HC Deb 10 April 1986 vol 95 cc442-6

`(1) In section 66 of the Army Act 1955 at the end there shall be added the words—"provided that for an action to constitute an offence of disgraceful conduct of an indecent or unnatural kind it must be one which is prejudicial to good conduct and discipline.". (2) In section 66 of the Air Force Act 1955 at the end there shall be added the words "provided that, for an action to constitute an offence of disgraceful conduct of an indecent or unnatural kind, it must also be one which is prejudicial to good conduct and discipline". (3) In section 37 of the Naval Discipline Act 1957, at the end there shall be added the words—"provided that, for an action to constitute an offence of disgraceful conduct of an indecent or unnatural kind, it must also be one which is prejudicial to good conduct and discipline".,—[Mr. McNamara.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. McNamara

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

In our dealings with the armed forces we have always suggested that they are civilians in uniform. The separate army code of discipline is regrettably necessary because of the nature of the calling. Generally, we have sought to say that a soldier is no more than a civilian in uniform. Therefore, he should have the same rights, the same way of life, and the same right to organise his life as any other citizen. That is not the case with homosexual conduct.

I was the only person on the Committee who had been present and taken part in the debates in 1967 on the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Tornaen (Mr. Abse), then the hon. Member for Pontypool, which sought, and eventually achieved its aim, of no longer making homosexual conduct in private between consenting males of adult age a criminal offence. That is the way we feel it should be in the armed services. That does not mean that we condone the act or that we necessarily approve of it. It merely means that we should no longer regard it as a criminal offence in the armed forces. It is sufficient, in the terms of the amendment we have tabled, that it should be treated as heterosexual conduct would be. If it is

prejudicial to good order and discipline." it should be an offence, but for no other reason. The Ministry of Defence's evidence on this matter is a mess of contradictions and prejudice. There is no scientific or sociological research to back up the ways it has looked at the matter. It did not even know some of the witnesses, even the senior witness. It did not know that AIDS is a communicable disease or that there were differences in the evidence given by witnesses. The Ministry's idea was based on a social perception for which no evidence could be produced. The Ministry claimed that it was a perception held in society but it was certainly not one held in Britain in the past 30 years.

The Ministry advanced a series of arguments in favour of regarding the homosexual act as an offence in military terms. That evidence was challenged by the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and by evidence from the Conservative Group for Homosexual Equality, which numbers among its patrons the hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Parris), the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) and Mr. Martin Stevens, the late hon. Member for Fulham.

The main argument advanced is that the law on homosexuality endangers national security because it renders soldiers embarking upon that course of conduct liable to blackmail. They are liable to blackmail only because it is a criminal offence. If it was not a criminal offence we would not have had the Cyprus inquiry. We would have avoided the great loss of money and the show trial at the Old Bailey under section 1 of the Offical Secrets Act. We could have saved the country a great deal of money and prevented a lot of egg from going on the face of the Ministry.

There is no reason why homosexuality should be a danger to national security other than the fact that it is an offence under the Armed Forces Act. If it is prejudicial to good conduct and discipline, it should be treated in that way. Every example cited by the Ministry's witnesses was an example that could have been dealt with under conduct prejudicial to discipline.

The Conservative group argues that the present law can adversely affect recruitment and the retention of good personnel. It argues that the application of the law has been marred by abuse and unnecessary suffering and is haphazard in its application. It is relevant to note that our NATO allies do not feel it is necessary to have such legislation.

For those reasons, we argue that homosexual conduct —not something of which I approve—should not be a criminal offence under Army law. It must be treated in the same way as heterosexual behaviour. When such behaviour is prejudicial to good conduct and discipline it should be dealt with. Otherwise, it should be ignored.

The Royal Air Force in its evidence came close to admitting that if homosexual conduct occurred off the station between two consenting males it was not especially bothered. It was bothered only when it was prejudicial to discipline. I do not think that the Government have made any case except one derived from a tangle of prejudices, outmoded thought and a desire to inflict upon the armed services a morality that the rest of society no longer accepts. I do not believe that we should treat our soldiers, sailors and airmen in that way.

Mr. Stanley

I shall start by repudiating the comments of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) regarding the Government's approach. He appears to believe that it is based on prejudice and mistaken, anachronistic, social views, but that is not so. We have considered the issue seriously in the context of this quinquennial review, and it is our clear view that we must maintain the best possible discipline and operational efficiency in the armed services. It is against that yardstick, and not against any outmoded prejudice or anachronistic social view, that we have approached the problem.

11 pm

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

Will the Minister then tell the House what it is in a gay relationship between two males which would endanger the good discipline in the services?

Mr. Stanley

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to reply to the opening speech, I shall be glad to try to do so.

The aim of the new clause is to make homosexual practices on the part of members of the armed forces an offence against service discipline only where it can be construed as being prejudicial to good conduct and discipline.

The Committee will be aware that all homosexual practices involving service personnel continue to be offences under the Service Discipline Acts, regardless of the sex, age or willing consent of those involved. That position is specifically preserved by section 1(5) of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 which otherwise permitted sexual acts between consenting adult males in private. The Committee will want to register that that legislation is just under 20 years old, and was the subject of a specific reservation at that time.

The exemption of the armed forces was in recognition of the unique circumstances of service life. Membership of the armed forces involves service men and service women serving in conditions where, both on and off duty, they are unavoidably living in close proximity and sometimes under stress. In addition, service life, particularly in demanding operational circumstances, requires absolute trust and confidence between all service men based on disciplined and professional relationships. Both the services and the Government are clear that the more permissive approach to homosexuality proposed in the amendment would not be in the interests of the good discipline or the professional efficiency of the services as a whole.

The issue was fully considered by the Select Committee which received evidence, not merely from the Ministry of Defence, but from bodies in favour of allowing a more permissive approach to homosexuality in the armed forces. The Select Committee took great care to consider both sides of the issue, and concluded in paragraph 25 of its report that it would not be wise to change the existing law. That is also the Government's view. That is a clear view put to us, not only by the top ranks in the services, but down through every level. There is complete endorsement of the existing legislation expressed in all three services from top to bottom.

We are clear that if we try to change the law as proposed, it would be prejudicial to the proper professionalism and fighting and managerial efficiency of the armed services. Therefore, if the Opposition wish to press the matter, I ask the Committee to reject the new clause.

Mr. McNamara

Usually I would not seek to reply, but the Committee should be aware of some of the statements made by the Minister which I do not accept. During an evidence session the Chairman asked: On that point, do you have any indication of the level of promiscuity in homosexual relationships? Do you have any figures available? (Mr. Facer)No. Mr. McNamara: That is something based on evidence; it is your general perception and feeling — common gossip —without any scientific support? (Mr. Facer) It is based on general perceptions of society, not a judgment we take inside the Ministry of Defence. That was the line on which the argument was based. In answer to the question Why should they be treated as military offences? Brigadier Peck replied: Because the military view is that homosexuality goes against the requirements of the Services. I asked Why? Do not shrug your hands; I want to know why. Then the admiral came on the scene to rescue the Army.

There is no evidence for the Minister's statements. Many of our NATO allies, who have a fighting reputation as great as ours, do not treat homosexuality as a criminal offence. The Government have not examined the evidence. There has been no sociological report. The Government's whole attitude is based on outworn prejudices such as we have come to expect from them. We shall divide the House on the issue.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 34, Noes 104.

Division No. 137] [11.05 pm
Alton, David Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh) Howells, Geraint
Bermingham, Gerald Kirkwood, Archy
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Livsey, Richard
Clay, Robert Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Cook, Robin F. (Livingston) Loyden, Edward
Corbyn, Jeremy McNamara, Kevin
Dalyell, Tam Madden, Max
Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn) Maxton, John
Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald Michie, William
Godman, Dr Norman Nellist, David
Hardy, Peter Parry, Robert
Haynes, Frank Patchett, Terry
Penhaligon, David Wigley, Dafydd
Pike, Peter
Powell, Raymond (Ogmore) Tellers for the Ayes:
Redmond, Martin Mr. Chris Smith and
Skinner, Dennis Mr. John McWilliam.
Wallace, James
Alexander, Richard Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Amess, David King, Roger (B'ham N'field)
Ashby, David Knight, Greg (Derby N)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N) Lang, Ian
Batiste, Spencer Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Bellingham, Henry Lilley, Peter
Biggs-Davison, Sir John Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Blackburn, John MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute)
Bottomley, Peter McNair-Wilson, M. (N'bury)
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Major, John
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Mather, Carol
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard Maude, Hon Francis
Brinton, Tim Merchant, Piers
Brittan, Rt Hon Leon Miller, Hal (B'grove)
Brooke, Hon Peter Morris, M. (N'hampton S)
Buck, Sir Antony Pollock, Alexander
Carlisle, John (Luton N) Powell, William (Corby)
Carttiss, Michael Powley, John
Cash, William Raffan, Keith
Chope, Christopher Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Conway, Derek Roe, Mrs Marion
Coombs, Simon Rowe, Andrew
Cope, John Ryder, Richard
Couchman, James Sackville, Hon Thomas
Currie, Mrs Edwina Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Dunn, Robert Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Durant, Tony Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Eggar, Tim Speed, Keith
Eyre, Sir Reginald Spencer, Derek
Fairbairn, Nicholas Stanbrook, Ivor
Favell, Anthony Stanley, Rt Hon John
Forth, Eric Stern, Michael
Freeman, Roger Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)
Galley, Roy Stradling Thomas, Sir John
Garel-Jones, Tristan Sumberg, David
Gregory, Conal Temple-Morris, Peter
Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N) Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)
Ground, Patrick Thorne, Neil (Ilford S)
Gummer, Rt Hon John S Thurnham, Peter
Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom) Tracey, Richard
Hampson, Dr Keith Viggers, Peter
Hargreaves, Kenneth Waddington, David
Harris, David Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Hawksley, Warren Walden, George
Henderson, Barry Waller, Gary
Hind, Kenneth Watts, John
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm) Whitfield, John
Holt, Richard Wilkinson, John
Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A) Wolfson, Mark
Howarth, Gerald (Cannock) Wood, Timothy
Hubbard-Miles, Peter
Hunter, Andrew Tellers for the Noes:
Jackson, Robert Mr. Michael Neubert and
Jessel, Toby Mr. Gerald Malone.

Question accordingly negatived.

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