Defence (Amendment) Bill, 1986: Second Stage.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Limerick West): Before proceeding to deal with the details of the Bill I should like to give the House the background to it. This Bill was introduced in Dáil Éireann by my immediate predecessor during the life of the previous Dáil but was not taken beyond First Stage. The Government, on taking office, decided that the Bill should be adopted and sought and obtained Dáil approval for its restoration to the Order Paper of that House. As Senators will be aware, all Stages of the Bill have since been passed by the Dáil and I am now bringing it before this House to seek approval of the measure here.

The purpose of the Bill is to introduce certain reforms and updating into the existing code of military law as contained in the Defence Acts. The Principal Act — the Defence Act, 1954 — was enacted by the Oireachtas more than 30 years ago and the need for revision has become evident over the years since that Act became law. In general, the existing legislation has stood the test of time but, inevitably, legislative provisions which were designed to meet the circumstances of a particular time will require amendment and will not remain adequate for the needs of more than 30 years later.

A number of substantial amendments to the 1954 Act have been made in the intervening years. In 1960 there was amending legislation which provided for overseas service with the United Nations on peacekeeping missions.

The last major reform in the field of military law was introduced by the Courts Martial Appeals Act, 1983. That Act provided for the establishment of a special court to hear appeals against the findings and sentences of courts martial by persons convicted of offences against military law. Free legal aid was also provided for, at court martial hearings and hearings by the appeal court, on conditions similar to those applicable to the grant of free legal aid in the civil criminal courts.

The Bill now before the House is the outcome of a further review of military law which has been under way for some time. Section 1 deals with interpretation. Section 2 updates the level of maximum fines which may be imposed by the District Court for a variety of offences in relation to military affairs and service property; generally speaking such offences would be committed by persons not subject to military law and would be tried in the District Court. Examples of such offences are inducing a member of the Defence Forces to desert and trespassing on military property. Sections 3 and 4 provide for increases in the levels of the maximum fines which may be imposed at summary trials and by courts martial for offences against military law and in the maximum amounts which an offender may be ordered to pay by way of compensation where compensation is appropriate. They also provide for the linking of those maximum amounts to the daily rate of pay of the offender as defined in section 1.

Because of the decline in the value of money over the years, the maximum financial penalties prescribed in the 1954 Act are now of nominal impact only and have little if any deterrent effect. This, I understand, has given rise to a situation in which military tribunals have, for some time, been faced with difficulty in imposing appropriate punishments. The revised penalties proposed are aimed at easing this difficulty. I would like to stress, however, that the actual penalties to be imposed will be at the discretion of the relevant tribunal within the prescribed maxima.

Section 4 also provides for — (i) the introduction of a new punishment of reduction in rank for commissioned officers. This punishment already exists for non-commissioned officers and in the case of officers will provide courts martial and the appeal court with an alternative penalty in appropriate cases. It will bridge the existing gap between the very severe punishment of dismissal and the lesser punishment of forfeiture of seniority; (ii) an alteration in the order of the punishments which may be imposed on men of the Defence Forces so as to make "detention" a lesser punishment than "discharge" or "discharge with ignominy"; and (iii) modification of the existing very harsh consequential penalty of disqualification for State employment which is suffered by persons dismissed or discharged with ignominy from the Defence Forces. In future there would be a time limit of seven years in so far as civil employment is concerned and the Government would have power to lift this part of the disqualification at any time.

These amendments are designed to modify the severity of existing punishments. In the first two instances it is proposed, in appropriate cases, to provide alternatives for dismissal or discharge and the third instance represents a relaxation of the present very severe and inflexible provision.

Section 5 provides for the creation of a new offence against military law, namely that of being under the disabling influence of any drug or volatile substance. The section includes a provision that it will be a defence to a charge to prove that the drug or substance was prescribed by a medical doctor or was used in good faith for medical reasons. The need for providing for the offence arises from the fact that military personnel are armed, are liable for duty at all times and must be capable of undertaking such duty at any time. Military personnel are, of course, at present amenable to the ordinary criminal law in relation to drug abuse and will remain so.

Sections 6, 7, 9 and 14 deal with different safety aspects of the flying and navigation of service aircraft. The new powers being sought are particularly relevant to the operation of the sophisticated aircraft and helicopters now available to the Air Corps and to the increased incidence of civilian passengers being carried in military aircraft.

Section 6 provides express power for the captain of a service aircraft to take appropriate measures in relation to nonmilitary passengers who may jeopardise the safety of the aircraft or of other passengers or property on board the aircraft. The section reflects powers already in existence in relation to the safety of civilian aircraft.

Section 7 provides power to lop, cut or remove any tree or shrub on land in the vicinity of a military aerodrome which obstructs the safe take-off or landing of aircraft. It will be necessary to give not less than 21 days' notice of such intention to the occupier of the land concerned who will be entitled to undertake the work himself if he so wishes, and be paid his reasonable expenses for so doing. Power already exists in the Defence Act, 1954, to prohibit the erection of other possible hazards to aircraft, for example, buildings or aerials, in the vicinity of a military aerodrome.

Section 9 provides for the extension of the existing powers to erect and maintain signalling apparatus on lands or buildings in the vicinity of a military aerodrome so as to enable such apparatus, if required for air navigation purposes, to be placed on land or buildings in the vicinity of any military post, not necessarily an aerodrome. This requirement relates mainly to the use of helicopters which land and take off nowadays at various military barracks.

Section 14 provides for the expansion of the existing powers to make regulations in relation to the flying of service aircraft and for the certification and maintenance of such aircraft and aircraft material.

Section 8 provides for the production of documents by civilians who are witnesses before military tribunals.

Section 10 restricts the protection from imprisonment for debt which has in the past had an adverse effect on the credit-rating of non-commissioned service personnel seeking facilities from banks and other financial institutions. The protection against imprisonment for nonpayment of debt which section 107 of the Defence Act, 1954, gives at present to non-commissioned personnel and to reservists on permanent service is unrestricted. In future in the case of non-commissioned personnel of the Permanent Defence Force it will apply only while they are on active service. It will continue to apply to reservists called out on permanent service.

Section 12 regularises the procedure for the prosecution of civilian witnesses before courts martial who are charged with contempt. The provisions of the Defence Act which now apply require to be brought into line with the provisions of the relevant civil law.

Section 13 increases the penalty for wearing, without the Minister's permission, any uniform of the Defence Forces, including any distinctive part of a uniform.

The remaining provisons in the Bill are self-explanatory. We will go into these during the Committee Stage and I will be happy to reply to any points raised on Second Stage.

In the Dáil on Committee Stage of the Bill, I undertook to examine further in consultation with the Attorney General an amendment which was proposed at short notice. I had not an opportunity of looking into the legal aspect of it. The purpose of that amendment was to facilitate certain court proofs in the case of members of the Permanent Defence Force serving overseas with an armed international United Nations force. Having examined the proposal in consultation with the law officers I decided to accept the amendment as desirable and I propose that on Committee Stage it be included in the Bill. I commend the Bill to the House.

Before turning to the Bill I take this opportunity of congratulating the Minister on his appointment as Minister for Defence. This is the first occasion on which he has spoken to the Seanad in his ministerial capacity. I would like to wish him well in his tenure of office.

The Bill we have before us this morning is a very unremarkable piece of legislation. It is largely concerned with updating certain regulations and bringing them into line with contemporary developments. It is a Bill which has a number of disparate elements as if it was a good occasion to get together a number of fairly important odds and ends and put them together in one Bill. It covers a number of disparate areas, largely designed to bring developments up to date. It is over 30 years since many of the provisions in the last Defence Act have been looked at and it is inevitable that we are now looking at some of these here this morning.

By and large I think the Bill does its job adequately. I am very pleased that the Minister has taken on board the points made in the other House and that he is prepared this morning to accept the amendment which was proposed and which I think will improve the Bill.

Before looking at the various parts of the Bill I would like to say a few general words about the role of the Army today. In the other House the former Minister for Defence, Deputy Cooney, referred to the Army as the last true professionals in our society. That is a very fair and accurate description of the role of the Army in Irish life today. For over 60 years now we have had an Army which has always put service to the State above all other considerations. It is an Army which, though it was born out of bitter political conflict, has always scrupulously and rigorously avoided any involvement or connection with party politics. The Army has been starved of adequate resources from its earliest days. I often thought it was a good thing that in 1939 our Army was not put to the test of proving our neutrality, of having to actually defend ourselves against any invasion because the Governments of the twenties and thirties, while professing great belief in a strong Army, had in fact begun a tradition which all Governments have been guilty of, that of not providing the sort of resources which a modern Army needs. Nonetheless our Army has always performed at the highest levels of professionalism, whether at home, or more spectacularly in recent years, in its peacekeeping role for which it has won praise and commendation from many quarters throughout the world. This has done a great deal to improve the performance of the Army itself.

We are very lucky in the calibre and dedication of our armed services. It is a long time now since the early days of the State when people compared our Army with the departing forces of the Crown and were inclined to make comparisons which were not favourable to our Army. That day has long since gone, and among all people in this country I think there is a very quiet and justified pride in the Army and in the role it plays and in the quality of our armed forces. We as politicians, and by extension the public generally, make very excessive demands on the armed forces without being willing to vote the resources needed. It is an age old problem but it does bring into focus the question of our neutrality which I have no intention of elaborating on at this particular moment. I would ask one question about neutrality which I believe concerns our sincerity as a people. If we really want to be neutral we must be prepared to defend ourselves like the true neutrals, the neutrals of what I call the strict observance of Sweden, the Austrians and the Swiss. We should be prepared to spend far more of our GNP on Defence. We do not do this and I am quite certain we are not going to do so in the foreseeable future. In a sense we are getting the best of all possible worlds; we are neutral without having to pay the price which the other neutral countries are obliged to pay.

Sections 3 and 4 of the Bill concerning increasing the level of fines make a lot of sense, especially in regard to fixing fines in terms of a day's pay. This will eliminate the cumbersome need of having to go to the Oireachtas to update financial fines. It is perhaps interesting to recall under the old system where a fine could be fixed at £5 for a particular offence, those fixing it could rest assured that £5 would mean roughly the same in terms of pro rata 20 years on, that £5 fixed as a fine in 1930 would mean roughly the same in 1950. Unhappily those days have gone and the device the Minister has put into the Bill meets the need there.

I am in general agreement with the other main proposals. Section 6 which gives additional power to the captain of a service aircraft in relation to civilian passengers merely extends the same power as already exists in the case of civilian aircraft. It is a valuable addition to section 154 of the Defence Act.

Section 8 which makes an addition to the law governing the summoning of civilian witnesses before courts martial or other military or legal proceedings again makes sense and arises from the experience of cases in the past.

The proposals in section 12 provide the law governing contempt of court martial. This is a necessary legal reform and one which perhaps should have taken place many years ago.

I have doubts about the proposals in section 4 which provide for an additional form of punishment. I am referring in particular to the section dealing with the reduction of an officer from a commissioned to a non-commissioned rank. In practice this could prove to be unworkable. There are many and sufficient forms of punishment at present for an officer who is found guilty and I doubt very much the practicality of reducing an officer to the ranks. The officer so reduced could probably find great difficulty in being accepted in the ranks where previously he had held command, his brother officers would have great difficulty in dealing with somebody who was a classmate of theirs in military college and who had been a comrade of theirs on equal terms for so long. I suspect that the psychological damage inflicted on someone so reduced might very well make him unsuitable at any rank in the Army. I doubt also whether this situation might arise very often and I wonder if the change is necessary, if it is helpful or if it meets any particular need.

I welcome the proposal in section 4 which allows a relaxation of the prohibition against State employment in the case of persons sentenced to be discharged with ignominy. In fact, I am not sure what the term "ignominy" means at present. Neither am I sure that it adds a great deal. Perhaps some other phrase would be more appropriate in present times.

I welcome the provision whereby somebody who has been discharged from the Army will not be disbarred from State employment. There are many areas of State employment of a menial kind for which somebody who had been so discharged but who had mended his ways and sorted out whatever problem he had, might well be appropriate. It might very well mean that somebody could begin to remake their lives at a more humble, more reduced level but nonetheless remake their lives. I welcome the element of discretion which is brought into all of this, that there is a seven year disqualification period but that the Minister can, in certain cases, reduce that number of years. It is something which I believe will not be abused. I believe that the standard applied by the Department of Defence and Ministers over the years in all appointments has been above reproach.

I should like to get further information on the thinking behind section 10 which exempts soldiers from imprisonment under certain Acts. I am thinking here in particular of the Finance Acts. Some people believe this section does not confer any particular privilege on soldiers but that in certain cases it makes it more difficult for them to get house loans or hire purchase finance. I am not clear on this section. Perhaps the Minister might comment on it.

Section 13 deals with the penalties for the wearing of uniforms. Obviously the Minister is right in this section. Clearly the wearing of Army uniforms by Paramilitaries, by gangsters, or by people in the execution of crime cannot be tolerated. We must be very careful that the use of these uniforms is confined exclusively to those who have taken the oath and who are properly and legally entitled to wear them. I have a small worry about the £1,000 fine. I would like to see a certain amount of discretion used in this regard because in recent times we have all seen a custom, or a fad, or a fashion grow up in relation to the wearing of disused Army greatcoats. I suspect some surplus FCA stock may have found its way into some of the secondhand clothes shops around Dublin. Among students especially this habit has arisen in recent years. They may not be all Irish Army uniforms, but surplus US uniforms and so forth. I hope students who indulge in this particular fashion will not find themselves facing a £1,000 fine in court. I expect it will not arise.

The Bill goes a long way to remedy the deficiencies which have been found in practice arising from the legislation which, in some cases, was outdated. I wonder if it goes far enough. I wonder if the Department of Defence might, at some stage in the future, conduct a fairly root and branch examination both of Army regulations and of Defence law to see if, in fact, there could be a streamlining of the system. Some of the archaic and pointless provisions which still exist might well be weeded out and we will get a more contemporary version of regulations and of law. However, I have no difficulty in supporting the Bill. I am glad that the Minister has accepted the amendment from the other House.

Debate adjourned.