disguised their action cleverly because otherwise they would have had trouble from some Labour Members below the Gangway. I hope that I am right in anticipating an expansion of our Armed Forces which will ensure that the tours of duty to Northern Ireland will not be so frequent.

It is in Northern Ireland that one sees the discipline of the Armed Forces put under greatest strain, but one also sees them at their most splendid there. No other forces in the world could sustain that burden with such a small number of disciplinary problems.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) made some interesting remarks about trade unions. I am not sympathetic to the idea. It has less validity here than in other NATO countries, because we do not have national service. A case could be made for greater protection being given to those who are conscripted, either through the military ombudsman appointed by some countries or in other ways. That argument does not have the same force in this country because we have wholly professional Services, but I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say.

It is pleasing to know that discipline in the Armed Forces is good and that there is no crisis or trouble in spite of the enormous burden sustained by our forces in Northern Ireland. I reiterate that discipline and morale has been transformed by the Government's decision on pay.

4.47 p.m.

Mr. Stan Thorne (Preston, South)

I understand that certain limitations are placed on hon. Members in the debate because we are concerned only with the renewal of an order. That presents me with problems, because I wish to object to the renewal and I hope that what I have to say will be seen to be in order.

I object to the renewal of the order because of, for example, the inadequacy of section 54 of the Naval Discipline Act 1957 which deals with the composition of courts-martial, and for other reasons relating to the offences covered by the Act. Section 54 provides that A court-martial shall consist of not less than five nor more than nine officers, being officers of Her Majesty's naval forces subject to this Act who are of or above the rank of lieutenant A member of the other ranks has to be tried by a group of officers, some of whom may have served on the same ship as the accused man. The most senior officer is likely to be a rear-admiral or another high-ranking officer. It is a "them and us" situation. Other ranks will obviously feel that their prospects of presenting their case with any chance of being listened to sympathetically is weakened, to put it no stronger, by the fact that they are not being tried by their peers—members of the other ranks—or even by non-commissioned officers. They are being tried by officers in courts-martial.

Some hon. Members may scoff at the notion of one of the other ranks being tried by a group of men from the same ranks. If a member of the other ranks has committed an offence covered by the Act serious enough to warrant a court martial, I believe that other ranks are quite capable of determining whether he is guilty of the offence. They are certainly capable of listening to the witnesses, weighing up the evidence, and of interpreting the Act which, presumably, is the function of the officers at a court martial. Therefore, the Minister ought to be looking very closely towards innovation in the late part of the twentieth century by seeking to introduce other ranks as members of courts martial.

An additional element that causes me concern and makes me unwilling to accept the renewal of the order is the question of how a member of the other ranks defends himself at a court martial. I have cause to remember an incident which happened some years ago when a member of the other ranks faced a court martial charged with conduct prejudicial to good order under section 39 of this Act. He was charged with subversive activity. When one looks at that section of the Act dealing with mutiny, and the wording thereof, and at subsequent sections, one could be forgiven for being somewhat bewildered by what was meant by the words "prejudicial to good order" and what was subversive conduct.

When a member of the other ranks faces such a situation—if there has been a change, I seek information—he is offered the aid of an officer to defend him at the court martial. It is true that he can choose whether he will accept "Jimmy-the-One"—the Iieutenant-commander—to defend him, or whether he will accept some officer aboard ship or some other officer if, at the time, the accused is in a fleet shore accommodation or in port. If I had been aboard a ship at the same time as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) I might have decided that Corporal Heffer would be an ideal person to represent me before a court martial—

Mr. English

He was in the Air Force.

Mr. Thorne

—but there is nothing in the Act which permits me to do that. I am forced to accept an officer to defend me. I admit that there are some officers who may conscientiously address themselves to the problems of an individual and the charges that he faces. There are very few officers—certainly the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill) would not be one of them—who could grasp what was meant by subversive conduct by a member of the other ranks and be able to act in that man's defence. I mean no disrespect to the hon. Member for Stretford, but I have come across many officers—somewhat like the hon Member in demeanour and temperament—who would have been the last people to represent a member of the other ranks facing a charge of subversive conduct.

I speak from personal experience when I say that there is absolutely nothing in the Naval Discipline Act 1957—or in what preceded or followed it—that gives a member of the other ranks the same rights of protection, before a court martial, as those afforded to a former hon. Member of the House of Commons who went through a much more serious court case than one involving conduct subversive to discipline. That case concerned a conspiracy to murder. All that the law could provide was afforded to that former hon. Member for his defence. In my view there is no excuse for us, in this House, permitting the renewal of an Act that does not give to the other ranks of our Armed Forces the same opportunities as were given to the former right hon. Member for Devon, North.

4.56 p.m.

Mr. Concannon

I shall not delay the House for long, because this is a narrow debate about whether we carry the order forward for another year. The parent Act must be renewed by the end of 1981, as it comes up every five years. If we look at the previous Act we find that we are continually moving forward in this matter. Most of the points put forward by my hon. Friends today will be brought before the House at the time of renewal.

Mr. English

Am I right in believing that that is usually done through a Select Committee, which enables the calling of any evidence relevant to the discussion?

Mr. Concannon

I and some of my hon. Friends were on the Select Committee which dealt with the last Act. Some of the changes introduced in that Act came straight from the Select Committee's recommendations. My hon. Friend knows more about Select Committee procedure than I do. We shall have to see how the matter works out.

What has emerged from speeches from both sides of the House is a concern about what is happening to our troops in Northern Ireland—not the vast majority but the few who crack under the stresses and strains of service there. The House is asking the Minister to see whether this is a question not so much of discipline as of hospitalisation and whether we can try to sort out the weaker elements before they crack up.

There has been no criticism whatsoever of our Armed Forces. Those who have served in them have seen the most unlikely individuals crack up, individuals who right up to the very moment of the crack-up were performing their duties. Suddenly something happens—whether as a result of a personal problem at home or whatever—and a man suddenly cracks. At such times discipline is perhaps not the answer to the problem. The answer may be to take a closer look at some of the conditions which have forced an individual to act in that way.

4.59 p.m.

Mr. Speed

First, I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House who have extended good wishes to me. As a former Regular sailor, I feel that there can be no greater honour than to be in my position as Under-Secretary of State for Defence with responsibility for the Royal Navy.

Secondly, I congratulate the right hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) on his new position, on his translation from the stresses and strains of Northern Ireland to defence, and I welcome him to our debates. I am sure that we shall both be taking part in many. Immense good will has been expressed from both sides of the House to our Armed Forces in the difficult tasks which they have to undertake from time to time.

I come now to the comments of the hon. Member for Preston, South (Mr. Thorne), who, I thought, introduced a slightly discordant note into what was otherwise a debate in which, by and large, there was a fair measure of agreement, apart, perhaps, from the comments of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) about trade union activities, to which I shall return in a moment. The hon. Member for Preston, South is entitled to express his views. He can do so at the time of the review just mentioned by the right hon. Member for Mansfield. I confirm that there is normally a Select Committee to consider these matters and to take evidence. There has to be a new Act by 1981.

The view of the hon. Member for Preston, South, as I understand it, is virtually that there should be a people's court to replace the present court-martial procedure. I must say that that is not a view which commends itself to me. He does not seem to understand—I speak here of the Royal Navy, to which the hon. Member also addressed himself—the divisional officer system, and he suggests that only some officers might have an idea of what the various problems were about. The hon. Gentleman underestimates the concern that officers at all levels in the Royal Navy, whether direct entry officers or officers coming from the lower deck, have for the lower deck and all the people in their charge.

Having served as a divisional officer myself, and having in recent weeks seen the immense bond and trust between divisional officers, senior chief and petty officers, leading ratings, able seamen and junior seamen, all I can say is that if we had similar trust and harmony throughout British industry this country would be in a very much better state today than it is.

Mr. Thorne

With all respect to the Minister, I do not know how long he served in the Navy. I served in the Navy, and what he has just outlined does not represent my experience.

Mr. Speed

I joined the Royal Navy on 1 September 1947. I left the Royal Naval Reserve seven weeks ago. The hon. Gentleman can work it out for himself.

Mr. Thorne

As an officer.

Mr. Speed

I joined the Royal Navy as a cadet, and I speak from extensive experience. I have found no evidence from any naval rating, at any level, of the things that the hon. Gentleman was talking about. In addition, if a rating or, indeed, anyone else is charged under the court-martial arrangements, he is entitled, if he wishes, to employ a civilian lawyer under legal aid as well. That is an entitlement apart from having an officer as prisoner's friend.

Mr. Thorne

In what circumstances?

Mr. Speed

In the circumstances that I have outlined, at a court martial. That is one of the opportunities open to him. If the hon. Gentleman has a specific case in which he feels that injustice has been caused, and he lets me know about it, 1 shall be more than happy to look into it and see whether we can get things right. If things are wrong with the present system, we have the opportunity to deal with them. We have the quinquennial review so that we can ensure that things are put right as time goes on.

Mr. English

Is it the case that legal aid can be used and counsel claimed on any charge? Surely, there must be minor charges to which that cannot apply.

Mr. Speed

If they are very minor charges, they would not be subject to court martial. This is the object of the exercise. They would be subject to summary jurisdiction, under the commanding officer of the ship. I remind the House here of one of the objectives of the 1976 Act. Because of the peculiar conditions in which sailors serve, perhaps in a ship on detached service a long way from any other Navy facility, commanding officers have traditionally, over a long time, been able to take more serious charges and have wider summary powers than was the case in the other Services. That balance was slightly redressed under the 1976 Act, with the consequences which I outlined in my opening speech. But, after all, a court martial offence is a pretty serious offence—I am sure that the House will agree—and the court-martial procedure is not normally used for very light offences.

I turn now to the main points raised in the debate. I can confirm to the right hon. Member for Mansfield that, although, of course, we would not wish in any way to be complacent about it, drugs do not seem to be a disciplinary or other problem within our Armed Forces. Obviously, we keep an eye on the matter, but I think that that can give us cause for some satisfaction.

The question of capital punishment is being looked at again. I think that it will probably come up before the Select Committee in the course of the review leading to the next discipline Act in 1981.

The right hon. Member for Mansfield and several other hon. Members very properly brought the question of Northern Ireland to the attention of the House. I acknowledge at once the tremendous stresses and strains put upon our Service men in Northern Ireland. Obviously, the Army is bearing the brunt, but it is worth remembering that both the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines, in particular, do a great deal. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there is a Royal Marine commando on extended service there at the moment doing magnificent work.

I would not quarrel with the figures given by my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill) on the sort of hours of service that Service men may be doing.

The hon. Member for Walton hoped that, in the light of the stresses and strains in Northern Ireland, discipline was not unduly repressive. I am sure that it is not. I am sure also that all Ministers who have ever served in the Northern Ireland Office—I think here of the right hon. Member for Mansfield—or who go from my Department to visit Northern Ireland will have seen for themselves that a special view is taken particularly over some of the very young men who are pitchforked into a situation which is uniquely different from almost anything else, where one literally does not know who is the enemy round the corner. This can involve psychological pressures of a kind which, I believe, very few of us can appreciate unless we have lived there.

Mr. Heffer

There is another aspect to that matter. Some of the non-commissioned officers, for example, themselves under stress, can at times be harsh to young soldiers because of the circumstances they are in. I am sure that the Minister will agree that this also creates problems and that aspect of the matter needs to be looked at.

Mr. Speed

I entirely accept that, and I recognise—I do not say this in any critical sense—that many non-commissioned officers in all the Services now are themselves young men. They are bright and intelligent, they have to have a high technical proficiency, but they have great responsibilities put upon them at quite an early age. They have a number of young men's lives in their hands, and that in itself can in certain circumstances lead to the sort of things to which the hon. Members rightly referred.

We expect very high standards from our Armed Forces, and I think that where people do crack up it happens in a very small minority of cases. Nevertheless, in this sort of situation we want to see that justice is very much tempered with mercy. I take entirely the point which has been made, and I note the sense of the House in the debate. I shall see that these sentiments are conveyed to all concerned. Although I have no reason to think that matters are otherwise, I think it important that the House should make its views known.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) raised an interesting point about civilian aircrews and civil air transport. I cannot give him a specific answer now, but I shall pass the matter on to my hon. Friend the Member for Chertsey and Walton (Mr. Pattie), who, as Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for the Royal Air Force, will write to my hon. Friend and give him an answer. Obviously, one thinks back to the Berlin airlift and the way that many civilian aircraft were employed in a situation somewhat similar to that which my hon. Friend had in mind. No doubt, those concerned came under appropriate discipline at that time. I shall ensure that an answer is given to my hon. Friend as soon as possible.

I return now to the question of trade unionism. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw) was not happy about the suggestions put forward by the hon. Member for Walton and neither, I confess, was I. First, there is no bar against a member of the Armed Forces joining a trade union as an individual. Indeed, towards the end of their military service in the Army, the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force or the Royal Marines, tradesmen are encouraged to join the appropriate union since this will enable them to resettle and get an appropriate job in their trade in civilian life. However, I do not think that that was the point which the hon. Gentleman had in mind.

A number of problems arise in this context. First, I think that the hon. Gentleman was a little selective in his reference to NATO countries. I think that I am right in saying that the majority of NATO countries and, indeed, our ally countries do not have unionised forces as such.

Second, I have so far received no intimation whatever from all the various sailors and Royal Marines with whom I have spoken that there is any such desire to have representation on a collective basis.

Third, there is our established tradition, which I for one would be very unhappy to break, that the Services as such do not align themselves in any way with politics—politics of the Right, the Left or the Centre—and inevitably trade unions are aligned with politics in certain ways, as the hon. Member for Walton knows. There is a danger here which I would not wish to underestimate.

Moreover, there are such things as the independent Pay Review Body, which, on the whole, I think, is working well now. Conditions in the Services are improving, and rightly so, because of the pressures that are put on Governments not only by the independent Pay Review Body but by hon. Members. I am doubtful whether 100 per cent. trade union membership, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud said would virtually be essential, would advance working conditions or living conditions in the Services. It could bring with it many more problems than it would solve. However, if the hon. Member for Walton thinks that it is an idea that should go forward, it will be open to him to make representations to my Department for it to be included in any new discipline Act. At present we are not convinced that collective trade union membership would be advantageous or desirable. Indeed, it has not been requested by those in the Services.

The hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) introduced a constituency case that has caused him concern. In principle I share his concern, although I do not have the details of the case. It is my intention that the Armed Services should treat their members and prospective members in a civilised manner. If that is not happening, we shall consider our procedures and ascertain whether they need to be improved. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to let my Department have further details, if he has not already provided them, we shall consider our procedures and ensure that they reach the highest possible level. We do not want to act in an uncivilised manner.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford talked about overstretch and the problems that it brings, especially in Northern Ireland, where there is the overstretching of young men during their tours of duty. Unfortunately, the Services generally are overstretched because of manpower problems. That has its disciplinary implications. The real answer is to improve manpower. The Army, Navy and Air Force are short of skilled personnel, and personnel generally. It cannot be acceptable that for quite long periods and under difficult conditions young men are working up to 110 hours a week. They can be subjected to enormous stresses and strains. We cannot be surprised when accidents and incidents occur from time to time because of the stresses and strains.

It is our intention to reduce the working week as far as possible. The figure that my hon. Friend mentioned is more than high enough but it would be an improvement. Bearing in mind the Northern Ireland situation—the right hon. Member for Mansfield will understand what I am about to say—it is not possible to enter into early commitments. However, we want to do all that we can. The more successful our recruiting becomes, the better it will be for the Services.

Several references have been made to units returning to Northern Ireland on seven, eight or nine occasions. Two units in particular have been back to Northern Ireland eight or nine times on tours of duty. I know one of the units well. Many of the young men who have been back to Northern Ireland many times are in extremely good heart, and morale is high.

We must remember that the wives and families of Service men in Northern Ireland are put under strain. That should not be forgotten when we talk about discipline. Sometimes the stresses and strains are not the obvious ones of, for example, the sniper on the street corner. Stresses and strains can arise at home because of the natural worry and anxiety when members of families worry about their loved ones being under strain and stress in Northern Ireland time after time.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck) for what he said about my job. My hon. and learned Friend served in my present capacity with distinction. I take note of what he said about the rebuilding of the glasshouse at Colchester. I cannot give him the answer that he seeks this afternoon about an early rebuild. I shall ensure that my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Hayhoe) the Under-Secretary who has responsibility for the Army—writes to him as soon as possible. I agree that the implementation of the pay award will help further to improve discipline. There are various other measures that we intend to introduce in the near future that we hope will improve Service conditions generally. The improvements will be beneficial from a disciplinary point of view.

With one or two exceptions, the House generally has paid tribute to the high standards of the Armed Forces. I want to ensure that the Armed Forces offer a first-class long-term career both for men and women. It is a career of which men and women personnel can be proud. They should derive a great deal of satisfaction from serving in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Royal Marines, and their wives and relatives should be proud that they are playing their part in the Services.

Pay is one factor, as conditions of service is another. The public's appreciation, as well as that of the House, is important. We all like to be in jobs that others notice and appreciate as worth while. Serving Her Majesty and maintaining the defence and freedom of Britain and the Western world is a job that is second to none. That in itself is one of the key factors in improving discipline in the Armed Services, which is already of a high order. I pay tribute to the professionalism, skill and high quality of those in the Armed Forces, and I hope that the House will approve the order.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts (Continuation) Order 1979, which was laid before this House on 25th June, be approved.