§ 11.30 a.m.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (The Earl of Arran)
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. Like its predecessors, the main purpose of the Armed Forces Bill is to continue in force the three Service Discipline Acts—namely, the Army Act 1955, the Air Force Act 1955 and the Naval Discipline Act 1957 —which together form the statutory framework for discipline and related matters in the armed forces. These Acts must be renewed by primary legislation every five years and, in the intervening years, by Order in Council. The last Armed Forces Act in 1986 provided for the Service Discipline Acts to be continued in this way until 31st December 1991 and it may be for the convenience of your Lordships if I mention at this stage that I shall later be moving a draft Order in Council to continue the Service Discipline Acts in force until that date.
The renewal of the legislation is an unusual procedure but one that ensures regular scrutiny of these important matters. The Bill before your Lordships has also been the subject of a detailed examination by a Select Committee in another place. Clause 1 of the Bill thus provides for the Service Discipline Acts to be continued until 31st August 1992 and thereafter annually by an Order in Council until 31st December 1996. In addition, however, to continuing in force the Service Discipline Acts, the Armed Forces Bill provides a useful opportunity to bring service law more closely into line with civil law 1189 where it is appropriate to do so. Consequently it covers a range of subjects and today I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to its main provisions. The Bill also makes a number of technical and editorial amendments which remedy anomalies which have come to light in existing provisions.
Clauses 2 to 5 of the Bill make amendments to existing provisions relating to the passing of custodial sentences on young offenders under 21 to bring service law closer into line with the current provisions of civil law in this area. Under the discipline Acts, a court-martial and a standing civilian court (which is the equivalent of a magistrates' court trying civilians overseas) already have sentencing powers in respect of young offenders which mirror the powers of civil criminal courts in this country. However, the grounds on which such courts may pass a sentence on a young offender of custody for life or make a custodial order (which provides for the detention of the offender in an appropriate civil institution in the United Kingdom) do not reflect changes made to civil law made by the Criminal Justice Act 1988.
Clause 2 of the Bill therefore introduces new grounds on which a service court must be satisfied before it may impose a custodial sentence. These are that the circumstances, including the gravity of the offence, are such that had the offender been over 21 he would have been sentenced to imprisonment and that the offender qualifies for a custodial sentence. Further provisions made in the Criminal Justice Act 1988 require the court to record the grounds on which it believes the offender qualifies for a custodial sentence, to announce the reasons in open court and explain to the offender in ordinary language why it is imposing a custodial sentence. Provision is also made for a minimum period of a custodial sentence. We have similarly adopted these provisions for service courts. These a re positive improvements in the treatment of young offenders under service law and I hope that they will be welcomed by your Lordships.
Clause 6 abolishes the power of service courts overseas to make reception orders which provide for civilian offenders under 17 to be committed into the care of a local authority in the United Kingdom. Care orders as a criminal disposal were abolished by the Children Act 1989 and it is clearly wrong that an equivalent sentencing power should remain for service courts. I shall return to the subject of children and young people later.
Clauses 7 to 9 are concerned with extending the power of service courts and of commanding officers in the navy in respect of personal injury cases. They introduce a new sentencing power which has been available to civilian criminal courts in England and Wales for some years and which reinforces the belief that it is right and proper that an offender should compensate his victim personally to the extent that he is able to do so.
Courts-martial in all three services and commanding officers in the navy already have the power to award the punishment of stoppages from pay as compensation for expense, loss or damage and this is simply being extended to cover personal injury. The inclusion of commanding officers in the navy reflects 1190 their greater summary powers which have long been accepted as necessary for operational reasons given the need to deal expeditiously with discipline matters.
The provisions governing civilians tried by courts-martial and standing civilian courts are rather different because stoppages of pay may not be made in respect of civilians. However, service courts may make compensation orders against civilians overseas in respect of expense or damage and Clause 9 provides for power to be similarly extended to cover personal injury. It also provides that where a fine and an order for compensation are made by the court and the offender has insufficient means to pay both, preference is to be given to the compensation order. Similar arrangements will apply to stoppages for service personnel.
For both service and civilian offenders there will be a limit to the amount of compensation that may be awarded which will be specified by order made by the Secretary of State. Initially that limit will be £2,000 which is the current limit for magistrates' courts in this country. The powers of standing civilian courts will always be limited to that which magistrates' courts in this country may award.
Clause 10 provides, for the first time, for a statutory right to compensation for miscarriages of justice under service law. The grounds and conditions on which compensation will be paid are the same as the equivalent civil law provisions contained in the Criminal Justice Act 1988. The amount of any compensation will be appraised by an assessor appointed by the Secretary of State and Schedule 1 provides for the appointment and remuneration of such assessors. In addition, like the Home Office, we will be retaining our current ex gratia scheme which provides for cases that fall outside the scope of the statutory scheme.
Clauses 14 and 15 amend service law to bring up to date provisions for making compulsory deductions from servicemen's pay in respect of maintenance. Although there are long-standing provisions protecting the pay of service personnel, we have no wish that they should escape their obligations to maintain spouses and children. Recent changes in the civil law have altered the powers of courts in the United Kingdom to make orders and the changes we are proposing simply ensure that where courts have the power to make orders there is corresponding power to make deductions from service pay.
I return now to children and young persons and Part III of the Bill, which makes significant changes to existing provisions in service law which deal with children who are at risk in service families overseas. The clauses in this part of the Bill are a direct response to changes in the civil law enacted in the Children Act 1989 which are due to come into force later this year. I should like, in particular, to express my thanks to the Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's Family Association, SSAFA, for all the help it gave when we were framing these proposals. It will, of course, continue to play a key and much valued role in this area.
Currently there are some 48,000 civilians under 21 overseas who are subject to service law. Almost 35,000 of that number are under 10 years old. Those numbers 1191 will, of course, be reducing but we believe it is right that the sensitive area of protecting children from harm is dealt with under the law rather than administratively. In the thankfully small number of cases involved, the rights of both the children and the parents concerned must be protected.
Since 1981 service law has provided for the removal of children from their families overseas, where they were believed to be at risk, in much the same way as is provided for in this country by existing legislation. We are building on those provisions in the Bill by providing for certain officers to have the power to make orders for the assessment and protection of children.
Clauses 17 to 19 therefore make provisions for an assessment order which allows in certain circumstances for an assessment of a child to determine whether he is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm. We envisage that such orders will always be made with some degree of parental involvement and provision is made for specified people to be notified in advance that an application for such an order is to be heard.
Clauses 19 to 21 provide for a protection order. This order will only—like its equivalent in civil law is designed to —deal with a case which is so serious that the child must be removed from its family or kept away from its family as an emergency measure. Again, the grounds for making the order mirror those in the Children Act.
Although we have replicated civil law where possible, the circumstances of service life overseas, without the full panoply of the courts and local authority resources, inevitably give rise to some modifications. We are therefore retaining certain features of existing orders relating to places of safety. The main difference between our provisions and those in the Children Act is the maximum length of the protection order provided for in Clause 21. That will remain at 28 days as opposed to 15 days under the Children Act. The decision to retain the 28-day limit has been taken after very careful consideration and consultation with interested parties.
We believe the longer order is required to make arrangements for the return of the child and the family to the United Kingdom. The service order automatically expires 24 hours after the child is returned to the United Kingdom and the provisions of the relevant domestic law then apply. In exceptional cases it can take a few weeks for all the necessary arrangements to be made with a receiving authority and for returning the family from overseas. Taking this into account, we are satisfied that it is right to provide for these cases by setting the maximum length of an order at 28 days. We are pleased that this view was endorsed by the Select Committee in another place.
We expect very few orders will be made for the maximum period and do not envisage that they will be made for that length from the outset. Nevertheless, we believe it is right that the provisions contain a system of checks and balances. To this end, Clause 22 makes provision for the periodic review of protection orders and for their discharge. No period of more than six days will elapse without the requirement for the order 1192 being tested by a review, a request for an extension of the order or an application for the discharge of the order. The fundamental aim is that a protection order will remain in force only so long as the conditions exist which must be satisfied for such an order to be made in the first place, and never beyond 28 days. I hope that your Lordships will welcome these changes as a necessary and worthwhile response to developments in civil law in this country.
I do not propose to comment in detail on the other provisions in the Bill. Some make small changes to update or rationalise existing provisions in legislation relating to the armed forces and others, which are of a technical or editorial nature, are contained in Schedule 2. They are of course all covered by the explanatory memorandum printed with the Bill.
This House has the rare opportunity to consider an armed forces Bill in the light of a recent conflict. I take this further opportunity to pay tribute to those servicemen and women who served with such distinction in the Gulf and elsewhere in support. It is our duty to ensure that the provisions of service law provide a discipline framework that best meets the requirements of the armed forces so that they may continue to operate effectively, efficiently and fairly. I believe that this Bill makes the necessary amendments to the discipline Acts to provide a sound basis for a further five years and I commend it to your Lordships.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(The Earl of Arran.)
§ 11.45 a.m.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, I begin by pointing out to the Minister that he has very carefully watched the clock. There were two minutes of injury time taken up before the clock commenced so that he has kept very much to the time that he and I thought that the speeches might take. Despite the very sparse attendance in the House, we on this side certainly share the view of the Minister and the Government that these matters are very important.
Although the nature of the Bill necessarily restricts the matters which are contained in it, I believe that the Minister will understand, especially against the background of the recommendations of the Select Committee of another place, that there is a range of matters that we wish to raise. They are questions of discipline, which is the central feature. However, discipline has to be seen against the background of morale, preparedness, defence procurement and strategy. I begin by asking the Minister: what comes first, the chicken or the egg? Do we have a defence force shaped by our needs and strategic imperatives—in which, in 1991, men and women are treated as being no more than cannon fodder—or does the Treasury, too trenchantly, tell Ministers and Parliament what it allows us to do and then we shape our defence forces accordingly?
I remind the House and the Minister that during the debate on defence policy which was held early last month the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, fairly set the matter in context. He said:My concern lies much more with the way the size and shape of our forces has been arrived at, which seems to indicate a clear case, as the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, 1193 aptly put it, of putting the cart before the horse. The trouble undoubtedly was that before the ink was dry on any genuine choices proffered to Ministers, the Treasury funding had been virtually removed for both the short and longer term. It was as if all the crucial and difficult decisions on government defence policy, on strategy, on equipment policy and organisation had been taken when, of course, they had not. So far as I can Judge, in certain cases they have still not been taken It was also as if the cheapest option and something perhaps even cheaper than that had been properly assessed against developments in NATO and future commitments, both inside and outside that organisation. It was as if the cheapest option had then been accepted on its merits, strategic as well as political and financial".—[Official Report, 12/6/91; col. 1138.]When we are discussing what is happening to the men and women who form our forces, and the strictures, their rights and responsibilities in a legal sense, we have to see the matter in that context, too. I remind the Minister that the defence of the realm is very important. It is not the prerogative of any one party, of any one group or any particular man or woman. We on this side of the House are as proud as he is to say that we shall defend this realm, come what may, in the event of that having to be done.
However, on the basis and purpose of the Bill I remind the House that the Minister has served us very well indeed. He has taken very great care and paid very great attention to these matters. I honestly believe that he has drawn the attention of the House to all of the important and significant matters within the Bill. I do not intend to review the Bill in the way that he did.
I begin by encapsulating for myself and the House that the Bill essentially aims to bring military law into general compliance with civil law, notably the Criminal Justice Act 1988. Included in the changes are new laws relating to compensation, child care, child abuse, maintenance orders and the rights of appeal. I believe that the House needs to be reminded that in another place those who speak from our Front Bench supported the need to parallel, wherever practicable and possible, military and civilian law. Consequently, from these Benches we welcome the Bill, which incorporates many features of civil enactments; in particular, the Criminal Justice Act 1988 and the Children Act 1989.
While the Bill properly focuses on the disciplinary acts of service in our armed forces, there is a need to look one or two other considerations. I remind the Minister that as recently as yesterday we had a tangential issue raised when 35,000 redundancies were announced as part of the MoD civilian force. Of course, I read the newspapers and pick-up information a id watch what is being said. There is no surprise at 35,000 jobs being cut because these were trailed as a necessary consequence of the Options for Change paper. However, I note that the workers are very angry and dismayed at the lack of consultation. Perhaps the Minister would care to use this opportunity to explain what consultation took place with the workers and their representatives about this enormous trauma in their lives and what consultation he expects will take place in the future on these matters.
I turn now to one or two specific points which are contained in the Bill. The first is the issue of capital 1194 punishment and the death penalty. The Minister will see that during the proceedings on this Bill in another place matters of that kind were discussed very heatedly. Under military law servicemen face the theoretical risk of the death penalty for five offences; namely, mutiny or incitement, failure to suppress a mutiny, assisting the enemy, serious misconduct in action, and obstructing operations. The Minister will know that in Committee in another place those crimes were moved from the category which called for the death penalty, but in the Chamber, with the Whole House, there was a reversal. The Minister will understand, therefore, that I should like him to say a little about the Government's attitude in that respect, especially when we are discussing the question not merely in the context of Britain. We are part of NATO and part of a world order.
I remind the Minister—although he will be well briefed and will not need to be reminded—that there are many countries such as Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand which in recent years have all revoked the death penalty for military offences. There are many NATO countries, including the French, alongside whose forces British troops might be fighting that no longer retain the death penalty for military offences. I can come back with some specific proposals on the later stages of this Bill, but it will be helpful to the House if the Minister takes this opportunity to deal with this matter. In our view the death penalty for those crimes is no deterrent. It is inconsistent with other NATO countries. There is a lack of judicial safeguards and, in our view, it is more political than judicial. I should like to hear what the Minister has to say on those matters.
I turn now to the question of racial harassment. These matters are dealt with in paragraphs 34 and 35 of the Special Report from the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill. I have stood at this Dispatch Box on a number of occasions over the years, dealing with defence matters, when discrimination—especially of black men being able to serve in Guards units, and in other aspects—has been discussed. Bullying inevitably is endemic in society—not in the forces, but in society itself. I am glad to pay tribute to the report which under the sub-heading of "Racial Harassment" states:In general we would commend the Armed Forces for the determination with which the problem of bullying has been tackled".The report continues:We recommend that MoD consider how best to identify incidents of racial harassment in the Armed Forces and keep records accordingly".What we are talking about here is a system of monitoring the kind of behaviour to which we all object. I know that the Minister is likely to say that this could be divisive and difficult and that it is not necessary—I have read the Minister's brief. On the other hand, I would say that there was resistance to monitoring in the realm of housing, by what I would call the establishment, that one did not need to monitor in order to understand what harassment was. I remind the Minister that for many years there was great reluctance on the part of the police authorities to monitor. The Minister should tell the House how he 1195 intends to deal with an element which undoubtedly exists—I do not want to over-elaborate—of harassment and bullying in the forces.
I should like the Minister to also tell us about what he intends to do about homosexuality in the forces. I have read the papers—but the Minister will know because he has been closer to these issues than I have —that this was an issue which was dealt with very fully in another place and in the report of the Select Committee which is a proper part of our record here. At paragraph 41 the report states:We recommend that homosexual activity of a kind that is legal in civilian law should not constitute an offence under Service law. We look to the Government to propose an appropriate amendment to the law before the end of the next Session of Parliament".I am indebted to an organisation called Stonewall, which tells me that it works for legal equality and social justice for lesbians and gay men. One of its functions is to serve as a parliamentary group on lesbian and gay rights. The group includes 14 peers from all the major political parties and the Cross-Benches. Therefore, the Minister will understand that a number of his colleagues in your Lordships' House are interested in these matters. Undoubtedly I shall come back on the issue of why, in the light of the report and the general way in which society is going, the Government persist in their present attitude.
Finally, I return to the words of my noble friend Lord Williams when he made such an impressive contribution to the defence debate on the 12th June, to which I have already referred. My noble friend Lord Williams said:It is starting to emerge that the Government have instituted defence cuts, not just without consulting other political parties and Parliament, but, even more importantly, without consulting the US or our other NATO allies. That is certainly the view of the House of Commons Defence Committee in its report Options For Change: Royal Air Force which was published this morning. It states:'It looks very much as if the United Kingdom has decided unilaterally the level and disposition of air (and ground) forces it proposes to make available, and let NATO to use them as it will'.If that is the case—I ask the noble Earl, Lord Arran, to comment on this when he comes to reply—it is the Treasury that is calling the tune rather than the Ministry of Defence. It is not our strategic requirements that are paramount, but our financial stringency. The tail is well and truly wagging the dog. If that is the case, the danger is that all our NATO allies will be encouraged to do the same thing and to follow their own national priorities rather than the priorities of the alliance".—[Official Report, 12/6/91; cols. 1097–98.]It is in the context of our major responsibilities that we should elevate our consideration of the welfare and well-being and the peace of mind as well as the morale of our armed forces.
In our view the Bill is timely, useful and welcome. However, it is a missed opportunity to serve our service men and women with a more humane framework for their legal rights and responsibilities. We on these Benches stand second to none in our admiration for the courage they have shown under superb leadership; not only in the recent Gulf war but earlier, in the Falklands crisis, and in any other conflict in which the nation has recognised that its security and peace was in their hands. They have never 1196 let us down, nor will they, nor should we let them down now. This Bill gave an opportunity to make their lot as service men and women comparable with others in respect of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. However, it was not restricted to that. Based on the excellent work done by the Select Committee we on these Benches will give the Government a further opportunity to improve the Bill and the dignity, as well as the legal rights, of our service men and women.
I close on a personal note. In giving the Bill a welcome and an endorsement on Second Reading, both my noble friend Lord Williams and I ask the noble Earl, Lord Arran, to accept our deep understanding of the stress and strain which falls on his shoulders, and on the shoulders of his right honourable friends, in the execution of their duties at the Ministry of Defence. It is an awesome responsibility to care for the welfare and well-being of our armed forces, but also to have the defence of our realm constantly on their minds. It will be understood that on another occasion we shall deploy differing strategies and priorities which will reveal differences in methods, but not in imperatives.
If, as we plan, Her Majesty's loyal Opposition one day, soon, assumes high office we would rely, as do this Government, on the loyalty, integrity and professionalism of our fighting forces. I repeat: they will not let us down; nor do we intend to let them down.
§ 12 Midday
§ Lord Mayhew
My Lords, we on these Benches warmly support the measures in the Bill, so admirably described by the Minister, for bringing military law more into line with civil law. Because a soldier is not a civilian, it does not mean that he is not a citizen and entitled to all the liberties, rights and privileges of a citizen, compatible with the peculiar demands of his profession.
The Bill also gives us the opportunity to pay tribute to the armed forces, as the two previous speakers have done. The Minister paid tribute to their conduct in the Gulf War, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Graham, rightly pointed out, the forces have been actively involved in a large number of armed conflicts since the war. Moreover, at every stage we have been able to congratulate ourselves, first, on abolishing conscription and putting our faith in a wholly professional armed force; and, secondly, on the splendid way in which the professional armed forces have conducted themselves in every crisis.
The heart of the Bill is in Clause 1, which deals with the continuation of previous Acts. Of course, we see the necessity for passing that clause. The day is still far distant, if it ever arrives, when this country can dispense with armed forces. Therefore, every five years we must pass such a Bill. However, before doing so, we shall urge the Government to make some important changes to it. I believe that the time for urging these points is in Committee. I think that it would be foolish of me to set out the case on those points at length on this occasion when obviously that would be better done at a later stage. However, there are a number of familiar vexed problems upon which 1197 people feel very strongly—indeed, two or three of them were mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Graham—which we shall raise, speak on and no doubt vote on in Committee.
On these Benches, we regard two of those issues —namely, homosexuality and the death penalty—as non-party matters. We shall speak and vote on them entirely according to our personal convictions. Personally, I find both the issue of homosexuality and that o the death penalty very difficult to decide. There are reasonable arguments in favour of retaining the death penalty in military law. Noble Lords who have seen active service will know that you have problems in war to which there is no equivalent in civilian life. Extraordinary problems of discipline arise which, it can be argued, call for the threat of extraordinary punishment. Yet, as the noble Lord, Lord Graham, pointed out, we remain to be convinced as to whether, in practice, in these appalling, unusual and tense moments the threat of the death penalty really works as a deterrent. It has been abandoned for a number of reasons by many of our NATO allies and has not been used since the Second World War. It appears to me at present to be somewhat anomalous and anachronistic. I look forward to being able to discuss the issue at greater length in Committee.
For reasons which I shall explain, I have similar feelings —and I should emphasise the fact that I am speaking for myself—about some of the present provisions of military law on homosexuality. There are a number of different questions in this respect which tend sometimes to become confused and mixed up. For example, the question of homosexual practice between servicemen conducted inside or outside military premises, the question of such practice being conducted between a serviceman and a civilian and the question of the eligibility of a known homosexual for service in the armed forces, whether or not he is a practising homosexual. All those difficult questions should be carefully discussed in Committee and they are, perhaps, a fit subject for an inquiry by the Ministry of Defence. I say that because they are not easily solved.
As we all know, in recent decades the attitude has vastly changed among civilians on the subject of homosexuality. But how far has that attitude changed in the armed forces? I find that a difficult question to answer. I remember in France being billeted with 20 other servicemen in a loft above a well-used cowshed for several months. When I think back to those days, I do riot think that at that time and in that place a known homosexual would have been either happy or welcome, whether or not he was a practising homosexual. That was 51 years ago. But, I am not sure whether the same thing would be true today. However, one thing is certain: homosexual orientation in itself should not be and should never have been an offence in law of any kind. I hope that that fact will emerge in Committee. I ask the Government to take the matter very seriously.
There are other subjects which we shall also wish to discuss in Committee. For example, the subject mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton; namely, ethnic monitoring. It is hard to 1198 see why the Ministry of Defence objects to this procedure. It is carried out in the Civil Service and was, I think, done when I was a Service Minister. Perhaps the Minister will be able prompt my memory in Committee. But, as I recall, we had an ethnic quota in the late 1960s which we abolished for some reason or another. I do not understand why. It seems to me to be a most sensible process. I give the Government credit for genuine efforts in the field of ethnic recruiting. But how can we tell whether the initiative is succeeding unless we have ethnic monitoring? It seems to me that we can make a good case on the issue. We propose to take it most seriously in Committee.
We are also worried about the terms of enlistment, the discharge of the under-18s and the circumstances in which they are sent abroad. That issue became very topical during the Gulf War. Those are just some of the points that we look forward to raising, discussing and deciding in Committee. But, in broad terms, we warmly welcome the Bill.
§ 12.8 p.m.
§ Lord Molloy
My Lords, perhaps I can crave the indulgence of the House and say a few words on the matter. It was my intention to attend a meeting in this place at 10.30 this morning, but there is the most massive hold-up of traffic in London that I have probably ever seen in my life. A journey which normally takes 20 minutes, took me three hours to complete.
I have much to say about the Bill, but if I may be allowed just two or three minutes I can condense what I have to say. I fervently support the reorganisation of our armed forces. However, I hope that it will be done in an intelligent way which will not diminish their strength. As the noble Earl knows, I have said before in the House that I am extremely anxious about some suggestions that our forces should be reduced and that, consequently, we should urge a reduction in NATO forces. I believe that NATO may need to be reorganised; but to suggest such a reduction in power is in my judgment a grievous error. There are still many factors which could threaten the peace of the world. NATO guarantees the peace of the world and I believe that we should sustain it.
The contribution of the British forces has been magnificent. I should also like to take this opportunity to say that I believe some events which took place in the Gulf War ought to be examined. I refer to those servicemen who were hurt not through military action but sometimes through the activities—that is, if one can call them activities—of our friendly allies. That is causing some concern to the parents of those who have lost their legs or have been very seriously injured. I hope that some broader sense of compassion will prevail.
I wish to conclude with these words. Let us never forget the lesson that, although there have been numerous little wars, there has been no massive war because of the creation and existence of NATO. The British forces made a tremendous contribution, with our allies, to making the power of NATO a great reality. All I ask is that when our forces are reorganised the Government remember those two 1199 points. The forces must be made more efficient, but at all times they must be able to make a proper contribution to the NATO alliance which has meant so much to freedom and so much to millions of ordinary people throughout the world.
§ 12.10 p.m.
§ The Earl of Arran
My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for their general welcome to the Bill. I understand that one or two noble Lords have reservations about certain parts of the Bill. I shall try to cover their points in my speech. Perhaps I may say how good it is to see the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, back in his place as Opposition defence spokesman. He speaks on this subject from great experience.
We have had a useful and constructive debate and I look forward to it being continued in Committee, which, from what noble Lords have said, will probably happen. The five-yearly Armed Forces Bills provide a valuable opportunity for Parliament to scrutinise disciplinary and related matters in the armed forces. It is incumbent upon us that the resulting legislation reflects the particular and special needs of the services. We must remember that in the highly skilled, often fast moving and sometimes dangerous job that they do, servicemen and women recognise that discipline is a critical protection for them. Anyone who is lax, disruptive, disobedient or dishonest is a serious liability.
It is crucial, nevertheless, that the system of discipline on which the effectiveness and efficiency of the armed forces thus so much depends strikes a sensible balance between the rights of servicemen and women as citizens and the extra constraints which must necessarily be imposed. I believe that the Bill before your Lordships ensures that the Acts continue to strike that balance.
The noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, made the accusation that the proposals set out in our document Options for Change concerning the future size and structure of the British armed forces are resource-led by the Treasury. That is not the case. I must make it clear that this is a defence-led operation based on our strategic requirements and our general defence needs in conjunction with our NATO allies. I can assure the House that the Government's priority is to ensure that our armed forces are properly equipped and properly trained to meet the defence needs of this country at all times.
The noble Lord, Lord Graham, quite rightly mentioned the subject of racial harassment. As he said, the Select Committee of another place accepted that the compiling of statistics on cases of bullying involving ethnic minority personnel would be subject to difficulties. We shall, however, be giving careful thought to the recommendation in the report that we consider how best to identify and to record instances of racial harassment in the armed forces. The noble Lords, Lord Graham and Lord Mayhew, were worried about in-service monitoring of racial discrimination in general. We have taken the view that in-service monitoring could be divisive among a 1200 close-knit community such as the armed forces. While we continue to have reservations about its applicability for the armed forces, the Select Committee of another place has asked us to reconsider our position. We are currently very carefully looking at the practice of other employers, including the Metropolitan Police, and we hope to achieve a result in this area as soon as possible. I hear very strongly what both noble Lords have said on this point.
§ Lord Mayhew
My Lords, does the noble Earl recall that the same pledge was made by the Government in 1986 when last the Bill was before the House? Can he give an assurance that the consideration the Government are now giving to the point will be a great deal more active and will be a great deal more fruitful than the assurances we had five years ago?
§ The Earl of Arran
My Lords, that will be the case because about a year or so ago we took positive action from the point of view of trying to encourage more people from the ethnic minorities to join the armed forces. I am pleased to see that most of the recommendations that were made in the report to us have now been fully taken up. It is because of that fact that we are taking the matter more seriously and will come much more quickly to a conclusion.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, the noble Lord mentioned a recruitment programme to encourage more men and women from the ethnic minorities to join the armed forces. What are the statistics? How many people from what could be categorised as the ethnic minorities are in the services? The Minister has stated that there has been a successful campaign, but he has not given the figures.
On the question of monitoring and attempting to root out harassment and bullying, can he say how he intends to consult the serving men and women themselves? The Minister will recall the argument about a lack of a proper organisation within the services to articulate on behalf of the services. I am not talking about a trade union; I am talking about an organisation that has some authority. That could speak on behalf of the forces on these matters. Can the noble Earl say to what extent he and his colleagues have in mind not merely carrying out their own survey but encouraging members of the services to make a contribution to the exercise?
§ The Earl of Arran
My Lords, the noble Lord knows very well that bullying in the armed forces is totally abhorred, as is racial discrimination. As soon as we meet with such a situation we shall deal with it immediately as considered best in the circumstances.
The noble Lord asked about the number of people from ethnic minorities in the armed forces. I think I am right in saying that the figure is approximately 1.5 per cent. The ethnic minority workforce as a whole in this country is approximately 5 per cent. Those figures are more or less accurate; but should I find them not to be I shall let the noble Lord know.
Both the noble Lord, Lord Graham, and the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, referred to homosexuality, an issue which has arisen in the past. It is a long-standing policy that both homosexual activity and orientation 1201 are incompatible with service in the armed forces. The main reasons centre on the need to maintain discipline and morale. The services are hierarchical, close-knit, overwhelmingly of single sex and young communities. We believe that units can work to full effectiveness only en the basis of mutual trust and the expectation of equal treatment among each rank. The formation within these units of sexually motivated relationships is potentially very disruptive of discipline and morale, particularly when they cross rank boundaries. The Select Committee of another place stated in its report that,there is considerable force to MoD's argument that the presence of people known to be homosexual can cause tension in a group of people required to live and work sometimes under great stress and physically at very close quarters, and thus damage its cohesiveness and fighting effectiveness".The Select Committee accepted our views and agreed that the armed forces should not be required to accept homosexuals. We welcome that endorsement of our policy, which there are no plans to change. The current practice is that the majority of service personnel who are required to leave the services on the grounds of their homosexuality are discharged. Prosecution under the service discipline Acts takes place in a minority of cases, and will always be considered where there are grounds for believing that a civil offence has been committed. On conviction, dismissal from the service will almost certainly follow.
We shall of course consider carefully the Select Committee's recommendation that homosexual activity which is no longer an offence under civil law should not constitute an offence under service law. We should make it clear that there is no service offence of committing a homosexual act or being a homosexual, but a homosexual act which could not be an offence under civil law may be used as the basis for the prosecution of certain offences unique to service law, including conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline and disgraceful conduct of an indecent kind.
We can give no undertaking on timing on that issue. It is a complex area of law. As it stands, the recommendation would put homosexuals in a more advantageous position than heterosexuals and lesbians. We do not want to make changes which affect the public perception of our position on homosexuality upon which there must be no doubt.
The noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, asked about orientation. Homosexual orientation, as he calls it, is not, and never has been, a criminal offence under service law.
Both noble Lords mentioned the death penalty under service law, an issue much discussed in another place. The fundamental issue here is whether there should be available to service courts the ultimate sanction for actions which could imperil the lives of other service men and women who are already doing their duty defending the interests of the state; undermine the ability of the armed forces; and ultimately threaten the existence of the state itself.
There are five offences under the Service Discipline Acts which carry a maximum, although mandatory, sentence of death. Those offences are: serious misconduct in action; communicating with the enemy; furnishing supplies or aiding the enemy, having been 1202 captured; obstructing operations or giving false air signals; mutiny or incitement to mutiny, and a failure to suppress a mutiny. With the exception of mutiny and incitement to mutiny, the death sentence may be imposed only when the offences are committed with intent to assist the enemy. In the case of mutiny and incitement to mutiny, the death penalty is available only where one of the objects of the mutiny is the refusal or avoidance of any duty or service against the enemy or the impeding of the performance of any such duty or service.
It should be made clear that we are concerned here with actions which could ultimately threaten the very existence of the state. In that respect, they can be seen as akin to treason, for which the death penalty is still mandatory in this country. Until such time as Parliament agrees any change to that law, it would be premature, to say the least, to consider removing the death penalty for the service offences to which I have referred.
The retention of the death penalty has been given the most careful consideration within the services. They are firmly of the view, which we support, that the death penalty should be available as a deterrent in a situation which involves armed operations, when acts of treachery could have serious implications for the outcome of an operation or war.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, perhaps I may intervene before the Minister leaves that point. Our forces are increasingly becoming an integral part of NATO forces. Within that force there will be men and women serving from Britain, France and the Netherlands, and in a wider context, from Australia, where the same crimes can occur. The crimes are not peculiarly British; they can arise during a war. Will the Minister tell us what the ministry's views are on the apparent nonsense of our allies not following our course?
§ The Earl of Arran
My Lords, the noble Lord knows full well that each country has its own laws on the death penalty. Some states, such as France, Germany and Portugal, have abolished the death penalty for service offences. That is a matter for them. Others of our NATO allies, including the United States, Canada, Belgium and Italy, retain the death penalty. There is no question of our being out of step with our allies on this matter.
The noble Lord, Lord Graham, moved on to employment training, options and redundancies. I suspect that he was talking about resettlement. The existing resettlement scheme provides a comprehensive service to personnel leaving the armed forces, including advice and briefings on the transition to civilian life. The core of the resettlement training is 28 days training for which personnel are eligible. That may be taken in the form of training at MoD resettlement centres, external courses, or by attachments to civilian firms. Nevertheless, we recognise the need to update the scheme in the light of changing circumstances, including the prospect of redundancy and changing expectations. A review of that matter is now in progress.
1203 I apologise if I have not covered all the points raised by noble Lords. I shall read Hansard carefully and ensure that noble Lords who have raised points that I have not covered will receive an answer. We believe that the Bill makes some important and useful improvements to the disciplinary systems of the armed services, and to related matters, which will be welcomed both inside and outside the services. I commend it to the House.
§ On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.