HL Deb 08 July 1977 vol 385 cc568-73

12.47 p.m.

Lord WINTERBOTTOM rose to move, That the draft Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts (Continuation) Order 1977, laid before the House on 14th June, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of this order is to continue in force the Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts for a further year, that is until 31st August 1978. I intend to be brief. This debate is essentially about whether or not the Services Discipline Acts should be renewed for another year. Noble Lords have, however, taken the opportunity in previous years to widen the debate to cover discipline, recruiting, conditions of service and morale. Although I shall not cover all these aspects in my opening remarks, I shall, of course, listen with interest to what noble Lords have to say.

This is the first time that the order has been considered at this time of the year. As your Lordships will recall, the order has normally been taken in the autumn. This was changed by the Armed Forces Act 1976, because it was considered that this would allow for greater flexibility in the use of Parliamentary time. Noble Lords will also recall that the Armed Forces Bill 1975, when introduced, provided for the abolition of the annual continuation order. But, during the Committee on the Bill this was rejected; so the continuation order is still with us.

With regard to discipline, a commencement order brought into effect, as from 1st July, the major provisions of the Armed Forces Act 1976. Although the Act received the Royal Assent on 26th October 1976, an interim period of a few months was required to enable us to make arrangements for implementing the provisions of the Act, and to issue the necessary regulations. Among the most significant of these provisions were an extension of the powers of summary punishment exercisable by commanding officers in the Army, the RAF and the Royal Marines; the establishment of new courts (known as Standing Civilian Courts) for dealing with civilians who are subject to the Army and Air Force Acts 1955; and the introduction of new powers of punishment for civilians under the jurisdiction of the Discipline Acts of all three Services.

Under the provisions relating to summary powers, commanding officers in the Army, the RAF, and the Royal Marines can now award periods of detention of up to 60 days, in place of the previous maximum of 28 days, or fines of up to 28 days' pay. This should provide a quicker, less cumbersome, and less expensive means of dealing with a range of essentially disciplinary offences whose seriousness does not really justify the full panoply of court martial proceedings. In the main, the individual Serviceman will probably feel that it is preferable to he tried by his commanding officer than by a court martial; however, he will have the right to opt for a court martial.

Hitherto the arrangements for dealing with civilian offenders overseas under the provisions of the Service Discipline Acts have been rather too inflexible, particularly in the case of juveniles. The new Standing Civilian Courts in Germany and the new range of punishments (which include the power to sentence young offenders to a form of borstal training in the United Kingdom) will mean that in future the treatment of civilians will he much more in line with the general arrangements in this country. This reflects the willingness of the Services to modify their disciplinary procedures in the light of civilian practice.

Also on 1st July 1977, members of the Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service and the Women's Royal Naval Service were brought under the Naval Discipline Act, and became a legal part of Her Majesty's naval forces. Their Army and Air Force equivalents have been subject to the Army and Air Force Acts, respectively, since 1941. Since these new provisions became operative only last week, we cannot draw any conclusions as to their general effectiveness; but we shall naturally be keeping a close watch on their operation. Discipline in our Armed Forces is excellent. This, my Lords, is a reflection of how fair and sensible are the codes of discipline we seek to continue. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts (Continuation) Order 1977, laid before the House on 14th June, be approved.—(Lord Winterbottom.)

12.51 p.m.

Baroness VICKERS

My Lords, I should first like to thank the noble Lord for what he has already said and the description he has given. It is very difficult, I think, as he so rightly said, to talk to this order because it is so tightly drawn. While I realise that one has difficulty in being out of order in this House, I see that an ex-Speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Mawbray-King, is on the Woolsack, and, having read the debate in the other House, I shall try to keep in order on this very important subject. The reason why I am speaking on it, my Lords, is that I have had the opportunity of seeing the Services at work, in Indonesia for 14 months and in Malaysia for four years; I visited Kenya during Mau-Mau, and also Aden, Borneo during confrontation and, of course, Ulster. This has proved to me that we have the finest Armed Forces in the world, and I should like to pay a tribute to the high standard of discipline, about which the noble Lord has already spoken, especially of those serving in Ulster. When I was visiting Ulster I met a sergeant whom I had met previously in Aden, and he said that one of the difficulties there, in Ulster, is recognising who is your enemy.

My Lords, this order is a difficult one as it imposes conditions on a comparatively small section of our community, and one wants to be certain that discipline has been carried out in the manner intended by the Armed Forces Act 1976, and that it is fair; so I hope we shall keep this yearly debate, because it is very useful. For example, it is extremely difficult for a man in Ulster, having received normal training, to find himself constrained from using those methods when in Ulster—having, for example, to consult the yellow card before firing a live round. This, I think, is where real discipline is shown: expecially, too, when the individual is subject to personal abuse and physical assault by civilians.

My Lords, I want to raise two matters, of which I have given the noble Lord prior notice. He has answered me to a certain extent with regard to the WRNS and the nurses; but I should like to know whether since the WRNS became subject to the provisions of the Armed Forces Act 1976, which was for them the first time, the number of jobs they can do has now been extended; because, as I understand it, owing to the fact that they were previously civilians, there were some jobs that they were not able to undertake. So would the noble Lord let me know whether this change, which many of us were rather worried about at that time, has been successful, and what effect it will have on the careers of women in the Service? Are they able now to go to sea, or to undertake other jobs with regard to our security which they were previously not allowed to do? I hope the noble Lord will be able to give me some information on that.

I should also like to know what difference it has made to recruiting; because one of the points suggested previously was that, as civilians, they did a very good job, but many young women would not like to join if it became a Service under the Act. How many, if any, have been before a court martial; and particularly I want to know, in view of the extended powers of commanding officers with regard to sentencing, which increased in 1975, how that affects the women, because they did not come under this procedure at all in the past. The noble Lord mentioned something about the civilian courts in Germany. I should like to know whether he can tell me—I have asked him previously—how many Service personnel have been before such a court and what has been the result; and are these courts helping to make relations more friendly between the civilians in Germany and those serving there, bearing in mind that there has been trouble in the past?

My Lords, I end by saying that anyone who saw the parade of the Army and the RAF on television when Her Majesty the Queen visited Germany, and the Review at Spithead of the Royal Navy, must feel very grateful that there are in Britain men and women of such a high calibre, who are willing to undertake the many tasks assigned to them, which shows how discipline, if fairly applied, really works. When I was Member of Parliament for Devonport, I was fortunate in having good training by all three Services, and when I am home now I go to live on Salisbury Plain, so I can continue my education and my interest in those members of Her Majesty's Forces who serve our nation so well.

12.56 p.m.


My Lords, may I make one final comment on what the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, has said. I think she will be quite pleased to know, although she must realise it, of course, that all these new provisions came into effect only last week; so we cannot really assess what their effect will be on recruiting for the Women's Royal Naval Service, or what the impact of the special civilian courts will be, and so on. These things, perhaps, will demand a debate next year, when we have had a look at the first year of their operation.

My Lords, before I sit down, I should like to say that the bringing of the Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service and the Women's Royal Naval Service under the Naval Discipline Act will give the members of these forces more equal opportunities, and will also provide greater flexibility in the operation of naval discipline. Within the disciplinary code men and women will have equal powers, both in the administration and the receipt of punishments. For the first time the WRNS officer in charge of HMS "Dauntless", which is the WRNS new-entry training establishment, as the noble Baroness will know, will become a commanding officer in her own right and have full powers of punishment over all naval staff serving there. So this is a raising of the status of the WRNS under these new arrangements, where a commanding officer can be a woman with the full powers of a commanding officer. I am certain the noble Baroness will welcome that.

That is all I can add, except to say that the recruiting field generally is buoyant. The Services are able at the moment to be fairly selective in their choice of recruits, and that selectivity can be seen in the excellence of the Armed Forces which represent us in the world today.

On Question, Motion agreed to.