HL Deb 22 November 1999 vol 607 cc5-6WA
Lord Evans of Parkside

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will make a statement about the implications of the Human Rights Act 1998 for the Armed Forces' system of discipline. [HL31]

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

The Human Rights Act 1998 fulfils our commitment to incorporate into national law those parts of the European Convention on Human Rights that concern individual rights and civil liberties. The Armed Forces Act 1996 introduced reforms to the court martial system that took account of the United Kingdom's convention obligations. The procedures for trying offences by court martial are therefore compliant with the convention. At the same time, changes were made to the Services' summary discipline procedures, to provide the majority of defendants with access to a compliant court by offering them the option of being tried by court martial.

Service discipline procedures are kept under regular review and we have been considering the scope for further improvements. As a result, we intend to introduce a requirement for a judicial officer to decide within prescribed time limits whether a suspect or accused needs to be detained prior to charge or trial respectively. This would apply to a summary hearing before the commanding officer and to trial by court martial. We also propose to introduce a right of appeal from summary hearings to a new summary appeal court. To ensure clarity in the distinction between this new right of appeal and the existing right to elect to be tried by court martial, we propose to alter the procedures for exercising the court martial option. Where at present a defendant is able to exercise this option at the end of a summary hearing, but before sentence, this right would in future be exercisable before the hearing.

The legislative proposals required to enact these changes are contained in the Armed Forces Discipline Bill, which was introduced on Thursday 18 November.

We are confident that these improvements, like the earlier reforms, will be consistent with the need for the Armed Forces to be able to maintain discipline both in peacetime and during operations, whilst ensuring that the rights of the individual are fully respected.