HC Deb 19 December 1983 vol 51 cc90-108 8.46 pm
Mr. Willie W. Hamilton (Fife, Central)

This debate concerns the operations of the Visiting Forces Act 1952. Probably few people, including hon. Members, know anything about the Act. I knew nothing until my attention was drawn to it by the BBC television programme "60 Minutes" on 8 November. I subsequently obtained a script of the broadcast and asked the House of Commons Library to do some research.

I also obtained copies of the answers given by the Minister of State for the Armed Forces to questions asked by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) on 11 November. He said: The Visiting Forces Act has operated satisfactorily for 30 years and has not been amended by any subsequent Government." — [Official Report, 15 November 1983; Vol. 48, c. 407.] I ask the House to note carefully the words the Visiting Forces Act has operated satisfactorily". I intend to prove that the very opposite of that assertion is nearer the truth.

The more that I studied the matter, the more worried and alarmed I became. Information produced by Mr, Duncan Campbell of the New Statesman both for the BBC programme and for his article in the New Statesman on 18 November must have been profoundly disturbing to large numbers of people who saw the programme or read the article. Mr. Campbell has written a book on these matters and probably knows more about the operation of the Act than anyone else. I understand that his book will be published early next year. He is an authority on the subject and he deserves our thanks, and the thanks of the nation, for serving the public interest in a matter of great concern to all.

I shall put the matter into its historical perspective. The Visiting Forces Bill was introduced in the House on 17 October 1952. It deals basically with all matters that must be regulated when armed forces of one country are stationed on the territory of another. The history of such legislation was outlined in that debate by the then Secretary of State for the Home Department, Sir David Maxwell Fife. He recalled that there were three earlier Acts—the Visiting Forces (British Commonwealth) Act 1933, the Allied Forces Act 1940 and the United States of America (Visiting Forces) Act 1942. He described how the 1951 Command Paper 8279 was presented to Parliament embodying an Agreement entered into between the North Atlantic Treaty Powers relating to the status of their forces in the territory of another North Atlantic Treaty Power. The 1952 Act sought to implement by legislation those agreement obligations that could not otherwise be implemented—notably the position of armed forces with respect to the criminal law and the settlement of civil claims.

Anyone who has read that debate in 1952 would find that it was a field day for the lawyers in the House, and not for the first time. The initial reaction of the Labour party spokesman, Mr. John Strachey, the then Member for Dundee, West, was one of considerable caution and reservation. He said that, in important respects, the Bill goes further than any peacetime Act. He said that there were three distinct cases in which the jurisdiction of the British courts was completely precluded. The first was when the offence was against any visiting service man or the civilian component of that visiting power. That is satisfactory. No one has any objection to that. He said that the second case was when the offence is against the property of the visiting power. That also is completely acceptable. His third case was when the offence was committed in the course of his—the offender's — duty the visiting power would have primary but not absolute rights to jurisdiction. The decision as to when a man is on duty or not is left entirely with the man's commanding officer or higher authority and therefore outside the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom courts. There lies the root of the trouble. If a United States—I refer especially to United States forces —service man or the civilian component of that power commits any offence during his duty, as defined by his commanding officer, no British court has any redress against him. During the 1952 debate, Mr. Eric Fletcher, the former Labour Member for Islington, East, and a respected QC, said; This Bill … removes from the jurisdiction of the courts of this country a very large number of people … There has not been anything like that in this country since the Middle Ages, … when there was a certain Papal jurisdiction which could defeat the claims of the English common law courts." — [Official Report, 17 October 1952; Vol. 505, c. 562–86.] The Act primarily affects United States service men and their civilian components now stationed in the United Kingdom. The problem will become even more acute as cruise missiles are established, deployed and moved around primarily by United States personnel.

Examples of possible contingencies were cited in the article in the New Statesman by Mr. Duncan Campbell and in an article on 14 November last in The Guardian by Malcolm Dean. If, for instance, a United States service man on duty at Greenham common or any other base in the United Kingdom shot and injured a British woman demonstrator or passerby, either by accident or design, he would under no circumstances come before a British court. Is that a fact? Would the person who had inflicted the damage be handed over to his commanding officer or would some decision by made by the British Government about how he should be dealt with? Would the commanding officer alone decide what, if anything, would be done in such a case?

If a demonstrator were killed or injured by United States guards, can the children or other dependants sue for damages? Are those allegations fact or fiction? If a cruise missile during a journey into the countryside caused a horrific accident in the United Kingdom, can anyone sue the United States Government for a brass farthing? My information is that people could not. It is true that the United Kingdom Government might pay up, but there is no statutory obligation on them to do so, and certainly there is no obligation on the United States Government to do anything.

During the past 30 years there have been occasional incidents that have incensed British citizens when United States' service personnel have been seen to act in a highly irresponsible and high-handed way. Examples have been cited by Mr. Duncan Campbell, including the cases of the shooting and wounding of a British worker at the United States air base at Northolt in west London and six United Kingdom civilians being wounded by a United States NCO when he hijacked a car and drove from the base at Manston in Kent, having killed, among others, an RAF policeman. Mr. Campbell stated: In serious cases of 'negligent homicides', US motoring offenders have received trivial penalties and avoided paying damages after evading British jurisdiction. He continued: In August 1979, for example, a US Marine working as a nuclear weapon store guard at St. Mawgan in Cornwall was given a trivial fine and a 'letter of admonition' after killing a youth. The youth was 17 years old. He was killed by a marine driving a jeep at high speed on the wrong side of the road. The United States Navy authorities interrupted the local inquest on the youth and prohibited the coroner, Mr. Alan Harvey, from continuing. The Americans then held a court martial in the centre of London and the marine was fined $1. That is an outrageous example of flagrant abuse of power and authority by visiting forces. I wonder whether, having studied that, the Minister will still adhere to his view that the Act is working and has worked satisfactorily for 30 years.

As of now, magistrates and judges in our courts are powerless to deal with such manifest injustices. Even when civil liability is involved — for example, in motoring accidents—United States personnel can and do evade their responsibilities. A further example is given, which I shall not relate in detail. The judge expressed his anger in measured and restrained terms but was powerless to do anything about it.

According to Mr. Duncan Campbell, the problem is substantial. Apart from the 1,500 or so driving accidents, 100 of them serious, there have been far more dangerous accidents, the consequences of some of which could have been catastrophic. For example, an unauthorised mechanic from Alconbury took off in a B45 bomber and crashed almost immediately on the main London-Edinburgh railway line. Luckily, there was no train underneath, but hundreds of lives could have been lost. Who would have been responsible for settling claims for damages? I suspect that no one would have been responsible in law.

Mr. Campbell also cites probably the most notorious case of United States military disturbance. In 1973 there was a riot in which nearly 100 United States sailors rampaged through the town of Dunoon waving knives and giving black power salutes. Twenty-two shops were damaged and a youth was stabbed. On that occasion, six United States sailors were charged in Scottish courts, presumably because it could not be argued that they were on duty.

Mr. Campbell then tells of a more interesting and perhaps more sinister development. He says: In crisis or war, before sending reinforcement troops to Europe, the United States plans to obtain yet more extensive 'emergency' powers from NATO governments. The text of an Emergency Status of Forces Agreement, which would be negotiated before reinforcements arrived, was among secret US documents leaked in 1980". Apparently, there were leaks on both sides of the Atlantic. Once signed, the emergency agreement would give local US commanders the right to deploy nuclear weapons and military forces as they pleased and the right to 'quell' local disorder by any 'unilateral' means necessary. Members of US forces would then be exempt from all national laws in all circumstances. Significantly, the United Kingdom was exempt. Apparently, no emergency status of forces agreement was needed because the Visiting Forces Act 1952 gave United States forces here in peacetime all the special powers that they would seek in other NATO countries in time of war. As Mr. Campbell says, It is scarcely surprising that the US servicemen's 'Welcome to Britain' guide has reflected rosily on the legal status of US forces in Britain". The guide states: When the arrangement was formalised, it included many advantages to the Air Force and its personnel. They can say that again.

The writer of the article has done well to expose what appears to be an intolerable state of affairs. Moreover, the problems have become immeasurably more serious and horrific with the advent of cruise missiles with accompanying United States forces and civilians and the future deployment of those missiles around the British countryside. The number of accidents involving United States citizens and British people is bound to escalate and the irritation and anger of British citizens will surely grow as increasing numbers of them taste the bitter injustices of the operation of the legislation.

There are United States bases all over the United Kingdom. We all know where they are. It is rumoured that the United States wants a cruise missile base in Thurso in north east Scotland. It is therefore perhaps appropriate to quote an extract from a BBC television programme which demonstrated in all its injustice the way in which the Visiting Forces Act 1952 operates. I have the transcript and shall try to paraphrase it as briefly as I can.

On 31 August 1965, Mrs. Iris MacDonald, a young married woman, was pushing her four-week-old daughter in a pram, with her little lad beside her, up a hill. She was walking along the road to her home in the Argyll village of Sandbank, having visited the child care clinic in Dunoon. She suddenly discovered that a British Road Services lorry was coming up behind her and that over the brow of the hill was coming an American driven car. She says that the car was being driven at about 90 mph. There was a crash. The car went out of control and the result was that her four-week-old daughter was killed and she lost a leg and dislocated an arm. What happened? Absolutely nothing. The driver was never taken to court but merely appeared before his captain—his commanding officer—and was fined £35. That is an example of how the Act is working. During that programme Mr. Campbell said: the American forces have treated with contempt the victims of injuries, the police on occasions, and the courts, in terms of just appearing to answer compensation cases. Is that type of immunity to British courts, which United States service men enjoy, unique in NATO? It is true that neither British nor American forces enjoy such immunity in, for example, Germany or any other NATO country. It is significant that The Observer yesterday published a minute concerning how British troops were to be deployed to stop the political risk of United States service men opening fire on the women protesters at Greenham common. It is alleged to have been produced by the Secretary of State for Defence. The article said that the minute stated that: US troops might shoot British citizens once the missiles arrive.

Mr. Heseltine had therefore arranged for a ring of British troops to stand between the Americans and protesters.

The American would be told the British troops would themselves be authorised to fire. That is what the Secretary of State said to my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) during exchanges in the House a few weeks ago. We can at least maintain that if United Kingdom forces shot and killed or wounded a British citizen the British courts would immediately he involved. If United States soldiers shot and killed or wounded somebody under the terms of the Visiting Forces Act, inquests could be blocked and thwarted by United States military authorities and those responsible would be beyond the reach of our British law courts.

Does the Minister still adhere to the view that the law is working and will continue to work satisfactorily in those conditions, or are he and the Government content to behave as if we were under the heel of an occupying colonial power? That seems to be the relationship at the moment.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor)


Mr. Hamilton

I am glad that the Under-Secretary is saying, "Rubbish". The onus is on the Government to see that these things have not or could not happen. My information is that they could and would happen under the terms of the existing legislation, the Visiting Forces Act 1952. The Government should declare to the United States Government that they are determined to repeal or amend this shockingly unjust and unfair legislation. The ball game is now completely different from what it was in 1952. Therefore, the legislation should recognise the change in circumstances.

If neither the Secretary of State nor the Government do this, I recommend that the Select Committee on Defence should investigate, as a matter of the greatest importance, the working of the Act, and treat it as a matter of supreme urgency. The present position is indefensible and horrifying in its implications.

9.11 pm
Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)

congratulate the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) on coming so high in the ballot for the debates on the Consolidated Fund Bill, but I regret that he has used this important subject as a means for delivering a diatribe against the American service men in this country and their role in NATO, which, as we know, is vital in maintaining the strength of NATO and thus the peace and security of western Europe.

What is more, to suggest that the Visiting Forces Act 1952 applies only to American service men and gives them some unreasonably privileged position in terms of visiting forces within the NATO area is a gross distortion of the facts. He must know if he read, and he told us that he has read, the Second Reading debate in 1952 on the Visiting Forces Bill, as it was, that it was made clear that the arrangement that was being created applied as much to British forces abroad—

Mr. Willie W. Hamilton

It does not.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

—as to forces in this country. Although the hon. Gentleman tells me that it does not, I have a note in my hand which was produced in the past 48 hours which says: It is important to bear in mind that the right of American service men stationed here to try by American standards under Visiting Forces legislation is no more than the British claim in respect of their forces wherever stationed if there is a visiting forces agreement with the host country. Although we have had United States air force personnel living and stationed in west Berkshire for many years, their relationship with the local community has always been excellent. In the nine years that I have had the privilege to represent Newbury, I have not had any case brought to my attention which would justify the comments made by the hon. Gentleman, in which he tried to suggest that the United States services ride roughshod over Britons and over our laws. However, because cruise missiles are a new departure in west Berkshire, I am more than ever sensitive to anything that could create, through misunderstanding, the impression that the laws of our land are not accepted by a nation which is stationing its forces in our country at our invitation. I shall therefore raise three or four matters on which I shall be grateful to have my hon. Friend's comments.

As I said, the public relations aspects of the Visiting Forces Act have never been more important than they are now. If my hon. Friend the Minister chooses to go over the main features of the Act this evening I at least shall welcome it, because I intend to send a copy of this debate to my local press and I am sure that it will want to report it in full.

I shall preface my speech by quoting from two letters which I have received from constituents who, like the hon. Member for Fife, Central, saw "60 Minutes", the television programme. One is from Mr. Jacobs of Enborne Street, Newbury, who said: I am particularly concerned about this statement in view of the increasing number of U.S. service personnel residing in the Newbury area. Can you please explain what if any recourse to law and compensation my family or I might have against a U.S. serviceman if he was responsible for a motoring accident involving my wife or children? Can it really be that in such an unfortunate circumstance the U.S. serviceman is deemed to be uninsured for damage to persons or property? The second letter is from Mrs. S. E. Thompson of Cold Ash who wrote: With so may U.S. servicemen now stationed in this area this Act would seem to be of great importance to your constituents. The most obvious and likely problems concern traffic regulations. It is apparent that many U.S. servicemen's cars have defective silencers, and presumably more serious defects in tyres, brakes etc. may go unchecked. Do their cars have to have MOT tests? Do they all have Third Party Insurance? Is either compensation or retribution available in the event of death or injury caused by drunken or dangerous driving by a U.S. serviceman? Cases have been quoted of trivial sentences being passed by Courts Martial in cases of manslaughter by dangerous driving. There are of course many other areas in which crimes might be committed by visiting servicemen which could affect local people. A number of cases have already been reported of non-payment of bills or rent, and of damage to rented houses, for which the U.S. Authorities seem to take no responsibility. That is the local concern, as expressed in two letters. Perhaps the fact that I have had so few letters suggests that most people in my constituency accept the good relations that have existed and see no reason why those good relations should not continue.

I shall try to narrow my speech to three specific areas. In the debate on 17 October 1952 a great deal was made of the primary right. The Secretary of State for the Home Department said: The courts of the receiving State are given the primary right to deal with offenders unless … the offence was committed on duty, or was solely against the person or property of another member of the force or solely against the property or security of the sending State itself. The question of primary right being waived by the Act seems to me to pose questions about liability, compensation when damage is done, and the types of offences that can be covered by the Act.

On the subject of liability, I should like to know—the debate on the Second Reading did not make the matter entirely clear—whether, in the event of an accident, liability relating to personal injury or damage to property lies with the United States authorities, or through what is described in the Act as the War Office Claims Commission. As we no longer have a War Office, do we still have a War Office Claims Commission, or have we changed its name? If that is so, surely the Act has been amended.

The then Home Secretary said: In the first place, Article VIII of the Agreement does not apply to contractual claims. It applies only to claims in respect of wrongful acts—that is to say, what the lawyers call 'torts' —committed by members of the visiting force or of a civilian component of that force. Different considerations apply according to whether the act complained of was committed in the course of official duty or otherwise.

It has been arranged that all claims in tort against members of a visiting force, whether committed on or off duty, will be dealt with by the British War Office Claims Commission. The Claims Commission, as hon. Members are well aware, has for some years dealt with claims against the armed forces and other officials in Government service in this country, and during the war it dealt with claims gainst the United States forces in this country. We believe, therefore, that the Claims Commission is particularly well equipped to deal with claims against members of visiting forces, and it is fortunate that it has been possible to make this arrangement."—[Official Report, 17 October 1952; Vol. 505 c. 564–70.] Is the question that I related to personal injury or damage to property pursued through the War Office Claims Commission? If it is, does the hearing of a case come before that commission, and to what extent are the authorities of foreign service men in this country required to give their evidence? Can legal advice and assistance be provided for those making those claims?

Another question relates to the type of offences covered by the Act. American and English law are not on all fours. Are there offences which we recognise in English courts which do not exist in American law? In such circumstances, is it conceivable that one of my constituents could believe that an offence had been committed against him which did not have its counterpart in American law?

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

I am not a lawyer, but when my hon. Friend talks about American law, does he mean federal law or the criminal laws that apply to individual states in the United States of America, each of which is different?

Mr. McNair-Wilson

I should have hoped that the Home Office would consider the federal law, but my hon. Friend asks an important question which I hope the Minister will answer.

Whether or not a person is on duty is important. It is made clear that whether a service man is on duty is a matter for his commanding officer and nobody else. One must ask when "on duty" begins. For instance, if a service man is travelling from his home — many American service men stationed at Greenham live many miles away from the base—is he on duty from the moment he gets into his car to travel to the base or only when he is within the perimeter of the base? By the same token, is he on duty at home, albeit in a reserve capacity? Can my hon. Friend shed light on that?

What is the civilian component to which the Act refers? Does it refer only to those with a job on the base, or do the dependants of an American service man come within the meaning of the words "civilian component"? If they do, the Act covers many more people than one might suppose. If it applies only to civilians of American origin working on the base, the numbers involved will be few.

My last point is historical. Can my hon. Friend explain whether the powers to waive some of the sections of the Act have been used so that when a case seemed to belong more to the courts of our country, but could be ruled out by the Act, the United States Government chose to allow that case to come before our courts because they thought it was a case of that nature?

I look forward to my hon. Friend's answers on all these points. In concluding my speech I repeat the words of the hon. Member for Fife, Central who said that this is a difficult subject and one on which lawyers are better equipped to speak than mere laymen. Nevertheless, as I have illustrated, my constituents are concerned about the Act and in particular by what may well be unreasonable fears put in their minds by the television programme. I look forward to hearing what my hon. Friend has to say.

9.25 pm
Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)

I wish to make a short contribution to this debate because on two occasions recently I asked for a statement from the Secretary of State for Defence about the possibility of people being shot at Greenham common and the implications of the Visiting Forces Act 1952. I can see that, despite staying behind for this debate, I shall not get a statement this evening.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) on his brilliant analysis of the Act and on the careful way in which he illustrated each point. I was surprised at the first couple of interventions of the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson), who said that it would not apply to a British soldier if he committed an offence in another state; he would be tried according to the law of that state. The hon. Gentleman also appeared to be asserting either that my hon. Friend's examples were not true—I shall give him the benefit of the doubt that he would not make that allegation—or that my hon. Friend was exaggerating. If my hon. Friend was exaggerating, it is interesting that the cases he quoted are publicly well documented. I have never seen them challenged in literature, whether in the letter columns of newspapers or in journals in which people have an opportunity to reply.

Tonight, along with my hon, Friend the Member for Fife, Central and the hon. Member for Newbury, I shall listen with great interest to what the Minister has to say about the Act. I am not a lawyer, but I have the Act before me and its application appears to be quite simple. Section 3(1) says: Subject to the provisions of this section, a person charged with an offence againt United Kingdom law shall not be liable to be tried for that offence by a United Kingdom court if at the time when the offence is alleged to have been committed he was a member of a visiting force or a member of a civilian component of such a force and—

(a) the alleged offence, if committed by him, arose out of and in the course of his duty". One does not need to be a QC to understand what that says.

Later in section 3(3)(a) the Act says that nothing in subsection (1)

shall prevent a person from being tried by a United Kingdom court where the appropriate authority of the sending country has notified him that it is not proposed to deal with the case under the law of that country". That appears to be saying what my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central said. If a member of a visiting force committed an offence on our soil and was on duty at the time, unless the commander of the visiting force said that he was not going to take proceedings against him, we could not do a thing about it. I could quote a whole series of examples to illustrate that point, but hon. Members will have to study the Act themselves.

Why is it important that my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central should draw attention to this Act at this time? First, the installation of cruise missiles has increased the dangers for the people of Britain. As the dangers have increased, so the opposition to the cause of those dangers has increased, as the hon. Member for Newbury knows and is having to experience regularly. We often cite Greenham common as an example of opposition, and I shall use that as my example tonight—because the hon. Member for Newbury is with us—but we can be sure the same sort of thing is happening at other bases.

The opposition is increasing. Fences are being pulled down and wire cutters are being used to get into the base at Greenham common. I and a number of my colleagues visit Greenham common now and then. From talking to the people there, I assure the House that their commitment is deep. The Greenham common women will not go away. They will be there for some time, and the more the danger caused by the weapons escalates, the greater the opposition will become. If the hon. Member for Newbury thinks that he has had enough of the demonstrators, I assure him that he ain't seen nothin' yet, because we are determined—the women and the peace movement in Britain are determined—that we will not be destroyed by nuclear weapons and will do all we can to stop nuclear weapons being used.

There could be two consequences of the opposition that is occurring. We have seen on a number of occasions that the women protesting at Greenham common can enter the base. Two weeks ago I spoke in the House about women having been in the base. Indeed, they spent a considerable time in it and left only because they were bored and cold, and when an Army vehicle came by they jumped on board. A Ministry of Defence spokesman said, in effect, that they could have been anywhere in the base. Nobody knew where they had been. It is clear, therefore, that people will be going into the base. That will make young soldiers edgy and jumpy, especially on dark nights, if they think that unauthorised people are in the base.

The second consequence is that vehicles—the so-called 22-truck convoys—will not be allowed out of the base. As soon as the forces try to drive them out, the demonstrators will show that they are sufficiently committed to stop them leaving. It was said recently—I have never heard such nonsense—that a certain vehicle that left Greenham common was a petrol tanker. I cannot imagine a petrol tanker being covered with tarpaulin, being led by a motor cycle escort and being followed by an Army personnel carrier containing 22 armed soldiers. That vehicle was obviously a missile launcher which was taken out of the base to have its cornering ability tested; it did a quick circuit round part of the base to check its road-holding characteristics.

The road leading to the main entrance at Greenham common base is to have considerable work done to it, including widening, and I do not doubt that that test run was designed to see what other road works were needed so that, if necessary, vehicles could be driven out in a hurry. I assure the Minister that the forces will have great difficulty in getting them out in a hurry.

The Secretary of State for Defence has made it clear —this is the connection between my remarks and the Visiting Forces Act — that he is prepared to allow unarmed peace protesters to be shot, not only by British forces but by American personnel too. That statement has never been called into question. I do not object to military installations being guarded and protected. Nobody would want to see the kind of thugs who were operating in the streets of London last weekend having easy access to explosive materials. But are we being told that trained soldiers cannot deal with unarmed women without shooting them?

That is a different proposition altogether. The argument that we might shoot them is ridiculous, but on 1 November I asked the Secretary of State to give me a categorical assurance that they would not be shot. He leapt to the Dispatch Box and said: I shall categorically give no such assurance."— [Official Report, 1 November 1983; Vol. 46, c. 729.] I know that some Conservative Members were as stunned and surprised as some of my hon. Friends that a Secretary of State could tell the House that unarmed peace protestors were to be shot.

My hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central has already read out some of the contents of the so-called secret document or minute which was circulated to certain Ministers and to the Chief Whip. In that document, again, the Secretary of State is so conscious of the fact that people will be shot that he makes plans to put a line of British troops in front of the American troops in case it is the Americans who do the shooting. That is disgraceful and unacceptable in a civilised country.

Like a number of my hon. Friends, I shall listen very carefully to what the Minister says. No doubt he has access to the secret documents which The Observer and The Guardian get hold of so easily. Perhaps one of his colleagues is circulating them. Perhaps he will tell us that the document was a forgery, but I should like him to say something about the document which was quoted extensively in The Observer last weekend.

We must ask whether the Secretary of State, who is giving permission for the forces to shoot people, is a rational man, capable of making a rational decision. A number of Opposition Members would question whether the right hon. Gentleman is fit to be Secretary of State for Defence. A fictional film was recently shown on television, and the Secretary of State was hysterical in his attempt to put pressure on the media to be allowed to respond to that second rate film. It was not a great film. At best, it was no more than second rate, and it certainly did not illustrate how far a nuclear war would go.

No doubt if the film was to be shown at all, those who made it could not afford to go as far as one would have hoped. The New Statesman said: In this respect The Day After was much less strong than Peter Watkins's film The War Game, which the BBC (after secret consultation with the government) banned from being televised 18 years ago. I have put down an early-day motion calling on the BBC to show "The War Game" now that the independent televison authorities have shown their equivalent. I hope that some Conservative Members will show their agreement by signing it.

The New Statesman is a respectable and moderate journal. Its editorials are taken seriously. What does the New Statesman say about the Secretary of State for Defence? It says: The Secretary of State, however, has not had mixed reviews. Michael Heseltine made a plain fool of himself over the whole episode. Since the main part of Mrs. Thatcher's brief to him when she gave him Defence was public relations, this is an uncovenanted bonus for the peace movement. The Secretary of State has made a fool of himself over a fictional film. Is such a man fit to be in a responsible position, when we may find ourselves under attack by an enemy? The people of Britain have no confidence in the right hon. Gentleman. We regret very much his reaction to a film of dubious quality.

Two things must be done urgently. First, the Secretary of State for Defence should be sacked. He is not fit to hold such a position. The Visiting Forces Act 1952 leaves too many questions unanswered. My hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central has given enough examples to justify at least a review of the Act. Secondly, I believe that we should have a new Act to replace this one, which gives freedom to visiting forces to commit offences without appropriate punishment.

9.40 pm
Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) on raising this subject at such an appropriate time. It is important given the changed circumstances since the Act was passed, particularly within the past few months.

The problems covered by the Act have changed and the whole subject has become much more sensitive in recent months. It is not being anti-American to say so. I should have thought that the American forces, which are covered by the legislation, would welcome the debate because they are in a difficult position at the moment. Amendments to the legislation might benefit not just this country and its people but also the American forces.

As I understand it, the Visiting Forces Act 1952 derives from an agreement regarding the status of forces of parties to the North Atlantic treaty of June 1951, Cmnd. 9633. I shall quote from article VII, which seems to be clearer than the Act in explaining the point at issue this evening. Paragraph 3 states: In cases where the right to exercise jurisdiction is concurrent the following rules shall apply:

(a) The Military authorities of the sending State shall have the primary right to exercise jurisdiction over a member of a force or of a civilian component in relation to …

(ii) offences arising out of any act or omission done in the performance of official duty. That appears to be the nub of the case advanced so clearly by my hon. Friends the Members for Fife, Central and for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes). I noted the comments made by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson). He had a different point of view, although he drew attention to a number of significant points of civil law arising from the position of American forces in this country. In the main, he took a different line about the significance of the events of Greenham common and the base.

I have been worried about this legislation for some time. I have asked to visit the Greenham common base. It is surprising, however, that when there is such legislation the Government have not so far allowed Members of Parliament to visit the Greenham common defence establishment. I find that puzzling, because I wanted to discuss the position of American forces in this country with American personnel there and what might happen if they were involved in incidents at the base. If the Minister doubts my assertion that it has so far not proved possible for Members of Parliament to visit the base, he should study the answers to one or two of my parliamentary questions. In the first instance, the Secretary of State for Defence referred me to his junior Minister and said that arrangements were made with him. Secondly, I was told that the possibility of visiting the base was being considered, but no date was given.

I put a similar question to the Leader of the House when he was standing in for the Prime Minister. He said that he would consider the matter. So far, we have heard nothing. We have had no first-hand opportunity to visit such bases to discuss with British and American military personnel the implications of the working of the Visiting Forces Act 1952, in particular the part that I quoted from the treaty that gave rise to the Act. That is my first criticism of the Act. It is scandalous that Members of Parliament are not allowed by the British Government to visit a military base, which is part British and part American, when it is normally within the conventions and traditions of Parliament for us to visit all defence establishments within the United Kingdom.

Mr. Boyes

Did my hon. Friend see the news item about the previous protest at Greenham common? That film clearly identified Lady Olga Maitland inside the fence, yet I have had the same experience as my hon. Friend and have not been allowed through the gate.

Mr. Dubs

Although I did not see that television film, I noticed news items saying that Lady Olga Maitland had secured access to the defence establishment. My hon. Friend tried unsuccessfully to gain access on a visit there and I asked Ministers bluntly in the House whether it was possible for us to gain entry, but so far I have had no clear answer.

I have had a chance to visit Greenham common from the outside and to talk to the women there. I asked them how much the American troops were in evidence and was gratified to hear that they had had nothing to do with American troops. The only incident to which they referred concerned the police and British troops stationed there, and they said that American troops had stayed well in the background. That is both good and desirable, but it does not get away from the key issues about that defence establishment.

However, the women complained about abuse from one or two members of the British troops. Although that is not a matter for the Minister who will reply to the debate, it is regrettable that some of the remarks made to the women were very abusive and not in keeping with a disciplined army, which is our tradition.

During my visit I was astonished at the defences there. The double lines of barbed wire and the lookout posts were more reminiscent of the Berlin wall than anything we are used to in Britain. Clearly, it is an attempt to keep British people from the missiles and to keep American troops from demonstrators against the missiles, or those who are against the presence of American troops.

There are two ways in which the Visiting Forces Act can be brought into action in the Greenham common establishment, both of which have been referred to briefly by my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central. The first concerns further possible demonstrations there —I am sure that there will be others. On the previous occasion some of the fences were torn down in about eight places by women using their bare hands. The gates could be used as access points. Despite the efforts of the police and military authorities, American troops might become involved in such a demonstration and commit offences under British law, but, because they were on duty at the time, the Visiting Forces Act 1952 would apply and British law would not apply.

Mr. Richard Hickmet (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

Does the hon. Gentleman suggest that the Labour party supports the tearing down of the wire barrier by the women at Greenham common and the injuries to the police inspector resulting from that?

Mr. Dubs

I am not saying anything of the kind. I regret that the police inspector was injured on that occasion, and also that some of the women were injured. It is the democratic right of people in this country to demonstrate. It is a long-established right, and the vast majority of the women demonstrating at Greenham common seven or eight days ago were behaving peacefully. Peaceful protest is still legal and permissible in Britain—[Interruption.] I understand fully why the issue, and this debate, is embarrassing to Conservative Members. They are uncomfortable at having to take a position that is completely against the interests and the wishes of the majority of British people. I understand why they are now trying to make comments that are not directly related to my points.

There is a danger implicit in the sensitivity of the position at Greenham common that American troops and British people might come into conflict in that area.

The second scenario, which was mentioned briefly by my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington, was the possibility that some of the cruise missile launchers might leave the base. There is a rumour that one such launcher left the base recently. I do not know whether that is true, but I understand from what Ministers have said that it will be necessary, for operational reasons —if one believes in the policy of cruise missiles— for those missile launchers to leave the base at intervals and to drive round the countryside to test the vehicles and to get the entire system operational.

There is a clear possibility of conflict between the American forces driving the missile launchers round Berkshire and local people, whether demonstrators or others. We shall have the sight of those large vehicles attempting to leave the base —obviously some of the demonstrating women will try to stop them — and offences may be committed by the American troops during military manoeuvres. My concern is that the Visiting Forces Act 1952 will be brought into play, and that the result will be that British courts will have no jurisdiction over the actions of American troops in such circumstances.

The case for reconsidering this Act is solid. At the very least, it needs amendment, and we should consider whether all the nuclear bases in Britain should be removed from the scope of the Act and whether American troops should come under British legislation. I am satisfied that my hon. Friends, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central, have made out an excellent case for saying that the Act is of doubtful use at present. We should reconsider it and amend it, otherwise there will be enormous dangers in bases such as Greenham common.

9.52 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor)

This debate was triggered by a spate of publicity, as the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) acknowledged, in the BBC programme "60 Minutes", in the columns of the New Statesman and, for all I know, elsewhere about the Visiting Forces Act 1952. Many of the comments had the effect of casting the presence and activities of United States service men in the United Kingdom in a lurid light, and perhaps they were calculated to do just that.

However, I welcome the opportunity to give the House the facts about the Act in a balanced way, and I wish to build on the foundation of common sense erected by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) in his speech and to say to him that I hope to answer many of his points. He knows that my door is always open to him and that he can always pursue with me matters that affect his constituents.

I am sure that a majority of hon. Members realise only too well that American forces have been in the United Kingdom for more than 40 years. Their presence has been beneficial to the United Kingdom both as staunch allies in the war and defenders of peace through the NATO Alliance thereafter. Their presence has also been largely uncontroversial, and rightly so. For over 30 years, the framework of the criminal law within which they operate and other important matters have been covered by the Visiting Forces Act 1952. It is important that we should know something of the history of that Act. It has an impeccably bipartisan pedigree, as I shall show. As I shall also demonstrate, there is no commonsense reason why that bipartisanship should come to an end, although there may be strong political reasons why some hon. Members are keen to ruffle the surface of what have otherwise been, on the whole, relatively calm waters.

The NATO Alliance requires that troops of several Alliance nations are stationed in other Alliance countries. The NATO agreement was concluded in London in 1951 and signed—the hon. Member for Fife, Central did not tell us this—by Herbert Morrison, a representative of the then Labour Government. It was concluded between the NATO states and agreed on by the NATO allies. The 1952 Act of the incoming Conservative Government gave effect to the provisions of that agreement in United Kingdom law and allowed the Government to go to ratify the agreement in 1954. Apart from a modification to deal with hijacking, the Act has been untouched for the past 30 years. It has survived Labour and Conservative Governments alike — rightly so, as I hope to demonstrate.

As has been made clear in other speeches, the important sections of the Act are sections 2 and 3. Section 2 deals with jurisdiction. It enables the courts and authorities of the visiting force to exercise in the United Kingdom the ordinary powers of discipline and administration necessary to preserve the good order of the force. I am sure that there is no dispute over the need for that as it is essential for a military force to be able to maintain discipline if it is to be an effective force. It is clearly sensible for foreign service men visiting a country to serve under their own code of discipline rather than that of the receiving state. We maintain forces abroad as well as being hosts here. The 1951 agreement provides the basis on which we can maintain discipline in our forces serving in other NATO countries. The section does not create jurisdiction but merely enables the courts and authorities of the visiting force to exercise in our territory the jurisdiction that their law gives them over persons subject to their jurisdiction.

Thus, when a visiting service man commits an act that is an offence against the law of his own country but is not against the law of the country in which he is stationed the authorities of the visiting force have exclusive jurisdiction. Conversely, if he commits an act that is an offence against the law of the country in which he is stationed but is not against the law of his own country — I am on the territory that my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury wished me to explore—the authorities of the country in which he is stationed have exclusive jurisdiction. If, however, a visiting service man commits an act that is an offence against the law of both the sending country and the United Kingdom, the jurisdiction of the courts of the visiting force is concurrent — I stress the word "concurrent"—with that of the United Kingdom courts. Where concurrent jurisdiction arises, the arrangements for determining which court will deal with the case are set out in section 3 of the Act.

Section 3 gives effect to article VII 3(a) of the Status of Forces Agreement 1951 and provides that in most cases United Kingdom courts will have primary rights to deal with offences committed by visiting service men that infringe United Kingdom laws. As I shall later demonstrate, that aspect will deal with most of the points that have troubled the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury.

The only exceptions to this general rule occur in circumstances where the offence arose out of and in the course of duty, or it was committed solely against persons or property associated with the visiting force. In such cases, the primary jurisdiction is exercised by the authority of the visiting force, but the United Kingdom courts have a secondary right of jurisdiction. They may exercise that right if the authorities of the visiting force decide not to exercise their primary right of jurisdiction and deal with the case under their law.

There has been a suggestion in some quarters that United States service men are above the law and can act irresponsibly and get away with it. That is categorically not the case. In 1982, more than 2,100 United States service men—this may comfort the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury—were convicted in United Kingdom courts, about 2,000 of them for traffic offences. By comparison, in the same year about 1,500 United Kingdom service men were tried in Germany for motoring offences by the German courts. It is instructive to look at the balance of work in the two courts given that there are twice as many British soldiers in Germany as there are United States troops in the United Kingdom. The figures hardly show that the United Kingdom courts are not dealing with offences committed by United States troops. In no sense are United States military personnel above the law.

Mr. Willie W. Hamilton


Mr. Mellor

I shall not give way. The hon. Gentleman spoke for nearly half an hour and is now spending most of his time during my speech muttering from a sedentary position. I do not intend to give way as this is a timed debate. My hon. Friends and I have been hearing the hon. Gentleman mutter. I shall answer the debate without, I hope, too many unnecessary interruptions from him.

Mr. Willie W. Hamilton

Tell the whole truth.

Mr. Mellor

Turning to serious crime, which has rightly been raised in the debate, in the past two years there have been 27 instances of serious offences of violence committed by United States military personnel against United Kingdom citizens. For the avoidance of doubt, may I say that most occurred in pub and disco fights. All of these incidents—I stress, all of these—were dealt with by the United Kingdom courts. Five American service men are presently in our prisons.

It has been said that United States service men are immune from appearing before any British court, criminal or civil, if they can claim to be on duty at the time. I wish to clarify what that means, I hope helpfully, especially bearing in mind the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury. I assure him that there is no question of the United States authorities claiming that their service men are on duty willy nilly regardless of the facts. That is not the case.

I accept that the case raised by the hon. Member for Fife, Central, which took place in August 1965, involving a Mrs. MacDonald, could bear an unfortunate interpretation on that issue. I assure the House that the United States authorities would not now regard, and have not regarded for some considerable time, a service man driving to and from his base in his own car as being on duty and therefore susceptible to their jurisdiction and not ours. We would not stand idly by and not make representations were such a position to arise.

In cases where the alleged offender claims to have been on duty, the primary jurisdiction is exercised by the authorities of the visiting force. The United Kingdom courts have a secondary right of jurisdiction which they may exercise if the authorities of the visiting force decide not to exercise their primary right of jurisdiction. In no sense can someone get away with it without a hearing being held by either the British or American courts. Where it may be thought that the individual concerned is on duty and therefore susceptible to the United States regime and not to ours, the United Kingdom prosecuting authorities are entitled—this is specifically set out in article VII 3(c) of the 1951 agreement—to ask the visiting state to waive its primary right where the issue seems to be of special importance. That deals with the serious matters that have been raised.

I have been dealing in the main with criminal law, but it is crucial that we do not forget civil law. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury raised that point. Civil law is vital to an individual and his dependants if he has been injured by the negligence or default of a United States service man. His full civil entitlements are protected.

On the crucial question of compensation, article VIII of the agreement sets out the obligations of the contracting parties. In the United Kingdom, the claims commission deals with any claims made against visiting forces. If a claim is admitted and the damages are agreed, the damages are paid by the Secretary of State for Defence as a successor in title to the Secretary of State for War under the authority of section 9 of the Visiting Forces Act 1952.

If the claim is not admitted, a United Kingdom claimant has a right to bring proceedings in the United Kingdom courts against a member of the visiting force concerned, just as he can if he is dissatisfied with the financial arrangements offered to him by the claims commission. Any judgment obtained would be discharged by the Secretary of State for Defence. If a settlement is arrived at without proceeding to trial, payment will also be made by the Secretary of State.

In accordance with paragraph 5 of article VIII. 75 per cent. of any award is recovered from the sending state. The court will deal with the matter as in any similar hearing between two United Kingdom citizens where a tort has been committed, or where there is a dispute that a tort has been committed and the claimant is a citizen of the United Kingdom and the defendant a member of the United Kingdom Armed Forces. I hope that that information is sufficient for the House to be in no doubt about the position.

I want to give the House some facts about how the civil claim arrangements have worked during the past five years. The claims commission has handled about 430 claims a year against United States service men. all of which have involved road traffic accidents. In each year about 15 cases have involved personal injury, but not more than two fatal injuries. The majority of cases are settled amicably out of court.

There has also been an accusation that the United Kingdom is a soft touch, that United States forces in other NATO countries are treated more toughly by the authorities, and that British forces overseas are subject to more vigorous rules than their United States counterparts in Britain. That is absolutely not the case.

The United Kingdom has clone nothing that is not fully reciprocated by other states that are party to the 1951 agreement. I have already given the revealing comparison between cases against United States service men in the United Kingdom and those against United Kingdom service men in the German courts. The 1952 Act is not administered at arm's length between United Kingdom and United States authorities. It is not the case that the Americans might take a view that a service man was on duty and that that was the end of the matter.

The 1952 Act is administered by a continuous and constructive dialogue. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence would want to look carefully at any details suggesting that something has gone amiss. If he was persuaded that there was a difficulty, he would raise that with the American authorities.

Generally, if an incident occurs outside a United States base, the police will investigate the matter and inform the United States authorities if they consider it appropriate to institute proceedings. If the United States authorities claim primary jurisdiction, for example, on the grounds that the incident took place during official duties, the police would not normally pursue the matter further, unless—I stress this—they considered the claim of the United States authorities to exercise jurisdiction to be unreasonable. In that event they will report the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions. If the DPP shares the concern of the police, the action of the United States authorities is likely to be to bring the matter to the notice of the Home Office. It would then be for my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, in consultation with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to make representations to the United States authorities at diplomatic level.

It is inevitable—we have heard about this from some hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Fife, Central — that over 30 years with hundreds, if not thousands, of cases of one type or another arising each year, there have been some unhappy cases. I accept that, but overall it is clear beyond peradventure that the Act has worked well and can continue to work well. It has done so without widespread acrimony or any of the general unfairness that some hon. Members have sought to contend arises by giving a rather partial account of one or two hard cases.

I am not here to answer for the Ministry of Defence. I am a Home Office Minister, but, inevitably, a great deal has been said about Greenham common. That matter has been discussed at great length by some hon. Gentlemen. Under the Act, we are concerned by and large with motoring and occasionally other offences committed away from the base. During the past 30 years, that is the generality of the cases that have fallen within the ambit of the Act.

I repudiate the suggestion that the Act provides immunity to United States service men who may fire upon civilian demonstrators. The use of firearms by United States service men, just as with United Kingdom service men, is governed by rules of engagement designed to ensure that fire is opened only in accordance with the law of the land and the doctrine of the minimum force that is necessary and reasonable to protect life and vital installations. In case there is any doubt about the circumstances in which that might occur, I confirm that there is no possibility of United States service men opening fire in the vicinity of demonstrators on the fringes of nuclear bases. There are a number of security personnel who can, and will, deal with those demonstrators without armed force.

All our efforts are designed to ensure that demonstrators cannot put themselves into a position where they might face any danger of being in an area where service men would have to consider using firearms. I go so far as to say that if a person has reached the area where that possibility arises, it will be clear that he or she is not in the business of peacefully demonstrating against cruise missiles. If he or she has reached that point, it will be clear that there is an intention to interfere with a nuclear warhead. In that context, I believe that I carry the House with me in saying that firearms should be available for use strictly as a last resort, and I hope that those remarks will be of assistance to those who raised those matters.

I have noted the concern expressed by hon. Members about some aspects of the operation of the Act, and we are in no sense complacent about it. In giving what I believe to be a fair account of its workings, I hope that that has been clear. It is apparent that most of the concern derives from the interpretation which it is feared United States authorities may in some cases place upon the issue of jurisdiction, especially in relation to the question of what may or may not constitute official duty. I shall ensure that the points made by hon. Members are drawn to the attention of the competent United States authorities. In addition, I emphasise that the Government's intention—if any case arises in which the United States authorities appear to be adopting what seems to be an unreasonably extensive interpreation of what constitutes official duty — is to make the most strenuous representations to ensure that the spirit, as well as the letter, of the NATO agreement is fully respected. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury will convey that message loud and clear to his constituents as they are entitled to know where we stand on this.

More generally, we shall be prepared to make representations to the United States authorities if other aspects of any case give cause for concern. I believe that in general the 1951 agreement and the 1952 Act have for 30 years provided a workable and satisfactory basis for foreign forces in this country. Nevertheless, we shall keep their operation under close scrutiny and shall not hesitate to act whenever we consider that there are grounds for doing so.