Homosexual Offences

Orders of the Day — Armed Forces (Re-committed) Bill – in the House of Commons at 10:15 pm on 19 May 1981.

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'—(1) Section (1) of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 shall prevent an act from being an offence (other than a civil offence) under any provision of the Army Act 1955, the Air Force Act 1955 or the Naval Discipline Act 1957 unless the conduct can be shown to be prejudicial to good order and discipline.

(2) Section 1(5) of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 is repealed.'—[Mr. Arthur Davidson.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Mr Arthur Davidson Mr Arthur Davidson , Accrington

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The purpose here is to ensure that homosexual acts in the Armed Forces are not offences under the various Armed Forces Acts unless the conduct can be shown to be prejudicial to good order and discipline. The arguments why the Armed Forces should be excluded from the provisions of the Sexual Offences Act are set out in the memorandum from the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, presented to the Committee. The most commonly cited are, first, prevention of coercion of junior personnel by senior members of the Forces; secondly, the disruptive influences of homosexual practices; and, thirdly, the risk that those who engage in homosexual acts may be open to blackmail. I do not dismiss them as trivial or unpersuasive.

Again, I do not wish to initiate a major debate on homosexuality. I certainly do not want to go into the argument whether legalising homosexual acts makes those who indulge in them more or less vulnerable to blackmail. Neither do I seek to bring Armed Forces lawfully into line with the law in general. I seek merely to cure a massive injustice and a blatant act of discrimination.

I am concerned with the Service man who may have served his country loyally and patriotically for many years and who has a good military record. There is no suggestion in that case of coercion, or of having committed homosexual acts with other Service men, but for some reason—perhaps because he admits to it—it is discovered that he is a homosexual. In such circumstances he would be automatically dismissed from the Services, whether his conduct has prejudiced military discipline or not. That is unfair and discriminatory. His career and prospects would be catastrophically damaged. I hope that, as I have drawn attention to such consequences, the Ministry of Defence will look again at the question of homosexuality in the Armed Forces and perhaps seek to cure an injustice.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg , Grantham

I take the opportunity to make two points. First, the arguments against the substance of the new clause are succinctly summarised in Mr. Dromgoole's evidence on 25 March 1981, set out on page 32 of the Select Committee's report. Suffice it to say that I find those arguments wholly compelling and I am against the new clause.

I am, however, sympathetic to one aspect of the argument advanced by the hon. and learned Member for Accrington (Mr. Davidson), which I became aware of as a constituency problem. It relates to the way in which Service personnel are dealt with following the discovery of this kind of offence. Under military law a homosexual relationship is an offence that may give rise to a prosecution that, if successful, will almost certainly lead to a discharge from the Service, the fact of the discharge being marked on the ex-Service man's papers.

This leads to a number of disadvantages. Clearly, prospective employers are anxious to see the ex-Service man's papers whenever possible. The ex-Service man finds either that he has to conceal the circumstances, which leads to embarrassment, or that his prospects of employment are impaired.

Fortunately, there is another way of resolving difficulties of this kind. That is by way of administrative action. In a number of cases the Armed Services do not prosecute, but discharge by way of administrative action. In those circumstances the discharged Service man's papers are marked with something to the effect that his services are no longer required. Clearly, that is not a glowing testimonial, but it is a great deal less prejudicial than a statement to the effect that he has been discharged from the Service.

I suggest that although there may be cases in which prosecutions must be mounted, because of abuse of trust, a degree of coercion or gross lewdness, for instance, the majority of cases could perhaps be dealt with by administrative action. I know that this is done in certain circumstances. It was done in the case of my constituent, for which I am grateful. I should be very pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State say that in the great majority of cases it would be the practice of the Armed Services to deal with matters of this kind by administrative action rather than by prosecution leading to conviction.

Photo of Bruce George Bruce George , Walsall South

I rise briefly to support my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. Davidson). The Sexual Offences Act did not apply to the Armed Forces. One way to prevent the emergence of a military caste in any society is to make the military subject to as many of the laws of the land as is practicable, unless strong reasons can be shown as to why it should be excluded from ordinary legislation.

Arguments were advanced by Ministry of Defence witnesses as to why the Sexual Offences Act should not apply to the Armed Forces. All sorts of reasons were given about morale, likelihood of blackmail, and so on. One may appreciate why a soldier should be drummed out of the Armed Services if he commits a homosexual offence, but the arguments for saying that he should be thrown out simply because he is a homosexual are less persuasive. He may not have committed a homosexual act. He may have committed such an act in the privacy of his home. But if he were found out, this would still result in his dismissal.

In my view, there is no strong argument for a person to be thrown out of the Army simply because he is a homosexual. I therefore believe that the legislation should be amended, so that only those offences that are committed perhaps in public should be punished by law and the soldiers removed from the service. Simply to deny a person who in every other respect may be a very competent soldier is not justified.

Without spending too much time on military history, may I say that it was perhaps fortunate for Greece, and indeed for civilisation as a whole, that Alexander the Great was not subject to British forces discipline, or he would have been slung out of his army.

10.30 pm

The same could be said of Frederick the Great and Julius Caesar. I could turn to more modern times, except that I refuse to be drawn into making any comments that would result in the descendants of various generals, field marshals and admirals writing abusive letters to The Times.

I do not think that a person's sexuality would have any impact upon his ability within the Armed Forces. Therefore, I hope that the next time an Armed Forces Bill is considered the five years will have transpired, and that perhaps attitudes will have changed slightly so as to bring a degree of liberalism into the law relating to the Armed Forces, just as we have in civil society, based on the Sexual Offences Act 1967.

Photo of Mr Philip Goodhart Mr Philip Goodhart , Beckenham

I am glad that we have got the drafting of the new clause right at last. At least it was a mistake in the right direction, for I am sure that we would all have been appalled if, through some error in drafting, we had made homosexuality compulsory in the Forces.

The House will be aware that the position regarding homosexual acts under Service law is different from that under civil law. Service men who engage in homosexual acts, irrespective of consent, both parties being over the civil age of consent, 21, or where the act takes place in private, may be prosecuted under all three Service discipline Acts for disgraceful conduct of an indecent kind. The position was specifically allowed for by section 1(5) of the Sexual Offences Act 1967.

The disparity between Service and civil law reflects the difference in conditions between Service and civil life. Members of the Armed Forces are often required to serve in conditions where, both off and on duty, they are unavoidably living in closed communities, sometimes under stress. Such conditions, and the need for absolute trust and confidence both within and between all ranks, require that the potentially disruptive influence of homosexual practices should be excluded. It is, above all, necessary to ensure that those in authority over younger or junior men do not use their position to coerce or persuade those in their charge to perform acts in which they would not otherwise engage.

If the hon. and learned Member does not seek leave to withdraw the motion, I must ask the Committee to negative it.

Question put and negatived.

Schedules 1 to 5 agreed to.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Photo of Mr Philip Goodhart Mr Philip Goodhart , Beckenham 10:34, 19 May 1981

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The Bill before the House is, by comparison with the two most recent Armed Forces Bills, a rather modest measure. Nevertheless, I am sure that hon. Members will agree with me that it contains a number of very worthwhile proposals, with regard both to the discipline of the Armed Forces and to the general regulation of Service communities overseas. In the latter connection, I single out the proposed powers in clauses 13 and 14, regarding the temporary care of those suffering from mental disorder and children at risk overseas, which constitute a major innovation of the Bill and which have been welcomed by the Select Committee in its report.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend), who chaired the Select Committee through the highways and byways of Service discipline with great skill and courtesy, and to those hon. Members who served on it. I also share the view expressed in the Select Committee's report that the procedures under which Armed Forces Bills are introduced every five years and referred to Select Committees are the right procedures to allow the House to evaluate the workings of the Service discipline Acts and to ensure that, as far as the exigencies of Service life allow, they are kept broadly in line with practice in civil life.

As has already been demonstrated in the previous debate, the House takes a close interest in defence matters, and rightly so. I am pleased to move the Third reading of the Bill in the knowledge that its general principles find very wide support within the House.

Photo of Mr Arthur Davidson Mr Arthur Davidson , Accrington 10:35, 19 May 1981

I briefly endorse the remarks made by the Minister. I also pay tribute to the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend). In addition, I should like to pay tribute to the Minister for the excellent memorandum and for the assistance and expertise provided.

I welcome the Bill.

Photo of Bruce George Bruce George , Walsall South 10:36, 19 May 1981

Like my colleague, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. Davidson), I pay tribute to the Chairman of the Select Committee. I also pay tribute to the Minister for having attended the Committee most diligently. In addition, I pay tribute to the hordes of Ministry of Defence witnesses who regularly poured into the Committee to offer their advice.

Those who read Hansard years from now many see that this stage of the proceedings has not been punctuated by regular interruptions and by mass contributions. They may wrongly reach the conclusion that Parliament takes little interest in matters of Service discipline. However, in this case the Select Committee did a competent job on behalf of the House. The experience that we gained in Committee is valid for other Committees. The Committee performed the functions of scrutiny, investigation and legislation. Although there is experimentation in other spheres, I hope that what is happening will be replicated elsewhere. Standing Committees often deal perfunctorily with legislation, because they are not able to interview witnesses and to elicit information. The function of Standing Committees is usually to ratify what has been drafted by civil servants and Ministers.

Some hon. Members may have felt that the Committee would be boring, but it was not. I have sat through many boring Committees, but within the space of a few weeks this Committee dealt with race relations, drug and alcohol abuse, homosexuality, discrimination against women, capital punishment and what I shall call the Captain Queeg phenomenon, namely, how to deal with commanding officers who go bananas on duty. It was by no means a boring experience. Five years from now, I hope that other hon. Members will not have to be dragooned into serving as some of us might have been. My great regret is that it was not the Defence Committee that took responsibility for dealing with this subject.

It is vital for Parliament regularly to review military law, and particularly this branch of Service discipline. We can be exceedingly proud of the fact that the military is subordinate to the political. We can take nothing for granted. In many countries mass unemployment, hyperinflation, disaffection and other major catastrophes have imperilled civilian Government. In Britain we control the military. Few nations are so fortunate. Parliament must always exercise vigilance over the military to ensure that proper democratic and constitutional procedures are maintained in times of considerable stress. Military law is not separate law; it is part of ordinary civil law. I hope that we shall continue to exercise vigilance.

I wish to make two brief points about matters that have not yet been raised but to which we devoted a great deal of time and energy in Committee, namely, the role of social work and social workers in the Armed Forces. That role should be considerably expanded. Social workers are obvious targets for criticism and abuse, but competent, trained social workers could play a more important part in the Armed Services. There are many stresses, tensions and strains in Service life which although they do not distinguish the military from the remainder of society, are perhaps exacerbated by the peculiarities of Service life. The strains may take the form of marital breakdowns, teenage delinquency in the children of Service men, child abuse, abandoned wives, people suffering from mental disorders, drug abuse or alcoholism.

I am not criticising the Armed Forces or saying that they are different from the remainder of society. As a result of our investigations we found, to our amazement, that the incidence of such deficiencies or strains was much less than we had imagined. Mr. Dromgoole said in evidence that drug abuse was not a significant problem in the Armed Services. However, there is an incidence of strain, and employing qualified social workers could be a means not only to cut down what is seen by some as a too rapid exodus from the Services but to perform a significant role on behalf of our Service personnel.

The Army Board turned down the recommendations of the Spence committee in 1976 to establish an Army social work service using civilian social workers. The Navy responded differently, and established the Seebohm committee on naval welfare. I asked how many social workers were in the Army. The answer was only three. I ask the Minister seriously to consider whether we could supplement the role of the SSAFA and the small, considerably diminished role of social workers. The emotional, psychological and personal difficulties attendant upon serving in any organisation, not least in the Armed Forces, could be dealt with more successfully by qualified personnel. However, I am not criticising those currently operating in that area.

In clause 20 and schedule 3 we considered the assimilation of the women's Services. Should we conclude from the legislation that we now have equality not only in law but in practice between the sexes? Both in the House and outside there are those who feel that women play a greater role in the Armed Forces than is desirable, although probably few go as far as an MOD witness who told the Defence Committee last year that he had rather old-fashioned views about the subject and would rather they were doing a more useful job at home.

I hope that the limited progress that has been made so far by the military in incorporating more women into the Armed Forces is accentuated. I am disturbed by a parliamentary answer from the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army that the numbers of women will not increase. The Minister said that although there is likely to be a small increase in the number of women recruited over the next five years, that will not significantly change the overall percentage of women in the Armed Forces of the United Kingdom.

In military law, we find some elements of discrimination, the so-called "X" factor, which is designed to compensate military personnel for the rigours of military life. In reality, it serves to perpetuate an unequal pay structure. Women are not allowed to serve on board ship overnight. That is not conducive to the modern spirit of egalitarianism that should exist outside and inside the Armed Forces.

Experiments have been made on American ships which concluded that there was no serious problem of discipline, that the ship continued to float and that there were no tasks on board ship that could not have been done adequately by the female personnel. One often finds, not just here but elsewhere, an outdated and chauvinistic attitude to women in the Armed Forces. One sees from the smiles of Conservative Members that they do not share my views.

Two or three weeks ago I read the views of General Westmoreland, who argued vehemently against women in the Armed Forces, particularly in combat. He said that if a man and a woman soldier were in a trench they would be far more concerned with making love and not war. I presume that the general is not aware that most troops would be fighting in anti-chemical warfare suits; thus, the logistical problems would be considerable. I would have thought that a Russian tank bearing down on one at 50 yards would be more likely to diminish any urges that might creep up on one—at least among some serving soldiers. There is discrimination and some mirth at the prospects of women having a role in the Armed. Forces over and above the role that most of them presently enjoy—working in hospitals or as cleaners, or in tasks traditionally regarded as being essentially female.

So many more roles could be carried out by women. I do not think that in future one should exclude even a combat role. I hope that the Department will consider the report of the Brookings Institute for 1977, entitled "Women and the Military" and the proceedings of a conference organised by RUSI, published in its journal, and that it will consider legislation relating to equality and the role of women in the Armed Forces, so that at some stage we shall see a considerable expansion in the role of women. Surely the military reflects the society that it derives from and it must reflect the values that it is dedicated to preserve.

Not even the military can be immune from a movement that is occurring in this and in many other countries—often more significantly— for women to play a more significant role. I hope that that will happen and that the Department will keep under review the issue that I have raised, which was also raised in the White Paper.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.