HL Deb 18 July 1983 vol 443 cc1016-9

5.32 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Lord Trefgarne)

My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts (Continuation) Order 1983, laid before the House on 29th June, be approved.

As your Lordships will be aware, a new Armed Forces Act is passed every five years when the opportunity is taken for the provisions and procedures of the service disciplinary system to be reviewed in depth and updated as necessary. In the intervening years the annual renewal of the service discipline Acts is by means of continuation order such as the one for which I now seek your Lordships' approval. The last quinquennial Armed Forces Act was passed in 1981.

Your Lordships had the opportunity in the course of the debate on the Address to consider the broader issues of foreign and defence policy and, with your Lordships' permission, I will therefore confine myself now to matters related to personnel and discipline within the armed forces. But I will of course endeavour to answer any questions which may arise in the debate.

During its period of office the Government have demonstrated a tangible commitment, not only to the need for effective defence and the provision of resources to achieve it, but also to the well-being of the armed forces themselves. For example. in 1979 the Government made a firm commitment to restore the pay of servicemen to the levels of their civilian counterparts and to maintain it thereafter at these levels. Your Lordships will be aware that we have recently accepted the latest recommendations of the armed forces pay review body.

Of course, proper levels of pay, though essential, are not by themselves enough. The Government are also examining improvements to conditions of service which will reinforce their pay policy. Of particular importance is the accommodation of servicemen, and in this field the Government are continuing their efforts to improve the standard of accommodation. I myself was privileged to visit Lowestoft last Tuesday for the naming ceremony of the third accommodation barge which will provide greatly improved accommodation for over 800 servicemen in the Falklands.

A positive stance of this sort has rewards in the form of high morale, motivation and levels of expertise, all of which were amply demonstrated last year in the South Atlantic. The confidence of the forces in the Government and their policy is also shown in figures for recruitment and retention. Although established strengths have declined slightly since 1981, the total strength of the armed forces, at 320,600, is still higher than the figure for 1979. This, together with the improved retention rate, means that the general level of skill and experience in the forces is high while the demand for basic training is reduced. The total trained strength in the armed forces is some 14,000 above the 1979 figure.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, before leaving that particular point, could the noble Lord tell us what impact the Falklands operation has had on recruitment?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, if the noble Lord would allow me to finish my opening remarks, I shall most certainly be willing to deal with that point when I close the debate.

I have already referred in passing to the magnificent achievements of the armed forces in the South Atlantic. The dedication and courage which was shown during that campaign is typical of the performance and conduct of the services wherever they may be serving around the world. The reputation they enjoy for professionalism is due in no small measure to the framework of the service discipline acts within which they operate. It was George Washington who said: Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable. procures success to the weak and esteem to all". Advances in technology and the sophistication of weapon systems may have changed the tactics and conduct of battle, but there remains the essential need for a well-trained and disciplined force. The men and women of the Army, Navy and Air Force are just such a force and we can take pride in them. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 29th June be approved—(Lord Trefgarne.)

Lord Bishopston

My Lords, I feel sure that the House will welcome the order which has been introduced by the Minister. I should like to underline the remarks he made about the personnel of our armed forces. I had the benefit of going to the Falklands only a few months ago and was very impressed by the calibre of the task force, particularly since they had to travel 8,000 miles before they reached their destination and faced the major challenge of the Falklands campaign. From the technical point of view we were all impressed by the strategy and by the weaponry and high technology with which our armed forces are equipped. As both I and, I am sure, other noble Lords have mentioned previously, the men and women who serve in the armed forces are our greatest asset so far as our future defence is concerned. Therefore, I fully support the Minister's comments. It is most important to keep morale at a very high level.

As the Minister said, the order which he has laid before the House tonight is based on the Armed Forces Act 1981. This continued and amended the Army Act 1955, the Air Force Act 1955 and the Naval Discipline Act 1957. This is an annual order which prolongs the powers authorised by the measure. As the Act with which we are concerned was amended as recently as during the 1981–82 Session, one assumes, probably rightly, that the measure is up-to-date for the current situation.

However, we are faced with changing circumstances, especially so far as discipline is concerned. It would be helpful to the House if the Minister could go into a little more detail about the consideration which is being given to aspects of discipline. It would also be helpful if the Minister could say whether he is completely satisfied that the powers contained in the 1981 Act, even though they been so recently reviewed, are still relevant to the changing situations which face Her Majesty's armed forces, especially with regard trends relating to discipline, behaviour and so forth.

I will not detain the House longer on this particular measure because I anticipate that after the Recess, but not before, we shall be debating the White Paper on defence and that will give the House a better opportunity to deal at greater depth with some of the matters which might otherwise have been questioned under this particular measure.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his reception to this order, and perhaps I might seek to reply to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, when he intervened during my opening remarks. There has been no discernible longterm effect on recruiting from the Falklands conflict. There was some immediate, short-term effect I understand—but nothing having any long-term implications.

On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, one of the matters to which I attended when I first arrived at my present department was to inquire about the level of discipline because I, like everyone else, had read a number of reports about service problems. But I am convinced that the general level of discipline in our armed forces is as good as it ever was and no worse than in the rest of the community. Incidents caused by servicemen do tend to hit the headlines rather more than they do when caused by civilians, for reasons I am not immediately clear about. In general, we have no cause for worry about the general level of discipline and behaviour among our armed servicemen.

As was said by the noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, we are anticipating a debate on defence matters generally in the autumn. I, too, will contain my wider observations until that occasion. I beg to move.

On Question, Motion agreed to.