Armed Forces Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 31st March 2021.
“(1) The Secretary of State must lay before Parliament reports on the number of people who have been dismissed or forced to resign from the Armed Forces due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, this includes—
(a) formal documentation citing sexuality as the reason for their dismissal; or
(b) there is evidence of sexuality or gender identity being a reason for their dismissal, though another reason is cited in formal documentation.
(c) in this section, ‘sexuality or gender identity’ includes perceived or self-identified sexuality or gender identity.
(2) The report shall include recommendation of the sort of compensation which may be appropriate, including but not limited to—
(a) the restoration of ranks,
(b) pensions, and
(c) other forms of financial compensation.
(3) The report shall include a review of those service personnel who as a result of their sexuality have criminal convictions for sex offences and/or who are on the Sex Offenders register.
(4) The report shall include discharges and forced resignations at least back to 1955.
(5) The first report must be laid no later than six months after the day on which this Act is passed.”—
This new clause requires the Government to conduct a comprehensive review of the number of people who were dismissed or forced to resign from the Armed Forces due to their sexuality and to make recommendations on appropriate forms of compensation.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
This new clause seeks to right an historical wrong. Twenty-one years ago, the ban on LGBT+ personnel serving in the armed forces was lifted. During the years of the ban, it inflicted staggering cruelty on those men and women who had stepped forward to serve their country. This is a hidden history of the British military, so let me reveal some of the sorry tale.
Between the mid-1950s and 1996, men and women—predominantly men—of our armed forces who were thought to be gay were arrested, searched and questioned by officers trained for wartime interrogation. In many cases, this went on for days before they were charged, often without legal counsel or support. On many occasions, arrest was based on little evidence. It has emerged that many heterosexual personnel were falsely accused by service police officers, losing careers and, in some cases, homes and families. After harrowing investigations, these men and women were led away to military hospitals where they were subjected to degrading and shameful medical inspections, conducted in accordance with confidential Defence Council Instructions, held by every unit of the armed forces.
At court martial, in the moments before those convicted were sent down, operational medals and good conduct badges were ripped from their uniforms. They typically served six months in prison for the military criminal offence of being homosexual. It is staggering that this continued until 1996, and that administrative dismissal of LGBT+ personnel continued for a further four years, until January 2000.
As these members of our armed forces walked from prison, they were dismissed in disgrace, with criminal records as sex offenders, which from 1967 had no civilian equivalent. As they left through the main gate, they were commonly given letters instructing them to never again use their military ranks or wear items of uniform, for example in remembrance at the Cenotaph. With dignity, they continued to obey those letters. Their names were erased from the retired lists of the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force as though they had never existed. These once-proud members of our military were cast out of the armed forces family and outed to their own family and friends. They lost their homes and their financial stability. Their service record cards had the top corner clipped and were marked in red pen with the annotation, “Dismissed in disgrace”, causing many a lifetime of employment issues.
In the past, in their moments of need, these personnel were shunned by military charities. I am pleased that has now changed. However, there has been no such remedy or reckoning from our Government or the Ministry of Defence. The Committee heard at first hand, from the charity Fighting with Pride, accounts of how those affected live today amidst the ashes of their former service careers. Our LGBT veterans are scattered across the United Kingdom, often away from military communities, living lives in stark contrast to those hoped for when they joined the forces. In the 21 years since the ban was lifted, nothing has been done to support those LGBT+ veterans. The impact endures amidst loneliness, isolation, shame and anger. As Canada, Germany, the United States and other nations prepare, assess and make reparations, putting right this shameful wrong is long overdue for the United Kingdom, which persisted with the ban for longer and implemented it more zealously than many others.
The Minister, I know, has offered his apology, for which many are grateful, and he and I have talked about this issue, but does he not agree that this community of veterans, who were treated with unique cruelty, deserve an apology on behalf of the nation from the Prime Minister in Parliament? They must be supported on the pathway to royal pardons, restored to the retired list and have their medals returned. Prohibitions on their use of rank and wearing of berets at the Cenotaph must be revoked. They need resettlement support, which we offer to all other members of our armed forces, and they must be fairly compensated and have their pensions reviewed in recognition of their service and the hardships they faced, then and now.
Until that is done, this will remain a matter of national disgrace, and it will stand in the way of this Government’s stated wish to be a global exemplar for both LGBT+ and veterans’ communities. This amendment places a duty on the Ministry of Defence to find our LGBT+ veterans, find out how they have fared and make recommendations to Parliament about what must be done to right this wrong. Remedy must not take years, and the Government will need to work closely with community leaders.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on tabling this new clause; if he does press it to a vote, both of us on the SNP Benches will support it in its entirety.
In setting out the premise for the hon. Gentleman’s proposition, it is clear why there should be consensus on the many issues he has raised and that we should take this as an opportunity to move forward. Both the Opposition and the Government should fully support ensuring that the lived experience of the LGBT community, especially those who have been forced out of the armed forces, is reflected in our deliberations and seek to remedy as best as possible their lived experience at this time—especially if that requires investigations into their financial position, access to pensions or the ability, on Remembrance Sunday, to march with their comrades, wearing the badges that should never have been taken away from them. That, at least, is basic; the other issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised will require serious investigation and deliberation by the Government.
Again, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton for raising this issue and for the manner in which he has raised it. I have a series of things to read out about what we are doing, and I am sure he is aware of that, but I want to answer some of his points in turn.
I am clear, and so are the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister, that the experiences of those individuals that the hon. Gentleman mentions were totally unacceptable. The military got it wrong. The military are now better for recruiting from the whole of society, and I am very clear on that. I know people will be watching this today, and I will receive messages disagreeing with that—“You are saying that the military wasn’t any good because they discriminated against homosexuals.” The reality is that the wider the pool we pick from, when it comes to diversity, sexuality and things like that, the better and more professional our military are in reflecting the society from which they are drawn. I make no apology for that.
I reiterate the apology I gave last year to our LGBT community, because it concerns me. I have spent hours with veterans who were dismissed because of their sexuality, and I am heartbroken that their experiences in the military were so different from mine. It is very hard, 20 years on, to imagine the institution as it was then, but I am clear that their experiences were unacceptable and we have to do what we can to redress it.
We have made progress, as people will have seen. I was the first Minister to apologise for this, and we are reinstating medals. To be clear, every veteran is entitled to wear their beret and medals on Remembrance Day, and I would encourage them to do so.
There are deeply challenging issues on how we seek restorative justice retrospectively for those whose careers were cut short and whose lives were decimated. For a lot of people this continued beyond their time in service. I know of people who, even now, are disadvantaged by this policy, because they have to say why they left the military. I am absolutely determined that we find a mechanism of restorative justice for that cohort.
Not at this moment, no.
I cannot rewrite history, and I cannot promise every last penny that was lost out on because people did not achieve their long service and good conduct. There is no mechanism possible to make that happen. What I will do, and what we are doing at the moment as part of cross-Government activity involving the Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Office for Veterans’ Affairs and the Home Office, is find a mechanism, working with Fighting with Pride, Stonewall and others, to address the appalling injustice for this cohort of veterans.
I give a commitment today to write to the Prime Minister to ask him to reflect on my apology to the LGBT community last year, and to ask him to consider doing so at a national level. I know that will not correct it, but it will go some way towards alleviation. I saw the impact of my apology. It is easy for those who are not in that cohort to downplay an apology or not to want to do it, because of its ramifications, but apologies are important for the cohort that went through this experience. I will write to the Prime Minister on that issue today.
In light of those things, I do not want to duplicate the work that is going on at the moment, because I want to get a solution for all these people, like Fighting with Pride, with which I am in constant communication. With those reassurances, I hope the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton will agree to withdraw his new clause and to work with me to get to a place where this cohort is properly looked after and some sort of restorative justice takes place, in line with what I have done already. I hope he has confidence in what I have done already and in my commitment to go much further in future.
I thank the Minister for his considered response and for committing to write to the Prime Minister. I will withdraw the new clause at this time. There is a long way to go in the Bill, and I look forward to working with the Minister. The fact that he is working with Fighting with Pride and Stonewall is very positive. This is an issue of such importance that I would like to see it dealt with on a cross-party basis, with some agreement, so that restorative justice is finally done for these servicemen and women. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.