HC Deb 02 December 1980 vol 995 cc127-8

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:

40. Mr. Anthony Buck

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what representations he has received about the proposal that Service women should be allowed to bear arms; and if he will make a statement.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Francis Pym)

In the "Statement on the Defence Estimates" (Cmnd. 7826) I announced that we were reconsidering our traditional attitude to the carriage of arms by Service women for defensive purposes. Since then, despite press coverage and the invitation in the Service debates for views to be expressed, very few representations have been received. I have concluded that there is a readiness to accept limited change and I have, therefore, decided that members of the women's Services can be trained in the use of arms.

At first, training will be given only to a limited number. This will be voluntary in the WRAF and compulsory in the WRAC, though exemptions will be made for those currently serving who have genuine objections to carrying arms. The number of WRAC involved will depend upon studies into future manpower requirements. WRAC personnel will carry arms for self-defence purposes only. The majority of the WRAF will eventually receive training; in addition to being armed for self-defence purposes, they will also be armed for station defence duties.

There is no requirement at present for the WRNS to carry arms; and there is no question of members of any of the women's Services serving in a combat role.

Mr. Buck

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Is he aware that most of us take the view that with equal rights should go similar obligations and that most of us would think it right that the bearing of arms by Service women should be oriented towards self-defence and self-preservation? What is the attitude of the Armed Forces? Will my right hon. Friend also say a word about the position of Service women serving in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Pym

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for what he has said. The Services themselves—both Service men and Service women—are in favour of this change. The purpose of it is entirely for self-defence, with a slight extension for the defence of certain bases in the case of the WRAF.

With regard to Northern Ireland, there is no question of Service women carrying arms. They will continue to be protected by armed Service men.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

Is it clear that self-defence is purely individual and personal self-defence and has no wider connotation?

Mr. Pym

The only wider connotation is in the case of members of the WRAF, who will be armed in some cases for station defence duties as well. With that sole exception, it is entirely for personal self-defence.

Mr. Churchill (Stretford)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement this afternoon will be warmly welcomed in all parts of the House and, above all, within the women's Services? Once the experiment has proved itself, will he consider carrying it a step or two further, bearing in mind the very great shortage of armed manpower available in a crisis?

Mr. Pym

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said. The women's Services are eager to play as full a part as possible in the defence of our country, but I should not like to go any further than I have today with regard to the future.

Mr. James Wellbeloved (Erith and Crayford)

Will the Secretary of State ensure that the X factor component of Service pay will be adjusted so that Service women undertaking the same sorts of armed duties as Service men will receive the same X factor contribution to their salary?

Mr. Pym

That will be a matter for the Review Body on Armed Forces Pay to consider.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Will the Minister confirm that if he did not take the step that he has taken in allowing women to carry arms for station duties in the WRAF the deployment of women at RAF stations could be affected and that it is, therefore, a sensible decision?

Mr. Pym

I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

Will my right hon. Friend recognise that the decision will be widely accepted on each side of the House?

What is the position concerning women police officers? As a matter of interest to the House, the most accurate member of the Houses of Parliament rifle club happens to be a woman police officer.

Mr. Pym

I thank my hon. Friend for what he has said. There is no change envisaged at present in regard to policewomen.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

What exactly is the criterion for self-defence in this context? Is it simply up to a commanding officer to say "Yes" or "No"? Is it a matter of request from the Service man or Service woman concerned? Who is to be the judge of what constitutes a matter of self-defence for which the carriage of arms can legitimately be asked?

Mr. Pym

I cannot recall the Oxford dictionary definition, but most hon. Ministers will appreciate what is meant by self-defence. The military certainly appreciate it.

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