HC Deb 10 February 1981 vol 998 cc791-805

Order for Second Reading read.

7.12 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army (Mr. Philip Goodhart)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The primary purpose of this Bill is simple. It seeks to renew and to revise the provisions which determine the day-to-day legal framework within which members of all three Armed Services live their Service lives.

The Bill is brought forward, as the preamble to it makes clear, in order that the Service discipline Acts may be continued for a further five years. Its scope helps to ensure that, as far as possible, the rules that determine Service life reflect and keep pace with civil experience and practice.

It is now customary for Ministers when introducing or supporting these Armed Forces Bills to refer to the unusual nature of the procedures involved. In a similar debate five years ago, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John), who now leads for the official Opposition on defence matters, referred to the 1976 Act as a "Brigadoon Bill", because this Bill, like the mythical Scottish village which inspired a successful Broadway musical comedy, appears occasionally but regularly in our parliamentary life.

I think that I would prefer to compare the procedure that we have adopted to a Naval refit. As every hon. Member present will know, our major warships are put into dry dock every few years to allow the experts to swarm all over the vessels to repair, modify and improve them.

In a roughly similar fashion, once every five years, we take the Army Act 1955, the Air Force Act 1955 and the Naval Discipline Act 1957 out of the legislative waters and let the experts swarm all over them, tapping here and prodding there, to consider whether any provisions need amendment, strengthening or scrapping.

In this whole process, hon. Members have a particularly important role to play, and here I am glad that we shall have the benefit of the formidable legal talents of the hon. and learned Member for Accrington (Mr. Davidson). If the Bill obtains its Second Reading, I propose to move that the Bill be sent to a Select Committee, as happened on the last occasion in 1975, and has, indeed, been the tradition since the enactment of the 1955 Acts. There would seem great advantage in the continued use of a Select Committee, rather than a Standing Committee, in view of the opportunity it gives the members of such a Committee to range widely over the whole field of Service discipline in addition to detailed scrutiny of the Bill itself.

Precisely because it is intended that this Armed Forces Bill, like its predecessors, should be the subject of detailed scrutiny at the Select Committee stage, I shall not weary the House in this debate with a full description of all the clauses contained in the Bill, many of which are highly technical. One such clause is clause 5, which permits an authority confirming or reviewing the sentence of a court martial to treat as not taken into consideration any offences which, in the opinion of that authority, should not have been taken into consideration at the trial. Another example is clause 9 which permits computer records to be produced in evidence in proceedings under the Army Act 1955 and Air Force Act 1955 in accordance with certain specified conditions which derive from the Civil Evidence Act 1968.

There will be ample time to discuss all those matters in Committee. Therefore I propose to concentrate on the more significant of the new powers proposed in the Bill and on certain recommendations made by the Select Committee which considered the last Act.

With regard to clause 10, hon. Members may recall that one of the most significant provisions of the Armed Forces Act 1976 was the establishment overseas of the standing civilian courts to hear cases where the accused were civilians liable to be tried under the Service discipline Acts.

The standing civilian courts approximate to magistrates' courts in England both with regard to the cases they may hear and the sentences at their disposal. The standing civilian courts are currently operating in Germany and a total of 285 individual cases has been heard by them in the three and a half years since they came into operation. Regular sittings of the standing civilian courts take place in Rheindahlen, Dusseldorf, Celle and Bielefeld and they are held in other locations as necessary.

As was foreseen, the standing civilian courts have proved particularly effective in dealing with juvenile offenders. I understand that civilians serving overseas generally see the establishment of the standing civilian courts as a distinct improvement on the previous system. Moreover, the Army and the Royal Air Force have also found that the new courts have worked well, and there have been savings in the administrative work load of serving officers now that the standing civilian courts are available to deal with cases which otherwise would have to be dealt with by court martial.

The opportunity has been taken in clause 10 and schedule 1 of making a number of amendments of detail to the existing provisions regarding the standing civilian courts. These amendments relate to the circumstances in which a social inquiry or other report may be provided on an offender, the manner in which a parent or guardian against whom a compensation order has been made may appeal against the order, a definition of "guardian" in relation to the powers of courts martial and the extension from 21 to 40 days of the time for lodging notice of appeal from the standing civilian courts to courts martial.

Schedule 1 also contains a further measure of some importance relating to civilians in that the maximum fine which may be awarded to a civilian following a summary trial is increased from £25 to £100. Although this may seem a rather large increase, in fact it does no more than bring the level of fines into line with increases in British courts since this matter was looked at in 1966. The power to fine civilians, subject to the Acts, in summary proceeding is now much less needed in areas where the standing civilian courts are operating, but there is an obvious need for it to be retained in other areas, such as the Far East. I should perhaps add that there is a considerable safeguard for civilians in the exercise of these powers in that the accused always has the right to elect to be tried by court martial in preference to being tried summarily.

Two important new powers are sought in clauses 13 and 14 with respect to the Service communities overseas. It is not, I think, always appreciated that, in addition to the 88,000 British Service men stationed overseas, there are also about 40,000 wives and 54,000 children living in Service communities abroad. The Service discipline Acts apply in a rather limited form to the families of Service men resident with them at overseas stations and also to certain civilian support staff, who are attached to the Services.

Clauses 13 and 14 will provide legal powers for the protection of the mentally disturbed and of children considered to be at risk in Service communities overseas. I stress that this in no way reflects an upsurge of either mental illness or child abuse. As a matter of policy, problem families are not posted abroad. The new powers would need to be involved only a few times a year. Nevertheless, in communities of the scale that I have outlined, some cases will inevitably occur. Hitherto, we have relied on administrative powers to return such persons to the United Kingdom where they could be cared for according to United Kingdom civil legislation. However, we consider—and members of the 1976 Select Committee expressed the same view when hearing witnesses—that specific legal powers should be laid down regarding the action which can be taken in overseas Service communities before an individual can be returned to the United Kingdom. We have, therefore, put forward powers as similar as possible to United Kingdom civil legislation.

I should like now to turn to the retention of the death penalty and, in particular, to clause 17 of the Bill. The 1976 Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill recommended in its report that the Ministry of Defence should review the need for the retention of the death penalty, particularly with a view to reducing the categories of offences for which it may be awarded. Under clause 17 the death penalty would not be retained as the maximum sentence for the offence of spying for an enemy on board one of Her Majesty's ships or within a naval establishment abroad. There is no equivalent to this offence in either the Army Act or the Air Force Act 1955. It is not felt necessary that the death penalty should be retained for this offence. The maximum penalty suggested is life imprisonment.

There are now five offences under the discipline Acts which apply to Service men and also to certain civilians which attract the death penalty. These offences relate to communicating with the enemy, obstructing operations, mutiny or incitement to mutiny and surrender of a place to an enemy without lawful excuse. I must emphasise that these offences attract the death penalty only when committed with specific intent to assist the enemy and that those found guilty of them may be sentenced to lesser punishments. I must tell the House that after a thorough review of these offences, we have concluded that the death penalty should be retained for them.

The offences in question are of the utmost seriousness since they could put in jeopardy the force to which the offender belonged and might well threaten the outcome of a battle or campaign. Those who commit such offences could put at risk not only the lives of their fellow Service men—possibly in very large numbers—but the survival of our country. Moreover, the death penalty may be thought the only effective deterrent for a potential offender on the battlefield who, like his comrades, may have to face death as a result of obeying orders and who, in consequence, is hardly likely to be deterred from assisting the enemy by the possibility of imprisonment.

In this respect we are in line with our major allies, the great majority of whom also retain the death penalty for military and war-time offences, although in practice the use of the death penalty has largely disappeared from their ordinary criminal codes and practices. Four of the NATO countries have a greater number of offences attracting the death penalty than the United Kingdom. I am told that the Soviet military code contains no fewer than 16 separate military crimes punishable by death in time of war. I hope, therefore, that the House will accept that it is right to retain the death penalty in those circumstances.

If I might now move to a rather more agreeable subject, hon. Members will note that clause 20 is designed to complete the assimilation for the purposes of statute law of the women's Services. This will ensure that all statutory provisions applying to the Armed Forces generally apply in the same way to the women's Services.

The psychological impact of this particular announcement may be somewhat muted by the fact that the right hon. Member for Stockton (Mr. Rodgers) made a broadly similar statement when introducing the Bill in 1975. But even after the passage of that legislation, which included officers and ratings of the Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service and the Women's Royal Naval Service in the general definition of "Her Majesty's naval forces", there was still doubt whether references in other statutes to the Armed Forces generally or the naval forces in particular included the QARNNS and the WRNS in every case. The present clause is designed to put this situation beyond all practical doubt.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment. I am not quite clear about the clause. Am I right in assuming that the clause puts the women's Services on the same footing, both for punishment and for trial? But I presume that there is a difference, because the male Services are combatant and the female Services, I understand, are still non-combatant.

Mr. Goodhart

Broadly speaking, that is correct.

I turn to clause 24. The House will, I am sure wish to take note of the proposal to abolish the splendid office of Accountant General of the Navy. The Accountant General of the Navy is in fact an office—though there is no longer an officer—that was instituted before the Napoleonic Wars. Its former responsibilities included the Admiralty's spending generally, and the pay of the Navy in particular. However, its splendours and powers are long gone, as I understand that the actual post of Accountant General of the Navy as a separate entity was abolished in 1932 and that an MOD deputy secretary now performs the vestigial duties of the office, confined for the most part to the signing of documents under various trust deeds. Statutory references to the Accountant General of the Navy do, however, still exist and it is now proposed that these functions should be formally transferred to the Secretary of State.

The effect of clause 26 is to abolish the statutory requirement for Army pensions to be paid in advance. This proposal reflects a general tendency towards payment of benefits monthly in arrears which reduces administrative costs without causing any loss to the individual. I must stress, however, that the clause will not affect those currently receiving pensions paid weekly in advance. They will, unless they wish to change, continue to receive then-pensions on the former basis. I understand that many new Army pensioners already wish to receive their pensions in the proposed way. I should also perhaps explain that the clause will put the Army on the same footing as the other two Services which are also proposing to pay future benefits on the basis I have outlined, although, in their case, no statutory authority is needed.

Inevitably, a debate such as this must concentrate on the penalties, summary proceedings and courts martial. Anyone listening to our past and present discussions on the discipline Acts might be forgiven for thinking that we face the same grave disciplinary problems that bedevil the armed forces of so many other countries, although the technical nature of so much of the Bill suggests that there is not too much wrong with our present balance.

Of course a legal code is important, but what really matters is self-discipline. The House can take legitimate pride in the conduct and self-discipline of our Forces. As hon. Members may be aware, I have spent much time in the past 20 months in Northern Ireland. I can testify to the general respect there for the good humour and restraint with which our soldiers have responded to the special strains there. I am sure that the whole House joins in recognising the debt that we owe to the men and women who protect our country.

7.34 pm
Mr. Arthur Davidson (Accrington)

May I first congratulate the Under-Secretary on attaining his high office? I do so warmly because I have known him for a long time, and therefore I will dispense with the ritual of saying that I hope that he holds office happily for a short time—although I do.

As the Minister has said, the Bill is, to say the least, far reaching, as both its predecessors have been. Any Bill that encompasses almost as a throw-away, tucked away in clause 17, the abolition of the death penalty for the, one hopes, rare event of spying on board one of Her Majesty's ships or within a naval establishment by a civilian not subject to the Naval Discipline Act is a rare and unusual Bill. A Bill that also embraces, again tucked away towards the end of the Bill in clause 24, the abolition of that grand and exotic post of Accountant General of the Navy is an unusual Bill. The whole House will mourn the passing of that great official, but perhaps less so now that we have been told that he is not some uniformed grandee, as I have always supposed him to be, but a mere member of the Ministry of Defence, no matter how distinguished. That is not quite the same creature.

The Bill also makes a fleeting visit to the rarified and, for lawyers, profitable heights of the Patent Acts. It deals in a compassionate and humane way with the Mental Health Acts. I was pleased to hear the Minister say that the Mental Health Acts would be applied in the same way to military and civilian personnel serving abroad as they are here. That is long overdue.

I hope that the Minister will expand on the present system and treatment when he winds up the debate. On behalf of the Opposition, I welcome the Bill. Like its five-yearly predecessors, its aim is to ensure that, as far as possible, equality before the law has the same meaning for those subject to the rigours of military discipline as it has for the rest of the public and that the consequences of the operation of the law—the investigation process, the trial procedure, treatment and punishment—are brought into line with the change in penal policy and practice in the civilian code. The Bill carries on that tradition, and therefore I welcome it.

But just as ideas in penal policy change over the years, so, unhappily, does the incidence of particular crimes. I should like to ask the Minister one or two questions. He paid tribute to the behaviour and excellent discipline of the forces, particularly in Northern Ireland. The Minister is in a good position to speak about that. I should like to pay tribute also. However, regrettably, in what I might call the outside world, there has been an increase in the use of firearms in the pursuit of crime. In view of the obvious accessibility of firearms to military personnel I should like to know whether there has been a corresponding, or any, increase in the use of firearms in the course of crime by military personnel. Equally, there is evidence that there has been an increase in drink-related crime. The Minister will know that military personnel serving abroad have access to cheaper sources of alcohol.

Has there been an increase in drunkenness, or in crimes associated with drunkenness, and how are they dealt with by the military authorities? The Home Secretary shares the view that courts and prisons are not the proper places for those with a drink problem. Can the Minister tell us how those in military establishments who have a drink problem are treated and, particularly, whether there is any such problem in Northern Ireland where our forces face such severe strains and pressures?

I welcome clause 2, which enables juveniles to be treated in borstals or detention centres. The purpose is to bring their treatment into line with the treatment of juveniles by civilian courts. When considering whether to send a juvenile to a detention centre the court has the advantage of a social inquiry report well prepared by trained social workers. That is of benefit to the court in deciding what punishment to administer. Are there sufficient trained social workers to prepare such reports under military procedures, so that the courts do not act on insufficiently assessed reports prepared by people who are not skilled or trained? In other words, is there a proper back-up service on which the courts can base their recommendations?

The 1976 Act extended the summary powers of commanding officers to deal with certain offences instead of subjecting accused persons to the hardships, delays and shame of the court martial procedure, though they have the right to opt for that procedure if they wish. That was a sensible proposal, not only because it saved the time of trained court personnel, but because it ensured a greater degree of justice to the accused. How well has it been working? Have there been complaints from the Services or from defence lawyers about the procedure? Has there been much opting for the court martial procedure?

The Act did not increase the powers of naval commanding officers because it was felt that they already had sufficient powers. Is the Minister satisfied that those powers are still adequate? As so much of our Fleet now serves in home waters, is there any need for a change in the powers?

I was happy to hear the Minister say that the standing civilian courts, which were set up by the 1976 Act, have worked well. Instead of being tried by such a court an accused can opt for a court martial. Is there any inclination on the part of those who have that right to choose a court martial rather than a standing civilian court? Has there been any criticism by the Services of the fairness of the standing civilian courts?

Clause 7(2) proposes to add subsection (3A) to section 141 of the 1955 Act. It says: The right of a person or his representatives to obtain a copy of the record under this section does not extend to so much of the record as relates only to a charge of which he was found not guilty. Why is that necessary? In many respects, what happens on a related charge on which a different verdict is returned can be relevant to an appeal in respect of a charge on which a person is found guilty. It seems a rather petty whittling away of rights to include that subsection in what is otherwise a rather expansive, magnanimous clause. Why has a minimal right, but one which could be of great benefit to an accused person, particularly one who may be pursuing an appeal, been excluded from the proposed subsection?

I turn to a slightly more controversial area the Minister could not have expected the debate to remain placid throughout. We hear that the Government are considering military training in uniform as part of the youth opportunities programme. The Secretary of State for Employment has indicated that something like that is being discussed, and The Guardian has reported that the Minister is particularly enthusiastic about the proposal, though I do not know whether that is true

This is not the time to debate the rights and wrongs of such a scheme, but the matter is relevant, because if young jobless people are to be trained in uniform, we are entitled to ask how they will be affected by the military codes of discipline. Youngsters recruited into such a scheme and working side by side in uniform with military personnel will presumably be treated before the law in the same way as other military personnel. I should be interested to know the Minister's thinking on that important, if somewhat controversial, proposal.

The Minister complimented me on my expert legal knowledge and hoped that I would bring it to bear on the Bill. At some stage, I hope to do so. The House will be greatly relieved, however, to hear that I have not the slightest intention of doing so tonight. The Minister is clearly correct in submitting the Bill to a Select Committee, where the individual clauses, the reasons behind them and the thinking of the Aimed Forces on them can be explored in depth, and, where clauses dealing with the legal rules of evidence which are very complicated and technical, can and should be fully examined.

This is an important Bill, although it is relatively non-controversial. Compared with some of the great defence issues that will be debated on future occasions, it may appear fairly minor. But it is not a minor Bill at all, because it deals with the basic concept of civil rights and civil liberties and the way in which the law treats those who choose to serve in the defence of our country. Such a Bill should be searchingly examined and treated very seriously by the House.

In that spirit, I welcome the Bill, and I am sure that when it goes to the Select Committee it will be examined with the care that it deserves.

7.51 pm
Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith, North)

I wish to put a few points and a couple of questions to the Minister. I begin by identifying myself with the views of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. Davidson), who asked the Minister to give an assurance that the facilities available to a Service man in terms of social work provision are no less that they would be in civilian life. It is a matter of ensuring that those standards are adhered to in military as well as in civilian areas.

I wish to develop a little further the point made by my hon. and learned Friend about alcohol abuse. He was absolutely right in saying that there has been an increase in the abuse of alcohol in this country generally and indeed in most Western nations. There is considerable evidence that, where there is easy access, the problem tends to be greater. That means that in places such as Germany where the price is relatively low in the NAAFI and elsewhere there is ready access to alcohol and there may easily be a problem.

I must declare an interest here as chairman of the Alcohol Education Centre. Figures show that the people who come on our courses are the professionals—psychiatrists, probation officers, social workers, GPs and so on. During the past five years, the greatest single number that we have had from the United Kingdom Armed Forces—I speak of all three Services, the Navy, the Army and the Air Force—has been two on our basic course, and the figure is not dissimilar for the advanced course.

The figure for other countries sending their personnel on our courses in one year rose to as great as seven. They are often United States and Canadian personnel, with the occasional Australian or West European. When one considers that all of those countries have their own courses and training yet still send people on our courses, it is clear that they take the problem rather more seriously than we are taking it at the moment.

I should like the Minister to give careful thought to that matter. I had been considering a series of parliamentary questions on this issue and may well pursue it in that way. I am concerned, first, that we should have sufficient personnel in our Armed Forces who are able to spot a developing problem and, having spotted it, to respond to it. Secondly, one is concerned about whether the level of alcohol abuse is a disturbing one, and, if so, in what parts of the world where our Armed Forces are serving. I wish to comment briefly on the relationship with the Mental Health Act. I wonder how many qualified psychiatrists are serving in areas such as Hong Kong and Cyprus—and, of course, Northern Ireland—where depression is likely to be highest, not least because depression is a fairly common illness throughout the country generally, but particularly because in those areas there is a problem of isolation, separation from family and a host of other factors which might induce a person already prone to depression to tip over into a full clinical depression. Again, therefore, I seek reassurance that we have sufficient qualified psychiatrists in the areas in which they are needed.

I should like to ask the Minister what I hope is a very simple question, although he may not have the answer readily to hand. Does the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act apply to people who have been through military discipline? In other words, does that Act apply to a person who has been through a court martial?

Clause 14 deals with Temporary removal to and detention in a place of safety abroad of children of service families in need of care and control. Where would they be removed to? If they were in Germany, it could be argued that the local authority social services department might have somewhere appropriate, although one would have to bear in mind that there would be a language barrier for the child. In Hong Kong and Cyprus there are severe problems about where one would remove the child to. Needless to say, the problem can be just as serious in Northern Ireland, unless there is to be a major separation by bringing the child back to the mainland. I should therefore like some information on that.

I am sorry that the Minister did not take his courage in both hands and abolish the death penalty altogether. He is absolutely right in saying that the Soviet Union has that penalty for 16 separate offences in its armed forces, and indeed is far more prone to use it for civilian offences as well. I believe that in some significant way the existence of a death penalty is a measure of a society's standard of civilisation and sophistication.

I find it very difficult to envisage a situation in which it is likely that the death penalty would deter the behaviour that the Minister described. Indeed, I would challenge him to give examples of circumstances in which it might be used in our day and age. I put it to him that if a person in the front line is in danger of deserting, or abandoning or surrendering his position because of that, with bullets whistling around his ears, the last thing that he is likely to consider—and there are many examples of this—is the penalty that he will suffer if he is caught doing what he is doing. We are well aware from all kinds of other situations in the civil law here and in other countries that even the most terrible punishments do not deter certain forms of behaviour if the stress is high enough, and we are here speaking of a high stress situation.

Similarly, I find it hard to believe that an officer or a colleague will go up to the person who is offending in this way and say "Look here, old chap, if you leave this position now, you can be hanged when you get back to England". It just does not happen like that. It is far more likely that one of his mates will rush up to him, grab him by the throat and say, "You move from here, and I shall …" and then say various other things which I should perhaps not quote in this House—indeed, the imagination boggles.

Similarly, if the person was in danger of deserting before the enemy was in sight and this was being used as a threat, I suspect that one would be dealing with a person who was unable to cope with that threat and was probably already in a state of near—breakdown. I doubt very much whether any civilian court, or indeed with today's attitudes any military court, would be inclined to sentence that person to death after the event.

I therefore ask the Minister to think again on this, take his courage in both hands and abolish the death penalty altogether. It is unlikely to be used. We do ourselves no service by having such a penalty. I do not believe that it is a deterrent. When one considers that some West European countries have not used the death penalty for over 100 years, it is clear that we are behind the times in keeping this floating around in our legislation. Let us therefore have the courage to abolish it altogether. If I thought that it was likely to be used, I should seek to divide the House on the matter, but I cannot envisage a situation in which it would be used unless, as the words of the song would have it, we all go together when we go—and by that time it would be too late.

Finally—and this, again, may save the Minister being asked a parliamentary question—when I was in Hong Kong recently my attention was drawn to the question of pensions, and particularly pensions for Gurkhas. As I understand it, what tends to happen is that the Gurkha, on retiring to Nepal, receives a pension which is in fact set up by an agreement reached among Britain, India and Nepal in 1947.

The problem is that if India increases the pension we apparently do not get to hear about it until some bright spark in Nepal shows us a copy of the "Indian News", or whatever, and says "Have you seen that pensions have been increased?". That slowly filters its way back to the pensions unit in Hong Kong which informs the people here and two years later the Gurkha gets his pension in arrears, just as the Minister is seeking permission to provide in the Bill.

Perhaps the Minister will look at that and see whether there is some way in which we can rationalise the situation so that people get their pension increases a little quicker than the two-year period would suggest.

8 pm

Mr. Keith Best (Anglesey)

I do not wish to lengthen what has been such an amicable debate. I only hope that my intervention will not endanger the good relations that have hitherto existed on both sides of the House. I shall keep my remarks brief.

I wish to refer to two clauses, but before doing so I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend on his new appointment. We are all glad to see him in that position, and we know that he will bring a great deal of thought and care to his new post. We are all looking forward to working with him in his new role.

I refer my hon. Friend to clause 2(1), where one sees that under the proposed section 71AA a court shall have the power, instead of punishing an offender by sending him to prison, to make an order … committing him to be detained in accordance with the provisions of this section for a maximum period to be specified in the order of not more than two years. It goes on to say that the institutions in question are borstals and detention centres.

My hon. Friend will know that in the civilian criminal courts when an offender is sentenced to a period of borstal no time limit is set upon it. The sentence is for borstal training, and it is then left to the discretion of the assistant governor to decide the date upon which that person will be released, so long as it is for a minimum of six months. I do not know what discussions my hon. Friend has had with prison officers, but if the court were to specify a maximum period of, say, nine months, would that effectively remove the discretion of the assistant governor to release that person at an earlier stage? Alternatively, if he feels that that person has not fully completed the period of training that is best suited for him, does it mean that he cannot release him until after that period? It may well be that my hon. Friend has thought of this already. If not, I should like him to consider it carefully, because it seems to me that the clause is likely to remove the discretion of the assistant governor.

My other point relates to clause 6(3), which deals with the time limit for the commencement of proceedings. The new subsection says that no proceedings shall be taken against a person unless the proceedings on the summary dealing with the charge are begun within three months". Perhaps my hon. Friend will say what exactly is meant by "proceedings". I can envisage a situation in which it might well be difficult to ascertain the whereabouts of someone within the three-month period. I am thinking in particular of members of the Territorial Army, who might well undertake their training in Germany at the 15-day annual camp, commit some form of solecism, or even worse, and disappear into the anonymity of civilian life. Their whereabouts may be difficult to discover, especially if they know that they have committed some offence while at the camp.

My second point relates to trials that are begun within six months. Again, that seems unequivocal, in that the trial must be begun within six months or the proceedings will fall. Has my hon. Friend contemplated the situation where, for a number of reasons, it might be difficult for a trial to be begun? One can appreciate that proceedings may be begun within six months, but this subsection states that the trial must be begun within six months.

From my own limited experience of practice in the civilian criminal courts, I know of the great difficulty of bringing a matter speedily to trial. There may be all sorts of difficulties, such as the attendance of witnesses and related matters. I should welcome my hon. Friend's comments on that aspect of the matter.

8.6 pm

Mr. Ronald W. Brown (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

I should like to ask a question about clause 13. This is a new feature dealing with powers in relation to persons under incapacity". Why has this come about? It is a stringent introduction. Is there a great deal of history of members of the Armed Forces and other civilians who come under the control of the Armed Services suffering from mental disorders?

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Grantham)

General Gordon.

Mr. Brown

I was trying to be serious. I am rather surprised at the hon. Gentleman. I was trying to understand why this new provision has been introduced. It is often said of the Armed Forces that they are lacking in moral fibre due to various causes—first, mental disorder; secondly, alcoholism; and, thirdly, drug taking. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will take this matter more seriously and ask why—

Mr. Hogg rose

Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman is a grossly rude and offensive fellow. I was about to say "Yes, of course I shall give way".

Mr. Hogg

I am grateful. The hon. Gentleman asked rhetorically whether we could think of any soldiers who suffered from some form of mental handicap, and I said General Gordon of Khartoum. We all know that he did.

Mr. Brown

Once again, the hon. Gentleman hardly gives himself time to listen. He sits there in his rather foolish form and listens, but it does not seem to click inside his brain and he comes out with the wrong answer. I did not ask him rhetorically whether General Gordon, or himself, or his family, were ever mentally ill. I was merely asking why clause 13 has come about, because it is a long and involved clause. I am anxious to know why it has come about. What has occasioned it?

I had taken the view that the clause gives a power to the commanding officer to call for two registered medical practitioners. However, if one is abroad, where does one find them? Will they be Service personnel? If so, I am worried about the clause. Obviously, under pressure from the commanding officer, two medical officers serving within a unit could perhaps be pressured into declaring that a difficult individual was suffering from a mental disorder. Therefore, will the registered medical practitioners be Service personnel or will they be medical practitioners from the area in which the commanding officer is serving? Under subsection (7), when a commanding officer has gone through this enormous exercise—which presumably has been undertaken because the individual was a danger to himself or his unit—and when that individual has been treated and has returned to the United Kingdom, he cannot be detained for more than 24 hours. Perhaps the Minister will explain why this somewhat strong piece of legislation had been introduced. Is there protection for an individual who disagrees with a commanding officer, but who, according to the commanding officer, is suffering from a mental disorder? Why is it that he must be detained for 24 hours following his return to Britain? When a man is finally brought home, will he be a candidate for discharge immediately or will some other provisions allow him to be successfully treated and then returned to his normal service duties?

8.10 pm
Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

I shall not detain the House for long, but not because we do not feel that the Bill is important—of course we do. I suspect that this is the sole occasion on which the Government and the Opposition will face each other across the Dispatch Boxes in such an amicable fashion about matters connected with the Armed Services. I do not intend to probe the Bill in great detail because we welcome the Government's proposal to place the matter before a Select Committee. We feel that that is the right place for the detail to be examined. We presume that any suggestions that might come from the Select Committee will be accepted by the Government, as has happened in the past. I hope that the Minister will reassure us on that point.

We regard the Bill as important. We take such matters for granted, as we take every good thing for granted, for example, fresh air. Although the Bill is technical, legal and highly complicated, it enshrines two basic principles that we so often take for granted, namely, the principle of the civilian control of the military, and the principle that, wherever possible, the rights of individual members of the Services must be as near as possible equal to the rights of the citizens at large in society. We accept that the rule of law under which we live must be modified slightly for those serving in the forces. Having said that, we believe that the quinquennial reviews give us the opportunity to enshrine in the military discipline codes, and in the Armed Services generally, the changes and patterns that have taken place in society.

I counsel the Government gently that we are concerned about the Accountant-General. Not so long ago, the Labour Administration were thankful for another ceremonial official—the Official Solicitor. I hope that demise of the Accountant-General for the Navy, if it comes about, will not mean that any unusual approach which any future Government might have to take will be removed. I presume that the Greenwich hospital pension fund will not in any way be affected by that move. I am sure that it will not be.

Part of the purpose of the quinquennial review is to bring the Armed Forces into line with movements and patterns in society. We have seen that happen. I wish to develop a point hinted at by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley) in relation to members of Armed Services who do not appear to be entirely covered by the Bill. Various clauses cover the reserve forces, the nursing services, the WRAC and the WREN, and so on, but nowhere does the Bill mention the Gurkhas or, more specifically, the Chinese personnel in the Army. There are many Chinese personnel serving in the Royal Navy, especially in the Far East, and the Gurkha battalions in the Far East, Belize, Brunei, and even in Britain on household duties. How are they affected by the Bill?

Is the Minister satisfied that the general trends and patterns that we have seen in society, and that we have tried to reflect in the Bill for our indigenous forces, are being reflected for people whom we might describe as non-indigenous? That is an important point. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, North raised a point about pensions, which come under clause 27. The point that he made about the Gurkhas is correct. Perhaps at a later stage the Minister will be prepared to review the whole procedure for their pensions, because they are not prepared on a computer but are prepared by hand in Hong Kong. It is a laborious process which needs to be reviewed. We should welcome an assurance about the Gurkhas and the Chinese personnel within our Armed Services.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. Davidson) mentioned the women's Services. The position has changed slightly—and I emphasise the word slightly—in the past six months, because for the first time we are training certain members of the women's Armed Forces to use small firearms. I appreciate that that is ostensibly for a self-defence capability, but does it in any way affect their role as covered in the Bill? It changes their status in the Armed Forces.

I must press the Minister on the point raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Accrington about the scheme that the Opposition regard as ludicrous, namely, military training for the young unemployed. Not only is it ludicrous but, I feel, offensive. Does the Bill in any way cover youngsters in that position? Has the Minister given any thought to the proposal for military training in relation to the Bill? I understand that the Minister, by tradition, will not be a member of the Select Committee. However, will he seek to make certain amendments to the Bill to cover that proposal if such measures are introduced before the report of the Select Committee?

We do not often find ourselves in such an amicable position. We share the Minister's high regard for discipline in the British forces. We are fortunate in the high morale and discipline in the forces. The Bill seeks to ensure that our Armed Forces are not second rate citizens. Coupled with that, we should always try to ensure that when we ask our Armed Forces to do a certain job—I am sure that this is both our philosophy and the hon. Gentleman's philosophy—we should not ask them to do the most impossible tasks. When we ask them to do something, it must be done with the right equipment.

8.18 pm
Mr. Goodhart

The debate has been short but in just over an hour many points have been packed in. I am grateful to the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) for his kind words. I welcome him to our debates. He and the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley) referred to the Gurkhas and other non-indigenous forces. The Gurkhas are full members of the Armed Forces. Their claims are unlikely to be treated lightly. For the first time we have a Secretary of State for Defence who was a regular officer in the Gurkhas. The Chief of the General Staff is also the colonel of the Gurkhas. It is unlikely that their claims will go unnoticed. I have noted what has been said about pensions.

The hon. and learned Member for Accrington (Mr. Davidson) asked about firearm offences. There is no increase of which I am aware to indicate an upward trend in such offences, fortunately. He and the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North were rightly concerned about drink problems. When a large number of young men are together, drink is a problem and it has traditionally been a problem in the Armed Forces, as Winston Churchill once pointed out in a memorable phrase. Drink is regarded as a problem in overseas stations only where it is duty free—in other words, in BAOR. Service commanders have grasped the problem and a comprehensive education programme has been instituted by each Service, including the showing of specially made films. Senior ranks are trained to recognise the symptoms of alcolholism, with a view to early treatment. The problem is under control. There has been no noticeable increase in drink-related crimes. One can note with a degree of relief that drug-taking, which afflicts some allied Armed Forces, is not a serious problem in our Armed Forces. We should be thankful for that.

The hon. and learned Member for Accrington also asked about reports on juveniles and whether they are as good and as competent overseas as they are in Britain. One cannot expect that always to to be so. I say that with a degree of knowledge since I have a daughter who is a probation officer and who makes reports about juveniles. I am sure that not all the reports on juveniles overseas are as good as those that she makes.

The hon. and learned Member asked whether our naval powers are adequate in relation to summary convictions. I am glad that he approached the question from that angle. I have said that the extra powers of naval commanders must be justified. I am glad that the hon. and learned Member supports that.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey (Mr. Best) for his kind remarks. He referred to clause 6 and the reserve forces. They are the principal reason for clause 6. Under present legislation, on a number of occasions a summary trial has to take place on the day that the offence is committed. Justice is often dispensed more quickly in the Forces than in civilian life but it is stretching matters a little far to guarantee legal proceedings on the day that an offence is committed.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith, North referred to the retention of the death penalty. He suggested that the grounds on which the death penalty might be invoked could be abused in the heat of battle, where those concerned were unable to cope. I assure him that in every instance there has to be a motive of actively trying to help the enemy before one would seek to invoke that sanction.

A rare note of controversy was struck with reference to the possibility of training in the Armed Forces for the young unemployed. As the Secretary of State for Employment said in a written answer on 4 February, the Ministry of Defence is considering what further help it might offer unemployed young people and we are in discussion with it about this."— [Official Report, 4 February 1981; Vol. 998, c. 138.] No firm decision has yet been taken on that matter.

I remind the hon. and learned Gentleman that in the Armed Forces we have some of the best training establishments for young people in this country. At the moment they are not fully used. While on the subject of work experience or youth opportunities in the Armed Forces, I should point out that for many years there has been a short service limited commission scheme. A young man may come in for a few months and gain experience of the Army, before going up to university. He may be attracted by what he finds and may come back to the Armed Forces. That scheme has worked well. My elder son was part of that scheme and benefited from it. Therefore, I do not share the horrors expressed by Opposition Members about extending that scheme.

Many points have been raised in the debate. I hope that the Bill will be passed and that in Select Committee we can consider the many points that have still to be raised.

Mr. Ronald Brown

Before the Minister sits down, could he give me an answer to the point I raised on clause 13?

Mr. Goodhart

I have referred to the points on clause 13 which the hon. Member raised. If he looks at the record of my speech in Hansard, he will see that I gave a lengthy description of the powers in clause 13 and why we have them.

Mr. Soley

I would appreciate an answer at some time to the three important matters that I raised concerning the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, the psychiatric provision and a place of safety for children.

Mr. Goodhart

About 30 points were raised in the brief debate and I am not able to answer them all in detail. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman. I hope, too, that those points will be discussed by the Select Committee.

Dr. Glyn

My hon. Friend was gracious enough to give way when he was dealing with clause 20 on a point concerning the status of women. It was said that some women in the Armed Forces were being trained in the use of small arms. If a member of the women's Services was involved in armed conflict, would she be treated as a combatant or non-combatant under international law? That is an important point.

Mr. Goodhart

During war any member of the Armed Forces involved with the enemy would be treated as a combatant. However, the training given to members of the women's Forces is solely for self-defence and not to prepare them to take part in offensive operations.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Select Committee.—[Mr. Brooke.]