HL Deb 16 July 1987 vol 488 cc1210-3

6.47 p.m.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Lord Trefgarne)

My Lords, I beg to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 29th June be approved.

The purpose of the order is to continue in force for a further year the Army and Air Force Acts 1955 and the Naval Discipline Act 1957, which together provide the basis for the disciplinary arrangements of the three services. The concept of annual parliamentary approval for the special legal position of the serviceman, subject as he is to the constraints of military discipline as well as to the rule of civil law, is a long-established one in British constitutional practice. As your Lordships are aware, every fifth year the opportunity is taken to review in depth the needs of the service disciplinary systems and an Armed Forces Act is passed making such amendments to those systems as are considered necessary. The most recent such Act was passed in 1986.

It is now well established that the procedure under which such Bills are introduced quinquennially, with annual continuation orders in the intervening years, is the right way to ensure that the working of the service disciplinary Acts is kept under review by Parliament.

This debate gives us the opportunity to discuss matters affecting service discipline and welfare. However, it also provides me with an opportunity to pay wholehearted tribute to the skill and dedication of our Armed Forces underlined this very day by glowing references to their performance during the Falklands conflict in a report from the defence committee of another place. The professionalism of our Armed Forces is founded in part upon a sound disciplinary system, which will be continued by this order. I have deliberately spoken very shortly in introducing this order, but naturally I am very willing to deal with individual points at the end of the short debate.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 29th June be approved. [1st Report from the Joint Committee.]—(Lord Trefgarne.)

Lord Irving of Dartford

My Lords, the order provides an opportunity for us to keep under review the annual Army Acts. It enables us to seek a progress report from the Minister. I should like to join with the Minister in the tribute he paid to our forces. We require from our serving men and women that they give us some of the civil liberties that we enjoy as private citizens. They give up some of their civil liberties to protect the civil liberties of the rest of us. In turn we should see that the conditions in the services in which they carry out their activities are fair, reasonable and just.

I want to raise one or two questions tonight and I hope the Minister will be able to provide some answers. One of the problems in the armed forces is morale. It is an integral part of an efficient force and can only be neglected at our peril. In recent years we have seen a 25 per cent. increase in the number of skilled personnel leaving the armed forces, as well as a substantial number of pilots whose training has cost in excess of £3 million. About 70 per cent. of RAF married quarters are regarded as substandard. Those factors are bound to have an effect upon morale. We have had five reports of bullying and malpractice in training establishments, but the Home Secretary has refused to hold a broader inquiry into these tragic circumstances. Junior soldiers are minors and they are a special responsibility of the Army as it is in the position of in loco parentis.

Last year the Select Committee on the armed forces recommended that Queen's Regulations in respect of courts martial be reviewed with particular regard to the right of servicemen and women to be represented at summary proceedings by a friend of the accused. Will the Minister tell us what is happening about the proposal of the Select Committee which recommended that service personnel should have the right to be defended by a senior NCO if the defendant thought that to be appropriate? It is thought that the use of an NCO in these circumstances might afford the court the opportunity to hear someone with more direct experience of the life of other ranks than can be provided by a commissioned officer. It might be difficult to ensure that NCOs are given legal training, but the Minister should consider whether some NCOs can be used in this way. Will the Minister comment on that matter?

The services have done a great deal of work on the problem of drug abuse. The Army is to subject its soldiers to routine drug tests and a number of pieces of equipment have been purchased. Can the Minister say whether that is working well and, if so, will similar equipment be purchased for the RAF and the Royal Navy? Has the Army carried out any tests yet, and if so, what are the results of those tests? We congratulate the alcohol abuse team of the Royal Navy on its excellent work and we hope that other services will set up similar specialist units. Alcohol abuse is a major problem in our society.

On the question of AIDS, will the Minister say what will be the fate of men or women who have been diagnosed as having AIDS? Will they be discharged or retained as they are in the United States? There is a difference of emphasis and attitude among our allies. Will the Minister say what his attitude is to the problem?

Our object in raising these matters is to recognise the high standards maintained by our armed forces and to ensure that those standards continue to be maintained. As I have said, we recognise that we demand a loss of civil liberties from our voluntary forces so that our own civil liberties and freedoms can be maintained and protected. That is why I raise these points here tonight and hope that we can have some satisfactory replies from the Minister.

6.52 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that response to my proposal in respect of this order. I shall deal with some of the points raised by the noble Lord, but I fear that I may be unable to deal with them all now. I shall very happily write to the noble Lord with further information where I can.

On the first point that the noble Lord raised about morale in the armed forces, I can tell him that morale remains high. One of the indications of morale is, of course, the rate of applications by people to leave the services. I can tell the noble Lord that the rate is not at a level which I regard as worrying. Indeed, there have been some recent signs that the rate is edging downwards and naturally that is very much to be welcomed.

Having said that, some individuals will always wish to terminate their service earlier than would normally be the case, for whatever reason. Clearly, that is very much to be regretted. One of the reasons often cited is so-called turbulence, where a man may be posted from one place to another at comparatively short notice. That is naturally disturbing and unsettling for his family. I fear that is a feature of service life, whatever arrangements one seeks to make. Naturally, we do not welcome any more PVR cases, as they are called, than there have to be. We shall certainly do everything we can to keep the rate to the minimum. As I have said, it now appears to be edging down slightly. We do what we can to help to solve the turbulence problem; for example, by providing what are called harmony warrants and by lengthening the tours of servicemen in a particular post, thus reducing the necessity for frequent family moves.

The noble Lord also referred to AIDS. With the growing evidence of the threat posed by AIDS we recognise that members of the armed forces are no less at risk than other members of the community. As a result, an intensive and thorough programme of education and prevention is pursued by the services. An MOD working party including medical, legal service and policy staffs was established in March 1986. Its main function is to make proposals for preventive education, publicity and personnel policy aspects of AIDS. As a matter of urgency, it first concentrated on preventive education and publicity. It recommended the wide distribution of posters to service units to be prominently displayed; the wide distribution of the Health Education Council booklet; comprehensive briefing by medical staffs of units serving or about to be deployed overseas; and the incorporation of AIDS warnings into all drug education briefings.

I hope the noble Lord will be ready to accept that we are not standing idly by in the face of this problem, and that we are doing as much as we possibly can to see that it is kept under control so far as concerns the armed forces.

The noble Lord raised a couple of other points, particularly about he composition of courts martial and the possibility of non-commissioned officers appearing before courts martial on behalf of accused persons. We discussed this matter during the passage last year of the Armed Forces Bill, as it then was. If there is anything further that I can add to what I said during that time I shall certainly write to the noble Lord.

Lord Irving of Dartford

My Lords, are the Government accepting the recommendations of the report?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, my recollection is that we have not yet reached a conclusion on the matter, but perhaps I might be allowed to take further advice and write to the noble Lord. My recollection might be at fault.

I think that I have dealt with the main points that were raised by the noble Lord. I shall carefully study what he said and I shall respond to him more fully in writing.

On Question, Motion agreed to.