Veterans Update

– in the House of Commons at 1:15 pm on 19 July 2023.

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Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence 1:15, 19 July 2023

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like expand on the apology delivered by the Prime Minister this afternoon for the unacceptable hurt caused to LGBT members of our nation’s armed forces by the 1967 to 2000 ban on homosexuality. It was not acceptable and it was not what the brave men and women it affected deserved. For that, on behalf of the Government and the armed forces, I am deeply sorry.

For hundreds of years, joining the British armed forces has been a career choice full of opportunity, adventure and self-improvement; one of the most fulfilling and stimulating occupations a young person can choose. But it is also one of self-sacrifice and bravery. This morning, we published the independent review into the service and experience of LGBT veterans who served prior to 2000. It makes for miserable and distressing reading. It is only right that the House takes the time to acknowledge and reflect on those veterans who have shared their experiences with the review.

I, along with a number of colleagues in the House, served in our armed forces when the ban was in place. I cannot imagine what it must have been like for someone to join the armed forces, buoyed up by that great spirit of service, only to discover, to their horror, that many believed they did not fit. I cannot imagine what it must have felt like to be hounded out of a job they loved simply on account of their sexuality. Nor can I imagine what it must have been like to lose their livelihood, their family and their home simply because of the person they chose to love, yet that was the experience of many sailors, soldiers and aviators over decades, and it happened here—in this country—little over 20 years ago. The report published today brings the experience to life for us and spotlights the hurt felt by those affected. For that, I am truly grateful.

The ban was introduced in 1967—unbelievably, after the Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalised same-sex sexual acts in private between consenting adults. To add to the injustice, when the ban ended at the beginning of the millennium, the stories of those who suffered were forgotten and their records were buried. Additionally, in 2010 and 2011, in line with Government policy agreed by the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Ministry of Defence enacted a policy to destroy legacy police investigation records concerning decriminalised sexual offences, so that historical decriminalised convictions could not show up on criminal record checks of service personnel. I assure veterans that this was not a cover-up and does not mean that their wider service records have been destroyed.

I want to place on the record my thanks and gratitude to Lord Etherton and his team for compiling this comprehensive report. It was commissioned in January 2022 and, since, 1,128 people have responded with their experiences, many in substantial detail. I pay particular tribute to all those who came forward. They have shown tremendous courage in chronicling traumatic experiences, which for many had been causing grief and groundless shame for decades. I also place on record my admiration and thanks to Fighting With Pride, and especially Craig and Caroline, who have held the baton for so long.

The testimonies make truly harrowing reading. They paint a shocking and shameful picture of a Defence that is hard to comprehend. The enforcement of the ban became something of a witch hunt. The testimonies detail investigations, invasive searches and examinations, degrading tests, brutal bullying and, in some cases, sexual abuse. One doctor who joined in 1984 describes how he had to perform a test for which there was no medical or clinical basis. Some who thought they could confide in their chaplains were stunned to find their details were passed to their superiors.

For those affected, the hardships impacted every aspect of their lives. Reputations were demeaned and defamed. Commissions were surrendered and officers demoted by multiple ranks. Veterans who served with distinction, awarded medals in famous campaigns from the Falklands to the Gulf, were stripped of their medals.

We cannot turn back the clock, but we can make amends and take action. This report makes 49 recommendations. My Department, alongside the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, the Department for Health and Social Care and others across Government, in partnership with the devolved Administrations and the charity sector, all have a role in delivering the report’s recommendations. Many in the LGBT veteran community have been eagerly awaiting the publication of this report, and rightly so—they have been waiting for decades to be heard. I am pleased to say that, since we received this report at the end of May, multiple Government Departments have been busy working through the recommendations to ensure that we come to the House today accepting, in principle, the vast majority of the report’s recommendations. While we agree with the intent behind them, we may deliver a number in different ways from that described in the report.

We will set out those differences when we publish the Government’s full response to the review after the summer recess, but I assure the House: that will be the time when we can not only deliver restitution and redress to the LGBT veteran community, but make sure that the House properly debates the report and the Government’s response to it and its recommendations. This of course is a statement today. While I welcome all colleagues’ challenges and requests on it, I have decided specifically that a debate in the House should take place to give a chance to debate the Government’s recommendations. That is the right thing to do. Although that may take the summer, it is important that both Opposition and our colleagues can hold me or my successor to account. In fact, we have already delivered six of the recommendations today; the Prime Minister delivered the first this morning at the Dispatch Box.

Importantly, we have set up a digital front door, which went live today at midday, to offer information on veterans’ services, support and restorative measures to those affected by the ban. I encourage LGBT veterans to visit it to see what support is available to them now, and to stay informed as our delivery of the recommendations is rolled out. I am happy to be drawn on further details on the recommendations during today’s questions but, as I said, the House should have proper time to debate and scrutinise them.

I am glad that today’s MOD is a very different place today from the Defence of the late ’60s to ’90s. Our LGBT colleagues are an integral and undifferentiated part of the Defence family, making a fantastic difference all over the world. At the start of this month, the Minister for Defence People, Veterans and Service Families, my right hon. Friend Dr Murrison, met LGBT members of our armed forces and veterans before they marched at London Pride. The occasion has become a celebrated part of our military calendar. Today’s MOD policies are geared towards LGBT issues. There is training for LGBT allies and thriving LGBT staff networks.

There is no place for prejudice in the modern armed forces. However, things are by no means perfect, which is why we continue to improve on our zero-tolerance policy towards discrimination. We should not forget that we could not have reached this point were it not for some incredibly brave people. I pay tribute to those who have campaigned for justice over the decades, including Fighting With Pride, Rank Outsiders and the Armed Forces Legal Action Group.

Cultural change takes time, particularly in such large organisations as our armed forces. But it can only really begin when individuals are prepared to stand up and be counted. This Government have shown they care about righting historic wrongs. That is why we brought forward this review. Once we have taken the time needed to fully work out how to deliver recompense for this community, we look forward to being back at the Dispatch Box to outline those details.

In his preface to the report, Lord Etherton notes:

“The survivors have waited for at least 23 years for acknowledgment of what they have suffered, and for justice and restitution.”

Today is about that acknowledgment. It is about recognising the saddening personal accounts and the deep traumatic hurt that the historic ban has caused. It is about acknowledging the adversity they overcame. It is about celebrating the spirit of service they displayed. And it is about taking the time to acknowledge their importance within our Defence family, serving or veteran.

I was struck by one particular quote in the report from a veteran:

“I don’t feel I am a veteran. I have never asked for help. I don’t feel like my service was recognised.”

Today, we want to say to all those ex-soldiers, sailors and aviators, many of whom are in retirement: you are one of us, you belong to our community and, in choosing to put yourself in harm’s way for the good of your colleagues, your community and your country, you have proven yourselves the best of us.

I say again to the veteran community—I am deeply sorry for what happened to you. The very tolerance and values of a western democracy that we expected you to fight for we denied to you. It was profoundly wrong. I am determined as Defence Secretary, and as a veteran, to do all I can today to right those historic wrongs, so that you can once again take pride in your service and inspire future generations to follow in your footsteps.

Photo of Rachel Hopkins Rachel Hopkins Shadow Minister (Defence) 1:25, 19 July 2023

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. Today might be his last appearance at the Dispatch Box, so I pay tribute to him for focusing his last appearance on such an important issue for the LGBT+ community.

I thank Lord Etherton and his team for their diligent work in completing the review into the pre-2000 ban on LGBT+ serving personnel in the UK armed forces. As the Leader of the Opposition said at Prime Minister’s questions, we strongly welcome the apology from the Prime Minister as a recognition of this historic injustice.

The review represents important progress in recognising the injustice that LGBT+ veterans have suffered, and recommends a framework to enable LGBT+ veterans to rebuild their lives and get the resolution they need. On behalf of the Labour party, I pay tribute to LGBT+ veterans and groups such as Fighting With Pride which have campaigned for justice over this appalling treatment. It was right for the Government to launch the review, reflecting proposals put forward by the Labour party during the passage of the Armed Forces Act.

The loss of livelihoods and long-term suffering endured by LGBT+ veterans due to the cruel and unjust ban have been enormous. LGBT+ veterans put their lives at risk to protect our country. They were our nation’s heroes, yet suffered a serious injustice. We now know that, as a consequence of the ban, around 20,000 LGBT+ military personnel were jailed, dismissed, outed to their families or subjected to abuse, simply because of their sexuality or gender identity. That should have never happened. Many lost a job they loved, and their income, pension and honours. Those dishonourably discharged were banned from wearing their military uniform at remembrance events. Many more were forced to conceal their true identity. The review references the shocking and appalling treatment of serving LGBT+ personnel, including the disgraceful use of electric shock therapy. No one across the whole of society should be subjected to that awful practice.

I have spoken to brave LGBT+ veterans impacted by the ban, who told me how they lost careers they loved, suffered disgraceful abuse and still suffer the impact of the ban—all for simply being themselves. Many LGBT+ veterans showed exceptional courage to reach back into traumatic memories to contribute to the review. The review received 1,128 responses from people sharing their lived experiences. It is important that their testimonies are heard to ensure that the LGBT+ community has a sense of ownership of the report.

Today’s commitments represent the beginning of the process. We must now see immediate action from the Government to implement the review’s recommendations, as that will begin the process of helping LGBT+ veterans to get the resolution they need and, in some cases, rebuild their lives. The Secretary of State said that the Government agree with the intent behind the recommendations, but may deliver a number of them in a different way from that described in the report. Will he outline to the House which recommendations will be delivered in a different way from that set out in the report? How has that been decided? Will the Government work with LGBT+ veterans and third sector groups to ensure that they are delivered appropriately?

We fully support giving back medals to LGBT+ veterans and ending the ban on those dishonourably discharged due to their sexuality or gender identity from wearing uniform at remembrance ceremonies. I hope the Minister will outline how veterans can seek the return of their medals. Recommendation 28 states that an

“appropriate financial award should be made to affected veterans”.

How are the Defence Secretary and the Chancellor planning to take that forward?

Any proposed compensation scheme must be accessible to all veterans affected, whether they were dishonourably discharged, medically discharged, at the time, because of their sexuality, or dismissed while under investigation. The recommendations relating to mental health and physical welfare must be delivered in an inclusive manner that recognises all LGBT+ veterans and the different ways in which they were affected by the ban and dismissed. Can the Secretary of State assure the House and the LGBT+ community that this is an issue his Department is actively considering?

The Government must do whatever it takes to successfully implement the recommendations. We look forward to their full response and to a future debate. We cannot right the wrongs of the past, but we can help LGBT+ veterans now fix their lives, damaged for too long by this ban.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for what she has said. I think that all of us—the Opposition and those of us on this side of the House—share not only a desire to honour those veterans and make our apology, but a recognition that we must work to deliver recommendations that will make that difference. There is no delay and we are not avoiding the question: when I said that “we may” apply some recommendations in a different way from that described in the report, I was alluding to simple issues relating to the general data protection regulation and to differences of opinion in the same community.

Let me give an example: the veterans badge. Some members of the LGBT community would say that they are veterans, full stop. They do not want to be differentiated; they want the same badge as all other veterans. There are others, however, who want a separate badge. There is no easy answer to that, which is why we will be working on the issue with organisations such as Fighting With Pride. The same goes for financial provision or recognition of the harm done. We must arrive at an elegant solution that matches the needs and requirements of those individuals, rather than coming to the House in haste and making a statement. As we have seen with the infected blood scheme, for instance, when schemes are not thought through, more problems are caused and lawyers seem to take more money than the victims who deserve to be compensated or supported.

We will be very happy to work with the Opposition in advance of any debate to discuss our thinking on the recommendations. We have no qualms about that: the whole House has a role to play in valuing these veterans. People in my age group served in the old Army, and I say “old Army” because what the report says about institutional homophobia is true, and Members should read it. I was part of that Army, and I was determined to make this statement today—rather than its being made by my excellent colleague the Minister—because I wanted to acknowledge that I had been part of that Army and that thinking, which I deeply regret.

We should get these recommendations right, but some elements are less straightforward than others. Where we have been able to get on with them, we have done so, with, for instance, the apology. “LGBT veterans: support and next steps” went live today on gov.uk. It refers to the process of helping to restore medals, which we have done, and helping to inform the veterans communities about, for example, the fact that their pension rights were not abolished. Many, as they left, were misinformed or bullied, and told all sorts of things—for example, that their records would disappear completely, and that they would have no pension. That is not true. There are some pensions still to be claimed, and we should do everything we can to help the people concerned.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate

I found a way of accommodating myself to the laws and to the rules of society of the time. I then overtly followed a successful journey through my life and career. This report—an outstanding piece of work—is causing me to re-evaluate the damage done to me, and the price paid by those closest to me, as a result of having to make that accommodation. I am profoundly grateful that I now live in a society, and under laws, that allow me to be myself. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that all 49 recommendations are delivered in a spirit that meets the author’s intention?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

My hon. Friend is a good friend of mine, and I remember him making that brave decision. Many of us on this side of the House who know him well—and many on the other side—pay tribute not only to his decision to come out at that moment, but to his ongoing campaigning for LGBT people and, indeed, for all those across society who have had to make such difficult decisions in their lives. I can give him an assurance that we will absolutely hold to the spirit and the intention behind the recommendations, that we will do everything we can to implement them, and that only when we encounter difficult technical challenges will we seek another way of fulfilling the intention. All that will be done in a transparent manner, not behind closed doors. We will ensure that when we have a problem, we discuss it; and when there are two sides to the argument—as with the veterans badge—we will consult the community as closely as possible. I also ask Members to recognise that in the case of some of the recommendations there will be no perfect answer: some people within that community will have a different view, and we must find a way of accommodating that as well.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Scottish National Party, West Dunbartonshire

I hope you will indulge me for a moment, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I know that this may be the Secretary of State’s last time at the Dispatch Box in this role—let us see what the summer brings—and I have to say to him, as a former member of the Defence Committee, that I found him hard-working and determined. We might not have always agreed on a few things, but when it came to issues that I found particularly important as a member of that Committee, especially the High North and the north Atlantic, he always answered the questions in a way that the Committee wanted to hear. I commend him for his work in his current role, and you never know—we might see him back in Holyrood, where it all started.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. I think it quite appropriate that this last appearance—possibly—at the Dispatch Box should be one in which he rights, as he said, a historic wrong. I also commend those who have played a part in bringing us to this point—I see Craig Jones and Caroline Paige in the Public Gallery. I commend them and everyone else who has worked for this so hard for so many years.

Those of us on these Benches welcome this statement. Being a member of the gay community has never been a barrier to martial accomplishment. Let me give a little history lesson: from Achilles to Frederick the Great, and from James VI to even William III, we should be clear that LGBT people have served with distinction at every level of the armed forces for as long as humanity has existed. I appreciate the Secretary of State’s candour about his own time in service. I also appreciate his clear use of the term “the LGBT community.” It is indeed welcome that his Department has not sought to play a part in other issues that are a distraction from the reality of the LGBT community, and I am extremely grateful for that.

While acknowledging the work that has brought us to where we are now, can I ask the Secretary of State what work his Department is doing not only to widen access for LGBT personnel, but to push back against the pernicious idea that LGBT inclusion is contrary to the interests of the armed forces and our national security? While we may want to talk about medals, which is great, perhaps we could hear something about pensions for the spouses of those who have not lived to see this point in time.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I am grateful to my honourable colleague across the Floor. As he says, we never know: he may find me back in the Scottish Parliament, where it all began.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I am not going to live to the age of 200, so I do not know, but I have always enjoyed working with the hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely right: there is no barrier to the success of gay men and women and what they can achieve in this world. Dr Turing was probably the greatest hero of the second world war, in my book. His achievements shortened the war, saved thousands of lives and helped to defeat the Nazis. The story of how society treated him is a sad one. I remember campaigning for him to appear on a £50 note, and I think that the empty plinth in Parliament Square, rather than featuring the Mayor’s various gimmicks every five minutes, should feature him as well. That would be the greatest tribute to the success of someone from the LGBT community and what they have done in this world.

The hon. Gentleman asked about pensions. As I said earlier, pension rights are still there for those veterans. I trust that the website I mentioned will lead those who were not aware of that, or who were badly informed or deliberately misled, to the true position, and to the fact that with those rights will come the rights of their dependants. I would be very happy, as a Back Bencher in this House, to take up that cause and make sure that they have access to that as well. Diversity and inclusion are often knocked and ridiculed by the media, as are our efforts to try to accommodate all in our armed forces, but our armed forces are only as good as the society they reflect. We cannot afford not to have the talent of the LGBT community, just as we cannot afford not to have the talent of women, in the armed forces. It would be simply ridiculous if we were not to encourage it, support it and make sure that it thrives.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research

I thank my right hon. Friend, and also the shadow MinisterRachel Hopkins—for all they have had to say about this excellent report. I also thank my hon. Friend Crispin Blunt, whose testimony moved us all. This is a very fine report, and Lord Etherton has done a first-class job in bringing it forward. I very much welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has made a real and heartfelt apology—as did my right hon. Friend in his statement—for this historic outrage. However, would the House agree that the real outrage is that nothing at all has happened for 22 years? It has taken us as a nation 22 years, under all parties, to put this thing right. That is quite wrong. I therefore think that the sincerity of the Prime Minister’s apology will be judged not only by how well he does in achieving the 49 recommendations in the report but by how enthusiastically, how rapidly and how well he brings those things forward. The LGBT community are waiting to see what he does. We look forward to the debate in the autumn and we will judge him by the enthusiasm with which he adopts these recommendations.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I cannot answer the question of why it took 22 years. All I can say is that, from the authority I have in my office for now, having been able to commission this report and start this process is something that I am proud and pleased to have done, ably supported by the Veterans Minister and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, and by my colleague the Minister for Defence People, Veterans and Service Families, my right hon. Friend Dr Murrison. I can only speak for that. As for the enthusiasm and support for getting this implemented, I will be sitting alongside my hon. Friend James Gray and I can hold whoever comes to this Dispatch Box to account to do it. I absolutely think we should do it with enthusiasm. At one stage we thought about just having a full debate on this today, but that would have involved coming here with no solutions. That would be the worst thing to do to the House. The best thing is to come here with this statement today and come back after the summer and hold the Government to account. I will be there, beside my hon. Friend, holding them to account on whether they uphold these recommendations.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development)

I draw the House’s attention to my own interest in this, including my past service as an openly gay Army reservist after the ban. I strongly welcome the apology today, but I am acutely aware that I was able to serve openly only because of the repeal of the ban, and that I had a very different experience in service than that of so many here today, including Crispin Blunt. I cannot praise enough the work of the veterans who have campaigned so tenaciously, and also their service and the courage that they have exhibited so many times during and after their service careers.

I wrote to the Ministry of Defence a few years ago on behalf of a lesbian constituent who had been discharged for her sexuality. It was the first time she had told anyone about this when she came to see me in my surgery, and she told me that it was recorded in her record of service and her discharge that her services were no longer required, although of course she was discharged for being a lesbian. She told me of the horrific experiences she had gone through, including the invasion of her privacy, and the impact that had had on her for decades. The MOD told me that her service record could not be amended because it had been administered correctly and that it would be inappropriate to do so. Given the recommendations in the report, particularly recommendations 26 and 27, can the Secretary of State tell me whether records will now be able to be changed to truly reflect the service and bravery of so many of our veterans?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I am grateful to the hon. Member for his question and for his service. When I think of my own experience, I know that being friends with and getting to know men and women from the gay community—which I did not really do in my childhood or in my service because it was never talked about—is what has brought me to a position where I regret voting against gay marriage, for example. My relationships and friendships with people such as my hon. Friend Crispin Blunt and the former Member for Arundel and South Downs, and meeting friends and colleagues from throughout the House, is part of the experience for all of us.

On the hon. Gentleman’s question of making sure that those veterans who want their service record to say what they want it to and being open about it, we absolutely should see a way of how we can accommodate that. It is not going to be easy, but that does not mean we cannot do it. There was clearly a policy running through the armed forces where the real reasons that people left were not put on their records. I think that applies to thousands, or even tens of thousands, of people. Of course that is going to be a challenge, but it is not insurmountable. We must find a way to do this, and I am clear that we should do so.

However, I also remember a debate about pardons when I was a Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Ministry of Justice. At that stage, there was a longing for people’s records to be removed because people did not want a record of a criminal offence that they felt should never have happened. That was the driving force behind the police chiefs’ discussions that led to the destruction of those records. As I have said, it was not a cover-up. There were some people who said, “This is wrong and it should not be on my record. Why should I be known for that?” So we just have to find a way through. If there is anything we can do to find a way of doing this, I will do my very best to do it and I know that the Defence team will as well.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament

Does the review report throw any light on the strange paradox that this ban was so rigidly enforced in peacetime, yet during the first and second world wars there was mass conscription, as a result of which many gay military personnel served with distinction and were awarded the highest medals for gallantry?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

That is a pretty cruel reflection on a state, and it affected not just LGBT people but women. In the first and second world wars, women kept industry going. They kept the home fires burning and kept the factories going. Women were not allowed to fly fighter planes in war, but they were allowed to deliver them. Then, after the war, everyone went back to treating women as, in some cases, second-class citizens in the workplace. It is a good observation that we should not repeat this, and that we should embrace the fact we now have great achievers serving in our armed forces who are gay. This is the way to ensure that we set the right example for the future.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Independent, Rutherglen and Hamilton West

I thank the Defence Secretary for his statement. With 270 pages and 49 recommendations, it is a lot of summer reading. I welcome the Government’s apology to LGBT veterans today. Those veterans served their country but a number of them were stripped of their medals. Will those medals now be returned swiftly and will the ban on LGBT veterans wearing their uniform at ceremonies be lifted?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

In answer to both: yes. Also, some veterans were told that they did not qualify for medals in the first place. They, too, will be able to have their medals from now on.

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill

I thank the Defence Secretary for his statement, which, as a proud LGBTQ+ champion, I strongly support. I wonder if he might indulge me the opportunity, as a former commanding officer, of presenting him with his annual appraisal on his final tour of duty with the MOD. It says here, quite clearly, that Captain Wallace is strident, forthright, spirited and fearless in the pursuit of an outcome, which we have just seen in this statement. I have regretfully graded him A- for potential, given that he is moving on from the top job, but we can all agree that he gets an A+ for performance. Does he agree that he is leaving the MOD a much better place than it was when he arrived, not least for LGBTQ+ personnel?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. If the truth be known, I do not think I ever got an A in anything. Maybe I am finishing this job without being found out.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

I warmly welcome the report and pay tribute to the campaigners. Recommendation 16 refers to pensions, and the issue has already been raised as to whether survivors will be beneficiaries. Can I stress that that needs looking at? Recommendation 28 relates to financial compensation. The MOD set the Committee a maximum of £50 million as a cap on what could be paid in compensation. I urge the Secretary of State not to use that as a way of keeping compensation payments down to keep the Treasury happy. Could he also clarify—I know that the Veterans Minister is not here today for the announcement—who will implement the recommendations?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I am happy to write to the right hon. Gentleman to clarify the pathway to the pension, which is important.

First and foremost, we recognise that there should be a financial award. Secondly, as I said, it is important that we work with people like Fighting With Pride on how we can do that. The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs is sitting right above the right hon. Gentleman, and the implementation will predominantly be done by the Ministry of Defence, but some recommendations are cross-Government. No doubt the right hon. Gentleman and I, from the Back Benches, will write to the Treasury.

Photo of Alicia Kearns Alicia Kearns Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

I thank my right hon. Friend for his courage and openness, and I thank the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs for his work. The report makes for incredibly difficult reading. We are a proud service and military community in Rutland, Melton, the Vale and Harborough villages. I take this opportunity to recognise that community and to put on record that we see them and hear them, and that it was the senior military of the time who stole careers and stole futures. They are the ones who should feel ashamed, not those who served or who sought to serve our country.

I also put on record the House’s sorrow that there was the same ban on diplomatic staff, with an apology being made only in 2021. We see them and thank them for their work.

We work with, train and equip many militaries around the world that continue to persecute LGBT people who simply want to protect their people. What are we doing to make sure that, when we work with, train and equip those militaries, we do not allow them to repeat the mistakes we made?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

My hon. Friend’s last point is incredibly valid. Yes, we train people all over the world to protect their societies, but what is the point if we do not also train them to uphold international humanitarian and human rights laws? On many occasions we do that. I once stood in Lebanon to listen to former British soldiers, under a British scheme, train the Lebanese army in human rights. That is incredibly important, otherwise what is it all for?

I understand my hon. Friend’s point about senior commanders, but it would be wrong to focus on only one cohort. Ultimately, the institutional organisation, culture and mindset—and society’s mindset that affected diplomats, the judiciary and everything else—were collectively responsible for the environment that led to this. As a rather junior officer I did not have a role and did not come across anyone who was going to be locked up or prosecuted, but I take responsibility as much as the senior people in the Department who made the policy.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

I welcome this statement, and I sincerely welcome the manner in which it has been delivered. It shows the Defence Secretary’s leadership qualities, which have been all too lacking in many other leading politicians in recent times.

I pay tribute to my constituent Simon Hinchley-Robson, who urged me to bring his case to the Floor of the House in an Adjournment debate. He was horribly physically abused after being outed by a doctor who had given him a medical examination, before being summarily dismissed from the RAF. He was denied his pension and his opportunity to serve his country. He, like many others, deserves redress.

What I do not want to see are the interminable cases we are seeing with contaminated blood, Grenfell and the Post Office. What can the Secretary of State say today to ensure that we do not see such delays and obfuscation in this case?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

Some of the delay and obfuscation was driven by a rush to get a scheme that satisfies speed. The obfuscation is not always deliberate. We have seen a list of examples where things have been written incorrectly. I remember Mr Jones campaigning on the vibration white finger scandal. The intention was good, but the lawyers were the ones who profited, so we have to get it right.

If Clive Efford would like to write to me personally on behalf of his constituent, I will make sure of his pension rights, which were not taken away from these people. They may have been informed as such, so we must make sure that their pension rights have not been taken away. If there is a reason why they were taken away, I am very happy to explore making sure they are restored.

Photo of Matt Warman Matt Warman Conservative, Boston and Skegness

Whether it is the cadets, the battle of Britain memorial flight or the Red Arrows, the military’s reach goes far beyond simply their personnel. Does the Secretary of State agree that the least the military can do, in the light of today’s report, is use their influence to try to break down broader anti-LGBT prejudice in our society?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I totally agree. When people join the armed forces, they want to belong. One of the best parts of basic training is when they are finally given their beret or when they finally pass their weapons test. Believe it or not, being on guard for the first time feels like they are being treated like a proper soldier, and they just want to belong. The fact that they all look the same and are wearing the same uniform is actually part of the attraction. That has to be the quality we sell to people. It does not matter if a person is gay or straight, or whatever they are. They are part of the collective defence of this fine nation and its values. The Red Arrows, trooping the colour, the cadet forces and all those other symbols are, in a sense, about belonging to one thing.

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Transport)

LGBT+ veterans were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice and risk their life to protect our country. They were our nation’s heroes, but they suffered such a gross injustice. I am proud that Labour repealed the ban on LGBT+ service personnel in 2000, and I welcomed the Etherton review when it was first launched. Does the Defence Secretary agree that the Prime Minister’s very welcome apology is merely the first step in the healing process, as we attempt to correct this historic wrong? Does he also acknowledge that how compensation is dealt with will be the true barometer of the Government’s success in dealing with our LGBT+ veterans?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

The true barometer will be how we implement all 49 recommendations. Yes, financial awards will be part of it but, for some, the restoration and the valuing of these people is just as important.

I hear the hon. Gentleman’s point, but not a single other Member has talked about party politics or political parties. My point about the overall culpability of society is that my party opposed lifting the ban and his party opposed lifting the ban. The European Court of Human Rights ruled against them and forced them to do it. I came to this House in the spirit of honesty and openness about the culpability of society. Let us not make it party political.

Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Conservative, Eastleigh

I welcome the apology, which will go some way towards correcting the hurt that our veterans faced. As a proud member of the Royal Navy branch of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I have seen at first hand the vital role of our LGBT personnel. What efforts is the Secretary of State making to ask the service chiefs to redouble their efforts to make our armed forces even more welcoming in the recruitment of LGBT people?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

We have a strong and dynamic D&I plan to make sure we talk about it. We are sometimes criticised, and it is not an easy line to follow, as we saw with the RAF’s issue in promoting the recruitment of women. We are guided by the Equality Act 2010, but we are also guided by the desperate need and importance of having the whole of society in our armed forces.

I would not appoint a Chief of the General Staff, First Sea Lord or Chief of the Air Staff who did not wholeheartedly believe in having a diverse armed forces community. They would not get past me in the appointments process. As I finish this job, I have appointed all the armed forces chiefs. Every single one of them embraces that requirement and actions it.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

I mention my political party only to associate the Liberal Democrats with the Defence Secretary’s comments. I respect him a great deal, and I thank him for what would be referred to as long service and good conduct in another career. My thoughts are with former LGBT service personnel whose family members died before the policy changed and before the apology was made.

Have there been discussions with homelessness charities, such as St Petrocs in Devon, on identifying veterans who were dishonourably discharged and found themselves on the street?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

Some of the recommendations will go across government, including those on homelessness, which the hon. Gentleman rightly highlights. It will be important that the MOD and the Minister for Defence People, Veterans and Service Families work closely with the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs to make sure that we have that grip not just across national Government, but across local government. If we are really to implement some of these recommendations, we require our approach to involve not only the whole of the government sector, but the charitable sector.

Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Conservative, Totnes

I absolutely support the Defence Secretary’s campaign to put a statue of Dr Turing in Trafalgar Square if that is what he is launching. Today’s apology is particularly welcome and will make a huge difference, but a large part of the community left the military of their own accord. They were not hounded out and they did not have marks on their service record, and this report has to ensure that it takes those people into account, because they left and gave up successful long careers in the military because they felt that the environment was not supportive of them. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me and my constituents that the report will make sure that they are kept under consideration?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

My hon. Friend makes not only an important point, but a difficult one. Obviously, there were people who were formally discharged, but there were not that many of them. Others were elbowed out, fitted up, set up or pushed out because of other offences. Then there were others who just said, “I am unwelcome and I am leaving.” First, those people will know who they are, and I hope they read this report, which is an easy and good one to read. Someone said it was long reading over the summer, but it is not. It will not take long to read Lord Etherton’s report, and it is a good report. I hope that those people will also use the Government website and that they will find a way in which they can come forward and talk about their experience. We have to find a way to make it up to them if there is something they need.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Minister (Tech, Gambling and the Digital Economy)

As Paul Holmes said, one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences a parliamentarian can have is taking part in the armed forces parliamentary scheme. Earlier this year, along with colleagues, I had the immense privilege of observing our Marines in Norway as part of their cold weather deployment training. We got to meet our proud lesbian, gay and trans service personnel—they are proud to serve our nations, and our nations should be proud of them. They spoke of how the culture has rightly changed, and I thank the Secretary of State for taking part in that culture change and making it happen. However, there is always more to do, so what can his successor do to ensure that all our armed forces, from our cadet forces onward, are inclusive and free of discrimination?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

The first thing to do is to have exposure to everybody in the community and for people to be able to talk about their sexuality and experiences without fear or hindrance. My children’s experiences and ability to talk about a range of things are very different from those of my generation. That is because these things are much more acceptable to be talked about. Every time a soldier in training meets someone from the LGBT community who is sitting next door to them or is on a patrol with them, we see that that is the strongest way to change the culture. That is the first challenge: let us get more people from the LGBT community joining our armed forces, as that will help change the culture for good.

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington

I, too, thank my right hon. Friend for the candour he has displayed in bringing forward this important report, which has been warmly welcomed by LGBT+ veterans in Carshalton and Wallington. May I press him on the issue of marriage on the defence estate? I know that three marriages have happened since the change of regulations in 2014, yet the defence estate still does not allow civil marriages or civil partnerships to take place on the estate. That has a particular impact on the LGBT+ community. I know that he is already looking at this matter, but will he reassure us that the MOD will continue to make this policy more inclusive?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I totally hear what my hon. Friend is saying. I have just made certain decisions on exactly that issue that I cannot yet talk about. The relationship between the church and the military is complicated, with respect to church premises and so on. I am happy to write to him to set out the details. My intention is that these military premises or church premises should be open to administer marriages and so on to people of all orientations.

Photo of Ashley Dalton Ashley Dalton Labour, West Lancashire

I wish to acknowledge the campaigning work of LGBT+ veterans and others on this issue, and to add my voice to the thanks to Lord Etherton for this excellent report, which is welcome and much needed. The Secretary of State committed in his statement to a zero-tolerance approach to LGBT+ discrimination in the armed forces and he just talked about culture change. As LGBT people, we do not just come out once; we have to come out over and over again, sometimes several times in one day. I welcome his acknowledgement that LGBT+ people joining the military is much to be welcomed, but LGBT+ people cannot be responsible for tackling the culture change that is needed simply by turning up. Will he please outline what the Government are doing today to make sure that the culture change we so desperately need in our armed forces is taking place and that the Government take responsibility for it?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

Some of what we are doing comes out of the excellent work done by my hon. Friend Sarah Atherton on women in the armed forces, such as allowing people to feel that they can make a complaint about inappropriate behaviour and ensuring that inappropriate behaviour is dealt with outside the chain of command. The service complaints route used to go via the chain of command, which understandably caused all sorts of problems for people about who they complain to and whether they should complain to their boss about their behaviour. Part of that route is about saying, “If you feel something is inappropriate, you can make a proper complaint right through the system. If senior officers or officers are not acting on those complaints, not only will that affect their career, because the ombudsman can rule on that, but something can be done.” First, this is about upholding the standards we wish to have and making sure that unacceptable behaviour is dealt with there and then, on the spot. That is the first thing: to make it a welcoming environment.

The second thing is to make sure that when we are recruiting, or when people are in training, an appropriate level of training and support is given to those people. We must then make sure that the environment is equal all the way through. The same goes for married quarters and for living accommodation: people must be treated absolutely the same, without any discrimination at all. Ultimately, this is about getting more people to join, but it is also about those people who are serving feeling welcome and not having to come out every few hours or days.

The one thing I can tell the House, having been in an infantry regiment, is that the people who know you the best are the people you serve alongside. In those units, you will not have to come out every hour or every day; you all know each other. What sticks you together is your friendship and your bond, and sometimes that is formed under fire.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

I thank my right hon. Friend for coming to the House today and for the tone in which he has delivered this statement. May I also tell him that the two friends of mine, one a former naval intelligence officer and the other a non-commissioned officer in the Army, who had to leave in tragic circumstances will both be very pleased with the apology that he and the Prime Minister have given on behalf of the state? Finally, I wonder whether the Defence Secretary would agree with something that a colonel in the Royal Marines said to me 25 years ago: “In a firefight, I would rather have a gay Marine alongside me who can shoot straight than a straight Marine who can’t.”

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

As a Scots Guard, I had better not make a comment on the Royal Marines. All I would say to my first Whip when I joined this House is that that is the point: the men and women of our armed forces all belong to a common endeavour, which is to keep this country safe. That was what was forgotten in all those years. What matters is the skill they bring to bear to deal with the enemy. As my hon. Friend says, I would much rather everyone shot straight.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s tone and the statement itself. Everyone in the House welcomes that, and the Government’s commitment is clear. Unfortunately, some veterans have taken their own lives, and others have been discriminated against and been traumatised, and their health has deteriorated. Will he pledge to help those who have offered their all for this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland but who have felt on their own for far too long?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

The feeling of rejection that those men and women must have felt will stay with many of them all their lives, which is something we have to do our very best to help solve. It must have been awful for people to think that they were helping society, and society, at that time, telling them that they did not belong. Wherever they are, we should help to look after them and urge the regiments and the veterans associations—I am president of the Scots Guards Association in Lancashire—to reach out and ask them to rejoin the family if they feel excluded.

The tragedy of those who have taken their lives goes to the heart of the importance of the suicide strategy, which was raised at Prime Minister’s questions today. We must make sure that we are alert to the needs of those people who are taking their own lives and to any sign of rejection, and not just for the time that they are in the military.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons), Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons), Chair, Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission, Chair, Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission

That concludes proceedings on the statement. The whole House appreciates the determination and sincerity with which the Secretary of State has come to the House today to make this statement himself. If this is his last appearance at the Dispatch Box, as he predicts it might be—one never knows—then the whole House will join me in wishing him all the very best.