HL Deb 03 July 1985 vol 465 cc1270-2

8.55 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I rise to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. I have already deployed the reasons why this order is before your Lordships tonight. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 11th June be approved. [25th Report from the Joint Committee]—(Lord Trefgarne.)

Lord Boston of Faversham

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord the Minister for introducing this order and also for incorporating the explanation of it in his speech on the Defence White Paper. I entirely agree with him that, having had two full days on the Defence Estimates, it would be a trifle unbecoming to prolong unduly the defence debate tonight, especially as there is other important business to follow. Therefore, I have just two or three points to ask him about in connection with the order.

As we know, a new Armed Forces Act is required every five years and the present one, the 1981 Act, expires at the end of next year, so there needs to be a new Bill and a new Act in time for that. I would ask the noble Lord whether he can say anything to the House about the timetable for that and give us any guidance as to the procedure which will be followed. As the House will be aware, in another place the procedure is that a Select Committee on the Bill considers detailed points on it. That has proved very satisfactory in the past and I am wondering whether the plan is for that procedure to be continued in the future.

I should also like to ask the Minister how his own department's review in preparation for the Bill is going ahead, and, in particular, how his consideration of the recommendations which were made by the last Select Committee in another place on the last Bill, which became the present Act, is proceeding. A number of recommendations were made by the Select Committee and we have heard the outcome of the Government's consideration of some of those. I am wondering whether the noble Lord can give us any additional information about the further consideration of some of the other recommendations.

There is one of them, in particular about which I should like to ask. That was on courts martial and the suggestion was that perhaps the time had come for those below commissioned rank to be included as members of courts martial. A point made, I know, by the Government in answer to that recommendation is that there seems to be no real demand for it from within the services. That may well be so, but it is not altogether convincing. For one thing, one would want to know how extensively and vigorously the Ministry of Defence and Ministers had canvassed opinion within the services. After all, views are not always spontaneously forthcoming; and we bear in mind, too, that non-commissioned officers these days are very highly qualified and very experienced and their abilities might well be of value in that work in courts martial. Then, again, if something is right to do, the Government should not be reluctant to take the necessary steps and show the necessary leadership, whether or not there is a spontaneous demand for that action anyway.

The only other recommendation that I want to ask about is the one from the Select Committee concerned with ways of dealing with alcoholism and drug abuse in the services. This is a problem which has attracted a great deal of attention, including attention in your Lordships' House. My noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton for example, raised this matter last year. Mercifully, I understand that the problem of drug abuse in the services is not extremely serious and that measures to keep it under control have proved reasonably effective. But the House will want to be assured, I think, that all possible steps to deal with the problem are being taken and that no useful suggestions are being overlooked.

There was a particular suggestion that, perhaps, the experience of the Royal Navy, with its specialist teams, night be extended to the other services as a means of combating that particular problem, and I am wondering whether the Minister can give us any information about that. I shall not ask the noble Lord tonight to provide detailed figures showing the incidence of drug offences. The Minister has clearly come, as he always does, very well briefed and very well armed with figures. But perhaps at some appropriate moment he will provide us with some details about the incidence of these offences as they concern hard and soft drugs and particulars relating to the individual areas concerned. I am thinking of the United Kingdom, particularly Northern Ireland, and Germany. It is perhaps surprising that the incidence of drug abuse in Northern Ireland is not higher than it is. After all, the pressures and strains to be found there in carrying out a security operation among one's own people obviously create intense strain. It is a tribute to our forces that they cope as they do.

I shall conclude by stressing that the tributes we pay to our armed forces and their supporting services are not formalities. They are meant, they are deserved, and they are the result of a deep sense of gratitude to them for the risks that they take and the courage and efficiency they show. We are fortunate that those who serve us in that way do so, and perhaps a way could be found from time to time to pass on to them our collective feelings of gratitude. I join the Minister in commending this order to your Lordships.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I will reply as quickly as I can to some of the points raised by the noble Lord. As I said earlier, there will be a necessity for legislation some time next year. I am afraid that I am not in a position to anticipate in detail what that legislation will contain. We have of course been considering the recommendations made by the Select Committee which reviewed the 1981 Armed Forces Bill. Perhaps I can explain one or two of our conclusions.

We are prepared to accept in principle the Select Committee's proposal that where a person subject to service law overseas is detained on the order of his commanding officer for treatment for mental disorder, that at least one of the two certifying doctors should where possible be a civilian—preferably with specialised psychiatric knowledge. The Select Committee accepted that in practice this might not always be possible but we are content to comply with the recommendation wherever practicable.

The Select Committee recommended also that where young servicemen are tried by courts martial, the court should have available full information on their background. Such information is already provided to naval courts martial by the naval personnel family service but will now also be provided where young army and RAF offenders are charged before courts martial with serious offences. These reports will normally be provided by SAFFA's qualified social workers.

Two other matters raised by the Select Committee have I believe been satisfactorily resolved. At the Royal Star and Garter Home, a separate trust has now been established to allow disabled ex-service women to enter their own wing of the house. Also, the new detention quarters of the military corrective training centre at Colchester have been completed and are now in use. The noble Lord mentioned specifically the composition of courts martial. We have engaged an independent consultant to study the provision of legal services to the department. His review will include some aspects of legal administration of service law and I would not wish to pre-empt at this stage any observations that he may want to make in relation to courts martial or their composition.

On the question of the detail of drug abuses in the forces, the noble Lord has spurned the figures I have brought with me; perhaps I may write to him with those figures. If there are no further points, I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.