HC Deb 13 December 1995 vol 268 cc1024-69

Order for Second Reading read.

5.25 pm
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Nicholas Soames)

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

The Bill is extremely important. There is an Armed Forces Bill every five years and, like its predecessors, this Bill will continue the existence of the Army Act 1955, the Air Force Act 1955 and the Naval Discipline Act 1957 for a further five years. Those Acts provide the statutory framework for discipline in the armed forces. Unless we renew them by an Act of Parliament before the end of December next year, they will expire.

Clause 1 achieves that purpose. It provides for the service discipline Acts to continue in force for a further year and to be renewed annually after that by an Order in Council, but not beyond the end of the year 2001. A number of other clauses address matters of detail, and I do not propose to detain the House with them today.

I shall propose that the Bill is committed to a Select Committee, which will enable the clauses to be examined in great detail.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

As I do not expect to receive an invitation to sit on the Select Committee, I need to question the Minister now, before he sits down.

Why is the Bill so inadequate in its protection of Scottish soldiers and their families residing in Scotland? In terms of the courts martial appeals system, the Bill defines Scots law as inferior to English law.

Why has the Minister chosen to ignore recent improvements in child protection law in Scottish legislation? I refer to the Prisoners and Criminal Proceedings (Scotland) Act 1993 and the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, which give greater protection to children caught up in abuse cases than the Bill does. Why is that so?

Mr. Soames

At least we shall be assured of the hon. Gentleman not making a speech. That was a most long-winded intervention that was typical of a former military policeman.

Courts martial in Scotland do not apply the law of Scotland. They apply the same service law wherever the trial takes place. It is a portable system which the armed forces carry with them wherever they serve, whether it is in Bosnia, Belize, Brecon or the borders. While elements of service law are based on English law and certain English legal procedures have been specifically adopted, service law is a system of law in its own right. It would be entirely impractical for courts martial in Scotland to operate under different law from courts martial everywhere else. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will now allow me to develop my speech a little more so that we can come on to those parts of the reforms that I intend to announce today and which I hope will please Scottish, England and Welsh soldiers and Ulstermen as much as they please the House. I intend to propose that the House commits the Bill to a Select Committee, which will enable the clauses to be examined in great detail. Now that the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) has declared his hand, it is almost inevitable that he will find himself on that Committee, where he will be very welcome with his knowledge as a former military policeman.

I imagine that, as in the past, the Committee may also wish to look at one or two issues that are not included in the Bill. Indeed, we have already undertaken to give the Committee the report of our assessment of the armed forces' policy on homosexuality.

Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon)

Before the Minister leaves that subject, will he accept that homosexuals are just as likely as anyone else to be highly competent and professional members of the armed services and that their sexuality should have no bearing on their eligibility to serve their country in that way? Will he legislate to that effect?

Mr. Soames

I do not intend to go into that matter now. As I have said, we intend to deal with it in Committee. I think that the reasons for the services' position are well understood. The Committee will have the opportunity, if it so chooses, to debate those matters at greater length and with the benefit of the review which we shall be presenting to them.

I intend to concentrate today on the more important clauses in the Bill. First, I wish to deal with local service engagements. Clause 2 will enable the armed forces to offer a new type of engagement for local service. Men and women recruited for local service would not have the same obligation to serve anywhere in the world as those recruited for general service.

There are no plans to introduce local service engagements on a general basis in the foreseeable future. However, it is sensible to give the services the flexibility to recruit for local service if they identify areas of activity where it would be appropriate so to do.

One specific area that has been identified is guarding. We have recently begun to consult on proposals to employ service personnel on local service engagements as armed guards at certain establishments.

Sir Cranley Onslow (Woking)

I am not bidding, I hasten to say, for a place on the Committee but merely wish to ask my hon. Friend whether clause 2 could be applied to medical personnel. My immediate concern, and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir J. Critchley), arises from local anxiety about the closure of Cambridge military hospital, the extremely alarmist rumours that have been put about and the availability of surgical staff in the army. I hope that my hon. Friend can assure me that there is no possibility that the hospital will be closed and bulldozed in February.

Mr. Soames

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that point. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir J. Critchley) has been in touch with my Department and has sent me a copy of the most extraordinary, outrageous and inflammatory letter in a local newspaper in Aldershot on the numbers of surgeons and others available for deployment—which figures are completely and hopelessly inaccurate.

I am happy to confirm to my right hon. Friend—and I should be grateful if he would pass this on to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot—that it would be quite inappropriate to recruit medical support by way of local service engagements. We are quite clear, that for any foreseeable operation, we would be able to find regular personnel from the defence medical services. Any local peacetime shortfalls would be met in the short term by employing civilian practitioners. I would like to take the opportunity to ask my right hon. Friend to pass our best wishes to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot and ask him to rest his mind on the issue.

The suggestion that Cambridge military hospital will be bulldozed is also nonsense. The permanent buildings will be retained for defence-related purposes and the national health service will also maintain a temporary presence at the site.

I shall now deal with the question of consistency with civilian courts. Where it is sensible and practical, procedures in the services mirror those of the civilian courts and the police. Clauses 5 to 11 are clear examples of that. They incorporate a number of changes which have been made in civilian law over the past few years, remove anomalies in service rules and procedures, particularly compared with civilian ones, and contain improvements.

I shall come back to clauses 12 to 16 later.

Clause 17 tidies up the rules enabling service men and women to make complaints through the internal redress procedures. It will allow a time limit to be introduced for the making of such complaints. This is not intended in any way to be restrictive. However, it does not seem sensible to allow complaints to be made an excessively long time after an event.

The suggested three-month time limit will also tie in with clauses 18 to 24, which aim to introduce consistency into the arrangements for service men and women to take various complaints to industrial tribunals. At present, different sets of rules apply to different types of complaints. The Bill aims to introduce greater uniformity. The basic principle will be that in all cases eligible to be submitted to industrial tribunals, internal procedures must be used first In most circumstances in civilian life, there is a three-month time limit for applications to industrial tribunals. For service men and women, because of the requirement to use internal procedures first, the industrial tribunal time limit will be extended by three months. The three-month limit for internal complaints will provide time for efforts to settle complaints internally before the industrial tribunal deadline expires.

Clause 26 is designed to allow the Secretary of State for Defence, as the trustee of Greenwich hospital, to grant a lease in respect of the Royal Naval college, Greenwich. The House will be familiar with the background to this matter. It is, I believe, right that the Committee will have the chance to consider an issue which is of great public interest and of considerable importance.

I shall now deal with drug testing. I know that everyone in the House will understand that there can be no place whatever for drug misuse in the armed forces. For a year now, the Army has had a compulsory drugs testing programme. Those who refuse to take a test, or who test positively, are normally required to leave the Army, as is anyone found to he misusing drugs in the other services. Clause 27 makes it an offence to refuse to take part. This will provide flexibility in dealing with those whom it would be preferable to retain, such as the young, first-time offender. Time does not allow me to say much about clauses 25 and 28. In different ways, they amend the law to help the services do their business more effectively. Clause 25 will enable us to resume important recruiting activities which involve members of the public handling service firearms under supervision.

Clause 28 amends the Visiting Forces Act 1952, an extremely important piece of legislation, to enable Parliament to offer concessions on jurisdiction to visiting forces from a wider range of countries than at present. As such concessions are usually available on a reciprocal basis, the underlying purpose of this change is to facilitate arrangements for our forces to exercise in the countries concerned.

I now want to deal with what I believe is going to be the most important part of this Armed Forces Bill. A five-yearly Bill means that there is a regular review of the court martial system. It enables us to think afresh about whether we are doing things in the best way.

The House needs to be quite clear about the need for a separate system for administering justice in the armed forces. In many ways, life in the services differs fundamentally from civilian life. Discipline in the armed forces is not an optional extra; it is a key ingredient of fighting effectiveness. Lives can and do depend on it.

The system of discipline has to be capable of functioning in peace and war, and wherever in the world members of the services find themselves. That is the point that I was trying to make to the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman). It has to be firm. Just as importantly, it must be fair and be seen to be fair. Anyone who has served in the armed forces will remember that the first canon of military law is that justice must not only be done but be seen to be done.

The proposals for change resulting from our review are quite complex and I thought that the House would find it helpful to have the details before today's debate. I therefore answered a written question last Thursday, setting out the details. The salient points are these.

A key figure in the court martial system is the convening officer. He is the senior officer who agrees to the setting up of a court martial. He decides what the charges will be and when and where the court martial will be held. He is responsible for appointing the prosecuting officer and the members of the court martial and, where necessary, arranging the appointment of the judge advocate.

Additionally, the convening officer is responsible for aspects of the conduct of the prosecution, such as deciding whether or not to accept a plea by the accused to a lesser charge. He is also normally the confirming officer, responsible for approving or amending the verdict and sentence of the court martial.

The convening officer is part of the chain of command. He has performed all those functions because of the need for the chain of command to be involved in the administration of discipline. We have examined, however, whether he needs to continue to perform all those functions and have decided that he does not.

The role of convening officer will cease to exist in its present form. His duties will be divided. New higher authorities will ensure that the chain of command continues to be involved in preliminary decisions on how discipline cases should be handled. We recognise, however, that there is a need to remove the impression, however mistaken, that the chain of command can have an undue influence over court martial proceedings. Therefore, many of the convening officer's functions will be transferred to new bodies independent of the chain of command. The new prosecuting authorities will be staffed by legal officers. They will decide whether to prosecute and what charges should be brought. They will then conduct the prosecution.

The administrative arrangements for courts martial will be in the hands of cells independent of both higher authorities and the prosecuting authorities. Those cells will be responsible for selecting court martial members, who will be officers who are not in the same command as the accused.

Where they require legislative authority, the changes that I have just outlined will be the subject of amendments to the Bill. Clause 12, however, already ends the convening officer's role in confirming the findings of courts martial.

That is part of the reform of post-trial procedures dealt with in clauses 12 to 16. That reform involves simplifying the arrangements for conducting internal reviews of court martial findings and sentences. More important, though, is the opening up of access to the court martial appeal court, to enable it to hear appeals against sentence as well as against conviction.

It may not be generally realised that a civilian court of appeal, sitting as the courts martial appeal court, deals with appeals from courts martial. The change to allow appeals against sentence to be heard will mean that all courts martial decisions will be liable to challenge at the court of appeal.

I should like to return to measures that do not yet feature in the Bill.

Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)

My hon. Friend will know that defence is a matter over which the European Union has no competence. Will he confirm that the organisation and discipline of the United Kingdom's armed forces are entirely a matter for this country and this Parliament, and that no interference will be accepted from European courts on the pretext of health and safety, sex discrimination, employment or any other form of legislation?

Mr. Soames

It would not be right for me, a humble toad beneath the Government's harrow, to give such a blanket assurance. One of the many anxieties that we all labour under is the interference by the European courts in some of our judicial cases. It is devoutly hoped that this country's courts martial and judicial systems should suffer minimum interference from the European courts.

At most courts martial, there is a judge advocate. As a lawyer, he fulfils many of a judge's functions in a Crown court. He advises on the law, sums up and, in the event of a guilty finding, offers guidance on the sentencing options.

We have decided to enhance the judge advocate's role. Judge advocates will be present at all future courts martial. Unlike now, their advice on points of law will be binding on the court and they will have a vote on sentence. Also, the reasons for a sentence will be given in open court. Not all disciplinary matters are dealt with by court martial. Fortunately, the majority are disposed of summarily, normally by the commanding officer. That is an effective way of dealing with more minor disciplinary issues quickly.

Again, we have reviewed those arrangements. We intend to extend the facility that enables defendants in certain circumstances to elect for trial by court martial. In future, defendants in all Army and Royal Air Force summary proceedings will be able to opt for a court martial.

All the changes that I have described will apply to the Army and to the RAF. They will also generally apply to the Royal Navy. However, as hon. Members will, I am sure, understand if they think about it, there are differences in the Royal Navy's discipline system, and that will affect the way in which the changes are extended to it.

I have accepted the Navy's judgment that it would not be feasible to change its present arrangements for summary trials. They already offer scope for defendants in some cases to elect for trial by court martial. The operational environment at sea, however, means that widespread use of an extended right to opt for court martial could prevent relatively minor disciplinary matters from being dealt with quickly.

The Select Committee dealing with the Bill will consider those proposals closely. They represent a cohesive and coherent package of reforms and improvements to take the court martial system into the next century. Generally, I hope and believe that the Bill, as it is drafted and with the amendments that will be added to it, represents an important, sensible and satisfactory framework for future military discipline, and I commend it to the House.

5.44 pm
Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)

I thank the Minister for outlining the Bill's purpose and for doing so in such short order. I shall take a little longer, but I hope that I shall not detain the House too long, because I know that everyone has much business to do.

As the Minister said, this afternoon and over the next few months we will undertake the five-yearly review of the armed forces' discipline Acts. We will not vote against the Government tonight because, in general, anyone would accept that discipline is central, and perhaps more so to the armed forces than to any other institution. As we are concerned with discipline, it is natural that, by the very nature of our investigations, we will concentrate not only on the need for discipline but on its form and its breaches in the past few years.

As we will be concerned with breaches of discipline, I should make it clear at the outset that our concentration on those aspects of service life in no way reflects on the vast majority of men and women who make up our armed forces. It is worth recalling that at a time when our men and women are being dispatched to take part in the largest peacetime operation, and certainly the largest military operation in Europe since the second world war.

Thankfully, deficiencies in discipline or breaches of it are a minority sport in the British armed forces. That is not because it is imposed on our soldiers, sailors and airmen, but because of the appreciation that the best form of discipline is self-discipline. It stems partly not only from rules and regulations, but, as the Minister will know, from loyalty, because loyalty to one's friends, as the Minister will also know, is among the highest of virtues, although it is not always rewarded. We regard loyalty in the British armed forces, at every level from colonels-in-chief down to squaddies, as a virtue that should not be underestimated. I therefore take the early opportunity to thank the members of the British armed forces—men and women—for their discipline, courage and loyalty throughout the five years.

Discipline, good order and morale are inseparable. I make that point because the discipline that is an essential part of military life is often misunderstood by people, including some hon. Members, who are not familiar with military ethos and practice. It is not merely a matter of abstract rules and regulations inherited by tradition and imposed without rationale; it is an essential, crucial component of our armed forces' effectiveness.

That discipline serves the country well and is the fulcrum around which the efficiency of our service revolves. All other things being equal, an undisciplined or ill-disciplined force is doomed to defeat on the battlefield. It serves our military units well, as it is an integral part of esprit de corps and morale, delineating acceptable behaviour from unacceptable behaviour; and it serves our service men and women well, because disciplined practice in peacetime will minimise their personal risk in times of war. In short, from the individual to the nation, discipline saves lives.

The Minister referred to the interlapping between civilian and military law. The rule of thumb of hon. Members on, I think, both sides of the House is that, wherever possible, appropriate and practical service law should approximate to the law in civilian society. Of course, unlike some of our potential enemies, we live in a democratic society and therefore we approach military law with a conceptual framework that separates us from those who do not share our vision of civil liberties or social mores.

There is one aspect of the overlapping of military and civilian law that the Opposition do not support, and we are glad to see that the Bill does not refer to it. There have been recent reports—no more than that—that the Home Secretary intends to foist young offenders on the military. We make it plain that the armed forces neither need nor want to become the repository of the problem offenders of the penal system. Quite apart from their current obvious overstretch, it is not the job of the armed forces to be penal officers or probation officers for the Home Secretary, and we urge the Minister to resist whatever entreaties he is receiving from that quarter.

Mr. Stephen

None of us thinks that it is desirable to mix criminals with serving soldiers, sailors and airmen, but does not the hon. Gentleman accept that young offenders might benefit from some of the outstanding leadership skills that are possessed by staff at the basic training establishments—although not, as the hon. Gentleman says, in a military environment?

Dr. Reid

I have suggested that we should separate criminals from those who are at risk. Leadership qualities in the armed forces, and especially among cadets, are much under-used socially. Young people who are at risk because of social circumstances are already dealt with by challenge weekends and development in the cadets, and I should like to see that greatly extended. However, that is quite different from using a period in the armed forces as some form of penal servitude or from using the forces as custodians of offenders. In some cases, presumably the dross of the penal system could be hived off by a Home Secretary who is so beleaguered on other fronts that he is shifting the problem towards the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, whose shoulders are broad enough to bear it. I hope that the Minister will resist those entreaties.

We welcome many of the proposed changes to courts martial, which are the major issue in the Bill. The ultimate vehicle for the imposition of disciplinary procedures in the forces is the court martial, and I suspect that consideration of its form and procedures will command by far the Committee's greatest attention. Although I welcome the proposals, we have certain reservations, which we shall detail in Committee. I shall outline some of them. The first one is general and the others are specific.

Our general reservation is that the treatment of serious court martial offences, not necessarily those that have been committed in the United Kingdom but which perhaps involve a civilian, raises a general concern. It is highlighted by the tragic case of Christina Menzies, which has already been raised in the House by the local constituency Member, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway). The case highlights the inadequacies of the present system in serving justice on more serious offences such as homicide through the court martial system.

Christina Menzies, a young girl, was the daughter of a sergeant in the British Army, and she was brutally murdered in Germany. The accused was a serving soldier in the British Army and, although the tragic young victim was a civilian, it was decided to try the accused by court martial by the British military authorities rather than by the German civil courts and investigative bodies that had begun the procedure. Therefore, it was decided that the investigation and prosecution of the case would be undertaken by British military authorities.

I make it clear that I am not in a position to make a judgment about the innocence or guilt of the accused soldier, who was acquitted by the court martial. Many people, including Christina's parents, the local Member of Parliament and the German authorities feel strongly that justice was not served by that acquittal. There are grave doubts about whether the prosecuting officer had the necessary experience for such a role, especially as the defendant was able to hire a barrister who specialised in offences such as homicide. That barrister was hired at taxpayers' expense through the legal aid system.

There were equally serious doubts about the ability to handle complicated forensic evidence. In cases where a civilian victim is involved and where the offence occurs in a modern, civilised and democratic society, why is it necessary for a military court rather than a local court to be used? Is justice served by pitting armed forces officers, who perhaps are inexperienced in matters as serious as homicide, against the best that money can buy in an experienced criminal defence counsel? The Committee will need to examine seriously that general question and it will need to try to ensure that a case such as that involving the death of Christina Menzies never happens again. If we can achieve that, perhaps the tragic experience of that brutal murder can be put, at least in the long run, to some good purpose.

I have two or three specific points on other court martial issues. We have long made plain our view that reform of the system is overdue, particularly in terms of composition and appeals procedures. The Minister has gone some way towards doing that and we welcome that, but we have argued that it is wrong to exclude experienced warrant officers from sitting on a court martial.

A sergeant may have been hardened by battle or by military service on the streets of Northern Ireland, and may have a streetwise or barrackwise knowledge of men and women in the armed forces. He may have wisdom and knowledge that are not always immediately and spontaneously apparent in officers who have had a somewhat more sheltered background on their way to commissions, but he is excluded by our traditions and rules from sitting on a court martial.

If we wish, where practical and possible, to approximate to civilian law, we must bear in mind the primary civilian premise that a man or woman should be judged by his or her peers. In this case, not only is it practical and possible to take on experienced non-commissioned officers, but it is beneficial to justice being done and being seen to be done. We shall certainly raise that matter in Committee.

The Minister outlined the part that is played in the chain of command in the intended reforms of the courts martial system. The reforms provide only a mechanism that must be activated to ensure that members of the panel do not come from the same corps as the defendant in contentious cases. By repealing provisions that provide for an officer to confirm and revise a court martial's finding under, I think, clause 12, the Government have offered a compromise rather than a serious examination of the matter of advancing towards the principle of peer group judgment. We should recall that some 20 cases are pending in the European Court, to which the hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) referred. I doubt whether the proposals as they stand offer sufficient transparency to verify that senior officers are sufficiently independent to ensure fair treatment.

The Government will tell us, as they did five years ago, that they have surveyed opinions on courts martial, and that their last survey revealed no overwhelming demand for change. The supplementary memorandum from the Ministry of Defence and a service opinion survey about discipline in 1988 are based on 29 unfavourable comments from a total of 2,361 comments, which in turn are from a total of more than 142,000 trained strength for that year. That is hardly a scientific basis on which to approach the issue.

Before the Minister says that, if there was an unsettled feeling among members of the armed forces, they would all write in, I remind him—not that he needs it—that the first rule of armed forces life is never to volunteer, and certainly never to complain about anything in writing giving one's name. We need to find out on a more scientific basis whether there is satisfaction in the armed forces quite apart from finding whether it exists in outside bodies such as the European Courts. May we be assured that, in future, the Army attitudes survey will include specific questions on discipline, and that details will be given about the response rate to the survey since the most recent review?

The requirements proposed by the Government would amend the Courts-Martial (Appeals) Act 1968 to allow the courts martial appeal court to hear appeals against sentences and convictions under clause 14(2). They also extend the powers of the Secretary of State to refer sentences opposed by courts martial to the courts martial appeal court. Clause 15 provides for the registrar to extend time limits for the notice of appeal, or for application of leave to appeal. Those have been covered adequately by the Minister.

Dr. Godman

I do not believe that the court martial appeals court has ever sat in Edinburgh, but does my hon. Friend agree that it would make good sense for a Scottish judge to sit on the courts martial appeal court when it is hearing an appeal against a decision taken at a Scottish court martial?

Dr. Reid

My hon. Friend has thrown me a question as helpful as the one that the Minister was thrown on European courts by the Member for Shoreham. The frank answer is that I do not know. I can see the appeal of that, but nevertheless a judge in Scotland will by definition, as my hon. Friend knows, be practised and expert in Scottish law. Therefore, he will operate under a system that is different from English law, not only in detail, but in its first premise.

I am not a lawyer, and I am in a minority in the House in not being one, but I understand from the recesses of my memory that Scottish law is based on Roman law, which has a first-principle and philosophical basis—the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) will keep me advised on that—whereas English law is determined by case law. I think that generalisation is probably true. I can see the attractions of what my hon. Friend said, but I cannot give an answer in detail without giving it further consideration. I assure him that I will give the question further consideration before I next speak from the Dispatch Box, if he is in the Chamber. I thank him for pointing us in a constructive direction.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) will definitely be on the Committee now.

Dr. Reid

Yes, my hon. Friend has made a good case for being on the Committee.

There is a further, perhaps more important, point on courts martial. Extending access to an appeals court comprising senior civilian judges would improve the present position under which appeals are made to the same panel who set the sentence. While we generally welcome the change, it raises some other problems. As usual, the minute we move in one direction, we raise unexpected problems from another quarter.

Many aspects of service life are unlikely to be taken into account in the approach of civil courts, and in any case the services may still take consequential administrative action. We require some clarification on that point, especially when we recall that the system of appeals has already been found to be in breach of the European convention on human rights on the basis that anyone held must be allowed to appeal against the unlawfulness of his or her detention. The Minister will be aware of reports in the press on one case as late as Monday this week.

I wish to mention the separate and general, but recurrent, issue—which might merit consideration—of past miscarriages of justice in the courts martial system, especially those that have affected large numbers of people. This is not an easy issue, but it has been raised in the House, most consistently by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr.Mackinlay), who has championed the cause of many executed during the first world war, among many other veterans' causes. I understand that he will address that subject, should he catch your eye, Sir Geoffrey.

The subject was highlighted again this year by the case of those were accused and convicted of mutiny at Salerno. I understand why people ask what purpose opening the subject serves. They argue that it may undermine discipline, and, after all, the people are dead. The reason for opening the subject was brought home to me because the family of John James MacFarlane, one of the so-called Salerno mutineers, are constituents of mine. I understand the anguish felt by that family. He had fought for his country, and had won gallantry medals. It is now accepted by everyone that, through a mistake at best—let us hope that it was not intentional —by his commanding officers, he and others were deprived of their medals, dishonoured, demeaned and dismissed. That is still deeply felt by that family in Hollyton in my constituency.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) has already made our misgivings known about the sentences that were passed in that case. At the very least, we should not accept the bland dismissal of the right to rectify miscarriages of justice merely because of the passage of time. That seems to be the position that has been accepted by the Prime Minister and the Government. Why it should be considered as an appropriate—indeed, honourable—course of action to rectify miscarriages, even posthumously, in civil society but not in military society is frankly beyond me. I would go further—the ability and will to recognise miscarriages of justice, even posthumously, reinforces the legitimacy of the justice system in the military.

In some areas, problems in the services reflect problems in society in general—for example, the problem of drugs. We supported the Government in the introduction of random drug testing in the armed forces because of the peculiar and unique nature of the armed forces, with people handling guns, explosives and armaments. However, we are perturbed that, despite the efforts of the Government, there are continuing reports of apparently large-scale misuse of drugs within the armed forces.

I am even more perturbed by reports, which I hope the Minister will be able to deny, that the Government intend to adopt a softer line on recruitment policy for those with previous drug convictions. I accept that there can be no absolute prohibition on those who have one conviction for the use of soft drugs, and I have no intention—because it serves none of us well—to sensationalise the subject with cheap sloganising. But, whatever pressures are created by the shortfall of personnel, we should send no signals that drug misuse is an acceptable background for enlistment in the armed forces, especially when we are trying to stamp out the practice among established personnel. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us that assurance tonight. There is a policy of no tolerance of drugs within the armed forces, and I think that it should continue. By 15 November this year, 6,968 Army personnel had been tested for drugs; 133 had failed; and 200 to 300 tests are outstanding. However, in 1994, 490 soldiers were reported for offences under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, despite the no-tolerance policy towards offenders. As I have mentioned, those people are in charge of potentially lethal weapons, so let us press forward with the no-tolerance policy.

Race recruitment is another issue that comes up at every quinquennial review. The 1990 report commissioned from Peat Marwick McLintock still holds true today. Racial stereotyping and language are the most important factors in low application rates from black applicants. Only 233 applicants from the black, Asian and other ethnic minorities chose to apply to join the Army in 1992–93—the last year for which I have figures—of whom a mere 50 were accepted. That represents about 1 per cent. of the Army's strength—a negligible increase since the last review.

I do not question the Government's commitment, but we must accept that we are not making great headway. As the armed forces struggle to compete against civilian institutions for skilled personnel in the labour market, the MOD must improve its recruitment efforts and improve conditions in the workplace. That is not just morally and socially sensible, or a reinforcement of the link between civil and military society, but necessary given the skills needed by the armed forces.

Is the MOD examining recruitment patterns in the south-east and the west midlands, the regions with the highest proportion of ethnic minorities? Given the almost twofold increase in the Army's advertising budget, are resources being directed at strengthening ties with industry and further education institutions to identify recruits from ethnic backgrounds? We will raise such questions in Committee, and I hope we will reach a conclusion on them. We would like the current armed forces monitoring process to continue.

The Minister would not expect me to rush through even a short speech without mentioning sexual equality—a matter in which I know he takes a great interest. It is a subject to which the Committee considering successive Armed Forces Bills has returned consistently in recent years. We accept that efforts have been made in the past few years and accept that problems arise because of the strength of tradition and at times, to be frank, because of prejudice inside the armed forces. To be even more frank, it is difficult for Ministers—there is nothing personal in this—to trail-blaze when their attitude to service women has not always been marked by an enlightened disposition. Their blundered handling of the issue of pregnant service personnel has proved that prejudice can be costly financially—now to the tune of more than £50 million—as well as socially.

Lest anyone says that he was not warned, I know that several of my hon. Friends brought up the issue of pregnant service women during the 1981 quinquennial review, so the Government had a 14-year warning about it.

Women are still inadequately promoted and protected against discrimination in the armed forces, especially in terms of advancement to higher posts. We welcome the advent of women fighter pilots, but we want further progress to be made quickly. We will pursue that matter in Committee.

On combat forces, the Opposition take the general view that a woman should be judged by the same criteria as a man—gender-neutral criteria. They should be judged according to their standard of personal fitness for and operational effectiveness in the role in question. We accept that there are those who feel that my second criterion—the operational effectiveness of Army, Navy or Air Force units—has the potential to allow discrimination. We must start, however, by accepting that the raison d'être of our Army, Navy and Air Force is as fighting units. Any other starting position would undermine the raison d'être of our armed forces. That is why we include operational effectiveness as one of the criteria against which service personnel must be judged.

Homosexuality in the armed forces has been discussed in the past few years. The Secretary of State has established a review on that issue, and we will comment when it is published.

Clause 26 empowers the Secretary of State

to grant a lease or otherwise permit occupation of the Royal Naval College Greenwich and other land in the vicinity of the College by repealing section 7 of the Greenwich Hospital Act 1869. We are not opposed in principle to the change of use of that building, provided that it is in keeping with its traditions, history and architecture. Section 7, however, already offers ample scope to permit occupation of the building, subject to certain limitations and the ultimate availability of it, if necessary, for the purposes for which it was originally intended.

We therefore do not believe that sweeping away section 7 of the 1869 Act is sensible. We are not prepared to give a carte blanche to any Secretary of State to get rid of that building, willy-nilly, as he or she sees fit. We will consider compromise proposals, but we will oppose the complete repeal of section 7.

The Minister referred to clauses 2 and 25(2). I am slightly unclear—or should I say slightly suspicious?—about the motives behind those clauses. Existing legislation already covers all classes of personnel, other than those in the armed forces, who might require to carry arms in support of military operations. Under the Firearms Act 1968, persons such as gunsmiths and armourers can be in possession of a weapon without holding a certificate. Police officers carrying out their duties are already exempt from the 1968 Act. Who are the persons referred to in clauses 2 and 25, and under what circumstances might they be required to carry arms? Two possible categories of person suggest themselves.

First, an amendment to the 1968 Act would allow the arming of the Ministry of Defence's guard service, which was mentioned by the Minister. That body of civilian guards was established on the recommendations of the Defence Select Committee after the tragic Deal bombing. The arming of the MGS has been mooted on previous occasions, but each time it has been rejected as politically undesirable. What has changed the situation now, other than a desire to save money?

The second possible category is even more horrific to hon. Members. The powers contained in the clauses, together with the provisions in the Reserve Forces Bill, would allow the arming of civilian commercial contract guards working for the MOD as reservists. In theory, if the Armed Forces Bill is passed, Group .4 or Securicor personnel could be armed if they were, according to the terms of clauses 2 and 25, supervised by service personnel. I have no personal prejudice towards any commercial institution, but the prospect of armed Group 4 personnel guarding our nuclear installations would not send a shiver of confidence up the backbone of the British population.

Mr. Soames

In order to prevent the hon. Gentleman from feeling that he must continue down such a fatuous route, may I give him an unequivocal and total undertaking that such a thing will never happen?

Dr. Reid

We are already making progress, and I take that commitment as it is given. No doubt that assurance will enable me to shorten my contributions, even in Committee, although I suspect that will mean that I will have to lose quite a few good lines that I might have used.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

Some time ago I visited the South Yorkshire police to look at the arrangements that it makes when policemen have to carry weapons on duty. The arrangements made me feel confident that a properly run civilian police force, where officers are armed, can draw up plans that serve the public interest and convey confidence and a sense of protection to the public. If we were to arm non-service personnel in the armed forces, does my hon. Friend agree that the arrangements operated by a good police force would have to be operated by the people whom the Minister has in mind?

Dr. Reid

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Everyone in the House recognises that the implications of fiscal rectitude and the downward pressure on budgets mean that efficiency savings have had to be found. We will not make cheap points about that. Objective, mutually agreed criteria were used to assess the effectiveness of Ministry of Defence police. Although those criteria were a means of achieving certain savings in line with the reduced size of the military estate, they were commensurate with the maintenance of security. We would not wish any of these clauses to be used merely as a means of saving money.

I thank hon. Members for their indulgence in listening to my speech. Many issues will be raised in Committee. At the outset, I mentioned discipline and morale in the armed forces, so it is fitting to conclude—and before we divide on any of the issues—with the hope that we can all unite, I am sure we can, in once more expressing our gratitude and respect for the courage, dedication, discipline and loyalty of the men and women who serve in the armed forces and whom we have the privilege of speaking of this evening.

6.20 pm
Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)

It is just under five years since we last debated an Armed Forces Bill. It is already clear from the speeches we have heard, especially that of my hon. Friend the Minister, that much has changed. When we last debated the matter, it was during the closing stages of the cold war. It is worth reflecting that then there were 313,000 armed service men; there are now 238,000. By 1998, when the reforms are finished, there will be 210,000. That is a reduction of 30 per cent. in the armed strength of the Army, 30 per cent. in the armed strength of the Navy and 42 per cent. in the uniformed armed strength of the Royal Air Force. In 1990, we spent £21.7 billion on defence; this year we will spend 2.3 per cent. less in cash terms and 25 per cent. less in real terms.

I make these points simply to show how different the armed forces are now than when we last considered these matters. There are smaller numbers, they are required to carry out a greater variety of tasks, they are better equipped and, clearly, if they are to complete the tasks that they are assigned to do, they must be even more professional than they were five years ago.

Both this evening and during the special procedure that follows, we need to consider carefully the ways in which the Bill will apply to the smaller numbers in the greater variety of tasks that they do—and in particular the fact that there are now and will continue to be much larger numbers of civilians working alongside uniformed personnel in the years ahead, doing the same or similar tasks to those that uniformed personnel have been doing up to now. We must ensure that the legal framework that applies to the uniformed part of the force is right so that there are no inconsistencies with what the civilians working alongside them are doing.

I shall not follow much of what the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) said. However, he made much of the case of Christina Menzies. I acknowledge that there is a problem in that area, especially in Germany where court martial procedures still apply to the dependants of service men. The hon. Gentleman will remember that, when we both sat on the Committee considering the last Armed Forces Bill, we and one other hon. Member suggested changes. It is my recollection that that proposal was not endorsed by the whole Committee, including Labour Members. I am pleased that there has now been a change of view, and that we can return to the matter in Committee.

I want to raise one other matter. It relates to the other Bill being proposed by the Ministry of Defence—the Reserve Forces Bill. I hope that, as the two Bills are going through the two Houses concurrently, we can keep track of them both. Certain matters relate to both, and it would be most unfortunate if we amended this Bill only to find that that had been overtaken by events when the other Bill goes through the House. There was a similar problem last time around with a number of other Bills, not relating to service men, that were going through Parliament. It is important that, when we consider the Bill in Committee, we take account of Government and other legislation going through the House at the same time and amend the Bill by the end of its passage if the need arises.

Following the great changes in the armed forces over the past five years and the changes still to come, the Bill provides the opportunity to ensure that we have the right legal framework within which our armed forces can operate in the years ahead, when they will be asked to carry out even more varied tasks with even more varied formations. I am sure that the Bill will achieve that, and I commend it to the House.

6.26 pm
Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

This is not just another Bill. It raises important and contentious issues, but its special procedure makes it very different from other legislation. When the Government tried the experiment with Special Standing Committees in the early 1980s, they received a series of bloody noses—and that was the end of experimentation.

The special procedure, which surfaces only every five years—the reason is obvious—means that the Committee, of which I very much hope to be a member, investigates and then it legislates. That is something that the Defence Select Committees should be doing. Why should they be restricted merely to investigating, while those who legislate are an entirely different group of people? I was sad that, when the Defence Select Committee was at least given the option of taking over responsibility for the Bill, it turned it down. That was a missed opportunity.

The procedures laid down for the Committee mean that Back Benchers have rather more influence over the legislation than they have in the normal Standing Committees, where the Opposition and Back Benchers are, in most cases, rendered superfluous to the legislative process, which is a carve-up between the civil servants and Ministers. Sometimes I wonder whether Ministers have much influence over what happens. I hope that we will take advantage of the opportunity to do more than simply acquiesce in what is presented to us in the Bill or in the notes on clauses.

Another reason why the procedure for this Bill is different—this was alluded to by the Minister—is that the lineage goes back to the 17th century. In essence, it is the legislature's manifestation—which in some ways is an illusion—of its theoretical supremacy over the military. It is another reason why this is an important Bill.

I support the Bill in general, but there are two areas that cause scepticism bordering on cynicism—clauses 2 and 26. The former enables the armed forces to recruit personnel on local service engagements and the latter amends the very important Greenwich Hospital Act 869. I heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) said, and, if I do serve on the Committee, I shall vote against any amendment to that Act. Despite being 120 years old, it is still relevant.

On the face of it, neither of the two clauses appear to excite much opposition, yet they do. As someone who has professionally observed the MOD for more than 20 years, perhaps I will be forgiven the view that occasionally it is devious and wrong. Some people prefer to start from the assumption, at the other end of the spectrum, that it is honest and occasionally right. I fear that that is far too simplistic an analysis.

On the face of it, who could object to the MOD awarding itself the legal power to recruit personnel for local service under clause 2? I admit that the Minister in his brief speech could not be expected to give us all the information, but so far, the information revealed on why one needs this military home service engagement has been rather patchy.

In downsizing the armed forces, the Government have been largely unsuccessful. The downsizing is Treasury-driven—that is pretty obvious to anyone. It now appears that, at a time of high employment, people in the armed forces are being given a special inducement to remain in the services for longer. We read too about rather unusual methods of recruitment, which, in the circumstances, appear to be quite bizarre.

How many personnel will be required to serve at home only? Why does the MOD have to be given flexibility? I would have thought that having a number of military personnel who will not serve abroad would create inflexibility. I can understand a guy who has served abroad in some awful places wishing to settle down at the end of his career, put his feet up, go into a little guarding job, go home and be happy with his lot. If we had an Army of 2 million people, perhaps we would be able to afford the luxury of allowing some to operate on stay-at-home contracts.

But when the Army is down to such absurdly low levels in a dangerous and, some might add, deteriorating international environment, is it wise to block off a number of personnel who will serve their country only within the travel-to-work area laid down?

I do not wish to be hostile to people who are serving or will or might in future serve their country, but we cannot surely say, as we did in the old militia system of the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, that one's obligation to serve King or Queen and country will be determined on a narrow geographical basis. We cannot say either that perhaps they can serve elsewhere for 30 days in the year. What kind of engagements are cut and dried in a calendar month? I would like to explore that issue in more detail because it deserves to be explored. Will those personnel be part of the existing establishment or supplementary to it? That is an important question.

I suspect that one of the reasons why little clause 2 is included in the Bill is to provide the opportunity for the MOD to continue the process that it has been proceeding with for some 15 years: considerably downsizing the Ministry of Defence police. It says that they are far too expensive. Of course the police are very expensive, but we tend to think that it is necessary, in the interests of society, to have well-paid, well-motivated, very well-trained personnel who can deal with crime protection, crime prevention and a whole range of activities.

Given that the MOD possesses an enormous amount of land—it is the largest landowner in the country—and that it has an enormous amount of data, information, equipment and so on that need to be protected, somehow to argue that the police force is too expensive appears yet again to be compromising what should not be compromised: people's safety and the security of information that ought to be kept under MOD control.

The MOD police are expensive, but we pay for quality. The MOD appears to obsessed with privatising security. I can recall one senior member of the private security industry coming before the Defence Select Committee and saying that he would not bid for an MOD contract because he could not provide the required quality of service on the money that the MOD were paying private contractors.

I can understand why the MOD wants to change the mix of military police, contract security, the MOD guard service and the Ministry of Defence police, but I do not think that the MOD police should be reduced from fewer than 5,000 members today by—perhaps—2,000. I wonder what the critical mass for the MOD police would be—I suspect 2,500 members, although it might go below that. I hope that the Ministry of Defence will explain in great detail that its objectives are not pecuniary—or vengeful since the MDP have escaped the Ministry's attacks on several previous occasions. We want detailed explanations of why it is proposed to replace one group of personnel — perhaps 2,000 in number—by 2,000 or 1,000 or 500, or goodness knows how many. To make one group of people—potentially—redundant to provide jobs for another group of people does not seem to be the best practice to expect from an employer.

The Ministry of Defence has not persistently shown that it is capable of making the right decisions on security. I can recall how in the early 1980s it almost got rid of the MOD police from the Royal Ordnance factories. The Defence Committee stopped that. I can recall the inquiry made by the Defence Committee into security at military installations after the disastrous Deal bombings. It was not obvious to the Committee at that time that the MOD had got the balance right.

In light of those and other mistakes, I am not entirely convinced that the procedure under way is for any other reason than to save money. If the MOD thinks that it can get away with justifying the calculation simply on the basis of the investment appraisal examples in the documents published recently, I am afraid that it is wrong.

The MOD police are important and flexible. They are civilians, and it is important that civilians should be in a dominant position in the establishments that they patrol and guard. Civilianisation and constabulary powers cannot be bolted on to the powers of a soldier. The MOD police are versatile. They conduct guarding, armed guarding, policing functions, crime prevention, and fraud investigation, which the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have recently shown will keep them in a great deal of work in the years ahead. It is believed that £23 million has been fraudulently removed from the procurement process alone. They can liaise with the Home Department forces in a way which soldiers cannot. I accept that their numbers will have to be reduced further because the MOD estate is diminishing, but the proposals are erroneous. I want them examined closely.

Of course, one of the ways suggested by the MOD to keep its police numbers down is based on the number of gates. It has said that there are too many gates. That appears to be the MOD's version of the wrong type of snow or the wrong type of leaves on the track. To say that there are too many gates at MOD establishments surely ignores the fact that they been appraised many times previously. What would happen if the number of gates were cut from, say, three to one? If the Minister drove his car out at 5.30 pm and saw several hundred people undergoing searches, perhaps he would reach the conclusion that defence establishments have more than one gate for very sound reasons.

I should like to make two further brief points. First, while the special Committee will be examining security, another Committee will be examining it—the Defence Committee. The Minister and those associated with him will have to explain things to two Committees. Not only will the Committee on the Armed Forces Bill be keen to know what is proposed.

Finally, surely Greenwich is part of our heritage and our history—even more so than county hall, because it must be infinitely more important to our history than a building only 60 years old. We know that the Government fouled up the sale of county hall, too. Do estate agents have pictures of Greenwich to show people? Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) can tell me whether there are pictures, so that people can see how our history is being sold. The whole idea is tacky and obscene—an act of administrative and political vandalism.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will go into far more detail on the subject, but as an individual member of the Defence Select Committee I find it degrading that something as important as Greenwich is potentially up for grabs. Perhaps it will not become the headquarters of McDonald's, or of a South Korean or American multinational company, and perhaps we should be reassured by that.

But why should we alter legislation to allow the Secretary of State for Defence, who is the custodian of that part of our national history that is within his responsibility, to line himself up for what is potentially not only the sale of the century, but the sale of several centuries? To say that it is not really a sale is disingenuous.

That is not a party political issue; I do not believe that any issue that has been raised in the debate is a party political issue. I only hope that the Government can be prevailed upon to say that that wonderful set of buildings, some of international significance, must remain within the public sector. Of course the public sector is a dirty word for some people, but it is now so flexible that surely Greenwich could fit somewhere within it without falling foul of the ideological obsessions of some hon. Members.

Please let us throw out the relevant clause and remove the temptation to allow Greenwich to be disposed of to the private sector. The Government must think carefully about how the buildings could be retained, if not in the MOD then in some other sphere. I hope that, despite the cuts in the armed forces, that may be possible.

I hope I may be forgiven if I make just one party political point, because I cannot resist it. When Labour party conferences voted each year to reduce our defence expenditure to the average of that of our allies, I do not think that even they envisaged that by now the Conservative party would be well on the way to achieving that objective.

While we are examining our downsized set of commitments—although perhaps I should not say that, because it is the number of people who are supposed to fulfil the commitments, rather than the commitments themselves, that has been downsized—let us not go mad in the process. Let us realise that we are living in a difficult world. What happens in the Russian elections next month, or in the presidential elections a year from now, may have significant consequences for international security.

Let us not forget the importance of observing intelligently what may lie in front of us. When the Minister and some of his colleagues are in the House of Lords, they may think, sooner rather than later, "Perhaps we were rather too hasty in making some of those decisions." I hope that one of the decisions that will be reversed during our proceedings on the Bill will be the decision on Greenwich. Certainly Ministers should be aware that the House will, as I hope, exercise its powers of scrutiny as it is not always able to do, and that we shall see our input in what is enacted. The legislation must reflect not only the Government's input but ours, and I hope that I can look forward to serving on the Standing Committee.

6.43 pm
Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

I always enjoy the contributions by the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), who is right to say that the Defence Select Committee has gained much information that would be relevant to the Standing Committee on the Bill. I share the view that it would have been an interesting idea for the Select Committee to be responsible for the scrutiny of the Bill in Committee. As things are, I, like the hon. Gentleman, hope that I may be able to make a small contribution and use the information that we gathered in the Select Committee.

Those who have the privilege of serving on the Defence Select Committee know that, as we visit our armed forces, we see their courage, fitness and technical skill at all levels. Our job with the Bill is to ensure that we provide the framework within which those armed forces can operate at best efficiency.

This year's Bill is indeed substantial, and there will be significant detailed work to be done on it. In updating the Service Discipline Acts, the Standing Committee will have a duty to scrutinise the whole remit of the armed forces and to consider the overall framework within which they operate.

Several factors will inform the Committee's thinking. It will have to bear in mind the current recruitment situation. The Select Committee on Defence has taken evidence on that, and there is a recruiting problem at present, not so much in the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, but certainly in the infantry branch of the Army, where there is a shortage of about 2,000 on the year's intended recruitment pattern. We must ask ourselves why.

We should also ask ourselves why, if the armed forces are really equal opportunities employers, the figures show that, on 1 September 1995, only 12.8 per cent. of those in the Navy, 3.5 per cent. of those in the Army, and 8.7 per cent. of those in the Royal Air Force, were women. Perhaps we should ask ourselves whether the whole structure of the armed forces and the discipline required within them are relevant to the problem.

Studies are now being carried out of the role of women within the armed forces, and it may emerge that appointments are made entirely on personal suitability. Perhaps, if women are fit physically, they will be able to do certain jobs, even perhaps in areas of the infantry. When the Committee considers the Bill, it will certainly examine attitudes within the armed forces, to see whether there may be disincentives to the recruitment and retention of women.

Also informing the views of the Committee will be the ethnic monitoring that has shown that, in July, only 1.4 per cent. of people in the armed forces were of black or Asian origin. If there is a recruiting problem, and if there are well-paid jobs available in the armed forces, is it right that we should have those extraordinary figures, which seem to reveal problems in recruitment and retention?

I am sure that the Committee will also bear in mind the Bett report, "Managing People in Tomorrow's Armed Forces", which deals specifically with military terms of service. We should ask ourselves about the exceptional position of those in the armed forces, which makes them subject not only to civil law but to military law and discipline. Is that requirement still necessary?

After all, there was a need for exceptional forms of law and discipline when ships were at sea, and armies away from the United Kingdom, for long periods. Then it was necessary for discipline to be both quick and effective. But perhaps that manner of carrying out service discipline is not quite so necessary or appropriate for the 21st century—that is the period towards which we are looking now. At one time, discipline needed to be speedy and decisive, but there may now be ways of getting around those original difficulties.

Are there procedures within the armed forces that were once necessary but are now redundant, or which need to be invoked only in exceptional circumstances? I share the Minister's view that procedures should be seen to be fair, but in my constituency experience, disciplinary procedures, both for service men and for civilians serving with the armed forces, often seem extremely protracted.

The Committee will need to take all those strands of thinking into account, and it should be able to call witnesses and take evidence. I believe that there has been a slight change in the procedure since I chaired such a Committee in 1985-86. At that time, we worked with a Select Committee procedure and then effectively took the Bill as a Standing Committee. I believe that now the Bill will come back before the House, where the Committee will be able to brief hon. Members.

I hope that that will be done on an all-party basis. In my experience, such Select Committees and Standing Committees work closely together on an all-party basis, and there is little cause for dissension.

I shall now flag a couple of small points that should be raised in Committee. I share the view that clause 2, which

enables the armed forces to recruit personnel on local service engagements", will cause apprehension within the Ministry of Defence police. That body has already suffered the Blelloch report and the Rucker report, and we can reasonably expect the Government to explain their position and intentions concerning the MOD police very soon.

In clause 9—similarly, this is a minor point for the Committee—I am surprised that there is no mention of DNA swabs when reference is made to taking fingerprints. I should have thought it appropriate to include that in the Bill.

Those are all very much points for the Committee and, like the hon. Member for Walsall, South, 1 hope that I shall be able to contribute to the Committee when the time comes.

6.49 pm
Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

Because of the detailed nature of the Committee proceedings that are to follow Second Reading, I, like others, feel no particular need to delay the House for long at this stage. However, there are one or two matters that I should like to take this opportunity to raise.

The Bill seeks to bring service discipline into line with the civilian justice system, and that seems to me to be entirely desirable. One must accept that service discipline imposes more burdensome obligations on members of the armed forces than if they were simply members of the public. But I believe that it is right to start from the principle that only the additional burdens that are absolutely necessary should be retained. One particular element of service discipline marks it out from the civilian criminal system—the retention of the death penalty for certain military offences. For my part, I believe that the arguments against the death penalty are overwhelming and, on every occasion on which I have had the opportunity to do so, I have voted in accordance with that belief in the House. If those arguments are relevant and effective in relation to the civilian system of justice, I believe that they are equally effective in relation to military justice.

It is notable that the death penalty for military offences has not been invoked since 1945. In the 50 years since then, we have fought wars in Korea and in the Gulf and there have been engagements throughout the world in which British forces have been involved. If that most salutary of penalties has not been invoked for 50 years, I have to say that there are compelling reasons for saying that it should go. I am disappointed that the Bill contains no provisions to that effect.

I thought that the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) made a good point about clause 2, which emboldened me to think that perhaps, instead of the TA, the Territorial Army, we should have the TTWA—the travel-to-work army. The hon. Gentleman did make some serious points, which I hope the Committee will consider carefully.

Service discipline—as the Minister rightly pointed out in opening the debate—has at its heart the system of courts martial. I have conducted a court martial as a civilian lawyer, and it is from that standpoint that I have given some consideration to the proposals for reform that the Bill contains. I have to say that, at first glance, they seem to me to be entirely sensible.

Any system of justice, whether civilian or military. should be seen to be fair, transparent, effective and speedy. If the proposals meet the criteria that I have just outlined, they certainly deserve support from both sides of the House. The same criteria must apply to any prosecution in courts martial, and here I share the misgivings that have been expressed by others in relation to the murder of Miss Christina Menzies. That matter has been raised in the House by the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid), and very effectively on behalf of his constituents by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway), who is not with us this evening. I think that that is a point which the Minister and those serving on the Committee may wish to consider in due course.

If it is the case that the accused person in a murder trial being conducted within the military system of justice is enabled in the interests of fairness and justice to have access to a civilian lawyer who is experienced and well qualified in conducting the defence in murder trials, why is there no provision so far as the prosecution is concerned for enlisting the assistance of a civilian lawyer of equal experience and aptitude to prosecute the case?

Some time ago, I myself prosecuted in murder cases in the High Court of Justiciary in Scotland. If I can be allowed a moment or two of anecdotal reflection, I must say that the first time I had to do that, I found it to be an extremely difficult and very arduous business. I do not think that I ever conducted the prosecution in any murder trial — perhaps I acted in about 40 or 50 such trials during my professional experience—without being aware of the very considerable burdens that it imposed.

If I may be excused a colloquialism, to land such a case on a serving officer who happens to be lawyer, or even on someone from the Judge Advocate's department, may be unfair. I hope very much that those with responsibility for these matters will consider whether it is practical in cases of such importance to use lawyers of sufficient experience from the Bar of Scotland, England or Northern Ireland, to ensure that the prosecution is carried out to the highest possible standards. Fairness should apply not only to the accused. It is a concept that must apply in the public interest as well.

During an exchange between the hon. Members for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) and for Motherwell, North, reference was made to the need to have a Scottish judge on what were described as Scots courts martial. Of course, a court martial is Scottish only by virtue of the location where it may be held, because a court martial is a United Kingdom process authorised by a United Kingdom statute.

By virtue of section 2 of the Courts-Martial (Appeals) Act 1968—with which I am sure you are more than familiar, Mr. Deputy Speaker—the judges of a courts martial appeal court may, among others, consist of

such of the Lords Commissioners of Justiciary as the Lord Justice General may from time to time nominate for the purpose". The Lords Commissioners of Justiciary—as I am sure you are well aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker—are the judges of the High Court in Scotland. The Lord Justice General is the principal judge of that court.

The provision already exists for Scots judges, or those qualified in Scots law, to be members of a courts martial appeal court. But when those judges sit in that capacity, they sit not as Scots judges in particular, but as UK judges enforcing a UK statute and its provisions. While the provision does exist for the involvement of Scots judges in these procedures, it is important to remember that they are seeking to apply not Scots law, but the statutory framework laid down in the 1968 Act.

Dr. Godman

Naturally I defer to the hon. and learned Gentleman in his knowledge of these matters, but is it not the case that Scottish service men being tried by a court martial suffer certain procedural disadvantages vis-á-vis the procedures that are engaged upon in civilian criminal cases?

Mr. Campbell

The hon. Gentleman is right to this extent. If an individual is prosecuted for murder in the High Court in Scotland, that individual's trial will he conducted according to the law of Scotland and to the procedures and laws of evidence applicable in a Scottish court. An individual who, on the other hand, is prosecuted by a court martial will be subject to the system of law laid down in the statute that governs courts martial. To that extent, it could be argued that a person facing trial by court martial may enjoy less protection than he would have had if he had been prosecuted in the ordinary civilian court.

The Minister referred to clause 18 in his opening observations. I know that he, like me, will have received a letter from the chairwoman of the Equal Opportunities Commission. The letter that I received informed me that a copy had been dispatched to the Minister, and I am sure that he will give it his usual careful and courteous consideration. But in that letter—which was written in extremely reasonable and moderate terms—certain anxieties were expressed about the precise language of clause 18. I hope that, when the Committee comes to consider the matter, careful consideration will be given to the requirement that that clause contains.

There are a number of other issues for the Committee which, to some extent, have been referred to by other hon. Members. I wish to refer to ethnic minorities, who are still inadequately represented in the armed forces. It is wrong to blame the Government or the Ministry of Defence for that. The problem is much greater and we should not simply endeavour to apportion blame across the House. It must, however, be a matter of concern for all of us with an interest in those issues that only 1.4 per cent. of the armed forces are black or Asian. We should be seeking to create circumstances in which people from all parts of society feel confident to apply for membership in any of the three armed services.

I do not wish to say much in detail in relation to the issue of homosexuality. My views on that have been put on the record in the past. I believe that it is a fundamental matter of civil rights that no person should be discriminated against by reason of sexual orientation. The service law relating to criminal matters has been brought into line with civilian law, and I hope that the House will have an opportunity at a later stage in these proceedings to express a view on the issue of administrative discharge.

There has recently been an effort to invoke the jurisdiction of the courts in England in relation to administrative discharge. In the course of that effort, although the judges held that the current policy was not unreasonable, in the sense in which lawyers use that word, at least one of the judges robustly pointed to the fact that public opinion had changed substantially.

If one is looking for parallels, one can look at the attitude that the armed services of Australia and New Zealand have taken to homosexuality. Anyone who has been in the company of the extremely fine soldiers from New Zealand who have been attached to the British infantry battalion stationed at Vitez in the former Yugoslavia will know that they are as robust and effective a unit as any that the British Army is able to produce.

In July this year, I tabled some questions about sexual harassment in the armed services. I hope that that is an issue which the Committee will feel disposed to take up. As a result of the questions and the subsequent correspondence, I discovered that the Ministry of Defence maintained no central record of claims of sexual harassment in the armed services. The Royal Navy does not hold central information about such claims; the Army maintains records only of complaints that have been referred up the chain of command since 1993; and the Royal Air Force is able to provide only the details of the cases that have been investigated by RAF police since 1989. If we are anxious to ensure that the armed services are truly equal opportunities employers, as I think the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) is, and if we envisage a far greater number of women serving in all three armed services, clearly we must have vigorous and effective policies on sexual harassment.

In relation to Greenwich, if one examines clause 26(2) or clause 26(5), one sees that the powers that have been conferred on the Secretary of State are extremely wide. He has an almost unfettered discretion. It is right to remember that the Secretary of State is the trustee of the Royal hospital. In my judgment and, I am sure, in the judgment of many hon. Members of all parties, he has much more than an obligation to get the maximum financial return from those buildings. I do not think that it is wrong, or that it demonstrates an unwillingness to accept that things have changed, to say that public buildings of that historical and traditional importance should have a public use that will entitle the public to have regular and reasonable access to them. Any such use must surely be consistent with the history and dignity not only of the Royal Navy but of the buildings themselves.

As matters now stand, it would be possible for the Secretary of State to grant a lease to the American company that recently bought the royal train so that the company could establish its headquarters at Greenwich. Many people would find that inimical to the traditions and dignity of those buildings. The Secretary of State is asking for substantial powers in the Bill. He should appreciate that the way in which he exercises those powers will he seen by many people as an important indication of his judgment and his understanding of how deep and important are the traditions of the three services for which he now has responsibility.

Discipline has much to do with history and dignity. The Bill is clearly necessary in order to preserve the highest standards in all the armed services. It undoubtedly has the support of the whole House, but some detailed parts of it will require, and will receive, considerable scrutiny. I shall be very surprised if the Bill comes back to the House in the same form as it leaves the House after this debate.

7.5 pm

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

The quinquennial appearance of the Armed Forces Bill is one of the most sensible traditions of the House. I wish to add just three points to those which have already been made by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber. Our worst legislation is always that which is rushed through in response to some public outcry, or some crisis or tragedy. Dog bites man so we end up with a Dangerous Dogs Bill. Football fans run amok so we end up with a Football Spectators Bill. There is a tragic stabbing and people clamour to add more and more to a simple measure to give modest powers to give to the police so that they can do something about the problem. We must beware of doing the same thing in this Bill, particularly on the issue of sexual orientation.

The worst possible service to the cause of those who wish to see change—I am for the status quo unless I am convinced heavily the other way—is done by the action that we saw this afternoon from the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth), who came into the Chamber late, halfway through my hon. Friend the Minister's speech, popped up, asked a question and then disappeared for the duration. The background to the matter and the understanding that is necessary if we arc to take on board the depth of feeling in the armed services about the issue can he learnt from a study of the military ethos paper of January 1994.

Those of us who have not had the privilege of serving in the armed forces—now a majority of Members, I suspect, whereas perhaps 40 years ago it was the other way round—have not understood how service people feel. I shall quote just three sentences from the document which sum up how people feel. Paragraph 7 says:

The Army cannot remain wholly immune from the changes in the society it serves, and from which it recruits, but neither must it allow itself to follow trends which tend to undermine the traditional values essential to its unique responsibilities and operational role. The Army recognises that its adherence to its standards must be defended on pragmatic rather than emotional and traditional grounds. It also recognises that where reform is appropriate, this must be addressed as a matter of timely policy rather than a damage limitation exercise in the face of events. That must be right. It is undoubtedly one of the matters that the Committee will have to consider.

For the military clothing manufacturers, 1996 and 1997 will be good years. It is popularly believed in our constituencies that we have the police to look after us. In my constituency at present 10 police forces are operating. They are the Home Department police—the Wiltshire constabulary—the British Transport police, the Atomic Energy Authority police, the Ministry of Defence police, the Royal Air Force police, the Royal Air Force Provost security service, the Royal Military police, the Ministry of Defence guard service, the Royal Marine police and the Royal Navy regulating branch. The Bill will add two more, the Military Provost guard service and the RAF police guards. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House will find 12 police forces operating in their constituencies—not to mention the private security companies that will be part of the MOD's security arrangements under the terms proposed in the defence police and guarding structures study.

I am not opposed to that; I understand the logic of it. However, as the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) pointed out, the MOD's police have been subject to everlasting reviews for the last decade and more, and they desperately need some stability. They expected the worst in terms of manpower cuts, and they were right to be a little worried. No doubt the Standing Committee—on which I hope I shall be fortunate enough to serve—will examine that aspect carefully.

Some years ago, in 1987, we gave a Second Reading to the Ministry of Defence Police Bill. I took a lively part in that debate, as did the hon. Member for Walsall, South. Many of the issues that were debated then have been aired again today, especially in connection with clause 2. We were surprised to discover when we debated the Ministry of Defence Police Bill in 1987 that neither House had engaged in a debate on the police since 1860, when the Bill that became the Metropolitan Police Act 1860 was debated. I therefore welcome this Bill, and the clause in it that will give us an opportunity to examine the issue again.

My main aim in listing the police forces that currently operate in my constituency was to stress the importance of underlining the primacy of Home Office forces. That point was often raised during debate on the Ministry of Defence Police Bill, in Committee and on the Floor of the House, and firm assurances were given by my hon. Friend the Minister's predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton). There is now no doubt that Home Office chief constables have primacy throughout the United Kingdom, including within the wire of defence establishments. My right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell said in Committee:

I wish that to go on the record as there should be no misunderstanding about that."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 12 February 1987; c. 59.] That Bill gave rise to an important concept that I think we must consider again: the interface between the MOD police, the Home Office police and all the other police forces in operation. When a crisis necessitates calling a police force into action, the worst possible outcome is ignorance of the rules under which each force is operating—not knowing whether they are armed, and not knowing their rules of engagement.

That is not fancy; it happens. It applies to, for instance, occasions when demonstrators try to get inside the chemical and biological defence establishment in my constituency, and to other activities including terrorism. Everyone understands now that the Home Office police have primacy, but it is not clear what the pecking order is thereafter, or what happens inside the wire when the Home Office police arrive.

Inter-force working arrangements were a feature of the Ministry of Defence Police Bill. On 16 October 1987, the Home Office issued circular 65/1987, which laid down guidelines relating to the respective responsibilities of the MOD police and "1964 Act" police forces, otherwise known as Home Office police forces. Will my hon. Friend the Minister ensure that that circular is updated, so that there can be no doubt about the interoperability of the police forces? That matters enormously, because at the interface of those police forces in our communities—in my constituency, for example—there is sometimes doubt about who investigates what.

The Menzies case, which has been mentioned, is an example; The guidelines that were issued following the 1987 Act were clearly not followed in that case. Paragraph 5 clearly states:

Responsibility for the investigation of any incident in which terrorism is suspected, of serious offences against the person, of sexual offences (except minor offences or acts which are offences under Service law only), of domestic burglaries and of sudden deaths will rest with the appropriate local chief constable.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

The hon. Gentleman has referred to MOD police in his constituency, and to other non-Home Office forces. Is there not a case for regularising the position, so that a constable in those forces is not inhibited—as he or she is at present—in responding to an emergency that is outside the perimeter of their immediate jurisdiction before the arrival of a Home Office police officer? There are currently difficulties relating to insurance and liability, and the only powers of arrest available to such constables are the common law powers that are available to the hon. Gentleman and to me. The point needs to be clarified in the interests of police officers, quite apart from the interests of everyone else.

Mr. Key

That is an important point, but it was clarified pretty substantially by the 1987 Act, which gave constabulary powers to the MOD police. Nevertheless, I agree that some aspects need clarification. For instance, I feel strongly about the question of the jurisdiction of the British Transport police. It is ridiculous that they must stand and watch someone who rushes off a train having murdered someone disappear into the wide blue yonder because they have no jurisdiction outside railway property. That, however, is not relevant to the Bill, and is not a matter for my hon. Friend the Minister.

I had the honour to be a Minister in the Department of National Heritage, and to observe the difficulties that arose in relation to the Greenwich Hospital Act 1869. The ownership of Greenwich was in some doubt. A collection of buildings had been passed, if not from pillar to post, at least from one Department to another, under very peculiar arrangements. It was difficult to track down the ownership, and establish who was allowed to do what. I welcome this attempt to address the issue, and to make it crystal clear who can do what. I do not think that we should dismiss it as some ideological attempt to privatise the Greenwich royal naval college; I think that it is a much more sensible idea than that.

When I served in the Department of National Heritage, we were anxious to find the right use for the college. It was always clear that the Royal Navy would not have the use of all of it for all time. What was needed above all was a holistic approach. It was crucial for us somehow to recreate the wonderful vision of Greenwich that existed when it was built, including the observatory and the splendid park—for which I had the honour to be responsible when I was a Minister—and to tackle some of the enormous traffic problems in and around the college.

I feel passionately about that, because I spent many years singing in the Thomas Tallis choir in, among other places, the Greenwich college chapel, and I am very familiar with the buildings. I was relieved to read in the MOD's house journal in December 1995 that the defence land agent had said:

Supermarkets and suchlike would not get past the starting gate". Of course not. I am sure that that is not the Government's current intention. What matters is the need to find a solution that will ensure the future of that magnificent set of buildings well beyond the millennium, possibly making them a world heritage site but also ensuring that they are used. I do not want Greenwich to become a museum; I want the buildings to be used and alive, so that young people in particular will appreciate them more and more as we move into the next century.

Sir David Hardy and Lord Lewin, his predecessor as chairman of the national maritime museum and the royal naval college jointly, proposed a preservation trust to run the royal naval college site, funded independently of Government through a trust. I gather that that proposal has the strong backing of the heritage lottery fund, which may contribute to the large set-up and conversion costs, and other arts and heritage organisations. We should give serious consideration to that proposal. Let us not simply say that the buildings are too important for us to do anything with them, and that we should maintain the status quo. Let us find an imaginative way to proceed. A trust may be the answer, so we must give it a fair wind. I am sure that we can examine that matter in Committee.

In discussing this extremely detailed Bill there will be a lot of hot air and, I hope, constructive debate. It is a good Bill and I support it.

7.19 pm
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

I wish to raise three issues that relate to this Bill. The first is race and the armed forces.

Some ugly cases of racism have arisen. I asked a parliamentary question on that subject and received a full answer from the Minister, and inquiries are still going on. The Ministry of Defence is coming into the modern world very slowly in recognising that racism in the armed forces exists and needs to be stopped. In the past, it has taken a silly attitude to racism and bullying in the armed forces. I was present when a former Defence Minister expressed the view that someone who complained about bullying or racism was a bit weak and therefore should not be in the armed forces in the first place, as his or her personality was flawed. That is the Army's peculiar way of blaming the victim and it is a recipe for racism and bullying continuing.

I welcome the fact that clause 20 allows service personnel access to an industrial tribunal on race grounds. But what exactly do the Government intend to achieve by that clause? The Minister said that internal inquiries would be held first. Whatever the findings of such an inquiry, could cases be referred to the Commission for Racial Equality, for example? It is time that the MOD fully complied with the Race Relations Act 1976 instead of its own peculiar version of it, which has to be constantly changed when Bills such as this are introduced.

The relevant figures show that recruitment to the armed forces is discriminatory. Promotion procedures also seem to be unsatisfactory. We still have nowhere near the equivalent of Colin Powell in the British armed forces, which says something about the promotion procedures.

Following serious allegations in respect of the Household Cavalry, an inquiry took place under section 49(3) of the Race Relations Act. Although the inquiry's result went to the Ministry of Defence earlier this year, we have still not heard what the Minister intends to do about it. We should have an explanation.

My second point relates to the MOD police. I support the comments that have already been made, especially by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George). We need a reliable MOD police service but it may be cut by a third under the Government's proposals, jeopardising its reliability. The Government want to replace MOD guards, particularly on armed duties, with military armed guards—often low-ranking service personnel—because they would be cheaper. They would also be much less well trained and would not have the essential policing experience required for many duties carried out by the MOD police, especially when they are armed.

Emphasis is placed on the MOD police's constabulary role, in which they have special legal powers. Ordinary soldiers will not have those special powers. The Government must explain the implications of the proposed changes, which could be serious. The option of replacing MOD police in their constabulary role with regular service personnel was dismissed by the recent Blelloch inquiry, yet the Government are proceeding down that road. That is wrong and unjustified.

My third point concerns the ban on homosexuality in the armed forces. Four individuals, all with exemplary service records, are challenging the legality of that ban in the court. Lieutenant-Commander Duncan Lustig-Prean of the Royal Navy, who enlisted in 1983, was discharged for his sexual orientation in January 1994. At the end of 1993, his commanding officer described him as

A most able, conscientious and industrious officer. His engaging and warm personality allows him to communicate effectively at all levels. This is the cornerstone of his success; he is dynamic and extrovert, yet his magnanimous and conciliatory nature fosters genuine trust and support. Resourceful, versatile and perceptive, he is a most effective manager and organiser. He is a balanced enlightened and knowledgeable man who enjoys my complete trust in all matters. Lustig-Prean has great all round potential. He is an outstanding prospect for early promotion to Commander. He was chucked out because of his sexual orientation.

Jeanette Smith, a service aircraftwoman and nurse in the Royal Air Force, enlisted in April 1989 and was discharged in August 1994. Her discharge report said:

SAC Smith has an above average understanding of trade knowledge and the performance of her conversion course has been assessed as satisfactory. There is no evidence to suggest she is or has been involved in homosexual relationships with any member of HM forces, or that criminal offences have been committed during the course of the relationship. SAC Smith has confessed that she is homosexual, although there is no evidence to suggest misconduct, corruption, blatant or promiscuous activities or unnatural behaviour on service establishments. Yet she was chucked out of the armed forces.

John Beckett, a weapons engineer and mechanic in the Royal Navy, enlisted in February 1989 and was discharged in September 1993. In September 1993, the naval personnel secretary said:

Throughout his service Beckett's reporting officers have commented upon his efficiency, intelligence, dedication and ambition and there is every indication that had it not been for his sexuality his Royal Naval career would have blossomed. Sir Michael Layard, Second Sea Lord, said:

We accept that he was a loyal and patriotic man and that he has not committed a civilian or naval disciplinary offence. Yet he was thrown out of the armed forces.

Graeme Grady, a sergeant in the Royal Air Force, enlisted in August 1980 and was discharged in December 1994. His squadron leader wrote:

Sergeant Grady … has been a loyal serviceman and a conscientious and hardworking tradesman who could be relied on to achieve the highest standards. He has displayed sound personal qualities and integrity throughout his service and has enjoyed the respect of superiors, peers and subordinates alike. He was promoted in 1990. Sergeant Grady is recommended to any future employer. All four individuals clearly had sound records, yet the armed forces got rid of them because of their sexual orientation.

Homosexuality in the armed forces was decriminalised in 1994, yet a blanket ban was retained. That was unreasonable. Heterosexual misconduct, even resulting in serious criminal convictions in the civil courts, such as rape, is treated as a discretionary disciplinary matter. Criminal-style investigations still take place, often following anonymous allegations. Those subject to them have their private property searched in a degrading manner and are subject to prurient sexual interrogation.

Many countries have lifted the ban. In the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, the United Kingdom, Luxembourg and Turkey are the only countries that have an absolute ban on homosexuals in the armed forces. Several NATO countries have no ban—Canada, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and France. Germany has no ban for conscripts. Italy operates a ban on conduct but not orientation. Other countries that do not operate a ban include Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, Israel, Sweden, Switzerland and Austria.

The United States of America has some sort of "don't ask, don't tell" compromise, which is unsatisfactory in my opinion, but even that is being challenged in the courts there, and some of those challenges have been successful.

The costs of the ban are extensive. Every investigation takes up a lot of officers' time, at considerable cost. There is the loss of the cost of training of those service personnel. It has been estimated that as many as 500 homosexuals may have been forced to leave the forces, or have left voluntarily, in the past four years. The cost of their training may amount to about £40 million of taxpayer's money—wasted as a result of that stupid ban.

The judges in the Court of Appeal who heard the four's case all called for an urgent review of the policy, especially in view of the experience of other countries that have lifted the ban. They commented on the complete lack of evidence that the ban was necessary.

In response to that court statement, the Ministry of Defence set up its own internal review to consider the ban, but the responses that came at the time that that internal review was set up were extremely unsatisfactory. The First Sea Lord publicly called for a campaign to retain the ban, and the Minister of State for the Armed Forces dismissed the argument of the Master of the Rolls as "politically correct claptrap".

I know that service personnel have been consulted, but there has been no guarantee in that consultation of anonymity. There are also marked signs that those who oppose the ban will be subject to face-to-face interviews and may find themselves in difficulties resulting from that. I therefore believe that the review process that the MOD set up in response to the judge's comments has already been seriously compromised, and has come dangerously close to conducting an exercise to encourage hostility to all existing serving homosexuals.

If the four ex-service people win their case, the MOD may be forced to pay compensation to more than 500 people. The organisation Stonewall estimated that that might cost more than £12 million. We have had the example of the women in the armed forces who were dismissed despite warnings to the MOD that it was acting outside the law, but the MOD would not listen and that resulted in large compensation payments, totalling —50 million. A similar position is arising in this case, but the Government appear intent on incurring that bill for the taxpayer. If they were in local government, they would be surcharged by the district auditor for that attitude.

There is a distinction between privacy for individuals when they are off duty and sexual misconduct when they are on duty. Of course there should be strong sexual conduct rules in the armed forces which deal with all sexual behaviour, but that must be in relation to all, whether they are heterosexual or homosexual. It should not discriminate. That ban should go.

I make one final comment, because I cannot resist it, although it is probably ungracious. For years, the left has asked, "Where are the enemy? Who are the enemy?" We had a huge defence budget, but we were never told who the enemy were. In the past month, we have had the royal "Panorama" programme and the events that followed, so I suppose that we can at last say that the enemy is in charge of our armed forces.

Mr. Soames

Very amusing, Harry.

7.34 pm
Mr. Andrew Hargreaves (Birmingham, Hall Green)

It is my pleasure to contribute briefly to the debate, and as so much has been said my contribution will be briefer than I had anticipated. First and foremost, I disagree with Opposition Members' interpretation of clause 2. It seems to me, as a result of my brief experience with the Royal Navy, visiting various shore establishments during my time as a participant in the armed forces parliamentary scheme, that the clause would help the Royal Navy enormously in some of its difficulties with service personnel acting in and maintaining shore establishments. I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to say whether that is a sensible interpretation of the need for the clause.

I shall canter briefly on through a couple of aspects of concern, which I hope my hon. Friend the Minister might be able to clarify or which might form the basis for further discussion in Committee.

There is much sensible provision in the Bill on procedures for various aspects of courts martial. In many clauses—clauses 18, 19, 20 and so on—there is an important element that refers to internal redress procedures.

I very much support that aspect of the clauses. However, as the ombudsman does not have a locus in the armed forces—I am a member of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration—I hope that it will be a matter of discussion in Committee or that my hon. Friend the Minister might consider that there should be a method to monitor complaints that might arise as a result of the redress procedures, to ensure that the procedures do not come into disrepute, and that the monitoring should be conducted impartially by an independent person or a former officer.

I strongly support clause 27, which relates to drug testing. My hon. Friend the Minister knows that I have played some role in trying to rid sport of drugs. The only way of achieving that is random testing, and I strongly support the concept of compulsory testing. I hope that the Committee will consider that. Testing need not be introduced overnight; it may be phased in gradually. Voluntary testing as a first step is a sensible way to proceed in those services where it is appropriate.

I shall mention homosexuality in the armed services only to say that my comments are already a matter of record. I disagree profoundly with the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen). My sympathies or my opinions on the subject mirror those of my hon. Friend the Minister.

I shall briefly mention the Race Relations Act 1976 and ethnic minorities to say, as someone who has employed and employs people from ethnic minorities, that the issue should be considered with sympathy in Committee. However, we should bear in mind, as the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) said, that it is a matter not of apportioning blame but of encouraging people from all parts of the community to play their part in the armed services.

I was delighted at the enthusiasm of the first black trooper to mount guard outside Buckingham palace, who said that his heart was bursting with pride at being able to take part in that event. He is a splendid example to other people, who I hope will follow.

I shall end on a note of concern, which was ably expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), on the subject of clause 26 and the Greenwich building and all that lies in it. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury for his remarks on that subject, which were well measured and sensible. I would reassure him and other people by saying that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is well aware of the opinions of hon. Members on both sides of the House about that. He is on record as saying:

These beautiful buildings are a national asset, part of our heritage to be cherished. We are looking for a new occupier, of the highest possible quality, who will add lustre to the building. I am sure that my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Minister of State, who also cherishes national heritage matters, will ensure that that occurs. His suggestions should be considered seriously by the Committee. I commend the Bill to the House.

7.39 pm
Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich)

I intend to focus on just one clause of the Bill—clause 26—concerning future uses of the site currently occupied by the Royal Naval college. The clause has already attracted the interest of a number of hon. Members.

The site is steeped in history. From the 15th to the 17th centuries it was a royal hunting lodge and palace and the birthplace of King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I. In the late 17th century it became a hospital, founded by King William and Queen Mary, for elderly and disabled seafarers. The naval connection remained intensely strong, and it was in the painted hall at Greenwich that Nelson's body lay in state after Trafalgar—as anyone who has visited the admirable Nelson exhibition at the national maritime museum will know.

In the mid-19th century, as the need for a specialist hospital for elderly seafarers decreased, the site was transferred to the royal naval college, which has remained the principal occupant to this day. I was slightly puzzled by the comments of the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) who said that the complex had been passed from one Government Department to another. I understand that it has been occupied by the naval college for the last 126 years—not a bad record of occupation by one Department.

Not only is it a location with a long and a proud history, but it comprises an incomparable series of buildings designed by several of the country's greatest architects. Inigo Jones, John Webb, Christopher Wren, John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor left their mark on Greenwich, and they created a complex that not only is unique in Britain but also counts as one of the great masterpieces of European baroque architecture. It is currently being considered for world heritage status.

The site is held in trust for the Greenwich hospital—the charity established 300 years ago by King William and Queen Mary. As the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) pointed out, the Secretary of State for Defence is the sole trustee and the uses to which the Greenwich complex can be put are prescribed by Act of Parliament.

The Greenwich Hospital Act 1869 paved the way for the establishment of the royal naval college at Greenwich, and I think that I should remind hon Members what section 7 of the Act says. It provides for the site to be used

for the purposes of the naval service or any department of Her Majesty's Government". The amendments now proposed to the Act stem from the Government's decision earlier this year to locate the new joint service command and staff college at Camberley and to close the existing Royal Naval college and the joint services defence college at Greenwich.

I do not intend to dwell tonight on the background to that decision. I have already spoken about the matter on previous occasions in the House, most recently in the debate on the defence estimates on 17 October. Suffice to say, I believe that the decision was a bad one, taken on dubious grounds and following consultation that would have made Mr. Alain Juppé proud. While the Minister of State for the Armed Forces was always courteous to me throughout the consultation process, I have no doubt that he made a terrible mistake in failing to recognise the outstanding advantages of Greenwich as the proper location for the country's new tri-service college. I believe that posterity will judge him and the Government harshly for that decision.

Although I understand that the process of establishing the tri-service college at Camberley is proving neither as easy nor as economical as the Minister led us to believe initially, that is a matter to he pursued on other occasions—and I shall do just that. The Minister will have his work cut out to convince hon. Members that the transfer to Camberley will proceed on time and within budget—or that it should proceed at all.

In the meantime, the British public have had their first real taste of the consequences of the Government's decision. In September this year, the royal naval college appeared in an estate agent's brochure as a desirable property for sale on a 150-year, full-repairing lease. Predictably, the brochure contained the typical estate agent's blurb extolling the site's potential.

It is difficult to imagine any other country that possessed such a magnificent complex of buildings treating them in that way. The present Secretary of State for Health, when Secretary of State for National Heritage, famously described Greenwich as the British Versailles. One has only to think about the implications of that comment to realise the absurdity of what is now happening. One cannot imagine the French putting Versailles on the market, the Spanish trying to hawk the Escorial around estate agents or the Greeks trying to flog the Acropolis. It is so absurd a concept as to make the Government's actions quite ridiculous: a British Secretary of State for Defence, who is only too pleased to wrap the Union Jack around him when it serves his purpose, is trying to flog the country's heritage through an estate agent.

It also makes a mockery of the statement made by the noble Lord Cranborne on behalf of the Government in a document entitled "Defending Our Heritage", which was published by the Ministry of Defence just a year ago. It is about historic military buildings on the defence estate, and I shall quote the opening words of Lord Cranborne's introduction:

The Ministry of Defence is the single largest owner of historic buildings of any Government Department — Some, such as Horse Guards in Whitehall, the Royal Naval College at Greenwich and the Royal Hospital at Chelsea, are more than part of the history of the Armed Services alone: they are part of the nation's history and the Department has a particular duty to act as their preserver and guardian". Is that how the Government fulfil that role—by offering them for sale in a brochure by Knight, Frank and Rutley? It is hardly surprising that the Government's actions prompted a national outcry—a reaction that has clearly surprised and alarmed Ministers, who cannot have anticipated the strength of public feeling about the issue.

Even the Secretary of State for Defence, who is not usually the most emollient of characters, back-pedalled very rapidly and gave an assurance that the royal naval college would not be sold to any bidder whatever the consequences. He assured us that Tesco need not apply. I am reassured by the fact that the Secretary of State had some qualms about the prospect of the family firm of the former leader of Westminster council getting its hands on the royal naval college.

The Secretary of State has also assured us that Greenwich will not he sold to the highest bidder, that only appropriate uses will be entertained and that careful consideration will be given to the options before any decision is reached. The Minister repeated those assurances in a recent letter to me on the subject, and he has said much the same thing tonight. That is fine, but should we trust the Government? Their track record does not exactly command confidence. After all, they sold county hall not to an appropriate user, such as the London School of Economics, but to a Japanese consortium that has had great difficulty devising any use for the former seat of London government other than as an aquarium.

Quite apart from their track record, there are two other compelling reasons to doubt the Government's bona fides. The first is the way in which they have handled the response to Knight, Frank and Rutley's marketing exercise. Bids had to be submitted by 15 November, and I understand from an answer to a parliamentary question that I tabled that 11 expressions of interest had been lodged at that date—eight for the whole site and three for part of it. However, we remain in the dark about the identity of the bidders. Ministers have simply refused to reveal the identity of the organisations or individuals who have lodged expressions of interest or how they intend to use the site.

When challenged, Ministers have tried to defend their stance on the grounds of commercial confidentiality. That is nonsense. We are not asking to know the precise terms of the offers, but who is in the running to take over some of the country's finest buildings and to what uses they may be put. I do not accept the assertion made by the Minister in a letter to me of 5 December, in which he said:

It would be quite wrong for the Government to reveal the identity of interested organisations, if they do not themselves do so, before we have had the opportunity to analyse their expressions of interest. I put it to the Minister quite simply: what do they have to hide? If they are reputable serious organisations that would make appropriate tenants for the premises, they can hardly wish to hide their bids under a cloak of secrecy.

The national maritime museum and the university of Greenwich have properly felt it appropriate to reveal their interest in the site. If organisations do not feel confident that their case for taking over the Greenwich site will withstand public scrutiny, they should not be entrusted with control of that magnificent complex of buildings.

In his letter to me, the Minister also claims that the Government need time to clarify the proposals and to consult heritage and other bodies before a decision is reached. I doubt what meaningful consultation can take place with heritage bodies and other interests if the identity of the bidders and the uses to which they propose to put the building cannot be revealed. That would be a strange consultation. In any case, why did the Government not consult before making the proposal? Why was there not an initial consultation to establish what uses for the site might be appropriate before estate agents were engaged to hawk the buildings around?

The second compelling reason for doubting the Government's bona fides is the wording of clause 26. Section 7 of the 1869 Act allows the use of the Greenwich site for the purposes of any Government Department. That would seem to make possible appropriate heritage or educational activities, such as those proposed by the national maritime museum or the university of Greenwich, but it would not permit a private use. There must, therefore, be real grounds for concern that, in seeking to change that legislation, the Secretary of State is paving the way for the privatisation of the Greenwich complex. If Ministers are not prepared to reveal the identity of the bidders, they cannot hope to assuage our anxiety that it is a prelude to privatisation.

The very broad remit given by clause 26 to the Secretary of State to grant a lease to any person appearing to him to be suitable for a period of up to 150 years on such terms and conditions as he thinks fit gives enormous latitude and would make it difficult even for a bizarre and inappropriate decision to be challenged. The Secretary of State may say that Tesco need not apply, but I see nothing in clause 26 that would prevent him from granting a lease to Tesco, if he chose to do so.

The only limitation on the Secretary of State's power is the requirement that any proceeds from the site should be applied to the benefit of the Greenwich hospital charity. I am not a lawyer, but others who are better qualified may have a view on that. It could be argued that the legislation imposes an implicit obligation on the Secretary of State to seek the best possible return for any lease that is granted. That obligation could make it difficult for the Secretary of State to approve an appropriate use generating a low income as against an inappropriate use generating a substantially higher income as that would be in the interests of the Greenwich hospital, of which he is the sole trustee. That issue should certainly be considered closely in Committee.

It is not acceptable, not least after the sobering disposal of county hall, to allow such wide-ranging powers to the Secretary of State to dispose of the Greenwich site to whomsoever he chooses. It is arguable that the clause should be dropped entirely and the 1869 provisions retained. That would allow appropriate uses for the purposes of any Government Department, such as the Department of National Heritage, and might prove sufficient to enable the national maritime museum, which occupies the adjoining premises, to take over the painted hall and the chapel and to organise through the proposed trust the letting of the other premises.

Even if it is felt that a new clause is now required to reflect the changes over the 125 years since the existing legislation was passed, it cannot be right to allow the Secretary of State such unfettered discretion to dispose of the Greenwich site. At the very least, clause 26 should be amended to provide proper safeguards so that only uses that are clearly compatible with the remarkable historical and architectural qualities of Greenwich could be approved.

For example, it might be possible to establish a separate organisation or trust, comprising people with relevant expertise and standing, to vet all proposals and give a public verdict on them before the Secretary of State is empowered to grant a lease. At least that would begin to reassure the public that the hugely important decision about the future use of one of Britain's finest sites will not be taken behind closed doors by Ministers who have demonstrated by their previous actions that they cannot be trusted with the custody of the nation's heritage.

I was pleased that, in opening, the Minister acknowledged that the Committee would need to look closely at the clause. I know from the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) and for Walsall, South (Mr. George) and of the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) that the Committee will look at the clause very closely indeed. I hope that the possibilities that I have described will be considered carefully in Committee, and that appropriate amendments will be made to clause 26.

7.55 pm
Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

I want to outline an amendment that I hope to canvass in Committee or on Report. It relates to the 300 British and empire soldiers who were executed in the first world war, who were found guilty of such charges as cowardice, desertion, sleeping at post, disobedience, throwing away arms and hitting a superior officer.

It has long been my view, and that of an increasing number of people, that those British soldiers were denied the rules of natural justice. A high proportion of them were suffering from mental illness caused by their experiences in the trenches, and it is now time that they were granted pardons. That would be the purpose of my amendment, and I understand from informal consultations with the Clerks Department that it falls within the scope of the Bill.

Although a long time has elapsed, the matter is of our century, and, mercifully, a few thousand veterans of the great war are still alive. Nothing would give them greater satisfaction than to know, albeit late in the evening of their lives, that their comrades in arms had been pardoned and exonerated by the nation. There is overwhelming support for those pardons among veterans and those who were close to veterans of the great war.

My postbag is full of letters from every part of the United Kingdom and around the world. Almost without exception, they support those pardons, as does the representative organisation of ex-service people. The Royal British Legion has passed resolutions requesting that the matter should be reviewed.

Although a long time has elapsed, the British establishment—I hesitate to use that word—suppressed the documents relating to those courts martial for 75 years. When they were released and examined and people argued that there had been a miscarriage of justice, the establishment said that it was "too late". That is not satisfactory, because dependants of those executed soldiers have examined the papers relating to their loved ones' field courts martial and execution and demanded a remedy. They have received a great deal of support.

I recently had a long conversation with Lord Houghton of Sowerby, who was a distinguished Member of the House for many years and who fought at Passchendaele. He argues with immense conviction that there is a profound need for the wrong to be remedied, at least in terms of the public record.

I hope that, when hon. Members consider the matter in Committee or on the Floor of the House, there will be an opportunity to vote on it, and that there will be a free vote, because the proposal for pardons commands widespread support across the political spectrum, as it does in the country.

The Prime Minister has courteously written to me several times about the issue. While he expressed sympathy and acknowledged that there was injustice in the first world war because of the nature of trench warfare and so on, he said that there should be no pardons, because it is a matter of history. Of course it is a matter of history, but cannot be glibly dismissed as if it were the Napoleonic wars or the glorious revolution; it is of our century.

Comrades in arms and dependants of those soldiers are still alive. People who suffered shell shock and trauma in the second world war have written to me and other hon. Members saying, "I know what it's like. I suffered shell shock. I am pleased it didn't happen to me in the earlier conflict." There is an overwhelming demand to recognise the matter as not merely one of history but one which is still within our scope and time, and which it is our duty to remedy by granting pardons.

If we are to spend million of pounds each year teaching history to schoolchildren and college students, we need to write it with clarity and precision. That includes declaring and writing about some of the uncomfortable aspects of our history. I venture to suggest that this is an uncomfortable aspect, because, in retrospect, we did an injustice to those British soldiers. We must now acknowledge that, and should put the record straight.

There is immense interest among schoolchildren in the subject. I make no apology for saying that. Many schools have based lessons around the executions. They do so to demonstrate the trauma of warfare in the first world war and the fact that, while we are proud of our system of justice, it is fallible. I hope that the House will be minded to consider the point.

In my previous ten-minute rule Bill, I suggested that there should be some system whereby those field courts martial could be reviewed. My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) referred to another episode, with which I am less familiar but about which there is powerful evidence suggesting that it should be reviewed—the so-called Salerno mutiny in world war two. It would be sensible and sensitive of the House at least to put into the Bill the facility for such matters to be reviewed.

I said that the field courts martial were unjust. People might ask how that could be so, and how all 300 soldiers could possibly be innocent of wrongdoing and all simultaneously suffering from trauma and shell shock. In fact, I do not argue that, but a very large number of those men were in those categories. That is demonstrated, and documented in detail, by the papers that were suppressed for 75 years. Even the most cursory examination of those papers by appropriately qualified legal and medical people would conclude that it was wrong for those men to be executed.

The common factor for all 300 men is the fact that they were denied the rules of natural justice. Those rules were not invented just recently; they have been a theme of our justice system for centuries. The standards that applied in the earlier part of this century are no different from those of today.

The men were not given the opportunity to prepare an adequate defence. Many of them were not represented at all; if they were represented, it was by somebody who was demonstrably not qualified to do so. After their field courts martial were completed, they were often not told what their sentence was until between 12 to 24 hours before it was carried out. Not only is that demonstrably unfair and unjust, but for all the 300-plus soldiers, there was no right of appeal against the sentence of death.

Therefore, I say with confidence that all 300 cases justify pardons. In many cases, the arguments are not only buttressed but redoubled by the fact that the documents show that many men were sick, traumatised and suffering from appalling conditions that no man could endure.

I meant at the beginning of my speech to apologise to the Minister for missing his opening remarks. I do not think that he currently has a tremendously high opinion of me, but no discourtesy was intended. I am prompted to refer to the hon. Gentleman because his late grandfather's doctor, Lord Moran, wrote extensively in his diaries and memoirs about shell shock in the first world war. In moving terms, he demonstrated, as a contemporary witness of the executions, the fact that the men were sick and traumatised.

I invite hon. Members, between now and when I hope to be able to table an amendment, to examine the documents of Lord Moran, the powerful book "For the Sake of Example" by His Honour Judge Anthony Babington, and the well-documented book "Shot at Dawn" by Julian Putkowski and Julian Sykes. They show that wrongs were done.

While it is a matter of some regret that previous generations were responsible for those wrongs, it could be a matter of national pride for our generation that, towards the end of the century, we put the record straight, drew a line under this unhappy episode and included the names of those soldiers among those that we honour and respect every year at the remembrance services.

It is interesting that the regimental association of the Durham Light Infantry has already included the names of that regiment's executed service men in its book of remembrance. It considers that no shame attaches to those people. The memorial to the Black Watch in Dundee includes the names of the executed soldiers.

In the wonderful graves administered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Flanders and on the Somme, those men in death lie alongside their comrades in arms. They are not discriminated against. That suggests that, in the years immediately after the first world war, albeit silently, there was recognition among those who made decisions that those men should not be discriminated against. There was a mood for such recognition of their service to be extended to them in death.

I hope that we can get the royal pardons either by statute or by the Prime Minister reflecting again on the matter during the course of this Bill, and subsequently recommending to Her Majesty that the royal prerogative be exercised. Statutory change would not then be necessary. Even if the pardons are not granted in the immediate future, which I would very much regret, one thing has changed since I and other people commenced this campaign some three years ago. My postbag shows beyond all doubt that, in a sense, those men have been pardoned by the highest court in the land—British public opinion. If one discusses the matter with people in our streets and in clubs among ex-service men and women who went through the first and second world wars, and with serving service men and women today, one finds that, overwhelmingly, they proclaim that those men were brave British soldiers who should be granted pardons. I hope for and look forward to the support not only of Opposition Members but of the many Conservative Members who have over the months told me of their support for such pardons to be granted.

8.9 pm

Dr. Reid

With the leave of the House, I shall be brief, because I have only two things to say. First, in response to the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), I and many hon. Members believe that it is never too late to right a wrong. When people tell me, whether it be a private or the Prime Minister, that these things are merely a matter of history, I commend to them Hegel's maxim:

The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only at the coming of the dusk. History is not a source of forgetting; it is ultimately the source of wisdom. Let that wisdom through history counsel us, as we deliberate on the issues raised by my hon. Friend.

The second general matter refers to the other speeches that have been made. Although there have been divisions on detail, I think that, on most of the issues—there are one or two possible exceptions—hon. Members agree in principle that advances have been made in the Government's position, whether we dispute the degree of those advances. The Minister will know that my view has not been fashionable in recent decades. We should be building towards a framework consensus on national security matters.

That view is imposed on us by circumstances as well as by its popularity in our armed forces around the country. I ask the Minister, therefore, wherever possible, to approach amendments in a consensual fashion, because he will find that our Front-Bench team is not destructive, but, I hope, constructive, and, on the odd occasion, perhaps constructive with effect.

Having said that, I look forward to discussing these matters further in Committee. I hope that we can do so in a fashion that is a credit to the service men and women whose lives will be affected by our deliberations.

8.10 pm
Mr. Soames

With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker. We have had a valuable, constructive and useful debate. I am sure that, in its work, the Select Committee dealing with the Bill will wish to take forward the views that have been set out by right hon. and hon. Members, and take account of the many experiences that they have brought to our debate.

The hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) in an, as usual, good speech, made the most important point in relation to a Bill about service discipline: discipline, good order and morale are inseparable. I agree with him about the cadet forces' excellence, and about the wonderful nature of challenge weekends—what a tremendous force of good they are. I hope that we will be able to do more in that sector to help young people.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's welcome for our reforms on court martial procedures. I note his point about drugs, and I agree that it would be wrong to soften our line on drugs; indeed, there is no question of softening that line. Drug misuse in the armed forces is unacceptable. As he knows, offenders are normally discharged. We do not accept habitual drug users into the armed forces.

One-off experimenters are not automatically excluded. The cases are considered on their individual merits, but we make it clear to all recruits that drug misuse will simply not be tolerated, and can and will attract disciplinary action, including dismissal or administrative discharge from the service.

The hon. Gentleman talked about racial discrimination in recruiting. I do not accept that there is such discrimination. It is true that we must do better on recruiting in the ethnic communities, and we are committed to trying to increase that. That point was made by a number of hon. Friends and Opposition Members, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), who made his point in a powerful manner, as did the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr.Cohen), who has been a powerful enemy of racism in this country and whose words therefore carry weight.

As to someone who said that I was an unenlightened Minister in the matter of women in the armed forces, that was an outrageous suggestion. There is no more enlightened Minister in the Government when it comes to women, as you know, Madam Deputy Speaker. As hon. Members know, or would know if they knew something about the armed forces, women are excluded from literally a tiny handful of roles in the armed services. They make a hugely vital contribution to the armed forces, without which those forces would not be able to operate anymore. We need to go on recruiting the high calibre of young women that we are getting into the services.

I acknowledge what someone said about physical selection of women, gender-free testing and all that. There is much more work to be done on that. By and large in the armed forces, there is tremendous commitment. Anyone who has seen these young women in all three services, who make such a formidable contribution, will know that the only thing we have to worry about is how to go on recruiting such excellent women and to develop their careers. I accept that the need will always exist to ensure that, providing they are good enough, they are promoted on the same terms as.

The hon. Member for Motherwell, North mentioned the Home Office's use of the services. I think that he was exaggerating to make a point. As he knows—I have said it before here—we are considering setting aside part of the military corrective training centre as a young offenders institute. That work, which is being conducted in a most careful and detailed way, is being considered by Ministers. We hope to come to a decision shortly.

We do not intend to anticipate that decision tonight, but I want to repeat that anything we decide involving the use of part of the MCTC will in no way ever diminish the first-rate and highly professional military training undertaken there. If it were to do so, we would stop it at once. It will not affect the military ethos of the course. I turn to the question of pardon for soldiers executed in world war one, which was raised by the hon. Members for Motherwell, North and for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), and I understand why the latter could not be here for the early part of the debate. For the edification of the hon. Member for Thurrock, I have read probably every book on that matter, and certainly almost all the great books about physical courage and otherwise on the battlefield. After the most detailed and careful consideration by the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Defence, it has been decided that it would be inappropriate to grant a pardon.

The people executed—some 346 men—represented 11 per cent. of the people who were condemned to death. As hon. Members know, the other sentences were commuted. A review found that there were no procedural errors or legal improprieties in the courts martial or in the subsequent reviews by the chain of command. On those grounds, there is no basis for a pardon.

As a general principle, it is inappropriate to reconsider historical events in the light. of modern attitudes. Most soldiers stayed and fought in the trenches under appalling conditions, and they needed to be able to rely on their comrades. I acknowledge, however, the determination of the hon. Member for Thurrock in his campaign, and he is to be applauded for sticking to his guns.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) made some valuable points that we noted, especially the important point about the treatment of civilians alongside military personnel. I have no doubt that the Select Committee, when it discusses these matters, will wish to deliberate on that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre, the hon. Member for Motherwell, North and the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) referred to the Christina Menzies case. That unfortunate case was thoroughly investigated by the special investigations branch of the Royal Military Police and the German civil police. The prime suspect was tried and acquitted of Christina's murder. No doubts exist about the competence either of the Royal Military Police or of the Army legal services in dealing with such serious cases. The prosecution was properly brought, and conducted by an experienced senior legal officer of Army legal services.

The service man in question was tried for and acquitted of Christina's murder trial. His trial by general court martial was properly conducted, and a "not guilty" verdict was passed.

Dr. Reid

I should make it clear that neither I nor anyone else, as far as I know, seeks to re-run the trial. Will the Minister at least give us an undertaking that, during the Committee investigations, he will have an open mind to considering the lessons that may be drawn from that case, with a view, if necessary, to drafting, if possible, an amendment that would be acceptable not only to the MOD but to others in the House, to avoid problems that have arisen? I do not seek to attack personal competence or decide guilt or innocence. However, there are lessons to be learned, and I hope that, in Committee, the Minister will keep an open mind on these matters.

Mr. Soames

In his distinguished career in the House, the hon. Gentleman will never come across a Minister whose mind is more open to change than mine.

Mr. John Spellar (Warley, West)

Even the Minister cannot stop himself laughing at that.

Mr. Soames

I laughed before the hon. Gentleman.

If it is possible to do what the hon. Member for Motherwell, North requires, we shall do it, but I suspect that it is probably not possible.

The hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) who, sadly, is not able to be in his place, expressed interest in clause 2 relating to the MHSE, and the related question of military home service engagement and the Ministry of Defence police. He does not agree with the clause. The hon. Gentleman has always taken a close interest in the Ministry of Defence police, and he particularly links that to the MHSE. We recently issued a consultation document which was mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Salisbury (Mr. Key) and for Wyre and others. We shall have to see how that consultation goes.

Clause 2 is purely an enabling clause, which will provide the services with what I hope will be a useful adjunct. As an hon. Member implied, it is certainly not intended to use local service as some kind of panacea to overcome wider recruitment difficulties. It is a totally different type of engagement, and that would not be possible. By far the vast majority of service men and women will continue to be required to serve wherever we need them, at home or overseas, in peace or in war. They could not possibly be on local service engagements, but in future there may be merit in such an arrangement.

I shall now turn to security and the Ministry of Defence police. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East, who knows a great deal about these matters, will realise that, whatever his criticisms of the Ministry of Defence, of which many are probably entirely justified, the one issue on which we are not prepared to take a short cut is on the security of our installations and our people. There is no question of our ever doing that.

The Ministry's first priority on security is to ensure the safety of our personnel and establishments and the effectiveness of our operations. Over the years, the Ministry of Defence police and others who are responsible for guarding our installations have done a first-class job.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport was right when he spoke about recruitment difficulties. We are making vigorous efforts to resolve them. He also spoke about the Bett review, which, of course, will not be a matter for the Committee, although the wonder of this procedure is that we will be able to raise almost anything, and I have no doubt that a way will be found to give Bett a good canter round the course. My hon. Friend raised a number of other important issues which we shall need to deal with.

As usual, the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East made an excellent speech. He is a lawyer, and therefore, of course, knows everything. We have to be particularly careful when dealing with matters of this type, because he knows what he is talking about.

The hon. and learned Gentleman raised the question of the death penalty. There are no proposals in the Bill to alter the powers of courts martial to pass death sentences. It is intended to retain the death penalty as a non-mandatory sentence for five offences that have been committed with an intent to assist an enemy directly or indirectly. As the hon. and learned Gentleman knows, it is the policy that such offences should never be carried in peacetime. The court martial reforms in the Bill mean that there would be a new right of appeal to the courts martial appeal court against a death sentence if one were ever passed after the Bill becomes law. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East spoke about clause 18, relating to sex discrimination; that matter was also raised by the hon. Member for Leyton. Of course we shall give the matters they raised the most careful consideration, and I have no doubt that the Committee will wish to discuss this matter, which, for reasons of public comment and circumstances of time, is on people's minds.

There were several coloured soldiers in my regiment and I never saw any of the stuff that has been mentioned, but I am aware of public concern about it. It is easy to criticise, and that can be extremely serious for the armed forces. Ethnic minorities make a splendid contribution to our national life, and we need to get more members from those communities into the armed forces. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Hargreaves) made an extremely good comment about that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury is a member of the Select Committee on Defence, and has substantial forces interests in his constituency because of its location on the edge of Salisbury plain. It is in almost the heart of the British service areas. He made a well-informed and sensible speech. I was interested in his remarks about policing, which, as one would expect, made a good deal of common sense. We look forward to seeing the arguments developed in Committee. His list of police forces in his constituency should at least ensure a low crime rate in Salisbury. If not, what on earth are those forces doing?

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury spoke with feeling and considerable knowledge and authority, deriving from his former and happy incarnation as a Minister at the Department of National Heritage, about Greenwich. I totally agree with him on that matter. We can agree or disagree about the way in which the matter has been handled, and I am sure, with that wonderful hindsight that we are all so lucky to have, we could have handled it better. The purpose of what we now seek to do was admirably encapsulated by my hon. Friend.

As usual, the hon. Member for Leyton made a pithy and pointed speech, which was all the more impressive when we recall that, for his entire time in the House, he has had a genuine commitment to rooting out racism. I assure the hon. Gentleman that, as long as I am Minister for the Armed Forces, since before my time and into the future, the principle that the services are fully integrated and non-discriminatory will be at the front of our minds. If at any time there is a need to take action to ensure that that remains the case, the hon. Gentleman may be assured that we shall take it.

We should be happy for the hon. Gentleman to come to the Ministry of Defence to talk to us, so that we could tell him about our huge range of programmes to try to ensure that we get these matters right. He could help us by encouraging members of the ethnic communities to join the armed forces. They will find a warm welcome, and their contribution will be greatly valued, not because they are from ethnic minorities but because we need many high-quality young men and women to join the armed forces, and there are many such young people in the ethnic minorities.

The hon. Member for Leyton spoke about homosexuality, on which subject his has always been an honourable voice. As I have said, we shall present our review of our policy to the Committee as we promised, and I have no doubt that the Committee will wish to debate it at some length. The House knows the views of the Ministry of Defence, the joint chiefs, the chief of defence staff and others on these matters. All those views have been made plain, and they are not in any sense homophobic or judgmental. They have to do with military discipline and good order, and the immensely strong and genuinely held feelings of hundreds of thousands of people in the armed forces.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hall Green on his membership of the armed forces scheme. His interpretation of clause 2 is quite correct. He supported clause 27 on drug testing, and we are grateful to him for that, because he has particular knowledge in this matter and are glad to have his endorsement. We note his views on homosexuality and race.

The hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) made a powerful speech, as one would expect. I agree that Greenwich is not only one of the great masterpieces of baroque architecture, but probably one of the greatest masterpieces of any architecture, in this country. It is perfectly true that the question of the new arrangements for Greenwich has aroused feelings going far beyond those who have served there on the naval staff college course and the generations of serving officers and men of the Royal Navy. Greenwich has been at the centre of their lives and that of the Royal Navy.

It is an institution that has, however, changed use on a number of occasions. If those marvellous buildings are to live, they must be used properly. As the hon. Member for Greenwich knows, we are proposing to grant a lease, not to sell the freehold, to those whose proposals meet our criteria and are of the greatest merit. The buildings will remain for all time Crown property, held in trust by the Secretary of State for Defence for the exclusive benefit of the Greenwich hospital.

The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed on a number of occasions why Greenwich cannot be the joint services staff college. I am sorry if he does not agree with me, but we are happy to give him any further information that he requires. Greenwich simply could not possibly accommodate that college.

We are seeking for Greenwich the most appropriate, dignified and fitting use of those wonderful buildings for the millennium and beyond. Any suggestion about a joint services staff college is not a serious contribution, and simply not even a starter. I have already said that we must seek the most appropriate, fitting and dignified use of those wonderful buildings.

It has been reassuring that, in our debate, the House has demonstrated the need for and its understanding of the reasons behind the service discipline Acts, and the system of discipline they enshrine. I do not believe that anyone here would disagree with the admiration that is generally felt for the members of the British armed forces. Wherever they go, they show immense qualities of courage, resolve, tenacity, common sense and, above all, good humour. Discipline plays a large part in instilling those qualities. We can all properly take huge pride in the armed forces. As some 13,000 of our forces are to be deployed to Bosnia in the next few days, it is right .that we should remember that it is a complete fallacy to think of service discipline as some sort of gratuitous imposition on our young men and service women. It is better to regard it rather as a framework which is absolutely vital to their safety and well-being, especially when we ask them to undertake many extremely challenging, very difficult and sometimes dangerous duties. Such duties are the hallmark of service life, for which they are admirably trained and prepared.

That is why no responsible Government of any colour will play fast and loose with the system of discipline. It is our duty to ensure that that system is effective and fair and that justice is not only done, but is seen to be done. The Bill is about achieving that end.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

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