HC Deb 05 March 1996 vol 273 cc139-41
6. Mrs. Bridget Prentice

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how many women are currently serving in the armed forces. [16842]

7. Ms Coffey

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what representations he has received about the number of women serving in the armed forces. [16844]

Mr. Soames

As at 1 January this year, there were 16,078 women serving in the armed forces. That represents approximately 7 per cent. of the total strength.

Mrs. Prentice

Is the Minister aware that it is International Women's Week? Will he join me and my right hon. and hon. Friends in celebrating the work of women in the armed services, particularly their front line peacekeeping work in Bosnia? On behalf of the House, will he send a message of support to those women this week?

Mr. Soames

I was not aware that it is International Women's Week. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I feel a tremendous surge of pleasure when we hear that happy news: we salute all women everywhere. The hon. Lady makes a very good point and I have great pleasure in endorsing all that she has said. It is clear that women make an enormous contribution to the armed forces. I know that most Labour Members believe that it is a miracle if a woman is capable of licking an envelope, yet women fill some of the most important and responsible jobs in the armed forces. That is a matter of course to those who serve alongside them and we value their contribution enormously. We want to see more women, not fewer, in the armed forces.

Ms Coffey

Will the Minister confirm whether his Department is a member of Opportunity 2000? If it is, what progress has he made towards achieving the objectives of Opportunity 2000, which aims to promote more women to leadership positions?

Mr. Soames

It is my experience that the Ministry of Defence is a member of practically everything, so I am sure that we are a member of Opportunity 2000. The fact is that we do not need to be a member of that scheme to promote women into positions of responsibility: they get there under their own steam because they are very good at what they do. There are women at every rank of the armed forces and in every service. They undertake the most responsible, difficult and often dangerous work. I recently met a company commander in the sappers who is leading the company that is undertaking most of the mine clearance operations in Bosnia. We do not need that kind of politically correct nonsense in the armed forces: women succeed on their own account.

Mr. Marlow

Does my hon. Friend agree that the standards, the qualities and the ability of Her Majesty's forces are unequalled and envied throughout the world? Will he give the House an undertaking to provide whatever legislation is necessary to prevent our standing from being undermined or tampered with by the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality or any stupid, anti-democratic and unaccountable European court?

Mr. Soames

My hon. Friend, as a former sapper, speaks with genuine passion on that subject, and he is correct. The armed forces have a distinction and a quality that are unmatched in any institution in British life. They are a golden asset to the country and we shall never do anything that will undermine their fighting effectiveness or fighting power.

It is a great compliment to the British armed forces that President Chirac should make it plain to a wider public in France that he intends the French forces to be restructured along the lines of our existing British forces. No greater compliment could be paid to the British armed forces.

Lady Olga Maitland

As a new recruit to the parliamentary armed services scheme, may I say how much I appreciate the opportunity that the armed forces give women? Will my hon. Friend confirm that the opportunities that have been given to women are shown by the fact that we now have two fully qualified fast-jet pilots and 17 fully qualified pilots in the other services, and that women are doing immensely important work in the field? Will he confirm that he will continue his endeavours to recruit more women, from whom we get value for money?

Mr. Soames

My hon. Friend certainly gives value for money and I am grateful for her extremely generous tribute. She has done sterling work on behalf of all three services, and they and I are grateful to her.

Obviously, women have made giant strides in employment in the armed forces. They are now in significant new areas of opportunity. I agree with my hon. Friend that we should do whatever we can to recruit more women, and she has my assurance that we shall do so.

Mr. Murphy

It is good to hear that the Minister has heard about the Government's policies from the Opposition today.

The Minister spoke of women in the armed forces being in important jobs. Will he therefore tell the House why, of 509 one-star and above posts in all three armed services, only two are held by women?

Mr. Soames

I am not sure what point the hon. Gentleman is making. The two most senior women now serving in the armed forces hold the rank of air commodore—the equivalent of brigadier. As he says, there are two of them. No rank is not open to women. The great surge of women through the armed forces and through the rank structure is starting to be felt. Unlike the Labour party, we do not have to have all-women lists to ensure that women get to where they should be—the top.

Mr. Jenkin

On what basis does my hon. Friend suppose that the provisions of the EC equal treatment directive do not apply to the armed forces?

Mr. Soames

I am sorry, but this EC nonsense is way beyond me. I do not understand. [Laughter]

Madam Speaker

Order. That remark closes that question.

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