HL Deb 26 June 1997 vol 580 cc1658-66

4.19 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Gilbert) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 21st May be approved [1st Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, as your Lordships will be aware, 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 statutory basis for discipline in the three services. The House will be aware that since 1961 an Armed Forces Bill has been brought before the House every five years with the primary purpose of continuing in force the Acts that provide the disciplinary powers of the three armed services. Each Armed Forces Bill is an opportunity for both the services and Parliament to review service discipline.

Between each five-yearly Bill, this disciplinary code is renewed annually by the continuation order procedure involving an Order in Council which is approved by resolution of each House. Your Lordships will be aware that the last Armed Forces Bill was considered and enacted in 1996. I am inviting the House today to give the necessary annual renewal to the discipline Acts by approving the order.

I propose to take the opportunity of this debate to update your Lordships on some of the disciplinary and welfare matters which are being taken forward as a result of the passage of the Armed Forces Act last year, but I am conscious of the fact that I shall not be able to cover in my opening remarks all the matters of interest to the House.

As a large proportion of the Armed Forces Act 1996 dealt with courts martial reforms, it is not surprising that some of the continuing work touches on related issues. The first is the membership of courts martial. We have been making a detailed review of membership to examine arguments for extending the pool of court martial members to include senior non-commissioned officers. Substantial progress has been made and the results of this review will, I hope, be available before the end of the year. The services are also examining methods to streamline further the day-to-day operation of various aspects of the court system.

The changes allowing further access to industrial tribunals were accepted by this House and another place and the secondary legislation required to implement the recommendation will be laid before Parliament shortly. The proposals will allow service personnel to refer complaints to industrial tribunals as soon as they have submitted a complaint under the internal service redress of complaint procedures. At present service personnel can submit complaints only about discrimination on grounds of gender. It says "gender" in my speech. When I was a young man it used to be "sex". However, I am a little out of date in these matters, and I suppose that the same applies to your Lordships. In future, personnel will also be able to complain about matters involving racial discrimination and discrimination under the Equal Pay Act 1970.

Since the passage of the Armed Forces Act, substantial progress has been made on the complex task of consolidating the service discipline Acts. A first draft of the Army Bill has now been completed and is being scrutinised by service lawyers. The Bills for the other two services will be based on this model. Because of the complexity of the task, it will take some time to complete. We hope that the consolidated legislation will be introduced in the next parliamentary Session.

Finally, on this subject, concern was expressed in another place that minors were committing themselves to longer periods of service than were adult members of the services. We recognise the desirability of amending the discharge rules for under-18s so that they are not put at a disadvantage compared with adult service personnel. We hope to have achieved the necessary changes to the secondary legislation before the end of the year.

I should like to deal briefly with some of the major social and welfare issues affecting service personnel which currently have a high profile, both within the ministry and among the media. We are all aware that concerns still exist about racism in the Armed Forces. Let me assure the House that, like our predecessors, we will not tolerate racist behaviour in any shape or form. We shall be unremitting in our efforts to put in place a culture in which racial equality is fully embraced. We know that there have been critical comments from both the Commission for Racial Equality and from independent consultants. I can assure your Lordships that the Armed Forces have taken those criticisms very seriously indeed and at the very highest level. All personnel have a role to play in ensuring that the Armed Forces are seen, and come to be regarded by everyone in society, as an employer who will simply not tolerate racist attitudes.

Our priority is to see more citizens from the ethnic minorities joining the Armed Forces, confident that, in doing so, they join an organisation that is free from harassment, discrimination and bullying. We want and need the best recruits we can get for today's technologically advanced Navy, Army and Air Force. That means that we must recruit from every group in our society. The Ministry of Defence will be refocusing the considerable efforts already in hand in this direction.

I hope very much that the Commission for Racial Equality and local community leaders will be able to assist us in that task.

We are also determined to see the employment of more women in the services. As the House will know, women already contribute a vital role in all three services and we want to see how opportunities for them can be further expanded. Perhaps I may be permitted a further personal note. When I was previously at the Ministry of Defence some 18 years ago I tried very hard to badger the Royal Air Force into accepting women as pilots. I was unsuccessful then. I am delighted to see that the RAF has changed its mind. I have always thought that women make brilliant pilots. Those who have got so far are usually better than the men because they have had to try harder to get there.

Leaving aside pilots for a moment, we must ensure that young and able women see that the Armed Forces can and do provide a rewarding career and that any sexist attitudes are immediately challenged and eradicated.

As I said, a large proportion of the legislative changes contained in the Armed Forces Act 1996 consisted of wider-ranging reforms to the courts martial system. New procedural rules for courts martial were laid before Parliament earlier this year in statutory instruments which came into force in April. The purpose of the reforms was to reinforce the independence of the courts martial system. That was achieved at the pre-trial and trial stages principally by reducing the apparent influence of the chain of command, while preserving its necessary involvement, and enhancing the role of the judge advocate. The reforms also extended the rights of defendants being dealt with summarily—that is to say, by their commanding officers—to elect for trial by court martial. At the post-trial stage, the reforms replaced the complicated confirmation and review arrangements with an automatic one-stop review of all cases.

In addition, the right to appeal to the civilian courts martial appeals court was extended, so that it is now possible to appeal against sentence as well as conviction. All court martial decisions will thus be subject to the scrutiny of senior civilian judges.

The European Court of Human Rights was made aware of these changes. I am glad to say that it noted with satisfaction that the United Kingdom authorities had made changes to the court martial system with a view to ensuring the observance of their convention commitments. However, we recognise that this does not mean we can now become complacent about the system. We shall be keeping it under review in preparation for the next Armed Forces Bill four years from now.

Some noble Lords may be aware of the campaign, spearheaded in another place for some years now, for pardons to be granted to some 300 soldiers who were convicted by courts martial and executed during World War I for offences other than murder and mutiny. My ministerial colleagues in another place believe that we need to be satisfied that those soldiers did not suffer any injustices and it is for that reason that they recently announced their intention to look again at the cases of the British soldiers concerned. This is obviously going to be a very difficult task, not least because the individual circumstances of cases vary very greatly. It will involve painstaking research. It must be some time before we gain a clear idea of what further work, if any, is necessary. I cannot give your Lordships any idea of how long the review will take, but it is hoped that its findings will be available before the next continuation order debate takes place. I can make no commitment on that point.

As your Lordships will be aware—not least through the many powerful interventions of the noble Countess, Lady Mar—the Government are giving high priority to the health concerns of Gulf War veterans and will be tireless in their efforts to understand the reasons why some of them are now ill. Last month, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces announced a series of new measures designed to address veterans' concerns. First, he met veterans' representatives to hear personally what they had to say and undertook to meet them again in due course to report on the progress our studies have been making. Secondly, he announced the establishment of a new research programme designed to investigate possible interactions between the medical counter-measures which British troops were given to protect them against chemical and biological warfare agents. Thirdly, additional resources are being made available to clear the backlog of veterans waiting to be examined by the Ministry of Defence's medical assessment programme. That programme aims to provide veterans who believe they are ill as a result of their service in the Gulf with a clinical diagnosis of their medical condition.

More recently, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces announced that Group Captain Coker, the previous head of the medical assessment programme, is once again to share in the MoD's work on ill health among Gulf veterans. We hope that that will add to the veterans' confidence in the Ministry's procedures. He is to become a key member of a new internal advisory group which will assist the Minister of State for the Armed Forces in overseeing the department's response to veterans' health concerns. We continue to keep an open mind on all aspects of Gulf veterans' illnesses. The measures that I have just mentioned signal that a fresh start has been made. This is the beginning of a substantial process, in the course of which we will also look at the complex issues of compensation, financial assistance and war pensions.

As I said, I am very conscious that I have not covered every subject that noble Lords may wish to raise with me today. However, I would not wish to conclude without paying tribute to the very brave and talented men and women whom we are fortunate enough to have serve us in our Armed Forces. I am sure that your Lordships are happy to join me in doing so once again. Their dedication continues to be a source of admiration around the world and a source of pride for this country. It is up to us to provide them with a fair and equitable framework within which they can operate with confidence in their daily tasks. It is this basis of good morale and good working conditions that the service discipline Acts seek to provide. I invite your Lordships to approve the order before the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 21st May be approved [1st Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Gilbert.)

4.34 p.m.

Earl Howe

My Lords, from these Benches I should like to thank the Minister for introducing this order so clearly and for his encouraging and helpful supplementary remarks. The order is one which we fully accept as being essential and its passage through your Lordships' House is, so far as we are concerned, a routine matter. The enactment last year of the Armed Forces Act means that it is two years since we have had a debate of precisely this kind and for many of us our discussions on the Bill are still fresh in the mind. However, I hope that the House will allow me to take just a minute or two to cover some aspects of service discipline which occupied a good deal of my attention during my time as a Minister and which I have no doubt will be of equal concern to the present Government.

The first of these relates to the treatment of ethnic minorities serving in the Armed Forces. I very much welcomed the Minister's remarks on that subject. I believe that there can be no disagreement either among Ministers or service chiefs about the need to bear down as heavily as possible on racial prejudice, discrimination and harassment whenever and wherever they may occur. As the Minister said, the responsibility that all service personnel have for promoting equal opportunities and for banishing unacceptable attitudes are clear. While serious incidents of racial harassment are mercifully rare, even one such incident is an incident too many. Events of this kind are unacceptable in themselves, disruptive to discipline and damaging to morale. But when they occur they also generate the kind of adverse publicity that the services least need at a time when recruitment of ethnic minority personnel is a key target for the Adjutant General and his opposite numbers in the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.

However, there is an equally worrying side to this question which, if we are not careful, could get overlooked. Last March the previous government published a report which they commissioned from the Office for Public Management, which is a firm of independent consultants. I have to say that the report contained some adverse and uncomfortable messages about racial attitudes in the Armed Services, not so much in relation to the kinds of serious incidents of bullying and harassment which we all know need to be dealt with severely, but rather in relation to the kind of day-to-day behaviour, such as jocular name-calling, which can act, however insidiously, to undermine the aims which the service chiefs have rightly and emphatically articulated. That report by the OPM deserves the closest study by the new Government. A great deal of progress has been made over the past 12 to 18 months in all three services to achieve better management practice, better training in equal opportunities issues and, through the Armed Forces Act of last year, better and fairer means of redress when things go wrong.

Perhaps the biggest leap forward has been in the area of ethnic monitoring both of recruits and serving personnel. I am glad to hear from the noble Lord that the Government will continue the efforts of their predecessors and will work closely with the Commission for Racial Equality to ensure that good intentions are translated into the kind of day-to-day practice that we hope will in due course be a culture change.

A second area of discipline that I want to touch on concerns drug abuse. Compulsory testing for drugs was introduced into the Army in early 1995 and into the Royal Navy more recently. Refusal to submit oneself to a drug test is now a disciplinary offence, and quite rightly any serviceman or woman whose drug test proves positive can expect to be dealt with severely. The fact that there is a random-testing programme is a powerful deterrent against wrongdoing, and while one has to concede at the same time that it is something of a draconian measure, I am convinced that it is a necessary one if we are to keep the problem of drug abuse within bounds.

Can the Minister reassure me that the Government are committed to seeing these programmes continue on at least their present levels of activity? I hope that he can give me a positive answer either now or in writing. In relation to the forces' manpower budget, the cost of administering the schemes is minuscule and the benefits are clear, not only in terms of the lower incidence of drug abuse, but also for the positive message that it sends out to the public at large on the services' approach to tackling this issue.

Can the Minister also give me any recent figures on the incidence of positive readings arising from the services' drug-testing programmes and the number of discharges which have resulted? Can he also confirm my understanding that, in the absence of unusual or extenuating circumstances, there is in all three services a clear presumption in favour of discharging any personnel found to have been taking drugs?

The Minister referred to the review that is now under way on the question of personnel who were executed in World War I. I am well aware of the public concern that has been expressed. The Minister will not need me to tell him what a sensitive issue it is, not least because of the difficulty for us in the 1990s to place ourselves into the shoes of those who were tasked in the early years of this century, in a very different era, with deciding matters of life or death in a theatre of war. I am sure that the difficulties are not lost on the Government, and I wish them well in their consideration of the issue. However, I cannot help feeling that should the conclusion be reached that, by the standards of today or even by those of the First World War, certain individuals should be posthumously exonerated, that may well give rise to some ill-feeling on the part of the relations of those people who have not been so exonerated. I cannot help wondering whether pursuing this issue may well cause even more heartache than the gentle message that this is something that is, unfortunately, best left to the pages of history.

It is customary on these occasions to pay tribute to the men and women of our Armed Forces throughout the world, as the Minister has already done. I readily join the noble Lord in those tributes. With his long experience at the Ministry of Defence, the noble Lord will need no encouragement from me to visit and to talk to our Armed Forces at every opportunity. During my time as a Minister at the MoD, I was privileged to see our forces in training and on active service in all parts of the country and in a number of places overseas. It is perhaps trite to say—nonetheless, it is as valid as it has ever been—that we owe our armed services a great debt for their dedication, professionalism and expertise; for the example that they set and for the positive image of Britain that they present not least in a theatre such as Bosnia where constructive help and sensitivity to local feelings are essential ingredients in the peacekeeping effort.

The debate that has been tabled next week in the name of my noble friend Lord Vivian will doubtless give us a more substantial opportunity to discuss these and other issues. I look forward to that occasion but meanwhile I have pleasure in welcoming the order.

4.42 p.m.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, I was in a bit of a quandary about whether I should declare an interest as a serving officer in the Territorial Army. I do not know whether the TA is affected by the discipline legislation. Nevertheless, I support the order. It is routine and we on these Benches have no difficulty with it. I support also much of what the Minister said.

This debate gives me the opportunity to raise three issues. I refer first to the death penalty, which is still retained by the Armed Forces for mutiny and other offences. The issue was raised last June during our discussions on the Army Act by my noble friend the late Lord Mayhew. He was given a great deal of pleasure when the noble Earl, Lord Howe, who was then the Minister, said that there would be a review of the SDAWP. Indeed, the noble Earl wrote to me saying that the issue would be before Ministers in March. I believe that a certain event may have got in the way of that, but we hope that the Minister will be able to tell us how the review is going.

I refer also, as did the Minister, to the review of the cases of those who were shot for cowardice during the First World War. I was recently asked to speak on the subject on a radio programme and was taken to task by somebody who had actually fought in that war. It is difficult to say that we should leave the matter to the pages of history when some who fought in that war are still alive, not to mention their relatives. We should not leave such a sensitive issue in the past because people are still affected by it today. That is why I welcome the review. Although not everyone will be exonerated by it, many cases clearly need such closer examination.

I refer also to homosexuality in the Army. When we discussed the Army Act, homosexuality was one of the issues which was skirted around in this House perhaps more than in the other place. I am aware of the sensitivities associated with the issue. Indeed, all parties are aware that the Army is in a peculiar and unique position with regard to homosexuality. A case is currently before the European Court of Human Rights, so I wonder whether the Minister can tell us exactly what action is being taken to review the legal position of homosexuals in the Army. We should not be pushed into action solely as a result of a judgment made by such a court. This is an issue which the Army itself must consider. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will say that a review will take place which will spell out in black and white the exact legal position of homosexuals in the Army. There should be no remaining grey areas. Apart from those issues, I welcome the order.

4.46 p.m.

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I should like first to thank both the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for their courtesy in giving me notice of the subjects which they intended to raise. I am extremely grateful to both of them for their support for this order.

I have no difficulty whatsoever in giving the noble Earl the assurance that he sought from me that we are continuing with precisely the same methods as were in force under his government of ensuring that steps are taken against racial harassment in the forces. The subject arose some time ago when I served on the Select Committee on Defence in another place. At that time we had some difficulty in getting Ministers to agree that it was important not only to identify the number of recruits from the ethnic minorities, but also to identify what progress they were making through the ranks and whether they had adequate opportunities for promotion. I am delighted to say that such procedures are now in place. Indeed, they were introduced by the previous government and I pay full tribute to them for that. We are, of course, maintaining those procedures.

The noble Earl asked me about the drugs programme and for some recent figures. I have those figures with me—I came armed with them—and I can therefore give them to the House now as well as writing to the noble Earl. In brief, in 1996 some 53,000 officers and soldiers were tested, of whom 300-odd gave a positive reading, while 27 refused to give a sample. By the end of the year, 164 personnel had been discharged. A further 72 who tested positive in 1996 have been discharged during the course of this year. As at 31st March this year—the latest date for which I have figures—a further 19,500 officers and soldiers have been tested, of whom 154 gave a positive reading, with one refusing to give a sample. All will be considered for discharge in accordance with the normal policy of the ministry.

In order that all noble Lords are privy to what the noble Earl knows and the information on which I have been briefed, I should say that all British Army personnel and Royal Navy personnel are subject to compulsory drug testing from time to time on a random basis. It is an administrative, not a disciplinary, matter. Following a positive test or a refusal to provide a specimen, an Army officer will be required to resign and a naval officer will be administratively discharged; a soldier or rating will normally also be administratively discharged. As I understand it, a commanding officer has discretion to retain in the service soldiers of the rank of lance-corporal (or equivalent) or below if it is the first occasion on which drug misuse has been identified or the first occasion on which he or she has refused to take a test; and, as a second condition, that in the case of a positive test no trace of class A drugs is detected. That is the same position as under the previous government.

The noble Earl also asked about those who were convicted of cowardice in the First World War. I rather like his turn of phrase. He questioned whether they would be posthumously exonerated rather than pardoned, which is the term that is perhaps more widely used. I am not a lawyer and possibly I am stepping outside my brief. I have always believed that "pardoned" is an unfortunate term. It implies that you think that someone has done it but it is all right because you are not cross with that individual any more. Although "exonerated" still has some undertones I believe that that is a happier turn of phrase. It will be some time before we come to any conclusion on that matter, but I shall ensure that the remarks of the noble Earl are passed on to my honourable friend in another place.

I was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, about capital punishment. A review is taking place at the moment. Up until now I have seen no papers. Therefore, I am unable to take the matter further at the moment. However, I shall write to the noble Lord as soon as I receive further information. When the review is completed, both this House and the other place will be informed of the results in the usual way.

As far as concerns homosexuality in the armed services, I take seriously the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, that it is far better to determine these matters ourselves than that we should be pushed into them, if that is the case—we do not know yet—by a European institution. These matters must be looked at at least once every Parliament in the course of the disciplinary arrangements that I outlined earlier this afternoon. I can inform the noble Lord that Ministers, in particular the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, are reviewing this matter at the moment. We hope to be able to bring forward such proposals or decisions as we have before there is any question of our being pressed to do so by an institution outside this country.

On Question, Motion agreed to.