HL Deb 11 July 1984 vol 454 cc949-56

7.32 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts (Continuation) Order 1984, laid before the House on 19th June, be approved.

As your Lordships will be aware, the continuation order which we are discussing today is part of a continuing process of parliamentary oversight of the service discipline Acts which set the legal framework for the operation of our armed forces. Every five years, a new Armed Forces Act is required, when the opportunity arises for those disciplinary procedures to be reviewed and improved as necessary. In the intervening years, an annual continuation order, such as I am moving today, is introduced. The last such Armed Forces Act was in 1981, when Parliament expressed itself content that the present system of quinquennial Acts, supplemented by annual continuation orders in the intervening years, should continue, as it provides an adequate measure of parliamentary control over the workings of the service discipline Acts.

The next Armed Forces Act will fall due in 1986. My department is already well advanced in reviewing the recommendations of the 1981 Select Committee with a view to determining what proposals should be brought forward in that Bill and is also considering what other amendments will be required at that time. This is necessarily a lengthy task and I am sure that your Lordships will understand that I am not at present in a position to anticipate the results of the current review.

I said on this occasion last year that this Government were committed to the maintenance of effective defence and the provision of resources to achieve that. I also explained that an important aspect of this was the continuing existence of highly professional, well-motivated and disciplined armed forces. This is equally true today and I emphasise the Government's determination to ensure the continuing well-being of those forces. Armed forces' pay and their conditions of service, especially their accommodation, are of the greatest significance in this context and are factors to which we attach a great deal of importance. The success of our defence policy hinges on the men and women in the services. The Government are therefore well aware of the importance of securing the right numbers and the right quality.

Last year we recruited some 37,000 men and women into the forces, bringing the total strength of the services to 325,900. That is some 13,400 more than in May 1979. Recruiting is good, and overall the numbers we want are coming forward. There have been one or two problem areas, namely technicians, engineers and certain officer categories, but we are considering measures to improve the situation here. I am also especially pleased with the high quality of the young men and women entering the forces today. Improved retention has been another important feature of our personnel policy. The lower levels of outflow which we have achieved in recent years reflect the better return of service which we are obtaining for the training given to service personnel. This is in sharp contrast to the situation in the late 1970s and must reflect the improvements to the conditions of service made since 1979, such as pay comparability and greater flexibility in terms of engagement.

It would not be appropriate in our short debate this evening for me to rehearse all the efforts that the Government are making to improve the quality of life for our servicemen. I merely repeat that the many aspects of our endeavours are paying off in terms of buoyant recruiting and improved retention. However, in considering the maintenance of highly professional services, we should not forget that a significant element is the continuation of a clear code of discipline, which has its rewards both in peace and in war. It contributes to the very high standards for which our armed services are rightly renowned and enables these standards to be maintained, even in the very trying circumstances in the Lebanon early this year. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 19th June be approved.—(Lord Trefgarne.)

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I am glad that the Minister has introduced this continuation order in a serious and sober fashion—not that we should expect this Minister to introduce it in any other way. He has reminded the House that in the context of how Parliament exercises control over the armed forces, this order is of some importance. Downgraded from a Bill laid before Parliament every year until 1949—there is no quibble about the present procedure of a quinquennial review and up-dating—tonight still provides Members of both Houses with the right and the duty to scrutinise the disciplinary codes governing conduct in the armed forces. We do this not only against the background of our own concepts, our own attitudes, our own intelligence and what is brought to our attention but also against the background of the report and recommendations of the Select Committee on Defence, to which the noble Lord referred. In another place, my honourable friend Mr. Denzil Davies asked—I believe with effect—a number of questions, some of which were answered, some of which were not. As the Minister will have read, other honourable friends of mine took part in the very lively debate which was held a week ago in another place.

We need to remind ourselves that we are discussing the legal basis for the serviceman's special position in law and that we have a duty to do so in your Lordships' House. The Minister referred to the consultations which are taking place in order to prepare for the quinquennial review in 1986. I wonder whether the Minister could indicate how far his consultations have taken him in preparation for the 1986 Act. The Minister will appreciate from my remarks that I do not wish to make debating points of matters which could be raised. However, it would be of interest, since only two of the five years are left, to know whether the Minister will be looking at one point or another.

For instance, will the Minister spend some time discussing the very grave problem of drug abuse? On Friday of this week the Government have provided a full day for a debate in another place on the prevention of drug abuse. We cannot pick up the newspapers or listen to the radio without there being some reference to a drug-orientated crime or tragedy. This matter was debated in the other place last week, and at col. 283 the Minister gave some statistics.

I accept, of course, the veracity of the Minister's statement in another place. But, quite frankly, I feel the terror that I believe is shared by most clean-living citizens at the enormity of the catastrophe that can flow from drug abuse. I believe we need to spend a little time considering the incidence that there may be of drug abuse in the forces. Can the Minister assure me and the House that he is fully satisfied that all that can be done to detect drug abuse is being done?

In the midst of closed institutions such as the forces there can be found an evil not fully appreciated until it has grown into a monster. Sadly, society outside the forces is in the middle of a drugs crisis. At seven o'clock this evening I listened to the radio, to hear the latest daily incidence—a £6 million drugs haul in Wales; clearly caught, and heavy sentences have been given. One can find in the newspapers every day references to drug abuse. Nearer home, one can read on the tapes tonight of a situation affecting the forces in Germany. I wonder whether the Minister has any comment to make? The report states: Deathbed tip led to army drug charges. A tip by a soldier before his mysterious death led to eight of his comrades being arrested for possessing drugs, a British Army court martial was told today. Suspicions that the death of the unnamed 21-year-old soldier was drug-related could not, however, be confirmed by a post mortem, the court heard. The eight soldiers from the 14th-20th Kings Hussars stationed at Hohne in North-Rhine Westphalia come from north-west England. They are charged with possessing cannabis and, in three cases, the hallucinatory drug LSD. The court was told that they bought the drugs in Amsterdam and the North German city of Hanover. Seven of the men pleaded guilty today and the eighth, who is accused of possessing LSD, will be formally charged when the trial resumes tomorrow". That is a graphic illustration of the size of the problem.

On the same tapes, there is a wholly unrelated report but one to which reference can be made tonight. It states: Cocaine a growing threat—report. A concerted effort to eradicate the 'evil' of drug trafficking is called for in a report, published this afternoon, on police forces throughout England and Wales. Drug smuggling provides a lucrative venture for hardened criminals and can seriously undermine society, Sir Lawrence Byford, Chief Inspector of Constabulary, warns". Can the Minister tell the House a little more, not merely about investigations and prosecutions, but about the nature of education and the ability to detect the presence or the emergence of drug taking?

I look upon young soldiers as being as susceptible as other youngsters who are not in the forces but who are in certain social circumstances. I allude to a situation with which I am familiar in our prisons today. I declare that I have an association with the Prison Officers' Association. Prison officers tell me that they are very uneasy about the unwillingness of the authorities—in their case, the prison service, but in the case we are now considering, it could be the armed services—to recognise that there is a problem and give publicity to it for fear that, by so doing, there may be some cause for embarrassment.

The Minister will be aware that in paragraph 15 of the Select Committee's special report, under the heading "Alcoholism and Drug Abuse" there is the observation, in respect of alcoholism: There was some evidence that a shortage of resources was impeding efforts in this area, and consideration might be given by the Ministry of Defence as to whether a slightly greater expenditure of resources or closer co-operation between the three Services would have beneficial results". I ask the Minister what has been done in that respect. The paragraph continues, after referring to small naval drug squads: We believe that drug abuse in the armed forces might be kept under better control if the other two Services were to use specialist teams in this way and recommend that this possibility be explored before the 1986 Armed Forces Bill is introduced". Is the Minister able to say anything in respect of that statement?

Although I made reference to the problems facing prison officers in respect of drug abuse, the concern there is in respect of human life—not only the lives of the prisoners but also those of the prison officers themselves. But if there is a more serious problem than even we can believe (and the Select Committee report was written three years ago) then the situation could well be getting worse in the forces—where we are not dealing simply with human life, but with national security as well. The Minister can help the House in respect of that matter, as he is entitled to do.

Also, can the Minister say a little more concerning social inquiries in respect of young service offenders? It may not be possible to be dogmatic, but if youngsters get into trouble in the services, they may have a case file behind them containing helpful and supportive intelligence. The Minister in another place spoke about improving the service to the courts by the time of the quinquennial review. But if it is possible to benefit the service to the courts in the next period, why wait until the quinquennial review before revising the procedures? Cannot such an improved service to the courts, which will be beneficial to the services and to servicemen, be implemented now?

The subject of courts martial was also considered by the Select Committee. We are told that this matter is under consideration. I found it extraordinary that when preparing for this debate I had to read the Select Committee's report with even more care than I might otherwise have done in view of my responsibilities tonight. I should like the Minister to comment on the supplementary memorandum on page 82 submitted on behalf of the Secretary of State for Defence, concerning the composition of courts martial. Paragraph 3 of the memorandum states: The members of a court-martial are required to be judges of law as well as of fact and also to determine sentence in the event of a conviction. There is thus a requirement for a knowledge of Service law"— and will the Minister tell the House what that requirement is? Reference was made to possibly one week's or two weeks' understanding of service law. The paragraph continues: which forms part of the training syllubus of officers, for a high educational level and for experience and understanding of the difficulties and exigencies of life in a Service community". Paragraph 4 goes on to explain why noncommissioned officers are ineligible and are not appropriate to serve on courts martial. It states that such an officer: would tend to be relatively young with little experience or else a man below average ability who had been passed over for promotion. Finally there is also the consideration that to grant other ranks membership of a court-martial might be held to diminish the ultimate responsibility of officers for the maintenance of Service discipline". I believe that such remarks are grotesque and offensive in the context that society recognises, not least in respect of our jury service syndrome, that provided one maintains the minimum qualifications—which may be residential or of some other nature—we are seeking to democratise our institutions even more and even faster than they may have been democratised in the past.

I believe that the eligibility of young officers, who themselves might have been only 19 or 20 years of age, with literally no experience of the outside world when they entered the forces, is a subject on which the Minister should comment tonight. In the modern services, the use of NCOs would demonstrate an ability to recognise the changing nature of society. I am not remotely challenging the need for a strict heirarchy of command with responsibility and for all the other aspects of discipline.

I conclude by asking the noble Lord the Minister to be assured from these Benches that I join with him in the tribute which he has paid to the whole of our armed forces. In a troubled world with armed conflict never far from possible, at home with swiftly changing mores which present challenges to our service leaders and those under their command, although tonight we properly debate procedures to deal with those who transgress, we do so in the humble knowledge that we all owe a debt to our servicemen and women we can all remember with pride and humility.

7.51 p.m.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, I think we were all glad to hear the tribute to the forces paid by the noble Lord, Lord Graham, in which I warmly share. I felt reassured because, for understandable reasons, a great deal of his intervention was of a very proper but negative and discouraging nature. I was glad that at the end he was able to pay tribute to the quite extraordinary record of the armed services recently, not only in the Falklands and Northern Ireland—we are accustomed to paying tribute there—but also in the Lebanon, where the professional conduct of our forces was extremely good.

I also join with the noble Lord, Lord Graham, in asking the Government not to be too rigid and dogmatic about five years as the only period possible for making changes in army discipline, because it is perfectly plain to me—and the noble Lord raised some very important questions indeed—that if the problems which he mentioned, for example, are as bad or as worrying as he was indicating, the Government should certainly not wait for five years before making any necessary changes in the discipline Acts. Of course, I assume that all the problems to which he referred, except perhaps the question of courts martial, can be handled within the existing discipline Acts. Perhaps the noble Lord the Minister will answer that point.

As for the courts martial, the noble Lord ended by saying that he believed in a strict hierarchy of authority in the army. So do I, and so does anyone with any military experience. Whether or not that is compatible with giving to non-commissioned officers the power of conducting the court martial of an officer, I do not know, and I should like to think that one over; it is certainly a new point to me.

This is not the occasion for a full length defence debate, but it does enable me to make this point: we do not have enough full-length defence debates in this House, and when we do have a defence debate we cover too wide a field with it. We ought to have more, perhaps shorter, debates covering specific defence issues like out-of-area security or collective European action within NATO. The noble Lord the Minister will, of course, say that this is a matter for the usual channels, and we accept that, but we do not actually believe it because he is such an influential member of the Government team that, if he cared to raise his voice in this cause, I am sure it would have great effect. We appreciate very much the conscientious way in which the noble Lord the Minister replies to our questions and tries to make sense of the Government's defence policy, and we invite him to exercise his influence for more debates where he can demonstrate his talents in this field.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, for the flattering terms in which he closed his remarks just now. I am afraid he overestimates the influence which I have in these matters, but I will certainly see that his views, at least, are represented at an appropriate level.

I am grateful to both noble Lords for their response to the Motion which I have moved in connection with this order. I shall try to deal with as many of the points raised as I can, particularly those raised by the noble Lord, Lord Graham. He referred, first of all, to a number of cases in connection with drug abuse. Most of those, I fear, are in front of courts of one kind or another at the present time and I am, therefore, somewhat constrained as to what I can say. Clearly, I cannot comment on the individual cases, but I can assure the noble Lord that we do take these matters very seriously indeed. I am pleased to say that the level of drug offences does remain low. Much time and effort is directed towards preventing the abuse of drugs through programmes of education and towards the detection of offences where they occur. All three services pursue these courses of action vigorously.

I agree, of course, that when allegations of drug abuse come to light they tend to hit the headlines, particularly when they involve servicemen, and I think sometimes this gives an exaggerated idea of the number of cases with which we have to deal. Having said that, we do regard the matter as a very serious one indeed and are certainly doing everything we can to keep the problem under control.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I am grateful, and I accept what is said by the noble Lord the Minister. I remember that in the Select Committee the level was referred to as less than one in 1,000 and some satisfaction was expressed. Phrases were used to the effect that at least we were better than most other national forces. Whether or not we are better by comparision with publicly declared known drug abuse in other forces, we are primarily concerned with what is happening here. I should like to be reassured by the noble Lord the Minister that within the constraints of finance everything possible is being done. That is why I spoke of alcohol when the reference said that perhaps there should be more resources. We do not want to find that we are perhaps saving money which needs to be spent, as the noble Lord the Minister mentioned, on education.

As I understand it from my conversations with prison officers, we need the ability to detect. Very often drugs are being taken and the people who should be able to detect them are not able to do so because they have not been trained in the proper techniques. If the noble Lord the Minister can say that that aspect of the training of those responsible for such matters is very much in his mind, I shall be grateful.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I can confirm that those in responsible positions—particularly in connecton with young entrants to the services—are given special briefing and instruction on these matters, and are given advice on how to detect the signs of drug abuse and to do something about it. I do not want to be complacent about this. I recognise that one case of drug abuse is one too many, and I certainly would not wish to rest on some defence along the lines that our problem is less than it is, maybe, in some other armed forces.

I was going to deal with the related problem—I suppose it is a related problem—of alcoholism. The services, of course, draw their recruits from society as a whole and will reflect the trends of that society. They cannot hope to escape such problems as alcohol abuse but I do have to say that there is no evidence that alcoholism is a significantly greater problem in the services than in society generally. Drunkenness is not tolerated within the services, but their attitude towards it is not confined to the imposition of legal penalties. A great deal of work is done in prevention and treatment of those affected. Officers are trained to recognise the signs of alcohol abuse so that rehabilitation can be begun as soon as possible, and each service runs a comprehensive programme of education on the dangers of alcohol abuse.

I am satisfied that prevention of alcohol abuse and rehabilitation of those with alcohol problems are well provided for, but I do not think that we should exaggerate the problem which the services have in this respect. As a matter of fact, not too long ago I visited one of the Royal Naval establishments where they treat those suffering from this unfortunate affliction, and I was greatly heartened, I must say, to hear from the officer-in-charge about the very few cases which actually come back to the centre for treatment. In other words, they seem to be able to achieve a pretty high level of permanent cure on those who come into that particular facility.

The noble Lord also asked me about the recommendations in respect of courts martial which emerged from the report of the Select Committee. We have taken the recommendations of the Select Committee very seriously. The Royal Navy has made use of its existing welfare organisation and the naval personal and family service to prepare social inquiry reports on all offenders appearing before courts martial where the court so desires.

The Army and the RAF, having a much larger number of courts martial and no similar welfare service, have been considering ways of providing a like service, taking into account, inevitably I fear, constraints on manpower. No final decision has yet been reached, but I am hopeful that ways will be found of presenting to the courts concerned additional information on the background and circumstances of offenders which is not necessarily provided under the current system.

The use of civilian lawyers was also a matter addressed by the Select Committee. In response to its recommendations we have been considering the case for the greater use of civilian lawyers as prosecutors. I am afraid that, again, this review is not yet complete, but I intend that its outcome will be conveyed to Parliament at a suitable moment.

A review of the possiblity of adopting the Navy system of training in-service volunteers as lawyers, so that it might also apply to the Army and RAF, is also under way. The major problem continues to be the much greater volume of legal work arising in those services from the higher number of courts martial. Nonetheless, we are considering the question, and the outcome of that review will be reported in due course as well.

Both noble Lords referred to the possibility of noncommissioned officers sitting on courts martial. This question has apparently been under consideration for a very long time and I should not be surprised if it was not being considered when the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, was a distinguished Minister at the Ministry of Defence. However, we hope to be able to make a statement before too long. One interesting factor to be considered is the apparent lack of any body of opinion, even among the non-commissioned ranks theselves, in favour of a change from the present arrangements.

I think I have covered the principal points raised by the noble Lords, Lord Graham and Lord Mayhew, but if there is anything further I can do for them, I shall be glad to try.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, will the noble Lord be so kind as to answer the particular question and assure us that there are already, under the discipline Acts, entirely sufficient powers to handle the difficult problems he has been talking about?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I could not give a blanket assurance of that kind because some of the problems will need legislation of one kind or another. However, I certainly confirm that problems such as those of drug abuse, which are very much in the mind of the noble Lord, Lord Graham, are matters which we can often deal with in a much shorter timescale than that. We certainly want to take advantage of making whatever improvements we can, without waiting for legislation, where we have the powers to do so.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure. I remind your Lordships that we shall return to other matters at a quarter past eight.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The sitting was suspended from 8.3 until 8.15 p.m.]