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§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Michael Neubert)
I beg to move,That the draft Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts (Continuation) Order 1989, which was laid before this House on 12th June, be approved.The purpose of this order is to continue in force for a further year the Army Act 1955, the Air Force Act 1955 and the Naval Discipline Act 1957, which together provide the statutory basis for discipline in the three services.
Annual parliamentary approval for the special legal status of the service man or woman whereby he or she is subject to the constraints of military discipline as well the rule of civil law is a long-established constitutional concept. The Select Committee examining the last Armed Forces Bill in 1986 recommended that the current system for a five-yearly Armed Forces Act and annual extension of the service discipline Acts by Order in Council be continued.
We shall, of course, be giving further consideration to some of the areas highlighted by the 1986 Select Committee in considering proposals for the next quinquennial Bill. The House will, I am sure, understand that I am not able to anticipate the provisions of the Bill. However, I think that this may be an appropriate time to review some of the further progress we have made in response to the Select Committee. My hon. Friend the then Under-Secretary of State, the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), gave our response to the recommendations of the Select Committee in July 1987. Since then, and in particular, enabling provisions have been made in the Criminal Justice Act 1988 for standing civilian courts and courts martial to suspend sentences of imprisonment imposed on civilians subject to the service discipline Acts. Although the number of cases likely to be involved is very small, it is a sensible and useful provision.
We also, of course, continue to keep the provisions of civilian legislation generally under review so that they are mirrored in service legislation to the extent that it is practical and sensible. This review is part of the balance we seek to maintain between the rights of service men and women as citizens on the one hand and the extra constraints necessarily imposed on them by service discipline on the other.
Making service personnel aware of their rights and responsibilities is therefore of great importance. In line with the Select Committee's recommendation, all the three service leaflets given to those charged with offences under the service discipline Acts have been reviewed and revised and updated where appropriate. I am also pleased to be able to tell the House that the general leaflet on rights and responsibilities which was introduced last year for all new recruits is being updated and expanded.
I am conscious, too, that a fair and equitable system of discipline is essential to the maintenance of good morale and effectiveness in the armed forces. The conditions of service we offer will be ever more important in recruiting and retaining the personnel we need to sustain the nation's defences.
Inevitably, perhaps, one hears about breaches of discipline which occur and this can distract from a recognition of the overwhelming adherence that there is to it. Service men and women recognise that service discipline 1066 is a critical protection for themselves in the fast-moving, highly skilled and sometimes dangerous job that they do. Anybody who chooses to breach that discipline can be a liability not only to himself but to his colleagues and even civilians. We therefore owe it to those who serve in the armed forces with such professionalism, skill and dedication, and to whom I pay wholehearted tribute tonight, to ensure that the system of discipline is upheld. Accordingly, I invite the House to approve the order.
§ 10.4 pm
§ Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)
On behalf of the Opposition, I also pay tribute to our service men and women, who as the Minister said, in their dedication and discipline give such great service to the country.
The Minister referred to the pamphlet on rights and responsibilities that is given to new recruits. Last year, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. Hughes), who cannot be with us because of illness—I am sure that the House would like to send him our best wishes —suggested that the pamphlet should be distributed to all members of the forces. I should have thought that the Minister could take that idea on board.
My hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, South also referred last year to the problem of bullying, both informal and formalised, in often brutal initiation ceremonies. Unfortunately, what we see in the media and what has been reported to us shows that the problem has not diminished. Even today, people accused of these outlawed offences are being prosecuted. I appreciate that the Minister is doing his best, but unfortunately his best is not good enough. Will he once again emphasise to senior officers that this sadistic behaviour is not to be tolerated in our armed services? Will he tell them that the prevalence of this behaviour in the units under their command shows their inability to command? Will he consider taking action against such senior officers, because that would go a long way to solving the problem and stamping out these sadistic practices?
§ Sir Antony Buck (Colchester, North)
The hon. Gentleman, who knows a lot about armed forces establishments, used the word "prevalence". Will he agree that that was not the right word to use, because only a small minority go in for this awful practice of bullying? Furthermore, senior officers in all the forces are determined to see that it is stopped, just as we all are.
§ Mr. Rogers
I agree. I used the word "prevalence" in its literal sense rather than in any quantifiable sense. Perhaps the word "occurrence" might be better, as I was not intending to show any specific numbers or to suggest that there were large numbers of offences.
We should remember that the cases of bullying and initiation ceremonies that come to the fore are but the tip of the iceberg. As the hon. and learned Gentleman will acknowledge, those of us who have served in armed forces know that this sort of thing used to be much more widespread, but, because of the efforts of various Ministers and senior officers, it has been cut substantially. I still do not like the idea that it exists in our armed services. It is difficult enough for people to train in what is, by necessity, a tough and disciplined profession. Bullying has no place in training tough soldiers, sailors and airmen.
We welcome the report on the ethnic origins of applicants for entry into the regular forces, which is part 1067 of the Defence Estimates this year. I am still trying to wade through the statistical morass of this report, but I accept the broad conclusion of the substantial under-representation of the ethnic minorities in our armed forces. The Royal Air Force, because of different recruiting techniques, appears to be more successful than the other services in dealing with that problem. Will the Minister urge all services to consider methods used in other branches and then adopt a universal approach based on the best practice?
Until we can integrate our ethnic minorities into all institutions of public life, whether the armed services, the police or whatever, there will not be a truly integrated society. A career in the armed services is a good opportunity for ethnic minorities to become fully integrated.
The subject of AIDS was mentioned in both the 1987 and 1988 continuation order debates. Last year the Ministry of Defence said that it had recognised the seriousness of the problem and had played a full part in the AIDS education campaign. How successful does the Minister believe the campaign to have been? Has his Department kept central records of the number of personnel tested HIV-positive? If so, what are the results of those records? The Independent reported on 19 June that the rate of HIV infection in the US Army, while lower than in the civilian population, was higher than expected on previous estimates. Can the Minister assure the House that all reasonable steps are being taken to monitor the British position?
Another matter raised in previous debates was the increasing use of private contractors for services such as cleaning and catering. Concern was expressed about the use of service personnel to complete work that the contractors had left unfinished. Has that practice now ended?
We are concerned about the MOD's management of its housing stock. It has been criticised by the Public Accounts Committee, which noted that the MOD had said that it recognised the need to do much better in its management of married quarters. The question is whether better management is, in itself, sufficient. The 18th report of the Review Body on Armed Forces Pay, Cmnd. 579, referred to the poor quality of much service accommodation and said that better management arrangements would not, in themselves, make more money available.
There has been considerable criticism from hon. Members on both sides of the House of the Government's overall policy towards service accommodation. In the Army debate on 8 June the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), who I am sure will participate in this debate, devoted considerable time to detailing the terrible problems of Army personnel when attempting to become owner-occupiers. It was clear that he had considerable support from many of his hon. Friends. The provision of appropriate housing for service personnel is one of the main determinants of morale, but it is evident that the Government are failing to deal with the problem.
A scheme must be evolved to ensure that service families have homes on leaving the service. That has been discussed for many years, but we have not yet achieved a resolution of that peculiar and difficult problem. Even for those who can afford it, house purchase during armed service and its consequent absentee landlordism does not work, especially for those who now face seven-year tours of duty in Germany. Every garrison has its crop of horror 1068 stories about experiences of letting houses in Britain. The families have to carry a double burden of mortgage and rent, usually on a single income. They cannot bear those risks for long.
I am sure that Conservative Members wish to contribute to the debate, as they have in previous defence debates, so I shall not speak at length. However, the problem is serious and must be resolved. I understand that the hon. Member for Canterbury tabled an amendment to the Finance Bill. I do not know whether it was accepted or rejected because I have not followed that Bill in all its gory detail.
§ Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)
My amendment was firmly rejected by members of both Front Benches. However, constructive discussions with my right hon. and hon. Friends continue. I hope that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) will extend the constructive views that he has expressed over the past minute or so to members of the shadow Treasury team.
§ Mr. Rogers
Yes, and I understand the problems of right hon. and hon. Members on both Front Benches. I feel sure that they wish to consider sympathetically other proposals, which could include direct assistance from the Ministry of Defence, which currently feels that fiscal relief within the Finance Bill is not the answer, and that such an arrangement would create all sorts of problems in respect of tax relief extended to purchasers in other peculiar situations. There can be no doubt that at present there are instances of premature voluntary retirement among skilled NCOs, for example, who are encouraged by their wives to leave early as they seek security for their family when a suitable house and job becomes available.
I know that the Ministry of Defence is sympathetic and recognises that problem, and if it cannot be resolved in the Finance Bill perhaps it can be sorted out within the Ministry. We shall do all that we can to help the Minister to resolve that problem.
§ Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone)
I am grateful for an opportunity to participate in the debate, because I am also very concerned about incidents of bullying. My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware of extremely serious allegations of bullying of one of my constituents, who ended up in hospital with a split kidney. I cannot go into any detail on those allegations, or even name my constituent or his regiment, as I understand that the matter is now sub judice and that a court martial is proceeding. Nevertheless, one or two aspects surrounding that case, but not directly connected with it, are of particular concern.
In case there may be any doubt, I should say at the start that the case to which I refer does not involve my local regiment, the 36th Engineers, which has an extremely proud record on that score and about which I have never heard even the slightest whisper of any bullying.
My concern is that recruiting policies are at fault, and that people are being recruited who are liable to engage in a sustained campaign of bullying. Whether or not it is proved that there was such a campaign in the case of my constituent, cases have been proven at courts martial over the 12 months since our previous debate. In other words, one is not dealing always with an NCO who momentarily lost his temper and hit a subordinate. No matter how 1069 deplorable such an incident may be, it is at least an impulsive action and not part of a campaign of sustained and cruel bullying, which is a sign of a deeply flawed character.
I ask myself how people capable of such behaviour manage to get through the recruiting process. It seems that there is a need for it to be tightened up. We must ask also why such bullying is more prevalent in the Army—and I use the word "prevalent" in exactly the same sense as it was used by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers)—than in the other two services.
I am concerned also about the remedy available to young soldiers who are the victims of bullying. The case to which I referred involves a 17-year-old recruit who had only just joined up and who was away from home for the first time. What measures has the Army taken to ensure that young recruits can report what they are having to endure without fear of reprisal? The questions that I asked that recruit included why he did not go to his commanding officer or telephone home. The answer was that there was direct intimidation against doing so.
Surely the Army can devise a foolproof means of dealing with the matter, similar to the recognised grievance procedure used by any employee in a civilian occupation. When a recruit alleges bullying and his allegation appears to stand up, he should be protected immediately from whatever intimidation has been threatened, and his allegations should be considered seriously from the start in the recruit's base. In the case that I encountered, the parent had to go to the barracks before any justice was won.
I am also concerned about the role played by NCOs. It is now generally acknowledged that many NCOs have to spend so much time on paperwork—indeed, they are taken on specifically for the purpose—that they are no longer spending as much time as they used to on training their men and, above all, looking after their welfare. That is a negation of the role that we expect them to be drafted and promoted to carry out.
For those three reasons—particularly my concern about recruits' recourse on base once the bullying has started, and the role of NCOs—I would welcome a response from the Minister. When my constituent's case has been decided by a court martial and any appeals have been dealt with, I hope to raise the matter in much more detail, because I believe that it has many worrying implications.
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)
Like others who have spoken, I pay tribute to the men and women in our armed forces. I suspect that discipline and morale are inextricably linked: if discipline is right morale will almost certainly be right, and if morale is right the punishing effects of discipline will almost inevitably be unnecessary.
Although conducted in a rather low-key way—in a spirit of bipartisanship, or even tripartisanship—the debate is of some constitutional significance. The 1689 Bill of Rights provided that an army could not be maintained without the consent of Parliament. Although this is in some respects a symbolic occasion, it none the less reflects the fact that Parliament retains an important constitutional control over those who serve in our armed forces and the system of discipline imposed on them.
1070 I was heartened to hear the Minister say that the procedures were being kept under constant review, particularly in the light of the developments in criminal procedure for civilians. My experience of military discipline is rather limited, being confined to appearing as civilian defence counsel in a naval court martial. My recollection of the event—which was spread over three or four days—is of the extraordinary lengths to which the naval authorities went to ensure that I, as a civilian lawyer, was in no way disadvantaged or inhibited. I also recall the lengths to which the judge advocate's representative went to ensure that, in that capacity, I was made familiar with the procedures that were adoped. If anecdotal evidence can be relied on in a debate such as this, let me say that my direct experience of these matters has been entirely favourable.
I can also speak from experience of a case of someone —I must protect his anonymity—who was originally sentenced to seven years for an offence which, again, I should not reveal. After a variety of appeal procedures, his sentence was reduced to six months. That gave rise, not surprisingly, to some sense of relief on the part of the individual concerned and his family, but it raised in my mind the question whether the way in which the original sentence had been imposed was in accordance with the principles we would all think necessary to attend on a case of that kind.
If we face a demographic trend which will make it more difficult to recruit people to the armed services, we shall have to ensure that their conditions, once they join up, encourage them to go on being members of the armed services. Also, if we must rely on more female members of the armed services, that may have some consequence for the nature of the discipline employed in all three services.
May we be assured that the constant review to which the Minister referred will be tailored to take account of those trends and of the alteration, to some extent, in the character of the three services with which the order is concerned?
I shall say little about bullying. There must be a point at which robust training—that which is necessary to discover the character of an individual who presents himself or herself for the demanding tasks which service men and women perform—lmoves from what is legitimate to what is sadistic, and that must sometimes be a narrow issue. But systematic bullying should never be permitted.
Reference has been made to commanding officers. In my judgment, a commanding officer who does not know that systematic bullying is taking place in a unit for which he or she has responsibility is not fulfilling those responsibilities. I have no doubt that the Minister will assure the House that the Ministry of Defence brings this responsibility home to those who are in command of units where there may be a risk of the kind of unacceptable behaviour which the whole House would condemn and which, if publicized—even if involving only minor incidents—brings nothing but harm to the reputation of the three services to which hon. Members have paid justifiable tribute.
§ Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)
I shall raise three points. The first concerns the issues raised by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) about the need for a new approach to the problem of service men leaving the services and wanting to buy homes.
The House generally was encouraged by the constructive response from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces at the end of the recent debate on the Army. I was also encouraged by the fact that, although the Chief Secretary to the Treasury was not happy with proposals that were put to him when we discussed the Finance Bill, in particular about tax relief on rent, he clearly acknowledged that a serious problem existed, and he agreed to discuss possible solutions to it.
While I appreciate that the Minister is seeking solutions, the final solution must not be based on the concept of two households. It has been shown time and again not to work. The concept of trying to persuade a sergeant or corporal, or even a junior officer, in Germany or Ulster to try to run two households—to be paying rent at one end and a mortgage at the other—does not work.
There must be a scheme which is linked to the eventual purchase of a house so that a man can feel confident that he will be able to afford a home at the end of his service without attempting to run two households while is serving. This problem applies particularly to the Army, because soldiers principally serve abroad, although it applies also to some sections of the RAF.
§ Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's efforts relating to the matter that he has just mentioned. I have had constituency cases involving service men seeking to buy houses, so I hope that he will eventually achieve a successful solution to the problem. It would be odd if a Conservative Government, who are promoting so vigorously the concept of home ownership in all other sections of society, did not remove the obstacles that face service men.
§ Mr. Brazier
I am most grateful for my hon. Friend's comments.
My second point affects the Royal Navy in particular and to a much lesser extent other members of the armed forces. It is most important to maintain morale. Mobility is not the problem in the Royal Navy; the problem is separation. The fact that those who serve in the Royal Navy spend so much time away from their wives is extremely bad for morale. Ships are now spending more time at sea than at any time since the second world war. For financial reasons, we have reduced the numbers of service men in shore postings, where we have introduced civilianisation.
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces referred briefly to conditions of service. In last year's review of allowances a quite reasonable change was made as it applied to the other services but it has had a most serious effect on those who serve in the Royal Navy. Moreover, I was told in a written answer a few weeks ago that it has saved almost no money. I refer to the change in the arrangements for the payment of boarding school allowances.
Justification for the payment of boarding school allowances to members of the other two services has always been that it was the only means by which the child of a soldier or an airman could enjoy a continuous 1072 education, now that the state boarding schools have disappeared. It has been ruled that service men whose wives and families do not accompany them will lose the allowance. Those who are coming towards the end of their service have always had rather a raw deal, but it has always been most unfair on those who serve in the Royal Navy. In their case, the main problem is separation from their families. The allowance provided some means of taking some of the strain off their wives.
It has now been ruled that the wife has to follow the husband if he happens to have a shore posting between two sea-going ones. That will lead to all the mobility problems from which the two other services already suffer, on top of the extraordinary strain of separation. The Royal Navy's case is special. It is by far the smallest service. The cost of the boarding school allowances is only £24 million a year. The sharp increase during the last 12 months of premature voluntary release, particularly among officers, is a direct result of that policy.
My third and last point is about how to attract more members of the ethnic minority communities into the armed forces. If we are to become a united society, we must attract more of them into the armed forces. I hope that the suggestion I am about to make will he taken constructively. It is a chicken and egg situation. Members of the ethnic communities are in a small minority in the armed forces. One hears that in some instances hey feel threatened, not so much by bullying but by the general feeling that they are being ostracised.
A means of attracting people from the ethnic communities into the services might be to build on the experience that we already have of the regimental structure. There is a London Scottish regiment. It is not confined to Scotsmen and it is very successful. I have a friend in it. There is a London Irish regiment and, of course, there are the Gurkha regiments. They are all historic regiments with a tremendous war record. If we were to experiment, perhaps in the territorial army with a London Sikh regiment—the Sikhs have a fine military tradition—one unit that provided a focus for excellence could act as a flagship for attracting members of ethnic minorities into the armed forces. However, that is just a thought. I shall conclude, having made my three points.
§ Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)
I shall be brief. I wish to discuss service men who contract HIV infections or AIDS. I echo the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) in asking the Minister to provide the figures for those in the armed forces who contract the HIV virus and AIDS and to tell us whether the position is being properly monitored by his Department.
I raised the subject in last year's debate on the armed forces. Some of the points that I made then are still relevant. I said:a television programme … concerned with the United States forces in Thailand … showed that the Thai Government were most irresponsible in relation to visiting troops. That might apply, too, to countries that our troops visit. For example, in some of the African countries as many as 90 per cent. of prostitutes have the HIV virus. If our soldiers frequent such establishments, perhaps in a fit of drunkenness or a deliberate act on their part, they take a grave —grave is the right word in this context—risk.The Minister should not only promote health ecuca.tion, which is vital, but put pressure on the Governments of the countries which our troops visit to behave responsibly and clean up those areas where AIDS can be spread.1073 My final point was:The Government should be examining ways of making it easy for those in the armed forces who contract AIDS to acknowledge it, leave the armed forces and receive proper care. They need to be able to do that without fear, without shame and stigma and, especially, without severe financial hardship. If that does not happen, they will stay in the armed forces and try to cover it up and suffer."—[Official Report, 14 July 1988; Vol. 137, c. 681–82.]Those points are still relevant, but the Minister's predecessor did not reply to them. Unfortunately, there is no sign that they have received any consideration since.
The Government should put pressure on countries where our troops could be at risk. Health education should be undertaken on a large scale by all the armed forces on a regular basis and should include the availability of condoms. Those who contract the HIV virus should be given the opportunity to leave quietly without financial loss and with access to follow-up care.
Contracting HIV or AIDS should not be a disciplinary offence or a cover for another disciplinary offence to get those who are infected out of the armed forces. The Ministry of Defence has to deal with the matter properly.
§ Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly in this debate on Army, Navy and Air Force discipline and morale. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister for not being here for all his speech. I should be grateful if he would address one or two of my comments in his winding-up speech.
One of the first speeches that I made in the House concerned personnel shortages in the armed forces. More specifically, I dealt with pilots in the Air Force. I was assured then that such shortages did not exist and that no shortages were projected. We can see 18 months later that such shortages exist and are becoming worse. They are spreading to many sectors of all three services. Previously, shortages were confined to specific trades and specific qualifications, but we now see infantry battalions, for example, especially in Germany, under strength simply because they cannot meet their recruiting targets. The problem that should have been addressed 18 months ago has clearly not been addressed, and we now face an even bigger problem as a result. I hope that we shall do something about that quickly.
The latest allowance package has been at best neutral and at worst counter-productive in terms of encouraging people to stay in the three services and discouraging people from leaving. The proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) to help people in the armed forces to buy their own property has had some success at least in the Finance Bill. I am disappointed by the response of the Ministry of Defence to that initiative. It should have been able to react more quickly to some of the points made and to come up with other proposals in house, as it were. I hope that now, when it is clear to all that a problem exists, we shall come up with some proposals.
I have a few ideas for such proposals. We need to act quickly on recruiting, beyond the advertising campaigns used at present. I want to take up one of the points made on the recruitment of women. We have talked about that for far too long, especially in relation to training women pilots in the Air Force, as I said in the House 18 months 1074 ago. I was assured there that thre was no need for such a proposal. Six months ago, a study was being carried out, but nothing has happened since.
We are very short of pilots in the Royal Air Force, yet we have a potential supply of highly qualified pilots outside. Women who are training at present with university air squadrons and who want to come into the Royal Air Force are being denied the opportunity to do so and are going into civilian airlines instead. Will my hon. Friend the Minister tell us why we do not get on with the matter and start up a scheme to allow women to beome pilots in the Royal Air Force? I am not suggesting a huge scheme to allow women to fly all types of aircraft.
§ Mr. Mans
I want to see a scheme to allow women to train initially at least for certain types of aircraft. I should have thought that that could be done by the end of this year, rather than having to wait two or three years.
We must solve the recruiting problem and we must also solve the rentention problem. People are leaving the service at too high a rate. As recently as a year ago, one set of figures said that there would be a surplus of 60 pilots in the Air Force. Within six months, that had changed to a deficit of 265. I can assume only that the people compiling the figures were working too much on historical data and were not projecting the figures far enough forward, bearing in mind the competition now posed by the airlines for the recruitment of people who can be trained as pilots. The way in which statistics are compiled has gone wrong in other areas as well, so we must produce schemes such as the one suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury for retaining people.
I should also like to see, as I have said previously in the House, that those who reach the end of their engagement receive their gratuity if they stay in the service, as well as if they leave. It seems odd that an organisation that is trying to retain people is paying them large sums of money to leave.
Equally, we must do something about the rents that service personnel pay for their accommodation and quarters. We could reduce the rents to significantly below their present levels so that service men would then have the opportunity to save up to buy their own homes for when they leave the service, perhaps using the sort of scheme that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury has suggested.
The matter is now of great urgency and I sincerely hope that the Ministry of Defence will look closely and quickly at ways of remedying the shortage of personnel in all three of our armed services.
§ Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)
I am tempted to follow the hon. Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) down a few of his back lanes, but I feel that I must confine my main comments to the order. However, to offer the hon. Gentleman a crumb of consolation, he may be interested to know that the Army Air Corps has already earmarked its first female candidate for a pilot's course. However, it has done so on the basis that that lady is a doctor and is 1075 finishing her military training. As a military doctor, she may have to render medical attention to casualties and be left without a pilot and she may need to get herself and the casualty out of that situation —and the pilot as well, if he is merely incapacitated. That seems a strange, singular and selective logic to apply to warfare. Although it may be a useful scenario for television situation comedies, it is less so for the hard life with which we expect our trained service men and women to cope.
I remind the Minister and the House that my position as Opposition defence Whip and as an active participant in the parliamentary armed services scheme has meant that in the past two years I have visited many service units in all arms of the services. I also remind the House that I am a member of the independent hoard of visitors of both the Royal Naval detention quarters at Portsmouth and of the military corrective training centre at Colchester. It is with particular reference to what I have experienced there and to what I have discussed right across the board with commissioned ranks, commanding officers and senior non-commissioned officers that I want to address two main issues tonight.
However, I begin with an issue that has been mentioned by several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Wyre, the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen). I refer to the level of training that we invest and the amount of attention and effort that we put into ensuring that our service men and women have adequate training of a high standard. It is no longer sufficient to shove a musket with a bayonet on the end of it into somebody's mitt and to tell him to get into the front line, because this is very much a high-tech activity in all regards, and we must try to ensure that we retain as much of that investment as we can.
From my visits to Colchester and to Pompey, I have learnt that one of the most common offences that invites detention is absence without leave. It was ever thus. However, that is quickly followed by another two classes of offence. The first relates to cash, and the second to drugs: I suppose that the problems for the young service man—I can speak only from experience as a service man in the Airborne Regiment because I was not in the WRAF, so if any of my female colleagues are here, they must forgive me.
§ Mr. Cook
I apologise to the hon. Lady. I was referring to Opposition Members.
In my day, it was always a problem trying to manage and control negotiable assets. I vividly recall the shenanigans that went on after a pay parade, when we saluted with our right hand, and seized in our left hand a book and a quantity of money, and screamed, "Pay and book correct, sir." We never had the temerity to look at it to see whether that statement was correct; we were not allowed to. Having marched out of the pay parade, there was always a melee, with people saying, "Here is the pound I owe you," or, "There is the 25 bob you have been waiting for." Debts were then settled until the next night, when in the billet there was always the plea, "Lend us a quid." There was a kind of usury, willingly entered into by both lender and borrower.
Those were the days when "credit rating" was a term that still had to be invented. "Creditworthiness" had not 1076 been heard of. To get a £20 overdraft, one had to have three guarantors and more than five hostages. I make light of it, but that is not the case now. We are in the times of instant credit, with nothing more than a plastic identification and a PIN number needed to unlock anybody's assets. A young person may be sent to a cash-point by a buddy or a girl friend with a plastic card and a PIN number with the instruction, "Get me 25 quid." When there, he finds it so easy to get that £25 out that he withdraws £30, with no effort and with almost a pat on the head for doing it, because the friend or girl friend is grateful to him for going. It is so easy to get into the situation of obtaining money by false pretences, fraudulent behaviour or thieving. We have made those offences much easier.
I know that there is cash and credit counselling, but it appears to come after the service man's record has been besmirched. It comes as a form of redemption rather than of prevention. I am seeking an assurance that emphasis will be put on this problem not only during the basic training periods and the early pastoral care that is necessary for service personnel, but as a continuing service, given not only to service men or women but to their families.
I realise that drugs are a delicate subject. Hon. Members should recall my points about the amount invested in training and in bringing service personnel up to scratch when considering drug offences. Most drug offences in the forces involve soft drugs. All of them at the end of the day invite dishonourable discharge. Inevitably, there will be some cases where serving individuals have possibly been caught in possession of a minimal amount of cannabis, have served a fairly lengthy stretch of detention and then find themselves decanted into civvy street with the type of skill which is difficult to replace in the services and impossible to use in civvy street. There are many such people.
From time to time informed commentators—I freely admit that I am not one of them—within the armed forces, the medical profession and on civvy street express the opinion that perhaps we should consider a change of attitude to the use of soft drugs. I do not make that plea. I simply remind the Minister that we have heard about the demographic trough, about the difficulties in recruitment and about the investment in training. Our allies who find that their personnel are taking soft drugs do not operate such stringent rules as ours. If we are to believe Fleet street, or rather its replacement, our enemies' service personnel are apparently using drugs left, right and centre.
I do not plead any case, but if unofficial discussions about this matter are taking place and if senior people are quietly expressing their views, perhaps there is a case for a discreet examination of the statistics vis a vis ourselves and our NATO allies. Perhaps we could then consider alternative treatment and action in such drugs cases as opposed to automatic discharge.
§ Mr. Neubert
This has been a relatively succinct and significant debate on matters of importance. It is my intention to endeavour to respond to the best of my ability to the majority of the points that have been raised tonight. I welcome hon. Members' interest in the well-being of Her Majesty's armed forces.
1077 First, I thank the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) for his welcome to the introduction of the leaflet for new recruits on their rights and responsibilities. I assure him that, in deference to the undertaking given by my predecessor last year, we considered making that leaflet available to all members of the services. That suggestion was made by the hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. Hughes) whose absence we regret and to whom we wish a speedy return to the House.
Having considered the hon. Gentleman's suggestion, however, we came to the conclusion that that would mean issuing some 300,000 copies of the leaflet, which, in general terms, covers a number of subjects. That information is already widely available to units, notices are posted and members of the armed forces have access to advice on all the issues covered. We therefore believe that it would not be to the advantage of the armed forces to distribute the leaflet as widely as suggested. We suspect that, in common with so much literature that is sent to us, it might end up in the bin. That would not be an effective use of resources. We understand, however, the need for members of the services to have proper advice on their rights.
It is a matter of regret, but also of reality, that in such a short debate hon. Members have concentrated, naturally, not on the overwhelming adherence to discipline that applies in the armed forces, but on those examples that hit the headlines and naturally cause concern. I shall respond to that concern, but I hope that it will be seen in the perspective of generally good morale, first-class discipline and dedication among our armed services.
The subject of bullying once again played a prominent part in this debate, with more than one Member mentioning it. We have made clear more than once, and shall continue to do so, that bullying and ill-treatment have no place in service life and will not be tolerated. Each allegation is viewed most seriously and is thoroughly investigated. Progress has been made in implementing the range of measures announced by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman) on 7 June last year. I have set them out in a letter to the hon. Member for Clackmann (Mr. O'Neill) dated 23 June this year, a copy of which has been placed in the Library.
It may be as well to list some of the measures taken. All levels in the chain of command have been reminded that bullying and ill-treatment will not be tolerated and, as I have said, such allegations will be thoroughly investigated and, if they are substantiated, firm disciplinary action will be taken. Specific measures included 102 extra posts in the training organisation which have been re-established and filled to allow officers and NCOs more time for their supervisory roles. That relates to the paperwork point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe).
The enhanced role given to the Women's Royal Voluntary Service has been well received. An additional 92 posts are being established to improve welfare arrangements for single personnel and, so far, 24 of those posts have been filled in the United Kingdom. We intend to concentrate next on filling posts in Germany. Districts have implemented arrangements for providing additional training for civilian doctors engaged in recruiting to ensure that they are aware of the specific requirements of the army.
1078 The full man-management training package for instructors is being developed and the content and scope of man-management training for junior officers and NCOs has also been reviewed and increased. The revised pamphlet with further guidance on the importance of out-of-hours supervision has been issued, and an instructive document on alcohol abuse has also been revised and issued.
Although it is early days to assess the success of these measures, we believe that substantiated allegations of bullying appear to be declining. I have figures to show this. I do not wish to be complacent, but I hope that they may place the matter in proper perspective. There were 15 substantiated cases in 1986, 31 cases in 1987, which naturally gave rise to concern, and only 12 cases last year. So far this year there have been six cases. To that extent, they are encouraging.
Having outlined the measures that we have taken and have yet to see come into effect, I shall address the issue of initiation ceremonies to which the hon. Member for Rhondda referred. The services have been concerned that so-called initiation ceremonies may have had a link with bullying. Last year, my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering told the House that initiation ceremonies in the Army had been abolished. Similar action has been taken in the Royal Air Force, by standing orders prohibiting all such ceremonies. The Royal Navy, while by no means complacent, is not aware that initiation ceremonies play a significant part in Navy life.
My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone was concerned about a case which involved a constituent. She was constrained in what she could say tonight because she believed that this was still a matter before courts martial. I shall not use the name of the constituent involved, but I will use the case as an illustration. It shows that we cannot be sure of the facts of the matter from evidence from one source. The purpose of the judicial process is to examine in a court all points of view and reach a reasonable man's conclusion based on them. The case demonstrates how seriously the Army takes all allegations of bullying.
All complaints, however minor, are thoroughly investigated by the special investigation branch. This alleged case of bullying involved three recruits and four non-commissioned officers, and was investigated. All the non-commissioned officers were court-martialled this month. To ensure fairness, four separate trials were held, each with a different court, but each, to ensure continuity, was legally advised by the same representative of the Lord Chancellor's Office.
After the cases against the accused had been heard, all were acquitted by their respective courts martial. Before any hon. Member rushes to conclusions, I add by way of background that a key witness failed to appear in court, so charges were dropped against two non-commissioned officers. In other cases, one witness has admitted to lying, and in general the witnesses were unconvincing. I should not want my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone to leave the House not knowing that these cases have been the subject of completed courts martial. One has to take time to consider all aspects of these matters, and to hope that the British system of justice, which is world renowned, is upheld in such courts as well as elsewhere—
§ Miss. Widdecombe
I am grateful for that detailed account. I should point out that we contacted my hon. Friend's office only today and were told that this was still 1079 sub judice and that I should therefore be careful what I said about it. So I am surprised to learn that decisions have already been taken.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that this young soldier left the Army with an exemplary discharge and was offered the opportunity to re-enlist, which is not consistent with his having given any false evidence?
§ Mr. Neubert
I did not allege that he had given false evidence; I merely gave some details of the case. It is perhaps not appropriate for a matter of this complexity and seriousness to be discussed on the Floor of the House. I just wanted to counter one or two of the points that my hon. Friend made. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that it would be better to discuss this further elsewhere. I shall be happy to hear all she has to say in writing or in person.
The subject of ethnic minorities in the services is also very serious. At the risk of being repetitive, I make it absolutely plain that the armed services are fully integrated, non-discriminatory organisations, in which no discrimination is tolerated. As we said in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates", the results of the first year's monitoring of applicants and recruits by ethnic origin revealed that the ethnic minorities were greatly under-represented among applicants for the armed forces, and that their success rate was lower than that of white applicants. Naturally, we cannot leave that unexamined. We have commissioned a study by outside consultants on what can be done to improve the situation. They are due to submit their report shortly, so at this stage I can say nothing more on this subject.
§ Mr. Rogers
Speaking from memory, I think that the success rate for applicants to the Air Force was about 85 per cent., which was 20 per cent. higher than in the Army. I suggested that the Minister should try to find the best practice in the services and then urge the other services to adopt a similar recruiting technique. Will he consider that?
§ Mr. Neubert
Yes, of course. That is still an open question. That is exactly the kind of consideration that we shall give following the submission and evaluation of the report.
On the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) about the formation of ethnic minority regiments, we believe that that would be divisive and contrary to the position of the armed forces which I described as a fully integrated, non-discriminatory organisation. We wish to encourage ethnic minority recruitment and we have commissioned a report to that end. I hope before much longer to have more to report to the House on that.
We seem to go from one serious issue to another. A point mentioned by more than one hon. Member, and particularly by the hon. Members for Rhondda and for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) was AIDS. The Ministry of Defence recognises the seriousness of AIDS. We have taken a full part in the education campaign. All new recruits and those in service are subject to lectures, briefings, videos and other instruction. Personnel deployed overseas are clearly and specifically briefed on the cause of the disease and the actions necessary to reduce the risk of infection. On returning from overseas, personnel are advised on the danger of passing on the infection. Those at risk are 1080 encouraged to consult their medical officer confidentially, to undergo counselling and, if necessary, voluntary testing for HIV infections.
The services continue to employ HIV carriers and AIDS sufferers until their health deteriorates to a point where discharge on medical grounds becomes appropriate. They will be given medical advice and treatment. As regards numbers, it may be some reassurance to the House to hear that currently there are only three known HIV-positive individuals and two AIDS cases in the armed services. I was asked whether we are properly monitoring the position: yes, we are. Otherwise, our policy is the same as Government policy in general towards AIDS.
The hon. Member for Leyton asked about discharges. The services take a compassionate view of the AIDS sufferer. It is our policy to continue to employ sufferers in the armed forces for as long as possible. If a service man has to be discharged on medical grounds he will be treated humanely and allowed to leave with dignity, as would anyone leaving on any health ground.
The hon. Member for Rhondda picked up the point from last year about private contractors. The undertaking that my predecessor gave, which was to ensure that work not done adequately by private contractors would not be done by serving soldiers, still stands. Commands have been reminded not to assist private contractors or re-do their work. I hope that that point is accepted.
Several hon. Members spoke on housing. I tried hard, but I could not see the connection with discipline, unless occupation of our poorer quarters is regarded as a form of punishment. Housing is a matter of considerable concern. Not surprisingly, my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury was here to make his point again. He suggested that the solution should not be two households.
I think that that is a little sweeping, because for some people it will be two households. There are many who have two households.
We are aware of the needs of those who do not have homes of their own. We are endeavouring to work a scheme which we hope will be brought in and which will meet the need. While this endeavour continues. we are discouraged if my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) should think that the Ministry of Defence has been laggard. He will acknowledge that in the debate in Committee on the Finance Bill the Treasury Minister said that contacts had been made with him by Ministers in the Ministry of Defence and that the door was still open for further discussion. That is where the matter stands. The judgment of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury was right.
We have very much in mind the need to recruit and retain service personnel. I hesitate to say how much work is going on in the Ministry of Defence, because it might alarm hon. Members to know how many are under way. We are acutely aware of the need not only to maintain recruitment but to retain those who are presently serving, who are valuable, highly skilled and dedicated personnel whom we do not wish to lose. We are constantly seeking ways to ensure that they are happy in their work and wish to continue.
Hon. Members have not paid sufficient attention to the success that the Government have had in providing employment. The 34th successive monthly fall in unemployment has just been announced. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear last Thursday, the Government have been outstandingly successful in 1081 creating new jobs. This makes the employment scene highly competitive, and the services cannot escape that. However, we are by no means complacent, and have a whole range of matters under review. They include the points mentioned tonight.
We wish to see to a wider role for women. I remind the House that it was the Chief of the Air Staff who gave impetus to the campaign for the wider use of women in the Royal Air Force, by his interview in a magazine earlier in the year. We are also seeking ways to offer greater promotion possibilities to women.
The hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) spoke about two matters that deserve the attention of the House. The first was drug abuse. I can assure him that, as I am sure he would expect, that is taken seriously, wherever and when ever it occurs. All ranks are made aware of the hazards of abuse through a comprehensive education package and, depending on the seriousness of the offence, may be discharged. This is the right way to proceed. I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman's request for leniency in such cases simply to solve our manning difficulties. That would be inimical to the image and prestige of our professional armed services.
As to the instance of drug abuse, although I am aware of the concern, I do not accept that it is a major problem. I hope that that will not make the hon. Gentleman think that we are complacent about it, but there has been a drop in the number of drug-related offences committed by 1082 service men since 1984, when the figure was 370. By last year, that was down to 91. That is a testimony to the approach adopted by the services. They are aware of the need for constant vigilance. Moreover, steps have been taken to improve both the detection and prevention of drug abuse. I made a special visit to RAF Rudloe Manor to see the RAF police who are engaged in such work, among other things.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman for Stockton, North spoke about the need for debt and credit counselling, and anticipated my rather general reply. All three services are aware of the need to provide advice and information on personal and financial matters, including credit counselling. Advice is available to all service personnel within units, and they can be directed to outside financial advisers if necessary. Where cases occur, they are always followed up with further counselling and advice. The hon. Gentleman's point was that prevention was better than cure, and we take that to heart and will consider what he said about that.
I have endeavoured to cover the majority of the issues raised during the debate. I am grateful to the House for bearing with me as I did so. I am pleased with the general support that the House has given, which will be appreciated by the armed forces as well as by the Minister responsible.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That the draft Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts (Continuation) Order 1989, which was laid before this House on 12th June, be approved.