HC Deb 02 April 2001 vol 366 cc121-33

4C.—(1) Subject to subsection (2) below, the Secretary of State shall arrange for any report received by him under section 4B(1) above to be published in such manner as appears to him to be appropriate.

(2) The Secretary of State may exclude from publication under subsection (1) above any part of a report if, in his opinion, the publication of that part—

  1. (a) would be against the interests of national security, or
  2. 122
  3. (b) might jeopardise the safety of any person.

(3) The Secretary of State shall send a copy of the published report to the chief constable of the Ministry of Defence Police, and shall invite the chief constable to submit comments on the published report to the Secretary of State before such date as the Secretary of State may specify.

(4) The Secretary of State shall arrange for—

  1. (a) any comments submitted by the chief constable in accordance with subsection (3) above, and
  2. (b) any response that the Secretary of State may prepare to the published report or to any comments submitted by the chief constable,
to be published in such manner as he considers appropriate.—[Mr. Clelland.]

Schedule 5, as amended, agreed to.

Clauses 33 and 34 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 6 agreed to.

Clauses 35 and 36 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 7 agreed to.

Clauses 37 to 40 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 8 agreed to.

Clause 41 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill reported, with amendments.

Order for Third Reading read.

9.46 pm
Dr. Moonie

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

Before I deal with the main body of my text—which, I am glad to say, will not take me too long to deliver—I should like to correct the possibility of a slight misapprehension about something that I may have said to the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) when we were discussing the search of premises. I tried to explain the fact that the word "searches" involves searches of space rather than searches of persons. In certain circumstances, however, provided that it were specifically mentioned and there were reasonable grounds for suspecting that an item had been secreted elsewhere, a search could involve, for example, the space of members of a crew or a unit other than that of the member who is under suspicion. I wanted to make that very clear as I may have been a little misleading on the point.

I should like to thank the Select Committee for its work on the Bill and for its report. The Committee was conceived a little less than three months ago, in circumstances that may not have been considered altogether propitious for the way in which it was likely to go about its work. That the Select Committee achieved so much is due largely to its Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire). She managed to mix courtesy and firmness in presiding over the Committee and she proved resolute in promoting its interests.

As its report notes, the Committee was able to hold at least as many evidence sessions as its recent predecessors and to undertake a similar number of visits. However, that tells only half the story, as the Committee was able to attract witnesses of the calibre of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, the Chief of the Defence Staff, the chief constables of the Suffolk constabulary and the Ministry of Defence police, and the Chaplain General.

The visits conducted by the Select Committee included Colchester, HMS Invincible, which was off the coast of Scotland, Kosovo and Cyprus. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) may be of the view that those were three or four journeys too far, and he may well enlighten us about that later if he catches the eye of the occupant of the Chair. However, I know that the Select Committee found those visits a vital component of its work. The Ministry of Defence was very happy to assist in organising them.

I should say a few words about some of the Select Committee's recommendations. When the recommendations fall within the Ministry of Defence's sphere of responsibility, we shall of course give them the customary careful consideration. Perhaps inevitably, the Committee considered the issue of the tri-service Act that will replace the three single service Acts that we are in the processing of extending with this Bill. The Committee recommends that the tri-service legislation should be brought before Parliament within three years, whereas the Department is working towards bringing it forward as part of the next five-yearly Bill, as we announced on Second Reading.

The key issue for us now is to get the new legislative framework for the armed forces right. We agree that it is important for it to be in place as soon as possible, but it is even more important that the framework should be capable of meeting the needs of the services for the foreseeable future. We believe that it will take some time to ensure that we get it right. Nevertheless, we shall examine the scope for some acceleration of the project, and we shall be happy to keep the Defence Committee in touch with our thinking on that and on progress generally.

We have spent some time discussing the Ministry of Defence police today, so I do not propose to dwell on that part of the Committee's report. The Select Committee looked at the services legal aid schemes, and noted that there appeared to have been a problem recently with the availability of duty solicitor assistance for members of the armed forces overseas. That is about to be put right. It is worth mentioning that the services attach great importance to their arrangements for legal aid being at least as good as those available in the civilian sphere. There is a very serious intention that "accused in service" proceedings should not be at a disadvantage compared with their civilian counterparts, and much of the credibility of the system of discipline in the armed forces depends on that. Where problems are identified, we shall do what we can to sort them out.

Like previous Armed Forces Bill Committees, the Select Committee inquired into the question of under-18s in the services. Of particular interest is the period of service required of young recruits. The Committee is properly concerned that potential young recruits should receive clear information on that and that those involved in the recruiting process should be responsible for ensuring that such would-be recruits have fully understood the information before they sign up.

In fact, the present intention—and, we believe, the practice—is that such recruits are given full and clear information, both prior to signing up and subsequently, about the length of time for which they will be required to serve. It is only right that that should be the case. However, the procedures will be looked at again, in the light of the Committee's comments. In the meantime, we welcome the Committee's recognition of the need for the armed forces to continue to recruit young people straight from school, at the age of 16. Very many of those young people go on to rewarding and successful careers in the services.

I am sure that the House will not have lost sight of what the Bill is primarily about—the continuation for a further five years of the legislative basis for armed forces discipline. We believe that many of the changes in the Bill will help the administration of discipline; we commend those, and the Bill in its entirety, to the House.

Above all, we must remember those for whom we legislate—primarily the men and women of the armed forces. I again place on record what I am sure will be the thanks of the whole House for what the armed forces undertake and achieve, not only overseas but, as we have been reminded so graphically during the past few days, in this country, too.

9.52 pm
Mr. Key

I add my thanks to the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire), and to all its members who made it so worth while. Despite the somewhat difficult circumstances of the original composition of the Committee—I suspect that when people read its report to the House, they will understand what we were getting at—nevertheless, as the report stated, we all did our best in the traditional way.

I am grateful, too, to all those people who gave evidence to the Committee and to those we met during our modest peregrinations. I especially thank the hon. Lady—so ably assisted by the Clerk—for the quality of her report to the House. I am also grateful to the Government for actually giving the Opposition several of the important things for which we asked. That is a measure of the success of such Committees. I am an advocate of the pre-legislative scrutiny route. I was converted to it by my membership of the previous Armed Forces Bill Select Committee.

I am sure that that approach works. The Government have listened. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence mentioned the legal aid scheme and his amendment to put on a statutory basis the work of Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary. He also said that there would be a new look at the employment of people aged over 16 and under 18, which I especially welcome.

I agree with the Minister that the whole purpose of our work is to ensure excellence in every respect for every member of Her Majesty's armed forces and, of course, for their families and loved ones.

I look forward, with some trepidation, to the tri-service discipline Bill. I am sure that Ministry of Defence officials are already working hard on that project. If they are not, they should be because we will be after them in a few years. Such issues will need to be addressed as we move on in the cycle. We all need to make more effort to ensure that the public understand more about the policing of this country. I am sure that most people do not often come into contact with the police; they see police cars dashing about and they are aware of red caps in the Army, but that is probably about it.

Any hon. Member with a remotely military constituency can be fairly sure that up to eight different police forces will operate there. I certainly have eight forces in my constituency. Of course, the Wiltshire constabulary is by far the most numerous, but the Ministry of Defence police, the Royal Military Police, the Military Provost Guard Service, the Ministry of Defence Guard Force, the RAF police, the Atomic Energy Authority police and the British Transport police are all involved.

During our travels and in taking evidence, it was clear that some people feel that the time has come perhaps to consider creating a unified military police service for the armed forces. That suggestion has its merits. I have heard some significant arguments for more purple operations and more joint operations between the services, and it might be time to consider those issues, but the counterbalancing argument is that people like to be policed by their own kind.

We shall have to return to the legal rules that govern the terms of the service engagement, which derive from the royal prerogative and from the judicial rulings of a previous age. The feeling among civilian lawyers is that the rules are skewed in favour of the Crown, and I alluded to that in mentioning the secrecy of some of the documentation, but it might also be timely to address the whole legal and conceptual basis of the current service engagement to determine whether an engagement derived from the royal prerogative is adequate in this day and age. That is inevitable; I rather regret it, because that has been the basis on which the Army's regimental system has grown up, but Professor Rubin has a lot to contribute, and I am grateful to him for the way in which he has helped my thinking on the matter.

We must address the issues brought to the public domain in "The Future Strategic Context of Defence", a paper produced by the Ministry of Defence. I suspect that that important document is not widely read—more's the pity. I do not hesitate to say that the introduction makes it clear that the document represents not Government policy, but Ministry of Defence or military policy. However, it is significant and we cannot ignore the section on the political dimension, which states: Crime, terrorism and political extremism may increasingly require a military element to the Government response. I suspect that that is true.

It should be clear that, despite earlier comments by my old sparring partner the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), in no sense is this an attack on the MOD police; nor was the Division that we managed to squeeze in. I have been hugely reassured and impressed during the past three months by the growing professionalism of the MDP. I look forward to visiting Wethersfield. I have been invited and I shall certainly go, because I am convinced now that it is a mature police force and that its training is up to the Home Office standard. Not only is it inspected by the Home Office constabularies, but it trains Home Office forces in a number of areas; we must dispel the myth. This is a criticism not of the police, but of the Government for the way in which they sought to tack on that series of clauses.

I return to the Ministry of Defence Police Act 1987. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Walsall, South will have had many such instances, but I cannot help recalling that on 24 February 1987, I said: today, we shall create a police force with a national jurisdiction under the direct operational control of a Minister of the Crown. Throughout our nation's history we have resisted this sort of arrangement and I am astonished that Parliament has allowed it to happen so easily … I recognise reality when it stares me in the face. However, I am certain that we have not heard the last of the Bill."—[Official Report, 24 February 1987; Vol. 111, c. 174.] We should look to the role of the MOD police in future, as it will change. I have seen its new role with the Committee in Kosovo—under the direction of the United Nations—where undoubtedly it is performing a valuable international role, combining the best of British policing with a military tradition. That is perhaps one way in which the MOD police could expand in the future. I do not know whether that is the way forward, but certainly it should not be ruled out. It might be a way of strengthening the force.

Above all, we owe it to the force to give its purpose more clarity in the future than we have in the past. Overall, this has been a good and useful Bill and I hope that in continuing the life of the service Acts, we will have performed a service for Her Majesty's forces.

10.1 pm

Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West)

Before we started discussing the Bill, some hon. Members told me that armed forces Bills tended to be technical, complex and boring. At times, this Bill may have been technical and complex, but boring it most certainly was not. As the House has gathered, from the start the Bill excited some controversy and there has been extensive and lively debate on many subjects. I have at times wondered whether the precedents that the Select Committee set might be used as case examples in examinations for clerks and MOD officials.

I wish to place on record my thanks for the compliments that I have received today, and I thank all Committee members for their commitment, co-operation and interest. I wish to thank Admiral Cobbold—our specialist adviser—the clerk of the Committee, the other parliamentary staff and MOD officials for their assistance and advice. I wish to thank the Liaison Committee for funding our overseas visits, which we all found invaluable in giving us a glimpse of the realities of dealing with military discipline in multinational conflict situations.

I wish to thank the Defence Committee for giving us access to its in-depth investigations of armed forces personnel issues. I wish to thank the Chairman of the Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), for giving us his views and the benefit of his experience. I wish to thank all those who assisted us with their oral and written evidence and their general advice and assistance.

Of course I would like to thank also the British armed forces, whose national and international reputation for professionalism and standards is second to none. It is one thing to sit in the security and comfort of this Chamber or a Committee Room debating military discipline. It is quite another thing to be a soldier who is subject to that discipline far away from family and home comforts, unable to go off duty—often for weeks at a time—and dealing daily with people who are seeking to kill those he is trying to protect and who would easily and happily kill him if he gets in their way.

One of the benefits of the Select Committee process is the opportunity that it gives Committee members to hear directly from those who our proposed legislation would most affect. I wish to share three lasting impressions that stayed with me following our brief visits; they say a great deal about the qualities of our armed forces and the situations of which we must he aware when we look at military discipline.

My first impression is of the presentation made by the commanding officer and his team in the 1st Battalion, the King's Own Scottish Borderers when we visited the Episkopi garrison in Cyprus. They told us how they had looked for the small but significant things that they could do to improve discipline and morale among the forces. Quite radically it seemed to me, they even involved the regimental sergeant-major as a key access point for the grievances of some junior ranks. Hon. Members look bemused, because they have not heard of an RSM playing that role before.

My second impression is of an instructor at the military corrective training facility at Colchester. He told me how he used his skills not only to help service personnel overcome the circumstances that had led to their misconduct, but in a voluntary capacity to raise money for a Russian orphanage. He took some of his annual leave every year to spend time at that place.

The third impression that will stay with me has influenced my perspective on military discipline and future legislation. I listened to the calm presentation of the Ministry of Defence policeman in Pristina who told me of his experience after the tragic bus bombing incident that occurred a few weeks ago. He had to deal with grieving Serbian families and, along with the military, a community that was hellbent on revenge, as well as supporting our armed forces personnel in their efforts to maintain order and to investigate and handle the horror that they had just witnessed.

Those three examples on their own say an awful lot to us when we consider military discipline. I have already spoken for six minutes and the House will know that the Select Committee spent much of its time examining the extension of jurisdiction. I wish to place on record my support for the recommendations in the Committee's report and welcome the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South about the Ministry of Defence police. Certainly, at local constituency level, I and the community with whom they deal have always had a positive impression of them.

The time has come to move on to the long-term recommendation that we consolidate the legislation on military discipline in a tri-service Bill. The Select Committee is well aware of what a mammoth task that would be and the Chief of the Defence Staff made us aware of the flexibility that the different armed forces would require. All of us on the Committee thought that we needed to increase the pressure for a tri-service Bill and—I put my bid in early—for a full parliamentary Session to consider what would be a complex but significant piece of legislation.

Challenging times are ahead for all of us interested in the armed forces and military discipline. I hope that the Committee's report will play a significant, if small, part in future considerations.

10.9 pm

Mr. Keetch

I join colleagues in congratulating the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) on her chairmanship of the Select Committee. The selection of its members was difficult at the outset and many voices in the Chamber expressed concern. However, by and large, members of the Committee have worked extremely well together apart from one outburst from the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who accused the Liberal Democrats of being in cahoots with the Government. For the record, I remind him that we opposed the motion that was put before us earlier tonight. I also remind him that it was at our request that the Secretary of State and the Chief of the Defence Staff came before the Committee. We played a significant role, as the record will show.

I am glad to see the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) present. In our debate on 9 January, I said that he should have been a member of the Committee. The reason I wanted him on the Committee was that I was aware of his concern that our actions now and those of the past few years might affect the military effectiveness and the core ability of Her Majesty's armed forces to do their work. When the Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, came before the Select Committee on 6 March, I put to him the same direct question that I put to the commander of every unit we visited. I asked whether the changes that we were proposing, or those to which the House had agreed in the past few years, affected our military effectiveness in any way. The Chief of the Defence Staff replied: No. it has not, and indeed, some of our worst fears on the bureaucratic side … are not being realised". When I pressed him to say whether he felt that anything that we were doing would affect military effectiveness, he again said no, adding: I can assure you that if operational effectiveness were being affected by anything, I would make that perfectly clear. That underlines the statements that members of my party have been making for the past few years: the changes in discipline that have occurred have not in any way affected our military effectiveness.

We were right to visit forces overseas. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who, sadly, is not in his place, thought that we were junketing, but he was entirely wrong. Our visits were extremely important because they enabled members of the Select Committee to identify exactly what we were doing, and Her Majesty's armed forces could feel that we were doing a thorough job. During our visits to Kosovo, Cyprus, Colchester and HMS Invincible—the last of which I, sadly, was unable to attend—we spoke directly to the men and, increasingly, the women who serve in Her Majesty's armed forces. I should like in particular to express my thanks to Brigadier Hamish Rollo and Major Mark Carleton-Smith in Kosovo and to the RAF people we met at Episkopi in Cyprus.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West was right about the King's Own Scottish Borderers. We saw a regiment based in Cyprus that is making innovations not only in the handling of discipline, but in retention and recruitment. The regiment's actions in the Scottish borders to recruit additional people and to bring back people who have left the regiment should serve as a beacon for the Government.

Two aspects have not been thoroughly discussed today, but they were fully discussed in Committee. The first is the accountability of the Ministry of Defence police. We made a recommendation, to which I know the Minister paid close attention, regarding the composition of the national MOD police committee. We said that it should be reviewed and that at least a third of its members should be drawn from outside the civil service, the police service or the Armed Services. I strongly believe that that should be done. The right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) said that I was wrong to criticise the MDP, but I do not criticise them—they are right to do what they are doing. However, they must be an accountable police force. If MOD police are to go on to the streets of Hereford, Walsall or anywhere else, local people must feel that they have accountability. The Committee was right to make that recommendation and to consider the protocols between the MOD police and local forces.

The Committee also expressed concern about firearms. We were assured by the chief constable of the MDP that if forces are either going on auxiliary to support the civil police—perhaps as a result of flooding—or travelling from one base to another, the firearms that they carry will be kept in secure safes in the boots of their cars, and that they will not carry sidearms or other weapons as they move about unless they are on escort duty or some other duty that requires them. I believe that that is not the case.

Mr. Hancock

It is simply not true.

Mr. Keetch

My hon. Friend is right. I have been told that in my constituency those officers regularly carry firearms when they are moving from place to place. I hope that the Minister will ensure that the assurance given by the chief constable to the Committee that that will no longer be the case will be implemented. That will prevent the situation in which MDP officers who come across a crime being committed get involved in it when they are carrying sidearms. If that happened, a can of worms would be opened and no one in the House would want that.

In conclusion, whenever we discuss these matters—and we do so sensibly—we must remember that the men and women we talk about put their lives on the line. We can talk about that, but they, and those people in my constituency who have lost their lives in the past year, have delivered the goods when it matters. That is why I am particularly concerned to ensure that nothing in this Bill or previous measures affects our capability. I am glad to say that I do not believe that anything does.

10.15 pm
Mr. Bruce George

It is often said by football fans that football teams are not as good now as they were 20 years ago. The same has been said of Select Committees considering Armed Forces Bills. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) impressed us with his knowledge of the classics. Well, I am reminded of "Much Ado About Nothing". In the past, I have served on similar Committees, and we considered a series of issues, including capital punishment, gays in the military, drugs, women, race relations, human rights and what happens when a commanding officer goes bonkers. I must confess that the present Select Committee report is pretty tame stuff.

Mr. Key

I must remind the hon. Gentleman that all those exciting things happened under a Conservative Government—[Interruption.]

Mr. George

Absolutely; the commanding officers went bonkers too.

I was pleased when my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) gave generous tribute to the Select Committee on Defence, including thanks for the loan of our second Clerk. That was a grievous loss; when one is dealing with a labyrinthine, bureaucratic organisation like the Ministry of Defence the disappearance of one's deputy Clerk, from a staff of four—almost absent with leave—has repercussions for the Committee. I am afraid that was regrettable. Despite that, we agreed to loan our Clerk.

Had I been Chairman of the special Select Committee, I would have had more staff than Admiral Cobbold alone, who is an excellent adviser. One cannot deal with the MOD—unless the MOD is represented on the Committee. However, if balance is restored, the Committee then functions as it should and tries to monitor the MOD—rather than the MOD monitoring itself. In future I hope that the Committee goes in with more arms.

Very briefly, I recognise the generous remarks of the hon. Members for Salisbury (Mr. Key) and for Hereford (Mr. Keetch). I assure them that their remarks will be taken into account when the final case sheet is presented to the Defence Police Federation. It remains to be seen how much it takes that deathbed repentance into account. The most important message to come out of the Armed Forces Bill Committee is that it should not operate in the same way again. I hope that the lessons will be well absorbed by the MOD; the Committee should not be packed with Government Members, and should not have two Defence Ministers on it. Perhaps the Opposition could loosen up a little, and an odd Back Bencher, like the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) could serve on it—although he is the best example of why the status quo may be correct. I do not mean that; he would have been a wonderful addition.

Most importantly, procedures should be different. I would much prefer the Defence Committee to be involved from the outset and engaged in discussion at each stage; the Select Committee should not present major changes, or, in this case, less than major changes, suddenly and dramatically. The special Select Committee was right to say that a draft Bill should be presented to the Defence Committee; when the Defence Committee has done its work, perhaps the Bill can be passed on to a more traditional environment for consideration. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury is my sparring partner; I did not realise we were sparring partners until he said so and I picked up the insult—[Interruption.] We are not complete heavyweights.

I hope that the MOD follows the advice in the report and tries to deal with tri-service discipline legislation. The previous Government must take the blame for the fact that we do not have such legislation. We were discussing that in 1987, yet nothing has happened.

In conclusion—this speech will be rather briefer than my previous appearance here—I must repeat that in terms of accountability, the MOD police have had investigations up to here. They have had endless internal investigations, inquiries conducted by the National Audit Office, regular reports of Her Majesty's inspectorate of police, and reports on them by the Public Accounts Committee. I hope that we do not have to expose them to any further investigations, apart from the next one by the Defence Committee. Let them do their work; they are a professional force and deserve to be recognised, not to be perpetually kicked in the groin.

Despite its abortive birth, the Committee has managed to develop satisfactory work methods. The report, too, is satisfactory as far as it goes. However, I repeat my hope that when the next Committee is constituted, lessons will have been learned from the appallingly wrong decisions that were made three or four months ago.

10.21 pm
Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith

I join the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), who did not exactly praise the Committee for its work, but thought that it passed muster. I agree, because the remit was fairly narrow and restrictive; had a broader brush been used, it could have got into trouble. I shall use this moment to pay my respects to all those who took part in it, as I am an old soldier who is probably in the dying moments of his membership of the House, although I shall move on, fully alive, into civilian life—or rather, normal life—afterwards.

One thing that attracts me in the report is the recognition by the Committee of how dangerous the waters are in which it moves. I do not know whether there are many people left in the House now who saw active service in the second world war—probably only three or four, if that, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath). Those people must be very much aware that unless people have seen active service, it is difficult for them to get under the skin of those in the armed services, who may seem to us like members of a restricted club.

There is often a danger that we shall try to impose on the services some of the civilian laws and legal ways of dealing with complaints, including the European convention on human rights. I know that that has a strong appeal for people, but for the armed forces, in the future as in the past, our civilian rights and laws may not have the same resonance when it comes to questions of life and death. I hope that we shall bear in mind the fact that what works for us in our civilian life will not always work so well for those in the armed services.

I feel that strongly, as someone who has also been involved in peacekeeping in India, where we had to have a discipline that was rather different from that which prevailed when I served in Belgium for a short time, during the second world war.

I am reminded of the difficulty by the words of the outgoing chief of defence staff, General Sir Charles Guthrie, who on 19 December, in his speech to the Royal United Services Institute, said: If we hamstring our fighting services with inappropriate legislation then we will create a generation of sailors, soldiers and airmen who are little more than a gendarmerie. To judge from the comments that I have heard from the members of the Committee who have taken part in the debate, that is not a failing that could be attributed to them, nor will it be in the future.

I hope that the armed forces and the Ministry of Defence will continue to share with us that great responsibility for providing a framework for discipline in which it is possible for the men and women of our armed forces to work as a disciplined team—to recognise the duty that they have to society, especially in peacekeeping, but also to remember that they are there to be tough and to defend our rights.

10.24 pm
Mr. Hancock

I shall be brief, mindful that the House would be disappointed if the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) did not have time to speak tonight, as everyone has praised him and recommended him for membership of the Select Committee. He has put down a significant marker for the future.

Since Second Reading, the House, including the hon. Member for Reigate, has come a long way. I remember the contributions at that stage, and I fully expected the Bill to be fought tooth and nail. I compliment the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) on her eloquent and informative speech this evening, although it was too short. She did more justice to the Committee's work than does the report. Her six-minute sketch of what the Committee has been up to over the past three months gave the House an insight into the serious endeavours of members of the Committee—despite the obvious packing of the Committee—to get to the bottom of what the Bill is about.

I expect that there will not be a Division at the end of our deliberations tonight. I see no point in that. We all believe that the armed forces need the right sort of legislation, and we have come a great distance in producing that, although we recognise that the Bill does not go the whole way. Hon. Members who spoke in Committee and who are not present tonight made points that need to be addressed—for example, about the way in which courts martial are to operate in future. I welcome the fact that warrant officers can be further involved. They should not be debarred from sitting on courts martial where senior officers are involved. Junior Army and naval officers regularly sit on courts martial judging officers of equal or senior rank. That issue needs to be addressed. The way in which custodial sentences are dealt with and the rights of appeal need to be reformed, and no doubt that will happen in time. Hon. Members were right to put down markers in that direction.

Like the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), the Chairman of the Defence Committee, I believe that a disservice was done to the Ministry of Defence police tonight by some of the comments that were made. The MOD police have been knocked and I believe, like him, that it is about time that the knocking stopped. If we give them increased responsibility, of course we want to make sure that they are accountable, and that that added responsibility is clearly defined, not only to them, but to their civilian colleagues and the wider population in which they will operate, so that no one is left under any illusions about what that added responsibility should mean.

The involvement of MOD police overseas is a step in the right direction. I am mindful of the time and the fact that the hon. Member for Reigate wants to get in. We have come a long way and produced a good piece of legislation, but that cannot be the end of the story. I hope that the next review will deal properly with the outstanding issues and with tri-service discipline. I agree with the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West that the Committee should have a year in which to undertake such a review.

10.27 pm
Mr. Blunt

It is typical that I shall probably be speaking at the end of the Third Reading. I made a nine-second speech on the programme motion for the Second Reading, I was unable to get in at all on a subsequent stage, and I was cut oft at the end of the Committee stage.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) and to the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), the Chairman of the Defence Committee, for their kind remarks about me—the right hon. Gentleman's remarks were kind, once he had withdrawn half of them. I noted his point about the report being good, so far as it goes. The Chairman of the Defence Committee would be pretty unimpressed by a document of 67 paragraphs over 26 pages. By his standards and those of the Defence Committee, that is pretty thin gruel, given the scope that the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill had to cover.

The way in which the Bill has been dealt with must be reviewed, as the right hon. Gentleman said. There was the opportunity for it to go to the Defence Committee. A Defence Minister and a shadow spokesman should have been attached to the Committee. The necessary expertise would then have been in place to allow the Committee to consider all the issues.

The Bill is necessary, and it would be grossly irresponsible for the House to vote against it on Third Reading. This is the Bill by which we sustain the armed forces. It is a unique piece of legislation which gives us the opportunity on a cross-party basis, with the authority of a Select Committee, to examine the issues in proper detail. As I am about to run out of time, I shall conclude by picking up on the comments made by the hon. Member for Hereford, who should not weigh so heavily the evidence given in public by senior officers who have no choice about responsibilities further up the chain of command. Perhaps he should rely more—

It being half-past Ten o'clock, MR. SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Orders [7 November 2000 and this day].

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.