I beg to move,
That the draft Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts (Continuation) Order 1991, which was laid before this House on 7th June, be approved.
The purpose of the order is to continue in force 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, for a further four months from 31 August, which is the date on which they would otherwise expire unless renewed before then either by primary legislation or by Order in Council. Under the Armed Forces Act 1986, no Order in Council may ex tend the Acts beyond 31 December 1991.
Over the past few months, the House has had the opportunity to consider service disciplinary procedures in depth during its consideration of the Armed Forces Bill. The first purpose of the Bill is to make provision for the Acts to continue in force for a further five years from the date on which they would otherwise expire. The House will be aware that, unless renewed by Act of Parliament or by Order in Council, the three service discipline Acts will currently expire on 31 August 1991. While I have every expectation that the Armed Forces Bill will be enacted before the summer recess, the order will simply ensure that there is no possibility that the Acts will expire without having been renewed. This is a prudent measure, and I invite the House to approve the order.
As I indicated earlier, we will not vote against the order, but we have some misgivings about it. We believe that there have been missed opportunities in Committee, not specifically in respect of the Bill, but of provisions that could have been added but which were missing from the start.
I was taught as a small boy that there are sins of commission and sins of omission. If the Bill has avoided any great sins of commission, it is guilty of sins of omission. That has been rectified to some extent by the work of the Committee and the report that it issued. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), who unfortunately is not in his place, who said earlier that the Committee made a number of recommendations and that he looked forward to the Minister's responding to them.
In one or two instances, the Committee was wise enough to suggest a deadline by which a response was expected. It was also flexible enough to suggest a timetable in respect of longer-term items—though it may find that the response comes not from the Minister of State for the Armed Forces but from myself or from one of my hon. Friends, as we may be in power by the time that such a response falls due.
The changes that the Bill makes are welcome, but it does not go very far. A number of important issues are perennially raised in the House, and are raised quinquennially in Committee, but the Bill fails to add ress them. To be fair to the Government—as the Minister knows, I always try to be fair to them—a number of those issues would be difficult, if not impossible, to incorporate into the form that the Bill takes. Some are a matter of regulation, administration or administrative practice, rather than of service law proper. However, other aspects could have been incorporated into the Bill and such omissions can be accounted for only by Government obstinacy or prejudice—or, in some cases, a combination of both.
Thankfully, those faults in what count as the higher echelons of the Conservative command structure did not always infect the foot soldiers in Committee, so on occasions we were able to make more advances in Committee than we could with the Government. However, even then we were unable to make much more progress than in previous years. In other instances the Government foot soldiers on the Committee, even when liberated by the absence on occasions of their Minister, could not be enticed in the direction of progress.
The Committee's recommendation that the Ministry of Defence should reconsider its opposition to ethnic monitoring of service personnel was a major step forward, and it is one which my party has urged for some time. Ensuring that our armed forces reflect the ethnic diversity of society at large is an aim which is based on the principle of racial equality and on the practical necessity of the recruitment and retention of service personnel in difficult demographic circumstances.
I am the first to admit that the Government have already made some move in the direction of combating racial discrimination and harassment, and of encouraging ethnic recruitment to the armed forces, and I pay them credit for that work.
It is ludicrous that the Ministry of Defence, which monitors the religious composition of the Ulster Defence Regiment in the north of Ireland—for the best of reasons, I hasten to add—and which maintains a system of ethnic monitoring for its civil servants, trenchantly refuses to extend ethnic monitoring to the armed forces. The Ministry should not have been allowed for so long to evade that responsibility for the armed forces. I hope that the Committee's recommendation will be expeditiously acted upon.
The Committee also recommends that the Ministry of Defence should consider how best to identify instances of racial harassment and keep records. In the past the Ministry has shown some willingness to tackle that problem, but, in the absence of statistical information, the MOD was fighting with one hand tied behind its back and it was impossible to judge to what extent the Ministry's actions were effective. The recommendation, if implemented, will free the Ministry from that self-imposed handicap and allow it to confront racial discrimination with the necessary vigour and determination. I am sure hon. Members agree that there is no place in the British armed forces for racial prejudice or discrimination.
We strongly support the proposed measures to protect the youngest of our service men and women, although such protection is no reflection on their courage or commitment. We entirely agree with the Committee's conclusion that there should at least be a presumption that those aged under 18 should not be sent on active service overseas unless there is some overriding requirement for their particular skills in the defence of the country. We expect some practical proposals on that by the time of the defence estimates. The Minister will be pleased to know, given what is assumed to be the current timetable, that he will still be Minister of State for the Armed Forces by the time those estimates appear. A Government statement at that time will prove that the Ministry of Defence is capable of making some sort of announcement in this area, if not in others.
We entirely concur with the view that the terms of enlistment and, in particular, the terms of compulsory retention of recruited minors should be re-examined. We desperately need to get away from the Ministry's attitude and weltanschauung of trying to solve the problems of personnel retention in a volunteer service by methods that are applicable to a conscript service. The Committee was wise enough to set a timetable and will expect practical proposals by the time of the next continuation order. The Minister may not be lucky enough to announce such proposals.
The armed forces' attitude to homosexuality has been a vexatious issue for every quinquennial review Committee, especially because it is not just homosexual activity but homosexuality itself which is forbidden by service law. Any service man or woman who is found to be homosexual, even if non-practising, is liable to be discharged from the service. The Committee's recommendation, accepted somewhat surprisingly by both sides of the Committee, that homosexual activity of a kind that is legal under civilian law should not constitute an offence under service law is a small but significant mark of progress. The proposal would not prohibit discharge from the service, but at least it decriminalises homosexuality and prevents some of the ignominy of current procedures under which files are sent to the police for what is regarded as an offence under service law but which is no longer regarded as an offence under civilian law. That is a small step, but the Minister and Conservative Members are to be congratulated on being prepared to take it in the face of traditional prejudice. Measures carry a great deal more authority outside the House and have much more effect when it can be shown that there has been consensus, a non-partisan agreement, on the importance of issues and the necessity to move forward with them.
As is obvious from the Committee report, everyone recognises that the present policy, even with the small improvement that I have mentioned, causes great distress. More importantly from the point of view of the services, everybody recognises that the policy causes the loss to the services of men and women of undoubted competence and good character. The report says that that is beyond dispute.
The problem is to find a way forward which avoids that loss and which allows for the nature and circumstances of the armed forces which, I accept, are different from those in civilian life. If we do not find a solution, personnel will continue to be lost to the armed forces and people will be open to blackmail and will suffer unnecessary distress. That view was shared by most if not all members of the Committee.
The conflicting requirements of this issue will be resolved only by a deeper and wider examination. Even though it is not recommended in the report, we urge the Minister to consider the establishment of an inquiry composed of lay and legal people as well as military personnel to clarify the issues, to compare practice among our allies, and to present options for progress. That would be a meaningful step from the little progress that we have started.
Two other matters need attention. The first is the composition of courts martial. It is a cornerstone of British justice that an accused is entitled to trial by his or her peers. The most glaring exception to that, apart from the special courts that have been established from time to time in the north of Ireland, is courts martial at which the weighing of evidence, the arrival at a judgment and the passing of sentence is the exclusive prerogative of the officer class of the British armed forces.
I mean no disservice when I say that, despite considerable progress, more than half our officers have social backgrounds that are utterly alien to those upon whom they sit in judgment. Fewer than one fifth of the officers have experienced the service background of those whom they judge, because they have not come up through the ranks. They may be well placed by training and background to understand the legal side of the proceedings and to dispense legal judgments, but are they well enough placed to understand the social background and to dispense justice at courts martial composed exclusively of officers? The attributes that are necessary to exercise leadership are not necessarily the only qualities that are necessary to achieve equity and justice in the armed forces.
Before the Minister takes fright and reaches for his revolver, I should explain that we are not suggesting anything as revolutionary as rank and file courts. For the reasons that we have already given, we believe that many courts martial would benefit from the presence of a senior non-commissioned officer. We are not suggesting that it should be obligatory, but only that courts martial should have the ability to co-opt an NCO as a supplementary member. Such a member could bring a particular background, both social and armed services, to bear on what are often complex problems.
Furthermore, such an option would enhance the quality of courts martial. I cannot, for the life of me, understand the Government's objections to this proposal, although I have listened with great care to their objections. I am reluctantly forced to the conclusion that there is no rational decision behind their refusal, but that, for all the fine words of their leader, somewhere, hidden away, the spirit of class rule is alive and well, even if temporarily dormant, and living in the Ministry of Defence. I have no doubt that, in the course of time, as with so many other attitudes embraced by the Government, this one will be washed up on the shores of history as the anachronism that it is.
My next subject—forces representation—is again a hardy annual on which the Government deploy circular arguments. We are told that there is no demand for forces representation. When we ask the simple question, "How do you know, as there is no representative body?", we are told that the forces are consulted by questionnaire. We then ask whether there is a question about forces representation and are told that there is not, but there is a space where members can put suggestions on forces representation if they so wish.
That is what used to be called inertia selling. Inertia selling of encyclopedias and pornographic material was outlawed some years ago. I cannot understand why the Ministry of Defence still accepts inertia selling in this case, when it is left to those who need representation to bring the issue forward, in the absence of any representative body. Some form of representative body, perhaps circumscribed by rules that prevent it from taking industrial action, perhaps akin to the Police Federation, would be of undoubted benefit not only to service men and women but to the armed forces as a whole. Although we have been considering a Bill on discipline, morale is, and has been for many years, central to discipline.
Would the hon. Gentleman accept that his argument about the representation of soldiers in a staff federation or something similar has a direct analogy with membership of a political party inasmuch as any member of the armed forces can be a member of a political party, but, by convention, takes no active part in the political activities of the party?
Yes, I accept that analogy. However, there is a problem, which will be obvious from the evidence. No one can tell me what constitutes activity, either in the membership of a political party or in a trade union.
In Committee, I asked whether service men and women were, for example, entitled to be members of the British Medical Association if they were doctors. I was told that they are allowed to be members, but not active members. I cannot find out what constitutes activity. Is it attending meetings, or accepting a post? It would be easier to circumscribe by definition an organisation that was set up for a specific purpose. One cannot do that with a specific party or the BMA, because such bodies have a membership that goes much wider than the armed forces. However, the activities of a federation exclusively related to the armed forces could be circumscribed. It is much more difficult to circumscribe, let alone define, the activities of members of the armed forces who belong to an organisation.
I think that I can help the lion. Gentleman in relation to the BMA. Service men can be members of the BMA and there is a BMA services committee. Knowing the way that the hon. Gentleman addresses these matters, I am sure that he will agree that we are talking about convention and common sense. There is no problem with membership of bodies such as the BMA.
I did not mean to ascribe a subversive motive to anybody working in the BMA. I was asking how one defined what constitutes activity within the BMA or a political party.
This issue is important because of its context. Representation will become more important because morale will become more important. Morale is becoming more important because the armed forces are going through traumatic changes. Eventually, we shall find out what "Options for Change" means for the British armed forces. We have had one or two teasers and I am sure that, somewhere in the Ministry of Defence, there is a strategic analysis on which policy is based. But then I have always been optimistic about the world, even if I have been pessimistic about the intellect.
Irrespective of which Government are in power, there will be substantive changes to the armed forces in the next few years. My worry is that they are being tackled An a rather piecemeal and cost-driven way. We may end up not only with a smaller budget for defence but with a redistribution of resources within that budget that is not based on strategic criteria and, because of a lack of a full review, omission of any consideration of the quality of life for service personnel. In other words, what is missing is the three elements of fighting power, as defined in the British military doctrine: the conceptual element, the material element and—this is my worry—the morale element.
If, as I believe, the Government are not paying nearly enough attention to what one does with 40,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen, three quarters of whom do not own their own homes and will not get a council house and will not be retrained, and if we leave Hong Kong, Belize and perhaps even Germany, what will be the raison d'etre of the forces and their personnel? In these difficult circumstances, a representative body for armed forces personnel might be useful because it could tell us of their main reasons for insecurity, their fear and their concerns in a period of dramatic change.
Therefore, as a matter of principle and practice and of concrete assistance in the present circumstances, the Minister and the Government should have shown more sympathy towards the idea of a staff federation. That idea has been rejected; I hope that it will not be rejected indefinitely.
I have described the main points that the Opposition would like to have been included in the order and that were not included. However, the provisions in the order, as far as they go, do not present any great difficulties for us, so we do not intend to vote against the continuation order. It makes sense as a fall-back position and none of us would benefit if the discipline Acts for the three services were to fall in the absence of the continuation order.
I want to raise a number of issues before we consider whether the continuation order should be approved. I want to raise disciplinary matters that were covered in the Select Committee report on the Armed Forces Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) raised the questions of racial harassment and of racial discrimination. If the Ministry of Defence refuses to identify cases of racial harassment and if it does not monitor them, it can pretend that racial harassment does not exist in the armed forces. We all know that the contrary is true.
I remember that we had difficulties in getting the Metropolitan police to start taking seriously the incidence of racial harassment in Greater London. They felt that it was a problem that was best left covered for a variety of reasons—some good, but most bad. Racial harassment was generally seen as being a matter of disputes between neighbours and nothing really racial. It took us a long time to convince the Metropolitan police that they needed to begin to become involved in monitoring racial harassment cases. Now that they do monitor such cases, their clear-up rate and the way in which they apply their forces are highly commendable. There is still a long way to go, but we have managed to get somewhere. The same pressure should now be put on the Ministry of Defence. Although the Ministry has accepted in certain respects the need for the ethnic monitoring of recruitment, it must take matters a lot further. Racial harassment and racial discrimination are linked, so it is important for the Ministry of Defence to examine cases of racial harassment.
On Friday, I went to the Theatre Royal, Stratford to see a play called "Black Poppies". It originated from a group of black actors who worked for the royal national theatre workshop and is based on the real experiences of black service men in our armed forces. Some 40 hours of tape recordings were taken from those who were either current or former service men and a play was devised from that. It was a powerful play. One can often get powerful messages across through the arts, so it is a great pity that the play has finished its run. It was highly successful and played in the east end of London to large black audiences who recognised the validity of what was being said. The important point is that the play was authentic. It did not involve someone adapting the news or using poetic licence to try to push a particular point. It was based on the personal experiences of black service men. It was powerful theatre and presented a powerful argument.
The run finished on Saturday and I very much regret that I cannot ask the Minister to come at my expense to the Theatre Royal, Stratford in my constituency to see the play. If he did, he would get as angry as I did on Friday when I realised that discrimination and harassment take place in our armed forces. People who volunteer for our professional forces find themselves abused, attacked and treated in a way in which no human being should be treated. I understand that the racism is often institutionalised. Officers, especially non-commissioned officers, are clearly involved. The stories in the play were so true that they put across a powerful message.
It is important that the Ministry of Defence takes the matter seriously. I am disappointed that, when it responded to the report, it did not say more about what would be done. It was not an official response, but a response in the course of discussions. I am disappointed and I am sure that those who served on the Select Committee were also disappointed.
The obverse of racial harassment is racial discrimination in the armed forces. The two issues are inextricably linked. There is no ethnic monitoring in the armed forces. I asked a question about that recently. The matter intrigued me, perhaps because I am a generally nosey person. I asked what the highest rank achieved by a black service man or woman was because I was impressed to see that General Colin Powell had made it right to the top in the United States. The Minister replied that the Ministry did not know the answer because it did not use ethnic monitoring. One does not need to operate ethnic monitoring to find the answer. It is pretty self-evident whether someone is black and it would not take long to work out the answer by examining the armed services. The fact is that the Government simply do not know and they do not appear to want to know, which is wrong for a number of reasons.
The main reason is that if there is to be ethnic monitoring of recruitment, one cannot see whether recruitment is successful if one does not continue to monitor the person right the way through the armed forces. Why, for example, do black people leave the armed forces? I should have thought that the Minister of Defence would have wanted the answer to that question which is central to its considerations of further policy. The only way to answer that question is to monitor ethnically. If there is no ethnic monitoring, someone who leaves is recorded merely as another serving officer who has left. Many do leave. If we do not know whether it was a black individual who left, we cannot know whether the ethnic monitoring of recruitment is working. There should be a debriefing process in the Ministry of Defence and people should be asked why they are leaving. The answer may be, "Because I cannot stand the racial harassment and the racial victimisation" in the regiment or platoon. The Ministry cannot at present take the necessary remedial action.
If the Government are saying that they are not prepared to have ethnic monitoring, they are saying that the problem of racial harassment and victimisation in the armed forces does not exist. Any senior serving officer to whom one talks will say that he does not allow it to exist. But it seems to exist at a level at which some of the most senior officers are unaware of the problem, as is the Minister. I assume that if he was aware of the problem, he would take dramatic steps to deal with it.
The matter of women in the services is also covered in the report. I want to link that point with the courts martial which were also mentioned in the report. A dramatic case hit all our newspapers last week. It concerned two young people who were court martialled for being found together in quarters in which they should not have been together. I was surprised. I recently asked whether all courts martial were held in public. That shows my level of knowledge, although I believe that the only way to acquire knowledge is to admit ignorance. I did not realise that all courts martial were held in public. The two young people had committed no crime in terms of the civilian world. They would not have been in a civilian court, yet because of the disciplinary procedures of the armed forces, they found themselves at a court martial. They then found that they were subject to something much worse than a court martial—trial by media and by newspapers. The headlines in the tabloids and in the more serious newspapers were appalling. I will not mention those two young people's names because they have suffered enough. Indeed, I suspect that both their lives are ruined as of this moment. The Minister should take such matters into account.
The matter arose specifically from the publicity surrounding the non-touching rule as it affected serving officers in the Gulf and what would be done when Wrens were serving on battleships in the Gulf. One knew that this incident would be regarded as a good story by those swollen-nosed hacks who frequent Wapping but one did not really expect to see the sort of copy that actually appeared in The Sun. which I must put on record. The report is headed
Wren's Nude Romp with Lt".
The House will note the sexist nature and language of that headline. It did not refer, for example, to a "nude lieutenant's romp with Wren." The story read:
A randy Wren was caught naked with a dashing navy lieutenant".
You see, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the woman is randy whereas the lieutenant—the man—is dashing. One can see from the headline and from the opening words that the blame lies entirely with the woman.
I do not propose to titillate hon. Members; I am sure that they will have seen the story in the newspapers. The newspaper showed pictures of the young woman concerned, and those pictures are remarkably clear. I do not know where those concerned got them from, but they looked like studio portraits. That was not the case with the pictures of the so-called dashing lieutenant. I have sympathy for him as well because I would not like to be stuck on a ship somewhere in the Gulf away from my good lady wife—although I hasten to assure her, should she ever get round to reading Hansard, that I would be utterly loyal to her. The fact is, however, that the picture of the dashing lieutenant is incredibly fuzzy. It would be difficult to recognise such a dashing lieutenant or, indeed, such a dashing lieutenant's wife—that picture, too, is remarkably fuzzy. I do not criticise. I congratulate those concerned on their good fortune, but one is bound to contrast their pictures with that of the Wren. The newspapers were trying to take advantage of that story to sell their disgusting tabloids and to titillate their readers—to make the incident seem salacious and disreputable and to make it look as though it was the woman's fault.
The couple were found naked in bed "without reasonable cause". It seems to me that, if one is going to be in bed, one might as well be naked. Indeed, being naked seems to me to be the most reasonable cause one could have for being in bed if one has someone else with one.
I have described the preposterous language used. The effect of it was that those two people—especially the Wren —have had their lives ruined. That is absolutely disgraceful. They should have had the option of having the court martial heard in camera. I understand why it is necessary at times to hold a court martial in public. Otherwise, all sorts of accusations might be made about behind-closed-doors deliberations and kangaroo courts. I may well be the sort of Member of Parliament who makes such accusations. But we are talking about a case in which two people found themselves charged with an offence which in civilian law would attract no penalty whatever, and in which there was no question of national security being affected. That being so, why could not the couple opt to have the court martial held in camera? That would have spared them the humiliation of undergoing the trial-by-newspaper that we have witnessed in the past few days. I hope that the Minister will contemplate that when we next consider revising matters of discipline within the armed services. If he does not, the incidence of such cases will increase.
I am a fairly naive and trusting sort of chap. I cannot tell whether the Army or the Ministry of Defence deliberately connived at the glare of publicity given to the two service people, on the ground, perhaps, that it had been argued on television and in the newspapers that the wives of serving officers about to embark on ships on which Wrens would be serving were worried about the impact on their menfolk. Those two young people may have been sacrificed to satisfy the partners of serving officers that in any future case exemplary treatment would again be handed out. Perhaps the argument is that, if those young people have their lives destroyed, it is merely a price that they will have to pay and that their case may act as a deterrent. Perhaps I am being over-cynical at this point but that argument was put to me when I argued that the case should have required a degree of understanding, flexibility and feeling from the Ministry of Defence, which should have prevented the two young people from being exposed to the sort of coverage that they got for doing something that we know is very natural. I hope to God that they do not extend such rules to Members of Parliament. If they do, an awful lot of hon. Members are likely to be very embarrassed indeed.
My last point arising from the report concerns homosexuality in the armed forces—a subject to which my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North referred. As my hon. Friend said—and it needs to be emphasised time and again—even if a man or a woman is not a practising homosexual, he or she can still be committing an offence. I do not know how the necessary information is obtained. I do not know how someone discovers that someone else is a non-practising homosexual in the armed forces. Perhaps the information is discovered in a letter from a loved one. Are letters read?
Perhaps I may assist my hon. Friend. The man or woman in question may not be ashamed of being a homosexual and may tell his or her commanding officer. That is the most simple way.
There is no reason why such a person should feel ashamed of being a homosexual. Nevertheless, he or she would be pretty ill-advised to tell a commanding officer unless that commanding officer was similarly disposed. A commanding officer who was told would then be privy to information that he or she might not wish to keep to himself or herself on the ground that, if it emerged at a later date that he or she had been informed by such a person—who might perhaps have stopped being a non-practising homosexual and become a practising homosexual—that officer would be in difficulty. I would strongly urge any practising homosexual member of the armed forces not to go and tell a commanding officer because, apart from anything else, that would put the commanding officer in a very difficult positon.
When homosexuals have been dismissed from the armed forces—something that I utterly deplore—it usually happens without the publicity surrounding the two heterosexuals in the case to which I have referred in detail.
Sexual orientation should not he used as a ground for disbarring people from the armed forces. The Spartans almost made a virtue out of homosexuality; indeed, that was probably one of the qualifications to become a Spartan and "Spartan" is still regarded as a by-word for a fighting force. One is assured that most Spartans were practising homosexuals. The idea was that they were more likely to die fighting for the person whom they loved if that person was standing next to them than if that person were sitting safely at home. Clearly, we can no longer prove the point, but it appears that the fighting ability—perish the thought; I do not like talk about fighting ability—of a gay man or lesbian woman is in no way impaired by his or her sexual orientation.
In the report the Stonewall group makes it quite clear that other NATO countries do not treat homosexuals in their armed forces in the same way as we do. My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North made the same point with regard to capital punishment. If other armed forces, whose fighting quality, discipline and so on are at least as good as ours, can do without capital punishment and without criminalising homosexuality, surely we can advance tentatively into the latter part of the 20th century and accept that we can do exactly the same. The report states that the armed forces
are no more lenient of lesbianism than of homosexuality in men.
That is very strange because lesbianism does not exist as a criminal offence thanks to Queen Victoria who could not possibly believe that two women could get up to such an act. I have news for Queen Victoria: there are a lot of lesbians in this country and, I suspect, a number in the armed forces. It is difficult to accept that there can be a disciplinary service offence that does not exist as a criminal offence in civilian life.
At the moment, there is discrimination against gay men and lesbian women in the armed forces. I imagine that they have to put up with an awful lot. I listen to, rather than understand, the arguments advanced by the Government and by MOD officials for not allowing homosexuality in the armed forces. They obviously believe that the heterosexuals in the armed forces would be put at risk. I would have thought that the threat was more the other way; if a barracks was aware that a male soldier was gay, he would be in a very difficult and unpleasant situation. Homosexuals in the armed forces probably need more protection than the discrimination that they endure at the moment.
When the Minister replies, I hope that he will tell us what the Government think about those issues. If the Government are not prepared at this stage to act on some of the issues that I have raised, at least we can have some idea whether sympathetic consideration is being given to those points and particularly to ethnic monitoring in the armed forces and to courts martial in camera for certain offences. I cannot believe that at this stage the Government are going to shift their position on homosexuality in view of the degree of homophobia in the House and in the country in general. That is hypocritical and unnecessary, and it has no basis in human rights. It should have no place in the Army or in the other armed forces. I hope that the Minister will consider favourably some of the points that I have put to him tonight.
I was particularly anxious to be called in this debate because I had the privilege to be nominated as a member of the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, but unfortunately the Gulf war intervened and I was able to be present at only the first sitting.
At the outset, I offer my congratulations to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces. He compared his appointment to the Privy Council to gaining a long service and good conduct medal. By a curious quirk of discrimination, he was not eligible in his military service for that award, but I welcome him to the Privy Council for what must have been some of the most onerous months of service that any Minister of State in peacetime has had to endure in that office.
I pay tribute to the work of the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill. The spirit in which it conducted its deliberations was entirely what one would expect from the all-party attitude of common sense. The hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) referred to at least two issues that were not addressed by the Armed Forces Bill and I want to elaborate on some of his arguments.
I want first to consider age limits in different circumstances. I have researched that issue and the question is more complex and interesting than might first appear. Enlistment ages for males become identical for all three services during this year. However, there is a variation in the minimum age to fulfil an operational role, ranging from 16 years six months in the Royal Navy through 16 years 8 months in the Royal Air Force to 17 years in the Army. Historically, the British Army has been an amalgam of two independent elements—the home-based forces for Europe and those engaged in protecting overseas interests. In the modern world, clearly that distinction is much less relevant.
The Army has the youngest minimum age for services overseas at 17 years three months, compared with 17 years six months for the RAF and the Royal Navy has no set rules, although there is a handful of trained personnel under the age of 17. I apologise for wearying the House with those statistics, but they are important because they were the limits applied during the Gulf campaign and the ages are related to other factors such as the school leaving age and the length of training programmes.
The matter became one of public concern when a 17-year-old Royal Fusilier was killed in action in tragic circumstances. It was pointed out that had he and the 200 or so other 17-year-olds serving in the Gulf been present in Northern Ireland, they would have been limited to duties within barracks and would not even have been out patrolling the streets—an anomaly if ever there was one.
Interestingly it seems that before 1916 there was no minimum age, although a letter of consent was expected from parents. That did not deter a number of adventure-seeking youngsters and their military employers in the past and I doubt whether I am alone in the House in claiming a grandfather and a great uncle who served throughout the Boer war as teenagers no matter what their stated ages may have been.
In the two world wars, the minimum age was generally 19 although it dropped to eighteen and a half in 1918 and 1944 respectively as the need for extra manpower became acute. Only in 1963 when national service ended did the all-regular Army adopt seventeen and a half as the minimum age.
How is the House supposed to react to paragraph 28 of the Select Committee's recommendations which says:
there should at least be a presumption that under 18 year olds should not be sent on active service overseas, unless there is some overriding requirement for their particular skills … or unless the threat to national security is such as to necessitate the conscription of minors"?
It is very difficult to endorse that statement given that people are maturing ever younger. Would it not be sensible, practical and more simple to settle on the guideline of 17 years six months for all purposes? That should clearly be a convention rather than a legality, as commanding officers must be left the discretion to take into account, for example, a particular individual's maturity and the very special qualities required for service in Northern Ireland.
It cannot be sensible for a fully trained soldier to be expected to kick his heels for up to a year and be denied the opportunity of putting his skills into practice. I met several 17-year-olds in the Gulf and will never forget a 17-year-old member of a tank crew saying that he had grown up more in the previous three months than at any time in the rest of his life. I suspect that he spoke for all of those of his age when he said how much he would have resented, as a professional soldier, being left behind. He and his comrades were subsequently tested in action. The House will agree that they passed with flying colours.
Although the Select Committee calls for consolidation of the three service Acts—this point was made by the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) —the House may consider that a more worthwhile objective would be to standardise firstly recruitment ages for males and females and secondly a common age for operational service worldwide. I speak as a member of the Joint Committee on Consolidation, &c., Bills.
On the second issue, as someone who would have voted for the Sexual Offences Act 1967 in relation to homosexual acts committed in private between males over the age of 21, I endorse the specific exclusion of legalising such activity in the armed forces and the continuation of homosexuality being considered a service offence. It has always been recognised in the widest possible forum that homosexuality in the special working conditions of the services undermines command and discipline and gives rise to perceptions of favouritism. There is nothing inherently discriminatory about that, as any sexual liaisons—whether homosexual or heterosexual, as referred to by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) —are forbidden within units.
An analysis of the figures over the past four years shows that 335 men left the three services after homosexual incidents. About 85 per cent. of them—the House should consider this point—were dealt with on administrative grounds; in other words, without any formal disciplinary charges being laid. Contrary to public perception—I speak with some experience, having served as a medical officer and having been involved in managing such cases—the figures reflect the enlightened and humane attitude adopted by the authorities. Such cases are always handled sensitively, and commanding officers, physicians and padres, for instance, are routinely consulted.
Furthermore, the point raised about female homosexuality is very different. I doubt very much whether lesbianism should be tolerated in the armed forces merely because it is not a civilian offence. Anyone who reads the figures in the Select Committee's report will see that, in absolute numbers, more females than males were discharged from the Army in the past four years, which clearly represents a disproportionately high number of women in such cases.
I welcome the fact that the Committee was able to consider all aspects of service life and discipline. It is no reflection on the deliberations of members of the Committee that much of their work was done for them, inasmuch as the performance of the armed forces in the Gulf campaign, superimposed on the much-protracted and very delicate role that they had to play day to day in Northern Ireland, indicated that most things in the armed services are done exceedingly well, which makes our armed forces still the most respected throughout the world.
The hon. Member for Wimbledon (Dr. Goodson-Wickes) excited the admiration of many of us by the promptness with which he volunteered for active service in the Gulf. The whole House was relieved and glad when he came back unscathed. I wish that I could voice the same admiration for some of his remarks. The country and the House have an obligation to protect young people in the armed forces from themselves. I had the good fortune to visit our forces in the Gulf before the conflict as part of an expedition that was mounted by the Ministry of Defence to allow hon. Members and members of the other place to visit the Gulf.
I was particularly impressed by an 18-year-old in the Royal Engineers. I thought that he was astonishingly mature. He understood, rather surprisingly, quite a lot of the international political elements involved. Indeed, he said to me, "A resolution must be put through the Security Council this week, Sir, because next week the Yemen may have the chair." He clearly understood not only what he was doing day to day but the international political backcloth against which those matters were played out. I happened to remark upon that young man's maturity and good sense to the adjutant of the unit with whom I was having lunch. He said, "You should have seen him before we left Germany. When there was a suggestion that he might not be able to join us, there were tears streaming down his cheeks."
One is lost in admiration for such bravery and commitment. It is a measure of the loyalty that individuals feel to their own regiments or units. However, we have a duty to protect people against such enthusiasm. Any age limit will be arbitrary. A 17-year-and-364-day-old individual may be very much more mature than an 18-year-and-one-day-old individual. The same applies to fixing age limits for people to go into public houses and consume alcoholic liquor. They are essentially arbitrary and will mean that people will qualify who, on a whole series of other criteria, should not. There was considerable apprehension among the public about the notion that 17-year-olds might have to risk or even give their lives, as was plainly demonstrated in the unhappy incident to which reference has already been made.
The Government should give serious consideration to that matter because our armed forces enjoy a great deal of public support, enthusiasm and admiration as a result of their professionalism and commitment in the recent conflict and, in some cases, that public support might be prejudiced or even fractured if it was thought that unnecessary reliance was being placed on individuals of only 17 years or so. This is by no means an easy matter, but I hope that the Government will act on the Select Committee's recommendations.
The Select Committee's recommendation on homosexuality—that the legal position in terms of the committing of a criminal offence should now be the same within the services as in civilian life—is entirely sensible and the Government should pay it serious consideration. Ultimately, that recommendation should find its way into legislative change. As the climate of opinion in the country changes, it is increasingly difficult to maintain that there is something so special, so significant and so different about the armed forces to justify an individual in the services being treated differently from a civilian on a question of criminal law. If that is conceded—and the logic is overwhelming—it is only a short step to the linked conclusion that to cause people to be administratively discharged simply because they acknowledge homosexuality is no longer tenable. Some people outside the House would have wished the Committee to go further, but I hope that the Government will give serious consideration to its significant recommendation.
I might have mentioned many things in this debate, but they have been more than amply covered by the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) and I do not propose to replicate what he said. However, I would not go quite as far as the hon. Gentleman on the question of the creation of a staff association or some form of representation. It is difficult for me to conceive of the armed forces going down that difficult road.
As with the preceding debate, this debate has shown the House's continuing support for our armed services, together with its proper concern to ensure that discipline is both adequate and relevant to the changed and changing role that they have to play. For that reason, I have no doubt that the continuation order will command the support of the House.
I should like to preface my remarks by paying tribute to the work of our armed forces in the Gulf. About this time last year a criminal dictator was planning the invasion of a neighbouring country. That invasion took place on 2 August. He worked on the assumption that he could get away with his criminality and aggression, but the events which occurred afterwards demonstrated that he could not do so. Whatever shortcomings have arisen from the outcome of the war, I am very pleased about what happened. We all have our own views about whether we should have completed the task, and I am aware of the feelings of the large majority of the British people. I believe that, together with our allies, we acted rightly and as we should in a totally justified conflict.
Before the House passes the continuation order, and as part of our consideration of discipline in the armed forces, it is important that we consider the way in which injured soldiers are treated. I have referred in previous debates to the case of one of my constituents, Grenadier guardsman Sean Povey, who lost both legs at the same time as two of his colleagues, John Ray and Adrian Hicks.
Of course, it is right that there should be a code of discipline in the armed forces. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how the armed forces could operate without such a code. I assume that when people enter the armed forces they are notified as soon as possible of the appropriate codes of discipline. That is not in dispute. However, discipline should be accompanied by justice. Members of the armed forces should be able to feel that if in the course of their duties they are seriously injured they will receive compensation.
It is perfectly true that the three Grenadier guardsmen received the best medical treatment. I am sure that all that could be done was done. There was no doubt in my mind at any stage and I am sure that no hon. Member doubts that everything possible was done medically. I am also sure that the guardsmen received the sympathy they deserved. As we have already been notified, there will be a pension arrangement.
One of the injured Grenadier guardsmen has already been discharged. There are two others, one of whom is my constituent Sean Povey. The Minister has confirmed that no blame can be laid on the three guardsmen. He made that clear when I raised the matter a fortnight ago today in an Adjournment debate.
The three young guardsmen were on a training exercise in Canada. As part of the exercise, they were digging a trench and as they dug a buried shell exploded and the tragedy occurred. They lost their legs and suffered other injuries. The Minister will put me right if I have misunderstood the situation, but the Ministry of Defence position is in essence this: that the guardsmen were not responsible for what occurred, but that nor was there neglect on the part of the Ministry of Defence. Therefore, as no one was responsible, no one had liability, so there can be no compensation.
Clearly, a legal case of that kind can be built up. I accept that the Ministry of Defence has acted on legal advice, as we have been notified. But the question for the House is simple: is this justice? Is this the way in which a model employer, as the Ministry of Defence should be, should act? We are discussing discipline. As I said earlier, the code of discipline which applies to the armed forces should be accompanied by rules on other factors, including the way in which soldiers are treated. In the circumstances that I have described, I should have thought that it was right to raise the case of my constituent, and I hope that I am in order in so doing.
The Minister said that the case could be pursued through the courts. I accept that. But I ask the House to imagine the mental distress of the three people who have been crippled for life, who—
Order. I have let the hon. Gentleman have a good run on this. I fully understand his deep anxiety on behalf of his constituent, but the matter does not arise under this order.
As always, I accept your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I must. My point is that we are discussing discipline which, I assume, applies to all aspects of Army life, including what happens when injuries occur. That is all part of the service men's life, and discipline as such cannot simply be seen in isolation. I shall not add much more. Perhaps with your patience, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and hopefully keeping myself in order, I can finish what I intended to say.
The three guardsmen now have the added mental distress of not knowing what any outcome in the courts would he. If the case is to be pursued, how can anyone know what will happen in the courts? It is extremely unfair that, in addition to the serious injuries that they will suffer from for life, they do not know whether their case will succeed in court.
I hope that this is related to discipline, but is the Minister willing to place in the Library a full copy of the board of inquiry report on the tragedy as I have seen only a brief summary?
Order. I well understand the hon. Members deep concern for his constituent, but these matters do not arise under the scope of the debate provided for by this order.
I shall conclude my remarks; and it is only right and proper that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, should keep us in order if we stray from the subject.
I put it to the Minister that the case will continue to receive attention from hon. Members on both sides of the House. The fact that more than 200 hon. Members have signed motions on the subject and the fact that the Leader of the House said during business questions that he has discussed the case with the Secretary of State for Defence, who recognises the deep feeling shared by hon. Members, demonstrate that the matter will not go away.
As on Thursday, I plead with the Minister, because I know that he is aware of the questions put by myself and other hon. Members, to show some understanding, sympathy and compassion towards the three soldiers and to ensure that, having suffered such terrible injuries, they receive the compensation and justice to which they are entitled.
May I apologise to those on the Front Benches and to the House for missing the opening speeches of the debate? I had an unavoidable meeting elsewhere in the House and the previous debate ended a bit sooner than was expected.
I want to use the debate on the renewal of the disciplinary order to discuss the issue of homosexuality in the armed forces. I shall return to that shortly.
I also wish to raise the question of racial harassment, bullying and discrimination in the forces. Clearly, they should be disciplinary offences. I know that they are al the moment, but under current procedures the bullies are not being caught and records of such offences are not being kept, so the problem is not properly being taken into account.
This point was made by the Select Committe on Defence in a recent report. It said:
It might therefore be better to record all incidents of bullying or assault where the victim was from a racial minority; … it would show whether members of racial minorities are bullied disproportionately to their numbers and would allow comparison over time.
The Committee recommended that
MoD consider how best to identify incidents of racial harassment in the Armed Forces and keep records accordingly.
The Committee also considered racial harassment and discrimination against ethnic minorities in their employment. It said how difficult it was to
demonstrate that there is equality of opportunity".
Therefore, the Committee recommended that
MoD reconsider its opposition to the ethnic monitoring of Service personnel.
I ask that that should be done.
I shall not refer to the Gulf war—that has been done in other debates—but one aspect of it was that the head of the United States' armed forces, General Colin Powell, was a black service man. If he had been a member of the British armed forces, it would have been surprising if he had risen above the rank of sergeant. There is a strong suspicion that discrimination goes on in the armed forces and that the Ministry of Defence has been lax in not sorting out the problem long before now by, as the Select Committee said, keeping proper records. Otherwise the racists get away with it without being properly disciplined. That leads to the suspicion that the Ministry of Defence does not care when it comes to interpreting that part of the disciplinary order.
Earlier this year I asked a number of parliamentary questions about homosexuality in the armed forces. The answers I received revealed that, last year, 76 lesbian and gay members of the armed forces were dismissed as a result of their homosexuality or homosexual behaviour. That is the largest number of dismissals since 1987 and reversed the trend of the past two years when fewer numbers had been dismissed.
Of that 76, 40 were dismissed from the Army, 11 from the Navy and 25 from the Royal Air Force. Six of the 76 were dismissed with disgrace following court martial. All were sentenced to imprisonment ranging from 90 days to 18 months. I remind the House that they were sentenced for behaviour that is not criminal in civilian life. Those cases meant that, for the first time, lesbian behaviour was criminalised.
My hon. Friend is right, but it has been criminalised by the disciplinary orders. That is wrong.
Homosexuality among members of the armed forces should be decriminalised. The Select Committee on Defence made that recommendation when it said:
We recommend that homosexual activity of a kind that is legal in civilian law should not constitute an offence under Service law. We look to the Government to propose an appropriate amendment to the law before the end of the next Session of Parliament.
I hope that the Minister can tell us that will be the case.
The same standards and regulations should apply equally for heterosexual and homosexual members of the armed forces. That point was made by Stonewall in its submission to the Select Committee. It argued that MOD current policy is severely flawed because it exposes service personnel to the risk of blackmail and therefore endangers national security. That is the converse of the argument that MOD still uses. It is less likely that members of the armed forces would be blackmailed if homosexuality were out in the open.
Stonewall also said that the current attitude results in the loss of good service men and women, which wastes the money spent on them and disrupts military efficiency. It also said that that attitude makes it much more difficult to ensure that effective AIDS prevention education is given to gay members of the forces. I have made a similar point in previous debates on disciplinary orders.
The hon. and gallant Member for Wimbledon (Dr. Goodson-Wickes), who served in the Gulf, said that if one allowed homosexuality in the forces one would get favouritism. I do not believe that that would happen on a large scale. Any favouritism would occur in a minority of cases only and it could be dealt with by effective management systems, which should already be in existence, when promotions are made. If sexual relationships equal favouritism in the workplace, such relationships should be outlawed for both heterosexuals and homosexuals. I do not see hon. Members rushing to do that, especially those who speedily employ their wives as secretaries or in some other post that is covered by their office costs allowance. Hon. Members are probably the worst abusers when it comes to favouritism. The numbers involved would not be great and proper management systems should be able to cope properly with that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) referred to the case reported last week of the naval lieutenant and sub-lieutenant who were found in a bunk at sea. I do not want to go into the details of the case, but I want to discuss the sentence. Both admitted to charges under the Naval Discipline Act 1957 and each was fined £750 and severely reprimanded. Compare that with the treatment of all those who were thrown out of the services in disgrace and imprisoned for their homosexual behaviour. Yet this couple were fined £750 each.
That may have been the penalty imposed by the courts martial, but does my hon. Friend agree that the penalty that those two young people have subsequently paid is far greater than the mere monetary fines of £750? They have become notorious in the popular press and their employment prospects are limited—indeed, severely damaged. They have paid a double penalty. Double jeopardy is not something of which any hon. Member would approve.
I accept that both officers have been disgraced and humiliated, and so paid that extra price. That is presumably why the fine of £750 is so light—actually, it is heavy. It is light relative to the price that homosexuals pay. Homosexuals are thrown into prison and humiliated, and their prospects, too, are severely damaged. As the answers to my questions show, their penalty is far worse than that in this instance. I am not arguing for increasing sentences for this couple or other couples found in the same position. Far from it, I should like to see lighter sentences in such circumstances. Most important, the same sentences should apply to those of homosexual orientation who are found in similar circumstances.
During the passage of the Criminal Justice Bill the Home Office Minister was keen to impress on the House through press releases and in statements that there should be equality of sentences for heterosexuals and homosexuals. He said that that was Government policy. It may be Home Office policy, but clearly it has not filtered through to the Ministry of Defence. When the Minister replies, will he say whether that is the Government's policy across the board or whether the Ministry of Defence is a law unto itself and that that policy does not have to apply to it? The answer will show whether the Ministry of Defence is backward in that respect—indeed, one of the most backward Defence Ministries in the whole of Europe.
I agree with Stonewall. Homosexuality in the forces should be decriminalised. It should not be a disciplinary offence. It should not be an offence for military personnel, if it takes place off duty and outside service premises, naturally providing that it is with consent. In no circumstances should it be an offence.
It is also argued that the Ministry of Defence should set up an independent review to examine military regulations on homosexuality in the armed forces and to draw on the experience and policies of our NATO allies. Nearly half our NATO allies permit lesbian and gay membership of their armed forces. The Ministry of Defence is behind the rest of Europe, and is dragging its feet.
Before my hon. Friend leaves the subject of discipline, does he have any thoughts about trade union representation in the armed forces? The Select Committee report covers the subject of homosexuality in the armed forces. I have raised the matter on several occasions, so it is nice to have a wider spread of support.
I have spoken in debates on discipline orders about trade unionism in the forces. I support the right of members of the armed forces to belong to a trade union. That is their fundamental right. It is a human right—everyone should be allowed to join a trade union.
I do not wish to deal further with that point. My hon. Friend implied that he supports that view. I hope that in the future we will be able to persuade a Labour Government to allow members of the forces that right. That would counter the arguments about favouritism. I believe that the extent of favouritism is negligible, but trade union representation would counter that. I doubt that the Government will allow trade unionism in the forces, because they are totally opposed to it in civilian life.
I urge the Government to act on racial abuse and to ensure equality between members of the armed forces, whatever their sexual orientation. If they do not, I hope that we will soon have a Labour Government who are prepared to consider these matters and make sensible changes. It would not cost money, but it would enhance basic freedoms and human rights.
My hon. Friend said that it was unlikely that the Government would show much enthusiasm for trade unionism in the armed forces, in view of the attitude that they have adopted for civvy street. Does he agree that what happened at GCHQ demonstrates that in no circumstances would the Government allow military personnel to belong to a trade union, unlike some of our allies who accept and encourage trade unionism?
One of the abiding scandals of the Government is that they abolished trade union rights at GCHQ. I was one of the rebels; I broke with discipline on the first vote on that matter. I voted against the Government when my party thought it tactically best to abstain. I thought that that was a mistake. The Opposition Deputy Chief Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon), is listening. I assure him that I am not in the habit of breaking with discipline, but it showed my feelings about the Government's outrageous behaviour in regard to GCHQ.
An association of the type that we have been discussing would probably be able to pursue claims made when soldiers were seriously injured. Individual soldiers, such as my constituent Sean Povey, would not find themselves without an association to speak for them. I hope that such an association will eventually be formed to assist those in the armed forces.
?: Indeed. A trade union is needed to represent individual soldiers who are treated particularly badly—and there are plenty of them. Those who feel that they have been discriminated against on racial grounds —they may even have been physically abused—cannot secure justice under the present system. But it is not only those who are currently serving in the armed forces who cannot obtain decent treatment from the Ministry of Defence. We need only think of the nuclear test veterans who, in the course of their duties, were exposed to nuclear fall-out. The fact that they cannot obtain proper compensation is another of the abiding scandals that should be hung around the necks of defence Ministers.
Paragraph 43 of the Select Committee report clearly demonstrates the hypocrisy of the Government and, in particular, the Ministry of Defence. The Committee said that it considered the present position unsatisfactorily vague. The implication is that certain activities will not preclude someone from membership of the armed forces, and that each case will be considered in terms of the existing circumstances. We all know what that means: anyone who was ill advised enough to make an open secret of his trade union involvement—the same might apply to homosexuality—would put himself in grave danger of total discrimination.
My hon. Friend has made his point very well. I am reminded of all the struggles that trade unionists have had to undergo just to be recognised. Employers hammer such people as soon as they place themselves on the line by demanding a right of association in their own best interests—or even for their own defence. The Ministry of Defence is now probably the worst employer when it comes to failing to recognise trade unions.
The problem has even been recognised in the United States. I watched a television programme called "The A-Team" over the weekend. "Hannibal" and his colleagues were fighting for the right of a few workers on the land to form a trade union; their employer was determined to crush them and treat them like slave labour. The United States culture now accepts that union membership is legitimate, and a proper way for workers to defend themselves.
Would it not have been helpful for the nuclear test veterans to have been given trade union representation? Might that have not persuaded the Government to adopt a sympathetic point of view in relation to people who have given, and are giving, their lives for their country? The Government actually arranged for a Back Bencher to talk out the Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Clay), in a deliberate, organised effort to stop any initiative from being launched in the House to help people who are suffering a cruel fate.
Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government's record on nuclear test veterans is squalid. I have been in the House when Tory Members have been getting a bad press, such as during the Gulf war and on other occasions, and they have demanded that the BBC and ITV show programmes that put them in a better light. I do not ask the BBC or ITV to put the Labour party in a better light but they have a duty to record properly what has happened in the House in relation to nuclear test veterans. Tory Members' efforts to block compensation for ex-service men and their families should be the subject of television and radio programmes. The Government should be brought to public account for their squalid behaviour and the way in which they have treated those who have suffered because of service to their country.
I have spoken for longer than I intended but I have made the two points that I wished to make on racial harassment and, specifically, homosexuality in the armed forces. I endorse what the Select Committee had to say and hope that there will be a change of policy on those issues in due course.
I wish to make three points on the many and varied aspects of the order, which is simple and straightforward.
First, the Ministry of Defence allowed or caused—it is not clear which—medical supplies to be wasted at the conclusion of the Gulf hostilities. A voluntary reservist, who was carrying out a public service and was not subject to the disciplinary procedures of full-time service men and women in the Gulf, gave me the information. Despite the excuse of the Ministry of Defence that the shelf life of those supplies had expired, my information was that that was not true, and that the medical supplies that were wasted and poured away by the ton could have been used on our casualties, had they occurred. Mercifully, they did not.
Although the Secretary of State wrote back to me saying that the problem was caused by the shelf life, tons of material was simply poured away by men and women in the armed forces who did not go out to the Gulf for that purpose but for the best of motives. As the House knows, I was among those who disagreed with them and opposed the precipitate move to war in the Gulf. However, that reservist volunteered to assist and was appalled at the waste of resources, especially when everyone knew of the deprivation and desperation and the fact that thousands of people were starved, injured, wounded and suffering the outrages of war.
The medical supplies could have been used, but were deliberately destroyed in an outrageous act of wanton vandalism for which no one has yet been brought to book. Even if the shelf life of the medical supplies had expired, there was no need to dismantle tons of medical supplies, count them all and then repack them to send them back to the United Kingdom. That was simply to occupy the troops once the hostilities had ceased. Such is the mind-boggling mindlessness that occurs in the armed forces to keep men and women needlessly occupied.
Secondly, I usually raise in an annual debate the right of trade union membership. The Government are torn between whether to halt the headlong rush to federalism in the European Community, led by Jacques Delors, or to go along with it, saying that we should get the best out of it. We have heard those arguments and platitudes year after year as the Government have succumbed to every Common Market demand. The Single European Act, our capitulation to the exchange rate mechanism and other moves have occurred against the background of the Government's accepting the policies. It is against that—
I was just about to embark on the very sentence. The relevance is that at least one Common Market country fully accepts trade union rights for its armed forces, and other Common Market countries have varying degrees of staff representation and trade union rights, albeit restricted ones. Some countries have trade union rights for their armed forces but withhold the right of service personnel to strike.
I am in favour of trade union representation in the armed forces for a variety of reasons, some of which have been mentioned. One reason is the disgraceful way in which nuclear test veterans have been treated by this Government. If the Government say that we must be prepared for 1992 and we must get in at the middle of "Europe"—although they really mean only a section of Europe in the middle of the economic Community—they may find themselves with things around their neck of which they are not in favour, such as a degree of trade union rights for members of the armed forces.
I support trade union rights, but I think that we can have them irrespective of our membership of the EEC—it is that for which we should be battling.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Government are to resist—as they obviously will—any such association in the Army, they will have to demonstrate that they will treat soldiers in a proper and fit manner? That is particularly true of soldiers who, in the course of their training, are seriously injured, such as the three Grenadier guradsmen who were well treated medically and in terms of pension rights, but have not been paid one penny in compensation. We should compare their position to that of civilians. A worker in the channel tunnel lost both his legs in July 1989 and was awarded damages in the High Court of more than £370,000. However, my constituent, one of the three Grenadier guardsmen, will not receive—unless the Government relent—one single penny compensation.
My hon. Friend makes a graphic and telling point.
I shall dwell for a few minutes on nuclear test veterans. Such people willingly served their country and participated in unusual and, for this country, unique tests, without adequate protection. They received damaging doses of radiation, but the Government have simply turned their back on them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Clay) introduced a private Member's Bill when he was lucky enough to come in the first 10 in the ballot. His Bill was framed around similar legislation in the United States, where the Government have not turned their back on American nuclear test veterans and have introduced a system of compensation. The British Government deliberately blocked my hon. Friend's Bill and connived to stop legislation for people who are fatally injured and have given their lives for this country. Those people did not make a conscious decision to do so at the time because they were not given the proper information. They were not given adequate protection and were exposed to danger.
In ordinary, civilian terms, those veterans suffered because of negligence, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said. The accident in which they were involved could reasonably have been foreseen given the state of scientific knowledge at the time. However, the information was not revealed to the troops and that act of negligence should lie at the door of the Government, who should acknowledge it.
My next point relates to discipline and the position of Army, Navy and Air Force personnel with regard to nuclear weapons. I believe that it is the perfect right of any member of the armed forces to refuse to take part in the deployment and use of nuclear weapons. They have a right of conscience so to refuse without any disciplinary consequences. We forget that nuclear weapons would involve the environmental destruction of our planet and of humanity on a scale that we have never experienced before. The Minister may say, "In certain circumstances, we must be able to use nuclear weapons. That threat is the whole purpose behind nuclear weapons. If we use them we have failed, but we must have the right to use them." I do not accept that people have that right. I deny the right of any Front Bench, on either side of the House, to invoke mass extermination as a means of conducting international affairs.
The hon. Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Hargreaves) says that I am talking a load of rubbish, but nuclear weapons involve the threat of mass extermination. One hundred and forty one nations have said, "We will have no nuclear weapons." The Ministry knows that we are a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty, and if the Government are really serious about a peaceful future and about preserving the planet, they must obey that treaty.
The Government were keen enough to support the United Nations when that suited their book, over the Gulf —so they should support also the non-proliferation treaty. They must honour and abide by the two review conferences, which declared that nuclear nations such as the United Kingdom must renounce the deployment and potential use of nuclear weapons.
To do so would not be to leave ourselves naked and defenceless. It would be to agree with the majority of the nations of the earth, which, thank goodness, do not follow this nation in manufacturing and deploying nuclear weapons. If they do, our planet and humanity will be doomed—and I deny that path for this nation or any other.
I welcome the non-nuclear commitment made by 141 nations. Our armed forces should have the right to say, "No, we will not participate in the extermination of mankind and womankind." The disciplinary Act should therefore reflect that serious and important qualification on every single occasion.
With the leave of the House, I will comment only briefly to give the Minister some time in which to respond.
This has been a good debate. Apart from anything else, it has gone beyond the formalities and mechanics of discipline and into a large number of areas and even into common sense. Very often, we do not see the wood for the trees. There is great merit in having, not a technical debate, but one with some common sense. I am reminded of the cavalryman who was upbraided by his senior officer because he was wearing only one spur. When asked why, he gave what I think was an excellent answer—that he reckoned that if he got one side of the horse moving, the other side would probably follow. So, although he was in breach of regulations, he probably had more common sense than some of us.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) had a good run around the houses. He made only two mistakes. The first was to remind us publicly that he had broken party discipline on a number of occasions, and the second was to admit to watching "The A-Team"—neither of which bodes very well for his future, if we get into government.
The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) and my hon. Friends the Members for Leyton and for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) returned to the question that occupied us a great deal tonight—that of homosexuality. I will not add to my earlier remarks, except to comment on what my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West called the "dashing lieutenant" and the "randy Wren". That incident strengthens to some extent the Government's case, because they can claim with some consistency, "It is not just homosexuals we are thinking of but heterosexuals—and where there is any physical contact or favouritism, they must suffer the full weight of discipline as well."
In other ways, the Government's cause is weakened. If the same law is applied, every heterosexual who is capable of ending up in the same position as the "dashing lieutenant" and the "randy Wren"—even if not practising —would find themselves dismissed from the service, whereas mere homosexuality, let alone homosexual activity, is an offence.
The hon. Member for Wimbledon (Dr. Goodson-Wickes) spoke from considerable experience. I was interested in what he said about under-18-year-olds. The hon. Gentleman said that he was told by a 17-year-old that a few weeks in a tank in the Gulf had enabled him to grow up more than during the previous part of his life. I am 44, and if someone had stuck me in a tank in the Gulf I would probably have grown up more in those few weeks than in the previous part of my life. Such experience is no rationale for allowing under-18-year-olds to go into battle.
I agree with the hon. Member for Wimbledon that there should be consistency between the services, but there must also be consistency about the age at which people are allowed to go on active service overseas in defence of their country and the age at which they are entitled to participate in other adult activities such as voting or going into a public house. The inconsistency about that worries the public.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) showed considerable ingenuity in his speech and in two interventions by raising a case which could have been out of order in the debate. We share his deep regret at the accident to his constituent and fully understand why he is pursuing the issue of compensation.
Some hon. Members spoke about racial discrimination and ethnic minorities. No doubt they are aware of the two useful recommendations in the Select Committee report.
I thank the members of the Committee for their assistance to me and to my colleagues. I thank the Committee Clerks and the MOD witnesses who were subjected to what has been called robust questioning. They showed the sort of stoicism that is displayed by service men and women. Finally, and most importantly, we thank the service men and women on whose behalf we have been holding these discussions. I reiterate that, although we are debating breaches of discipline, penalties and punishment, they arise only in the minority of cases because the vast majority of British service men and women operate to a standard of discipline that is a credit to them all, their own self-discipline. For that we thank them.
This has been a wide-ranging debate and many of its topics have been raised before in armed forces debates. Some of them are old chestnuts.
The hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) spoke about ethnic monitoring. We have taken the view that in-service monitoring could be divisive in a close-knit community such as the armed forces. While we continue to have reservations about the applicability of monitoring to the armed forces, the Select Committee has asked us to reconsider our opposition and we are looking at the practice of other employers.
Monitoring of entrants to the services shows a low percentage of people from ethnic minorities. We reckon that ethnic minorities form 5·7 per cent. of the 15 to 24-year-old age group from which we hope to recruit. Applicants from ethnic minorities form about 1·6 per cent. and entrants are about 1·1 per cent. By any national comparison the percentages are far too low and we are not happy about that.
I do not know what can be achieved by some sort of monitoring of people who are in the services. Should it be done voluntarily, in which case members of the ethnic minorities in the armed forces might decide not to fill in the form? I do not think that we should force them to do so. Alternatively, perhaps senior officers could submit a return showing the ethnic origins of people in their units. It is not easy to see how that could be done, and I suspect that if it were it would show the same percentages as those that can be produced from an examination of entry forms.
It is much more important to address the problem by improving recruitment in areas where there are concentrations of ethnic minorities. That can be done by advertising and by other means to increase the numbers of people who are joining the services.
There is no need for the Minister to reinvent the wheel. If he wants to know how to increase the number of ethnic minority recruits and, more important, how to retain them, he should talk to the Metropolitan police, who have experienced these problems. It is not good enough for him to say that he is dissatisfied with the low level of recruitment from the ethnic minorities. Has he ever asked the reason why? It is that they are put off by the stories and the knowledge of the racial harassment and discrimination in the armed services. That is not my prejudice but the experience of black people.
That is the hon. Gentleman's story. I do not know, and we make inquiries about, why such people do not join more readily. The answer is not as simple as he suggests.
Several hon. Members have referred to the deaths of two young service men in the Gulf conflict—a matter of great regret and sadness. I assure the House that we shall consider carefully whether service men under 18 should be sent on active service overseas, and we shall report our conclusions to the House in due course.
We have always taken as our criterion whether service men are well trained. If we feel that they have reached their peak of efficiency in doing their job, we feel that we can send them off and ask them to fight. I regret that the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) is no longer present. He made the point that any age limit is arbitrary. As to maturity, some of us take longer to come to maturity than others. It is not necessarily age related. We have also to take into account that if younger trained service men are removed from a unit, the ability of that unit to fight is reduced. However, we shall look at the matter to see whether we can do anything.
The issue of homosexuality was raised, as it invariably is, by Labour Members. Only they could seriously suggest that homosexuals should be allowed to serve in the armed forces. It is extraordinary that they believe that that would work. It is a long-standing policy that both homosexual activity and orientation are incompatible with service in the armed forces. The main reason centres on the need to maintain discipline and morale. The services are hierarchical, close knit, overwhelmingly single sex and young communities. Units can work to full effectiveness only on the basis of mutual trust and the expectation of equal treatment among each rank. The formation within these units of sexually motivated relationships are potentially very disruptive of discipline and morale, particularly when they cross rank boundaries.
It is worth making the point that very young service men must have the permission of their parents to join. I believe that such permission would be less forthcoming if parents thought that there was any risk that senior ranks of homosexual non-commissioned officers, and indeed commissioned officers, might use the advantage of their rank to coerce young service men into activities in which they would not otherwise want to take part.
Our practice is that the majority of service personnel who are required to leave the services on grounds of their homosexuality are administratively discharged—a point brought up by my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Dr. Goodson-Wickes). Therefore, there is no question of such people having a criminal record on account of their homosexuality. Prosecution under the service discipline Acts occurs only in a minority of cases and will always be considered where there are grounds for believing that a civil offence has been committed. On conviction, dismissal from the service will almost certainly follow.
We will carefully consider the Select Committee's recommendation that homosexuality, which is no longer an offence under civil law, should not constitute an offence under service law. I should make it clear that there is no specific service offence of committing a homosexual act or of being a homosexual, but a homosexual act that would not be an offence under civil law may be used as the basis for a prosecution for certain offences unique to service law, including conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline, and disgraceful conduct of an indecent kind. I can give no undertaking on timing; it is a complex area of law. The recommendation would put homosexuals in a more advantageous position than heterosexuals and lesbians. I do not want to make changes that affect the public perception of our position on homosexuality on which there must be no doubt.
The hon. Member for Motherwell, North also raised the question of the composition of courts martial. He suggested that it might be better if courts martial contained one non-commissioned officer or similar person because he thought that in some way better justice would be served. Courts martial and civil courts are not directly comparable. Unlike civil courts operating with juries, courts martial are essentially disciplinary courts which consider matters of fact and of law, and which decide both finding and sentence. Although only about 20 per cent. of the members of courts martial rise from the ranks, they know their men far better than their equivalents did 30 or 40 years ago. The conditions in which they operate, such as in Northern Ireland or on board ship, ensure that junior officers especially are as in touch with their men as are senior non-commissioned officers.
No call for the idea has come from members of the forces. The most recent major study in the forces, which was carried out in 1985, concluded that it would not improve the quality of justice and would not give the appearance of its being improved. A court martial may consider service offences such as flying offences in which the qualifications and service knowledge of the court would be essential in deciding the facts of a particular case. It is right that the judicial role should remain with those who are ultimately responsible for discipline. I have no anecdotal evidence, but I know that in the United States other ranks have the right to have one of their own on a court martial. Only 1 per cent. of them exercise that right.
The Labour party, as one has come to expect in these debates, raised the question of trade unions. We take the view that the active involvement of trade unions or professional associations could run counter to the principle that service personnel should not engage in any activity that might conflict with their service duties. In the past, we have resisted a precise definition of an unacceptable trade union activity, mainly because the criteria drawn up would inevitably be more restrictive than those presently allowed. However, we will study carefully the recommendation of the Select Committee that appropriate regulations are codified. We will consider whether we can provide more detailed guidelines.
We believe that we already have an efficient and well understood communications system with all members of the armed forces through the chain of command. That is further supplemented by regular attitude surveys with those remaining in and those leaving the services. In addition, teams from each service visit a number of units each year to answer questions and to listen to the concerns of regular service men at first hand. The question of greater representation by trade union or staff federation is never a significant factor in the investigations. I therefore endorse the Select Committee's view that no other form of representation is required.
The hon. Member for Newham, North-East—
The hon. Gentleman raised the question of racial harassment. The Select Committee accepts that compiling statistics on bullying would be subject to difficulties. However, we will give careful thought to the recommendation that we consider how best to identify and record incidents of racial harassment in the armed forces. The hon. Member for Newham, North-East—
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Minister is foolish not to give way. I realise that in his speech which someone has written for him it probably says that I am the hon. Member for Newham, North-East, but I happen to be the hon. Member for Newham, North-West. That is all I wanted to say. Get on with your speech, Sir.
I apologise to the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks). I am grateful to him for putting me right. I am also terribly grateful to him for asking me to the Theatre Royal, Stratford to see the play about the maltreatment of blacks in the armed forces.
The hon. Gentleman raised a difficult problem. We hear of people who have left the armed forces and say that they were discriminated against during their time in the forces. It would be much more useful if they complained at the time. If they did, such allegations would be investigated by senior officers, and there is no doubt that any form of bullying or racial discrimination or harassment would be seriously investigated and dealt with. We cannot do anything if black service men leave the services and then say that they were discriminated against, because at that stage it is impossible to obtain evidence of what has gone on. If people want to help, I can only encourage them to bring the matter to our attention earlier. If there isevidence—and I do not know whether there is evidence—and I do not know whether there is—of racial harassment in the services, we can deal with it only if complaints are raised at the time, rather than later.
I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the publicity involving the Royal Naval officer and the Wren in a recent case which came before a court martial. Having said that, I do not think that there is any reason to change the no-touching rule. It is absolutely right to have such restrictions on board ship. If we do not, we shall have serious difficulties.
The hon. Gentleman asked about holding the case in camera. Either side can apply for a case to be held in camera on the grounds that it is necessary or expedient in the interests of the administration of justice to do so. I am afraid that I cannot comment further on that case.
The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) referred to a matter that he has been raising for some time —the case of the three guardsmen who had their legs blown off and were badly injured while digging a trench in Canada. The hon. Gentleman goes on endlessly about the fact that they receive no compensation but ignores the fact that they are being quite well looked after under the arrangements that we have—the pension from the armed services and the DSS war pension. Former Guardsman Hicks also receives the mobility supplement and clothing allowance, although that does not apply to the other two guardsmen as they are still in the Army and will not be discharged until as much as possible has been done for them in medical terms.
I think that I am right in saying—within a few pounds —that the total amount that Guardsman Hicks receives is £8,984 a year. That sum is tax free and index linked, and the equivalent lump sum would be about £200,000. That is a significant amount.
The guardsmen have made very good recoveries indeed —especially Hicks, who is looking for a job at the moment. I think that he has applied for unemployment benefit in the mean time and I sincerely hope that he will get a job. He is not debarred from sedentary jobs such as those that many of us have and he could receive serious earnings on top of that money—already the best part of £9,000 a year, tax free and index linked, for the rest of his life.
I am not the only hon. Member who has raised the case. The Minister will know that a number of his hon. Friends are doing so—rightly in my view. Is the Minister aware that the three guardsmen themselves are not satisfied? It is all very well for him to mention the sum in question, which is not in dispute, but the guardsmen do not feel that justice has been done. If they did, they would not have contacted hon. Members. Moreover, they would not be in contact with their solicitors and would not now be considering taking the case to court. The three young men—Sean Povey is only 21—have lost their legs and suffered other injuries and they feel that they are entitled to compensation in addition to the pension. Like other hon. Members—more than 200 on both sides of the House have signed the motion—I believe that they are absolutely right to press their case.
It would be a funny old world if we paid compensation—large lump sums of taxpayers' money—to people just because they were not satisfied with the pension arrangements made for them.
We have to assess whether £9,000 a year, tax free and index linked, is a reasonable settlement—it will never be that generous—in the light of the injuries that those young men suffered, and taking into account the fact that they are more than able to get a job giving them earnings in addition to that money.
The hon. Member for Motherwell, North had the cheek to suggest that the Ministry of Defence was a complete shambles and that we might end up with a smaller budget and no defence strategy whatever. Coming from the Labour party, that is pretty cool. If anyone can tell me what Labour party policy is on anything or how much Labour's defence budget would be if there were ever a Labour Government, that person is much cleverer than I. Labour Members have given no information about their defence policy. They are lying very low. Before they start hurling stuff at us, they should reveal what Labour's policy is likely to be.