HC Deb 28 March 1995 vol 257 cc812-3
5. Mr. Galloway

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what plans he has to review the system of courts martial within Her Majesty's armed forces; and if he will make a statement. [14628]

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Roger Freeman)

The Service Discipline Acts are updated every five years by an Armed Forces Bill. The next such Bill is due in the forthcoming Session of Parliament.

Mr. Galloway

Is it not more urgent than that? A number of cases give cause for concern. My constituent Staff Sergeant John Menzies and his wife, who are in the Gallery today, are living evidence of that, as their daughter was murdered by a British soldier. The military police, who were soldiers with armbands, and the military prosecutor, who was a soldier in a wig, bungled the case and—for the interest of Tory Members—a murderer, Corporal Darren Fisher, walked free. He is still at large and is serving in Her Majesty's armed services. Is it not about time that we overhauled the archaic, anachronistic system of military justice which is widely discredited, even within the armed services?

Mr. Freeman

I think that the whole House will understand the grief and concern of the parents concerned and anyone who is a parent will share their deep shock at their tragic loss. Therefore, I join the hon. Gentleman in offering them my condolences.

It is not up to Defence Ministers to reopen that particular trial. The trial has been held and the hon. Gentleman has his deeply held views about its progress and conclusion. It is not for a Minister of the Crown to reopen that trial.

However, I believe that when we debate the Armed Forces Bill it will be perfectly appropriate—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will take that opportunity—to raise the question of procedures used within the services, including the courts martial procedures. I am sure that it will be entirely appropriate to raise that matter on the Floor of the House or during Committee and I look forward to that occurring.

Mr. Gallie

Is my right hon. Friend aware that one of my constituents who was serving in Northern Ireland has been convicted of murder while undertaking an act of duty? Does my right hon. Friend sympathise with the trial judge who suggested that an option other than murder—that of culpable homicide—should have been given to the court? Does he agree that in such cases it would be more appropriate for soldiers on active service to come before courts martial?

Mr. Freeman

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out what he believes is an anomaly in the law. As he is aware, certain cases in Northern Ireland have been tried before the civil courts and not the courts martial. I am sure that my hon. Friend will take the opportunity, which I mentioned earlier in response to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway), of raising the issue during parliamentary debate on the Armed Forces Bill.

Mr. Martlew

In view of the Minister's announcement today and last week that the Armed Forces Bill will come to the House in the next parliamentary Session, will he use the intervening period to consult fully with regard to court martial procedures? There is no doubt that there is a great deal of disquiet about that issue—which has been expressed today in the House—in the community and within the military. Will the Minister use that time to consult the Opposition, as we would like to take a bipartisan approach to the matter? Will the Minister guarantee that he will consult us before he lays the Bill before Parliament?

Mr. Freeman

The Government are happy to accept that suggestion. The offer of bipartisan discussions is very much in keeping with the importance of getting the Armed Forces Bill and the service disciplinary procedures right. The legislation comes before the Parliament only once every five years, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his offer.

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