I beg to move,
That the draft Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts (Continuation) Order 1992, which was laid before this House on 2nd June, be approved.
The purpose of the order is to continue in force for a further year the Army and Air Force Acts 1955 and the Naval Discipline Act 1957, which together provide the statutory basis for discipline in the three services.
The House will be aware that it is a long-established practice for service discipline to be fully reviewed every five years by means of the consideration of an Armed Forces Bill and for the disciplinary code as then enacted to be reviewed annually in the intervening years by an order in council which is itself approved by resolution of each House—[Interruption.]
The House will also be aware that an Armed Forces Bill was considered and duly enacted in 1991. That Act continued the three service discipline Acts until 31 August 1992 and endorsed the process of annual continuation thereafter by order in council. I am therefore asking the House tonight to give its annual renewal to the discipline Acts by approving the order.
After that brief introduction, it would on a routine occasion be appropriate for me to resume my seat and listen to the comments of hon. Members who wish to debate the order. However, this year this debate provides a useful parliamentary opportunity for the Government to respond to the principal recommendations of the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, whose report was published last April.
First, let me thank the hon. Members who sat on that Select Committee for presenting to the House such a thoughtful report on various military disciplinary matters. After giving careful consideration to the Committee's recommendations I can tell the House that the Government intend to respond constructively and positively in the following specific ways.
The most controversial issue discussed in the report was that of homosexuality in the armed forces. After taking evidence from many quarters, the Select Committee upheld and accepted the Ministry of Defence's long-established policy that homosexual activity is incompatible with service in the armed forces. Indeed, in its report, the Committee acknowledged that the armed forces should not be required to accept homosexuals. However, the Committee did recommend that homosexual activity of a kind that is legal in civilian law should no longer constitute an offence under service law. That recommendation has been considered very carefully by the service personnel authorities, and they and Ministers have concluded that the Select Committee's recommendation should be accepted.
I think that the House will require a careful explanation of the effects of this decision. The Sexual Offences Act 1967 provides that homosexual acts undertaken in private between two consenting males over the age of 21 shall not be criminal offences. That Act, however, did not extend to members of the armed forces. It has therefore remained possible, though rare, for legal proceedings to be taken against service men and women for homosexual acts that are not criminal offences in civilian law.
It is now the Government's view, following the advice of the Select Committee, that such criminal proceedings should no longer be brought. My Department has therefore accepted that the special provisions of section 1(5) of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 should not apply in future. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has been asked to implement the repeal of this part of the Act as soon as the legislative programme allows.
I should like to make it clear that this is a sensible measure of decriminalisation, whose purpose is to tidy up the differences between military and civilian law. It is not intended to alter the present disciplinary climate of service life.
I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for making this statement. We have been asking for some time for such a statement to be made. On the issue of decriminalising homosexual activity in the armed forces, are the people who are involved in such activities liable to be charged under other aspects of Army law?
No, unless they have committed offences that might also be offences under service law, such as coercion. However, the conduct of consenting adults in private will not be an offence under the disciplinary code.
If two consenting adult soldiers or members of the women's forces together participate in such an act, am I right in thinking that they will not be charged with conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline, the usual catch-all phrase that is used? I remind the Minister that not for some time has anybody in the armed forces been charged with a criminal offence. A person has been charged either on administrative grounds or by use of the catch-all phrase, conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline.
The offence, which is technically a criminal offence under service law, is being decriminalised. I shall deal in a moment with discharges for administrative reasons. If a service man or service woman had committed an act that was a criminal offence in civilian life or that constituted a breach of service discipline—I mentioned the offence of coercion—that would be applicable to any sexual relationship, whether homosexual or heterosexual, a service prosecution would still be possible.
Does not the point that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) made need further elucidation? I understand the Minister to be saying that a homosexual act between consenting adults in the forces will now be treated on the same basis as if it had occurred outside the forces. However, the hon. Gentleman asked whether that same act might be struck at by some other disciplinary provision under the criminal law, in so far as it applies to the armed forces.
I was coming to the question of discharges. It remains the policy of the Ministry of Defence not to accept homosexual activity within the armed forces. Service personnel who are involved in homosexual activity will, as at present, be administratively discharged, whether or not any criminal offence has taken place.
I hope that the House recognises that, although we have moved in the direction of decriminalisation, as recommended by the Select Committee, we have not moved away from the standards of personal conduct required of all those who serve in the special circumstances of the armed forces.
The step that the Minister has announced is a small but brave one in the right direction. However, I hope that he will accept that many of us want the Government to go further to ensure that ultimately the standards of conduct that we accept in civilian life are precisely those that are applied to military life.
This would not be the House of Commons if that opinion were not expressed in it. Of course, I am aware of that view, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, in coming to these decisions, any Minister feels like the over-advised centurion in Macaulay's "Lays of Ancient Rome", when
those behind cried 'Forward! And those before cried `Back!'
There are different views on the issue.
I emphasise that homosexual activity remains incompatible with military service, and that those who engage in it must be expected to be discharged. However, in future, individuals who engage in homosexual activity that is legal in civilian law will not be prosecuted under service law and they will have no criminal record or entry on the police computer.
I am grateful to the Minister, but we must have elucidation on that point. If he is saying that there is to be no change in the law, we must accept it. However, in a similar debate last year, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces said:
Our practice is that the majority of service personnel who are required to leave the services on grounds of their homosexuality are adminstratively discharged … Therefore, there is no question of such people having a criminal record on account of their homosexuality.
The Government are now saying that they are decriminalising homosexuality per se in the armed forces but that in practice there will be no change in their attitude. Earlier in the same debate, the Minister of State said:
It is a long-standing policy that both homosexual activity and orientation are incompatible with service in the armed forces."—[Official Report, 17 June 1991; Vol. 193, c. 115-16.] Are the Government sticking to that statement?
Yes, the Government are sticking to that statement, but I think that the hon. Gentleman is being a little churlish in suggesting that there has been no change. It is true that the administrative practices in a great many cases will remain the same but, at the same time, the Select Committee found that there had been approximately 39 cases in the past four years of those who had been found to be indulging in homosexual activities who had been prosecuted. Those people at least will in future no longer have the problems of a criminal prosecution and criminal record, so to say that there has been no change is not fair. An important principle has been changed and there has been change in some practical cases.
I welcome the step announced by my hon. Friend, because it is fair and will achieve a measure of justice in bringing together the civil and service laws. Nevertheless, does he understand that there is a need to go further and to consider the problems that some people will have if they lose their service job and wish to return to civilian life with a black mark on their record which would not be there had they conducted themselves in the same way in civilian life? In other words, someone whose activity in the services would be permissible in the Ministry of Defence could be disadvantaged at a later date, so that is perhaps the next step that my hon. Friend could investigate.
We shall consider that point, but it is fair to say that in the overwhelming majority of cases there is no question of a black mark being obviously on the record. In evidence given to the Select Committee, one major general said that the type of report written in such cases was at pains not to disclose the fact that there had been any difficulties leading to the administrative discharge, although someone investigating further could come across such information if he dug deeply into the records.
I think that "with ignominy" is the wrong term because the usual literal term is "service no longer required", which could have many interpretations and ignominy would not necessarily be one of them.
It would be unfair to judge that that led to some obvious black mark or ignominious stain.
May I ask the Minister a question which was asked earlier? Why do the Government consider that homosexuality is incompatible with service life?
When one accepts service under the Crown in the armed forces, one also accepts that there are special responsibilities and special conditions. One set of those conditions is that one is not living totally in private but often in crowded barracks and under conditions of some stress. In those conditions, homosexual activities can cause difficulties to the community, and can have insidious effects on discipline, so they cannot be accepted as they can in civilian life.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis), I warmly welcome the announcement, but my hon. Friend the Minister has already recognised the difficulties caused by his failure to go one step further. The reasons which he has just given are precisely those which used to be deployed to justify keeping women out of the armed forces. Women are now in the armed forces, and most of them perform brilliantly. They add a great deal to the services and are good or bad soldiers according to their qualities, not according to their sexual orientation.
Does my hon. Friend accept that in the American armed forces, which have gone even further than we and have integrated women into combat units, elaborate and sometimes expensive measures are taken—for example, in the organisation and layout of barracks—to prevent the sort of problems that he has described arising between men and women, in terms of the pressures that can build up? If we were to make such arrangements to separate homosexuals, Opposition Members would be the first to make an outcry.
I have had enough trouble getting through this subject in Britain, without having to examine what goes on in American barracks as well. My hon. Friend is right to say that there are some special strains and stresses of service life, whether in the American armed forces or in our own.
My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) has over-simplified the problem to some extent. But as she has intervened, I shall pay a genuine tribute not only to her but to several other hon. Members —my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), for Battersea (Mr. Bowis), for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler) and for Harlow (Mr. Hayes)—who have assiduously campaigned for changes in the law on this issue. They should take some satisfaction in the fact that a step forward has been taken in the direction that they would wish, although we may not have gone as far as all of them would have wanted.
Another important recommendation of the Select Committee concerned ethnic monitoring and racial harassment, referred to in paragraphs 34 and 35 of the report. The Committee made two recommendations about the position of members of ethnic minorities who join the armed forces. It said:
We recommend that the MOD consider how best to identify incidents of racial harassment in the armed forces and keep records accordingly, and we recommend that the MOD reconsider its opposition to ethnic monitoring of service personnel.
On the latter point, I am pleased to reiterate the announcement made by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces on 14 May that we shall extend to serving personnel our present practice of monitoring the ethnic origin of applicants to the three services.
On racial harassment, I remind the House that it is a clear and unequivocal policy within the armed forces that no form of racial discrimination is tolerated. Any complaint by a service man or woman of harassment or discrimination will be fully investigated under the redress of grievance procedures laid down in the service discipline Acts.
When considering record keeping, the Select Committee expressed concern about racial harassment as a form of bullying and recognised the difficulty in identifying cases in which race was the determining factor. There is no specific offence of bullying, racial harassment or racial abuse under the service discipline Acts. Such offences would be dealt with under other provisions, such as those involving conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline, or common assault.
Currently, only the Army records centrally all complaints of assault and other ill treatment. It also records separately complaints of racially motivated ill treatment. The Navy and RAF do not maintain central records of all complaints of bullying and other ill treatment, but will do so with effect from 1 September and 1 August this year respectively. I need hardly say that bullying in itself is also regarded as a very serious matter and it has been made clear throughout the services that bullying and ill treatment will not be tolerated. I can report that the number of cases of bullying appears to have fallen significantly in recent years.
The Select Committe made a number of other specific recommendations which are being carefully considered within my Department.
The Committee expressed the view that there should be a presumption that under-18-year-olds should not be sent on active service overseas, unless there was an overriding requirement for their skills or the threat to national security was sufficient to warrant the conscription of minors. The services believe that their deployment of under-18s is broadly consistent with the Select Committee's view, but the matter remains under consideration.
The Committee also recommended that the Ministry of Defence examine the terms of enlistment for under-18year-olds and bring forward proposals for change within 12 months. I can assure the House that this recommendation is also being carefully and sympathetically considered.
The Select Committee also commented on the future of the Royal Navy detention centre and recommended that a timetable be announced for the closure of the RN detention quarters at Portmouth, and the redeployment of those facilities to the military corrective training centre —MCTC—at Colchester. A rigorous investment appraisal is being undertaken to determine the benefits and costs of such a step. The appraisal will be completed by the end of July. I ask the House to note that a decision in favour of transfer of facilities to the MCTC would necessitate further building work at Colchester, and that the time scale involved would mean continued use of the RN detention quarters into 1994–95.
The Committee also made recommendations regarding the services' sentencing policy to ensure equality of sentencing between men and women. This followed a visit to MCTC, where detention facilities for women are now available. I can assure the House that it has always been the intention of the armed forces to follow an equal sentencing policy, and the provision of specific detention facilities for women gives added practical effect to this policy. Action is in hand to amend the necessary regulations.
The Select Committee acknowledged the considerable changes which had taken place in the employment of service women since the previous Armed Forces Bill. It noted, however, that there were different minimum ages of enlistment for men and women—16 for men and 17 for women—and recommended that the minimum ages of enlistment for women should be brought into line without further delay.
I am pleased to tell the House that the Navy brought the minimum age of enlistment for women into line with that for men last October and that in September this year the Army will introduce a common enlistment age of 16½ for both men and women. The RAF is currently considering a common age of enlistment for both men and women. This change is in line with our policy of aligning men and women's terms and conditions of service where practicable.
Finally, the Select Committee recommended that
The Government provide parliamentary time in the next five years for legislation to consolidate service law".
May I ask the Minister a question of which I have given him all too brief notice? When may we expect a statement by the Ministry of Defence on the declassification of records in respect of those who may have been taken prisoner in the Korean war? I have told the Department of my personal concern about certain of my contemporaries. Is the Minister prepared to contact the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to ask for information? In the light of the astonishing statement by President Yeltsin in Washington yesterday, what representations are being made to the Russian Government to obtain information about any such British service men who may still be alive?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of that question. I can give him some limited information. We did note President Yeltsin's remarkable statement; it has raised certain questions and possible lines of inquiry. We shall follow them up, and we will certainly take into account the hon. Gentleman's point about the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. About 100 service men were unaccounted for in Korea, and about 80 were missing in action but not thought to be prisoners of war. We are looking at all the cases where new information comes to light and we will follow up all leads and suggestions made to us by responsible sources.
Will the Minister confirm that the children of service families caught up in sexual or physical abuse cases will be given the same protection given to children in England and Wales in relation to the Criminal Justice Act 1987 and to children in Scotland in relation to the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Act 1990?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that I am only a Defence Minister. I am not qualified to comment on matters of Scottish law. However, I will endeavour to answer his question at the end of the debate if I am given the leave of the House to do so, or I will write to him later.
Before that intervention, I was referring to a legal matter about consolidation. I am pleased to tell the House that the Law Commission has already begun work on that task. It is a much-needed operation because, metaphorically speaking, the MOD seems to contain a veritable legal attic full of antiquated service law that needs tidying up or, in some cases, sweeping away. I was amused to discover that naval recruitment by the press gang is still legal under the royal prerogative and that at least 44 separate statutes need to be considered by the Law Commission, ranging from the Regimental Accounts Act 1908, the Seamen's and Soldiers' False Characters Act 1906 and the Colonial Naval Defence Act 1831.
I am most grateful for that interesting information. However, I wonder whether my hon. and learned Friend's point has shown that there is a need for a House of Commons Discipline Act.
I hope that the House will feel that we have made a thorough and thoughtful response to the various recommendations of the Select Committee. There are additional points that I have not been able to cover because of the time available, but my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces, for whom I am deputising this evening, will write to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House about them. If they are raised on the Floor of the House tonight, 1 will try to respond to them at the end of the debate.
I should like to conclude by reminding the House that, in their many different areas of operations, our services play an essential part in safeguarding our interests and freedoms. I pay tribute to their undoubted professionalism and dedication.
The high quality of our armed forces is due in no small part to their good morale and, in a military environment, to their fair and equitable system of discipline. It is essential to preserve that and to ensure that the high levels of efficiency and effectiveness that characterise the three services are maintained. That is what the Service discipline Acts seek to do, and I therefore invite the House to approve the order.
I congratulate the Minister on his appointment as Minister of State for Defence Procurement and I recognise that he is deputising tonight for the Minister of State for the Armed Forces who is in the Falkland Islands. Fortunately, I managed to get out of that so we are both meeting tonight away from our respective disciplines in defence matters. I am sure that the Minister will give his all to his duties.
I am pleased that the Minister has discovered that the press gang is still legal. I noticed a distinct gleam in the eye of the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) when the Minister said that. I will refer later to the hon. Member for Canterbury because of his view in 1989 that we could solve the ethnic minority problem in the armed forces by having an all-black regiment. I do not suppose that that idea would receive much support from the Minister of State.
I want to pay tribute to our service men and women whose efficiency, skill and dedication are second to none and who continue to render great service to the country. Opposition Members have always supported our armed forces. We will not oppose the order because we recognise that a fair system of discipline is essential to the effectiveness and operation of our armed forces and that it is an essential framework in which they can exercise their skills and functions.
Breaches of discipline are relatively isolated, but, unfortunately, certain breaches of discipline occur regularly. Some of them form a pattern in many regiments, much to their shame. For instance, bullying was referred to by the Minister, not casually but in passing. Bullying in the armed forces takes place either formally often by way of brutal initiation ceremonies—which still exist, although, to their credit, the Government have tried to stamp them out—or informally, when individuals or groups take it on themselves systematically to terrorise their service comrades. Such incidents have occurred over the past year. My colleagues will refer to incidents in which some of their constituents have been involved.
Either type of bullying is absolutely indefensible. Besides being intrinsically wrong, it destroys morale and the well-being of units. Hon. Members who have served in the armed forces realise how morale can be lowered as a result of groups of individuals bullying people who cannot look after themselves.
Successive Ministers have taken action. I pay tribute to the work of the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), who has been transferred to the Department of Transport. When the hon. Gentleman was Minister of State for the Armed Forces, he was most diligent in pursuing bullying, but still the problem exists. The problem will not be solved until the Government bring senior officers to book. It is no good bringing the perpetrators of bullying to book—it must be senior officers who command units. If they are not good enough to control sadistic behaviour in their regiments or units, they are not fit to command. Until the Government take strong action against senior officers, we shall always have endemic bullying in martial societies.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one of the most endemic, sadistic and difficult methods of bullying in the armed forces is when one homosexual has a hold over another?
I propose to deal with that intervention with almost the contempt that it deserves. It was a sweeping and silly statement. If the hon. and learned Member had talked in terms other than specifically about homosexuality, he might have had a point. I shall refer to the general issue of homosexuality. I urge the hon. and learned Gentleman to keep an open mind on the issue. It is complex. Homosexuality or heterosexual activity in the armed forces can, in certain circumstances, lead to breakdowns in discipline. That is equally true of an office, a factory, or the House of Commons, if we put the issue in a general working context, but I do not want to go any further down that line.
I was talking about bullying. Bullying takes on a special dimension when it occurs in the form of racial bigotry, discrimination and harassment. I welcome the Minister saying that he will set up the ethnic monitoring system to identify incidents and to keep records. I am not sure whether that goes far enough.
I believe that the Government deplore bigotry in our armed forces against coloured or black recruits. But they are not doing enough to combat it. It is all right to say, as Ministers have done in the past, that people should complain. The Minister of State for the Armed Forces said last year:
We hear of people who have left the armed forces and say that they were discriminated against during their time in the armed 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."—[Official Report, 17 June 1991; Vol. 193, c. 117.]
How can one expect the victims of attack, racial prejudice, bigotry and harassment to feel that they have any redress in their units when the people to whom they are likely to complain are the very persons who are responsible for the general system under which they operate and, indeed, might even tolerate forms of discrimination?
It is naive to say that, because a person does not complain at the time that he is bullied, beaten or discriminated against, he should not complain later. He operates in a system that induces an atmosphere of fear. Complaints, even after the event, ought to be treated in a sympathetic manner. Simply to say what the Minister of State for the Armed Forces said last year seems a simple cop-out.
Much more needs to be done and much more must be done. Incidentally, as I said earlier, we do not want any further daft suggestions that the way to solve the problems of ethnic minorities in the armed forces is to set up ethnic minority regiments. I have never heard anything more daft in my life.
We do not lose every rugby match. We might do a little better next year. As a Scotsman, the hon. and learned Gentleman should be careful on that point.
The balance of ethnic minorities in the armed forces is not improving. I hope that the new Secretary of State will address that problem. It is odd that ethnic minority groups form about 5 per cent. of the total general population but provide only about 1 per cent. of armed forces recruits. To my mind, that is a waste of an excellent source of first-class recruits.
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman looks carefully at percentages when he suggests that certain people do not get their fair share. I do not know about the Welsh, but the Scots represent less than 9 per cent. of the United Kingdom population but provide far more than 9 per cent. of the strength of the armed forces. Therefore, it could be argued that the Scots enjoy more than double their fair share.
My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) says that that is largely because of unemployment. That may well be a measure. But what a silly statement the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) makes. He does a disservice by talking about the Welsh and Scots as ethnic minorities. We regard ourselves as fully integrated members of the United Kingdom, not as ethnic minorities in any sense. Peculiar we might be, strange we might be, but we are full citizens of the United Kingdom and have been for many hundreds of years.
When I say that harassment and bigotry are shown to ethnic minorities I refer to those people who, simply because of the colour of their skin, receive a bad time in the armed forces.
If the hon. Gentleman says, "Ah," in that naive way, he ignores a serious problem.
The apparently intractable problem of recruiting more people from ethnic minorities to the armed forces requires more effort. That is why I am pleased about the setting up of a register and that there will be ethnic monitoring of applications, and of people accepted for the forces, because the percentage of applicants from ethnic minorities accepted is less than the percentage of white applicants.
That is true. One only has to see the Brigade of Guards on parade up the road to see how it encourages members of ethnic minorities into its ranks. It is a shame and a blot on the British, when across the ocean in America a black man is the No. 1 soldier. We are still talking about pathetically low numbers in our armed forces.
An enormous amount of talent is out there to be used and I hope that the Minister and the Secretary of State will constructively consider our procedures for enrolling more people from ethnic minorities, as I have suggested.
I accept that the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the armed forces—an issue to which the Minister referred—is a step in the right direction. On the other hand, the Ministers' statement does not alter the fact that, if anyone engages in homosexual activity, they will be thrown out.
That is a separate argument. I do not know whether that again demonstrates the bigotry of the hon. Member for Tayside, North.
In addition to issues that the Minister mentioned in general terms, being a lesbian or a gay is a ground for instant dismissal—ground for administrative discharge. One does not have to participate in a homosexual act or to dress or behave in a way which will give away one's sexual orientation. All that has to be established is that one is a homosexual.
That is correct. One does not have to be caught having sex to be dismissed—merely being a lesbian or gay is enough. The special investigation branch immediately moves in, and routinely investigates allegations of homosexuality. Suspects are interrogated, asked to name names, their rooms are searched, their letters and diaries read and any leads followed up. As a result of those witch hunts, about 75 people a year— people who might well be celibate, non-practising homosexuals—are administratively discharged.
It is wrong for the Minister to suggest that that will alter—it will not, under the terms that he has outlined today. Those discharged lose their careers. They might be outstanding soldiers and members of the armed forces, but simply because they are lesbian or gay they have to find new employment and they lost out on pension rights. There are instances where people have lost as much as £0.25 million in such payments.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that first, no one in this country is any longer under any obligation to join the armed forces unless they wish to do so? Secondly, the conditions under which people have to live in the armed forces are totally different from those for the civilian occupations to which he referred.
Given his public school background, perhaps the hon. Gentleman has more knowledge of such things than I do. I do not know why some people are so defensive about that. After all, their parents ripped them out of their homes at the age of three and packed them off to a private school. They were then locked in rooms with other little boys or girls. They spent 10 years in such peculiar, unnatural circumstances, but as soon as—
I am not giving way to the hon. Gentleman any more; he has muttered enough.
When Conservative Members were at public school, do they remember any time when their classmates were thrown out simply because of their homosexual orientation? How many of their classmates were sent home to their mams and dads?
I shall do so in a moment.
Last year, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces made the Government's position on this issue clear when he said:
It is a long-standing policy that both homosexual activity and orientation are incompatible with service in the armed forces …The formation within these units of sexually motivated relationships are potentially very disruptive of discipline and morale, particularly when they cross rank boundaries.
If the Government were prepared to follow the logic of their argument and said that any sexual activity—heterosexual or homosexual—was immediate grounds for dismissal from the armed forces, one could understand it. Although the same argument could be adduced for both types of activity, the Government pick out homosexual activity. That is wrong.
The composition of courts martial is also important. The Government have considered that issue and last year the Minister of State for the Armed Forces argued that officers
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."—[Official Report, 17 June 1991; Vol. 193, c. 115-16.]
I found that statement rather odd. I remind the Minister that 40 years ago personnel were serving on board ships in much more cramped conditions than those of today. Although conditions in the Army then were not equivalent to those which exist in Northern Ireland now, they were not dissimilar.
The Government have failed to provide evidence to support their claim that today's officers know their men better than their equivalents of 40 years ago. They should provide a much better explanation to support their argument that the expertise of officers precludes the use of NCOs on courts martial. The Minister's statement was illogical.
The Government have also continued to turn their back on the formation of organisations to represent service personnel. We are one of the few countries within NATO that does not allow service personnel organisations. The Government say that we do not need them and that people can make representations through their platoon officers or whichever chain of command they operate under. But the letter columns of the in-house Service publications, RAF News, Navy News, and the Soldier, continue to be filled with complaints. The regular attitude surveys carried out by the MOD may assist Ministers but they are of little assistance to Parliament.
On 17 June 1991, the Government said that they would consider providing more detailed guidelines on what is an unacceptable activity. Is the Minister now in a position to say what conclusion he has reached as a result of his considerations? We should remember that premature voluntary retirement costs the country huge sums of money. It can cost £3 million to train a fast jet pilot, but if he leaves the service for any reason—or for the reasons in which some pilots are caught these days, which are clearly outlined in the Minister's questionnaires on officer premature voluntary release—he has cost the country huge sums of money which we can ill afford.
The hon. Gentleman said that the Soldier and RAF News were filled with complaints. I am a regular reader of RAF News and was trying to work out the last time I saw a complaint in that magazine.
We shall turf them out and send them to the hon. Gentleman. I assure him that complaints appear in those magazines. However, if he wants to see complaints, he need not check in Service magazines. Why does he not bother to go to the Library and get the questionnaire on officer premature voluntary release, in which members of the armed forces give details of why they are leaving the armed forces prematurely?
The point is that, even if one soldier, sailor or airman leaves prematurely because he has a problem, it means that the chain of command is not dealing with his problem and that the problem must be dealt with. Thousands leave prematurely every year, and the problem is not being resolved. In last year's debate, the Minister said that the figures were coming down but close analysis of the figures shows that the same amount of premature voluntary retirement is taking place.
The Minister mentioned that he was acting on a Select Committee recommendation. I join him in congratulating the Select Committee, and I welcome the Government's implementation of its recommendations. We want them to go a little further in some areas, but we respect the fact that discipline within the armed forces is vital for them to carry out their functions properly. They cannot do their tough job—whether on land, sea or in the air— unless special circumstances pertain to them. But the Government could go much further.
First, I pay a warm tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement. It is a pleasure to have heard him at the Dispatch Box, and never more so than this evening, when he introduced the debate in a manner that was as lucid as it was stylish, as one expects from him. Moreover, his speech was sympathetic to the work of the Special Select Committee, and his approval of its procedure was heartening for those who served on it. It illuminated the debate.
Normally, a late-night debate on such an order is a relatively minor affair and quickly passed over. However, the Select Committee report highlighted a number of issues. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister grasped the nettle of the difficult matters of homosexuality and of bullying—particularly of a racial nature—in the armed forces, and the need to maintain ethnic monitoring. I thought that he struck the right balance on those issues. I agree with the judgment of the Ministry of Defence.
The Ministry deferred judgment on a number of our recommendations. Its first deferral related to the treatment of minors being enlisted and discharged. They are important issues, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to reach a conclusion before long. Surely it cannot be right that a young soldier who joins at 16, becomes dissatisfied with military life, finds it different from his expectations and does not exercise his right to leave the service in the first six months, has to serve no less than five years with the colours, as the Army requires him to fulfil three years adult service after the age of 18.
An analogy, which my hon. Friend the Minister mentioned, is the difficult question whether we should require minors to serve on active duty overseas. The Select Committee was greatly exercised by this issue. We all recognised the tremendous enthusiasm of young people. Seamen could find themselves on operational duty overseas, afloat from the age of sixteen and a half, airmen could be on operational duty overseas from the age of 16 years and eight months, and soldiers could be on operational duty overseas from the age of 17.
I well understand—I am sure that it was the view of the Select Committee—that if our nation's ultimate security is at risk, age should not be a barrier to a willingness to defend our islands and their residents. But there is a genuine distinction to be drawn if our volunteer service men are sent on an overseas expedition simply by virtue of the fact that they have taken the Queen's shilling. The distinction which we sought to make was that, if the young people have a vital qualification without which their units could not perform effectively, they should go, but otherwise they should not. Furthermore, Army personnel under the age of 18 are not allowed to serve in Northern Ireland.
My hon. Friend the Minister also deferred judgment on our recommendation to combine the Royal Navy detention quarters with the military correction training centre at Colchester. Under "Options for Change". our armed forces are diminishing by the day, so such a rationalisation is overdue, even if the necessary building work will take a little time. I hope that the decision can be taken early, so that the amalgamation takes place as soon as possible.
A number of matters were not acted on. The first was the disciplinary status of our reserve forces. It was interesting to note the policy implemented by the Ministry of Defence on the use of Reservists during the Gulf war. I am sure that the Ministry is still appraising the conclusions to be drawn from it. My hon. Friend the Minister referred to the Royal Auxiliary Air Force air movements squadron which performed so admirably in the conflict—as we all knew that it would. It was strange that Territorials were unable to serve in Germany, to make good the deficiency there caused by the departure of Regulars to the Gulf. I am sure that they would have been pleased to do so. However, several specialists made an outstanding contribution—not least my hon. and gallant Friends the Members for Wimbledon (Dr. Goodson-Wickes) and for Blaby (Mr. Robathan).
Because the Scud missiles were not as effective as expected and the Iraqi air force never achieved air superiority, the use of civilian airliners to carry freight and troops to the war zone never became a serious problem. However, the war zone could have posed a serious difficulty for civilian crews if they had sustained casualties. Unless, in such circumstances, civilian crews are required to be subject to the Air Force Act 1955, there could be a problem in a future conflict—and there might be also in the case of merchant seamen on board ships taken out from trade.
I know that the Ministry is examining these issues. A mini White Paper on Britain's reserve forces was published before the general election, but we have not heard the full outcome of the proposals that it contains.
Finally, there is a controversial point—the question of the standing civilian courts in Germany primarily, but also in other places overseas where British forces are stationed, which have jurisdiction over the dependent personnel of our service men.
They function in Germany as a legacy of the NATO status of forces Act. Civilians who commit offences there can be subject to German or British military legal jurisdiction. My belief is that civilian offenders should be wholly under German legal jurisdiction. This may be the case already—the necessary changes might have been implemented. If not, in view of German unification and the changed relationship between the host country and British forces stationed on German federal soil, I hope that our Government will re-examine the issue.
I commend my hon. Friend the Minister again for his enlightened attitude to our recommendations, and I am grateful for the decisions that he took.
The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) will forgive me if I do not follow him in the points that he made, though the House acknowledges that he made them with some authority.
The Minister clearly acknowledged that good morale is essential if the disciplinary code is to be rarely used—and that is devoutly to be hoped. The hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) and I have the good fortune to be halfway through the new and splendid defence attachment scheme. Currently, we are closely and interestingly involved with the Royal Air Force. Any criticisms that I make are directed not at the RAF's leadership but at the political leadership. I shall not seek to embarrass the hon. Member for Harlow, who has accompanied me on my visits, but he may concur at least to some extent with my observations. One is aware of the need for contraction and change. Perhaps it was a pity that the House paid overwhelming attention to the county regiments rather than to the other forces of the Crown. The Minister must understand that, if the high morale of the highest quality air force in the world is to be safeguarded, current anxieties require attention.
Only a few days ago, I spoke to a number of RAF personnel of senior aircraftsman and junior technician ranks who are developing considerable skills, and who would normally have a profound commitment to the service. They are marrying and starting families and they need to know whether they will become corporals or sergeants and receive a pay rise. They cannot see much prospect of the advancement that it is natural they wish to see. If the morale of those who will fill the senior NCO ranks in a few years' time is allowed to diminish further, there may be cause for profound anxiety. I hope that the Minister will ensure that that concern is given more attention.
An even more serious matter—one that requires urgent and balanced political consideration—is contractorisation. It seems that in this context the RAF faces serious long-term danger. If the various mechanical and technical services are contractorised at the present pace, disadvantages will ensue. We shall be capable of mounting an adequate defence of the realm only between the hours of 9 am and 5 pm. As jobs are transferred to civilians, RAF stations will become half empty, at least after 5 pm.
The Government seem to believe that it is cheaper to employ a skilled tradesman who is a civilian than a skilled service man. If we continue to give jobs to civilians, the skilled tradesman in the RAF will be so frequently taken from his job to undertake guard duty and other such jobs that he will become even more expensive, which will lead to further contractorisation and civilianisation.
If service men see their ranks diminish and the numbers of their colleagues in their camps contract, RAF stations will be weaker in terms of their leisure activity and quality of life. Morale will be adversely affected and disciplinary problems are bound to increase. I think that that will be recognised by hon. Members who have examined these matters.
Frustration may stem from disciplinary inadequacies. The hon. Member for Harlow and I recently visited RAF Sealand, where in several instances Government policy appeared to be exceedingly dangerous and likely to lead to disaffection, at least to some extent. We were told of the positive push for more privatisation. We met a small group of men and we were given some interesting information about their professional activities.
It appears that, shortly before the Tornados went to the Gulf, it was discovered that they needed a gadget called a capacitator. The RAF went to private contractors, who said, "Yes, we can make the capacitators. It will cost you several thousand pounds each and it will take 16 to 18 weeks before we can deliver them." A small group of men at RAF Sealand gave up their weekends and produced capacitators for —105 each. As a result, the Tornados were able to go to the Gulf.
I opened a book—this is relevant to the question of morale—about the Gulf war which had been published in the United States of America. Its reference to the contribution of the RAF was to state that 12 Tornados had been shot down, which was not true. In my view, leadership within the service is of high quality, but leadership at political level allows that sort of statement to go unchallenged.
I do not want the hon. Gentleman and me to seem too much like a double act, but we are doing an attachment together, and he has talked a great deal of common sense. Although I am not attacking Government policy in any way, I think—and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree—that the Minister should consider carefully what is being achieved at Sealand.
Time after time, millions of pounds of taxpayers' money were saved by the ingenuity and hard work of people there. It will cost —600 or —700 for contractors to provide a little cable; at Sealand, it can be done for —50. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that what is happening there is a model of what should be happening throughout the armed services, not just in the RAF?
I do agree. Because other hon. Members wish to speak, I shall not labour the point, but I hope that I shall catch the eye of the Chair towards the end of our attachment or soon after it.
Many Opposition Members were never ardent cold war warriors, even if we accepted the need for national defence. however, it seems obvious to me, as an internationalist, that as the world moves towards having sane international authority and the capacity to make a contribution to securing peace and stability, Britain will have a role to play, because our armed forces are of very high quality, Surely, in terms of quality, the RAF is unmatched in the world, and it will have to maintain the capacity to make that contribution, as it did in the Gulf.
When we watch the Red Arrows fly, with their remarkable skill and precision—bearing in mind that that outfit employs only 71 people—and when we see the contribution made on, say, Battle of Britain day, in an entirely voluntary capacity, at the splendid RAF station in South Yorkshire, Finningley, we must accept that, despite the efforts made at the stations by RAF personnel of all ranks, they need rather more political championing than they have received over the past two years.
Sadly, over the past 12 months, a myth has arisen that is very hard on the tradition— for tradition it is, although it involves the youngest service men. That myth holds that the Gulf contribution was of no account and, indeed, unsuccessful. I consider that it was remarkably successful in ensuring that a very large Iraqi air force was grounded. Over the past few weeks, not a single Front Bencher did not allow ridiculous twaddle to be talked about Bomber Command, and thus about the heart of the history and tradition of the RAF. That is relevant to discipline, because tradition and history are.
No one has paid any attention. No one responsible for the political leadership of the Air Force—I am not talking about serving ranks—told the British public that the contribution of Bomber Command, and the sacrifice of the lives of thousands of air crew members, ensured that the German industry produced fighters rather than bombers. We must ask which towns would have been blitzed if those men had not flown in German night skies. If they had not, thousands of German guns and German soldiers would probably have achieved success on the Russian front and brought a very different accounting when the Normandy invasion took place.
The RAF is aware of that, and it is a pity that no one in government made it plain—just as it is a pity that the Government have been so obsessed by some of their articles of dogma in the past two years. In the various RAF stations that we have visited, we have been met with the utmost courtesy and co-operation, for which I am extremely grateful—as, I know, is the hon. Member for Harlow. We would, however, be acting irresponsibly if we did not reflect some of the anxieties that we have encountered, to which I trust the Government will attend a little more carefully.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State and his right hon. and hon. Friends for the first positive step that has been taken for a number of years to ease the burden carried by homosexual and lesbian people It is entirely appropriate that it should have been made by a Conservative Government, led by a Prime Minister who wants the nation to be at ea se with itself; a nation in which every citizen is encouraged to make his or her best contribution.
It is worth remembering that 78 gay or lesbian military personnel were dismissed from the forces in 1990 after admitting to homosexuality. Six were court-martialled and three were imprisoned for 18 months for offences that were not crimes under civilian law. In the case of lesbians, they have never been crimes under civilian law. Between 1987 and 1989, more than 300 were discharged and 32 imprisoned. As has already been said, we cannot afford to lose good soldiers at that rate.
Yes, good soldiers. These people were volunteers. After having been recruited and trained, over 300 were discharged. Over half the people discharged from the Army were women. The Minister should be proud that at a stroke he removed that legal discrimination. I hope that he will ask for any existing prosecutions to be stopped and the slate wiped clean for the individuals concerned.
Before the Minister becomes too complacent—as the response to his announcement showed he still has a little further to travel—it is a complex and sophisticated journey. On the basis of what he said, a homosexual soldier—I use "soldier" to cover all the forces, and both males and females—even if entirely celibate and not practising, could still be dismissed from the services.
That raises two different questions: first, how do we treat homosexuals in our society at large? The civilian police, just like the military police, should have something better to do with their time than hound people. That is not on any longer. That is why it will not do to continue the general armed forces ban on homosexuality. It leaves good soldiers, good personnel, open to blackmail and undue pressure. It is way out of line with what happens in the armed forces of a number of our NATO allies.
That leads, secondly, to the whole question of pastoral care in the armed forces. The issues are very complex. I have read the Select Committee report on the Armed Forces Bill. It is about time that a woman was on the Select Committee. That does not mean that I am volunteering, but the fact that all the members are male flavours some of its reports. However, the Ministry of Defence is getting much better at discipline and is to be congratulated. It has dealt much better with bullying. It is dealing with alcoholism far better than it used to do. The Ministry has picked up the issues that face women soldiers—for example, maternity leave, instead of just dismissing them out of hand when they get pregnant, even though it took a court case to push it into doing that.
Now we have to face the question of what happens when two soldiers have sexual relationships, whether they are on duty or off duty, and what to do about the mess and the misery that can occur when a soldier has an affair with somebody outside the services. This is a matter that affects people with other sexual orientations. Recently there have been two dreadful cases involving the murder of people associated with or in the armed forces. They show how far tragic passions can take them. Now that women are serving with distinction in combat positions in all the armed forces, the issue is being addressed. It is being tackled in the Navy, at least. Reference is made to that in the Select Committee report. We need to take that a little further.
We often deal with very young people. I put on record that I wonder whether sixteen and a half is too young to be recruiting soldiers. The advice that I give to my sixteen-and-a-half-year-old constituents, male and female, is that they ought to be at school.
My hon. Friend's point is exactly the one that the Select Committee thought about most seriously: would the parents of young people—16 and 17-year-olds who are, in some cases, children—wish them to be under the influence of overtly homosexual people? I do not think they would. They would wish the environment to be as nomal as possible, compatible with the rigours of military life and discipline.
I say to my hon. Friend, whose view I treat with the greatest possible respect, that I have a 17-year-old daughter and I think that she should still be at school. I should worry as much if she went into the armed forces, not because of some bloke or woman who might attack her but because she would be putting her life at risk—that is the point about joining the armed forces.
I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me for not giving way, but time is very short.
We are talking about young people who are often far from home and often for the first time. They are often in dangerous or isolated circumstances and stress is a big problem. These were the issues raised with us by the Gulf families campaign about soldiers of all ages and backgrounds and the difficult circumstances in which they can find themselves.
There are several issues that we must put to the Ministry of Defence. How are we to ensure the maintenance of good discipline in all environments, irrespective of gender or sexual orientation? How are we to ensure that those responsible for discipline are sensitive and supportive and do not merely put the boot in and the cuffs on at the first hint of trouble? I think that it will mean a lot of retraining for those in charge of personnel matters because the evidence given to the Select Committee by some senior officers do not fill me with confidence. Some talked as if this were still the 19th century.
With those words I congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends and support the order.
I begin on a note of unanimity by agreeing that there is inadequate time for the House to discuss this important order. I hope that those who fix things in the House will take that on board.
The continuation order gives further life to section 1 of the Armed Forces Act 1991 but one must go back a stage further to realise that we are in effect renewing the Army Act 1955 which, I submit, is an old Act requiring a great deal of revision. I listened to the Minister talking about the attic of regulations and disciplinary procedures which need to be examined. To that I say, "Hear, hear," because the 1955 Act deals with a number of capital offences which are inappropriate and archaic, in addition to other matters to which the Minister referred.
I hope that this will be the last year that we shall deal with disciplinary matters by order. Perhaps in future there will be primary legislation to deal with discipline in the armed forces, which will give us appropriate, modern disciplinary codes for all service men.
I shall not vote against the order tonight if there is a Division. However, I hope that if the Minister takes on board the need for new legislation, it will incorporate some of the points raised tonight, especially the liberalisation of matters affecting people's sexual orientation. I hope that new legislation will mean that it is no longer a matter for disciplinary action.
Another issue that I hope will be included in any future legislation relates to the 307 service men executed in the 1914–18 war on charges including cowardice, desertion, disobedience, sleeping at posts, quitting posts and hitting a superior officer. Future legislation should include a schedule to exonerate them and/or give them a pardon. That could be the vehicle for excusing brave British soldiers from unfair ignominy.
Hon. Members may wonder why I raise this issue tonight. This morning I received a letter from a gentleman who wrote:
I myself was a soldier during that war and I fought in Belgium and France from 1917 until the war ended. During that time I actually saw posted an official notice reporting the execution of a soldier in my own unit and I remember vividly the feeling of horror I had and my fear that such a fate would befall me. I was only 18 at this time and now at the age of 94 I applaud your efforts to get this matter reviewed.
I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind, and that, if nothing else, the Secretary of State will agree to receive a small delegation in the not-too-distant future, so that we can amplify our concern and demonstrate why there has been a miscarriage of justice and why—even at this late stage—it is appropriate to review the subject. That could be done fairly, to the advantage of those British soldiers who lie with their comrades in Flanders, and all along the western front as well as in Gallipoli.
I hope that the Minister will be prepared to reconsider. I realise that the hour is late and that there are only a few minutes of the debate left, so I shall not labour the point further. This is a matter associated with discipline, and thousands of people in this country still feel strongly about it. It is time that we recognised the people who were shot at dawn as victims of the great war, and as brave British soldiers.
The debate must end in five minutes' time. With the leave of the House, I shall reply briefly to some of the points raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I am sorry that, for reasons of time, I shall not have the opportunity to reply to all the points, but I shall do my best to cover what I consider to be the principal questions which need a response. I am sorry that my response will be so brief and that so many hon. Members who wished to speak have not been able to make their contributions.
Perhaps because of his good nature, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers), who opened the debate for the Opposition, found it difficult to criticise much of what the Government were doing. I am grateful for that. He was straining a little far when he banged on about bullying and made it sound as if it were an enormous problem. Even one case of bullying is too many; the services take an immensely serious view of it, and it has been made clear throughout the armed forces that it will not be tolerated. A range of measures to combat bullying have been introduced in the past few years, including the banning of initiation ceremonies.
We should see the matter in perspective, however bad any individual case may be. We have about 300,000 service men, yet in 1989 only 25 allegations of bullying were substantiated by courts martial; in 1990 there were 1I cases, in 1991 six cases and in 1992 two cases. That is hardly endemic bullying—as the hon. Gentleman described it.
Does the Minister agree that, despite what he said, on the basis of the experience of a constituent of mine there is still an urgent need to review the subject of bullying? The Select Committee report represents some advance, but it does not go far enough. There should be a specific offence of bullying, and we should do more in addition to the measures introduced in 1988 to start to wipe out institutionalised bullying in the armed forces.
I cannot accept the phrase "institutionalised bullying", because it implies that the institution itself approves—which it definitely and categorically does not. But I hear what the hon. Lady has said and I am sympathetic to her argument that any bullying is unacceptable, appalling, disgraceful and not to be tolerated. I take it from what she said that she had a serious case involving a constituent. If so, if she writes to me or comes to see me—or rather, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces—the matter will be taken immensely seriously and thoroughly and carefully investigated.
I do not think that I should give way to the hon. Lady twice, as other important speakers contributed to the debate.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), the Chairman of the Select Committee, who, with his Committee, has done a superb job of work. I was grateful for his generous comments about me, and I thank him above all for showing that the Select Committee system can work well. It takes two hands to clap, and both the Government and the Select Committee have responded in equal part in introducing many reforms which started with the Committee—to its credit.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood and my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) referred at some length to the treatment of minors. That is a difficult subject and, as I said earlier, the Government are considering it carefully.
The services do not wish to take on personnel who cannot adapt to service life. We make every effort to ensure that such recruitment does not take place. Any minor has the opportunity after the first 28 days of service and before six months' service has elapsed to leave easily. Thereafter, any request to leave the services—usual contracts are for three or four years-on compassionate or other grounds will be carefully and sympathetically considered on merit.
As Major General Stone said in evidence to the Committee, it costs the taxpayer £23,000 to train a junior infantryman. Such resources should not be easily thrown away if there is a brief moment of personal unhappiness in a young person's career. We are carefully considering the matters raised in that connection this evening—
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Many hon. Members—Conservative, Labour and the Liberal Democrat spokesman—have been disappointed not to be able to speak on the important matters raised in the defence debate. Could the Clerks investigate when the rules were changed? You will recall that the late George Wigg was able, under exempted business, to go on at great length on precisely such orders as this one.
By what alchemy did this become time-limited business and cease to be exempted business? Many of us wanted to raise all sorts of important personal issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley) wanted to say a great deal more, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay). The Liberal Democrat spokesman was not called either. Doubtless a battery of Conservative Members wanted to make constituency points too. How did this come about?
I sympathise with hon. Members who have not been able to speak, but I can only operate the rules as they stand. I am sure that a little perusal with the Clerks or in the Library might throw light on the history of the matter.