HC Deb 09 May 1996 vol 277 cc512-21

Amendment made: No. 80, in line 5, leave out `fingerprinting of and insert

`taking of fingerprints and samples from'.—[Mr. Soames.]

Bill reported, with amendments.

Order for Third Reading read.—[Queen's Consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.—[Mr. Soames.]

9.19 pm
Mr. Cohen

There are issues that show that, contrary to what the Minister would have us believe, all is not fine in the armed forces. I shall concentrate on one example—racism. The Commission for Racial Equality recently issued a report on the Household Cavalry, about which there was subsequently a formal investigation. That report has not been mentioned during the Bill's passage, but it should have been properly dealt with by the Minister.

I have a summary of the report. It points out that the Household Cavalry ran its own mobile display team, which visited primarily small rural towns that were distant from the main centres of ethnic minority population. The Household Cavalry recruited through regimental associations that tended to reach only white people linked through family and other connections with former members of the Regiment. Its recruiters were also largely located away from centres of ethnic minority populations. The Household Cavalry recruited purely a white force, which became apparent in the number—it was nil—of its ethnic minority recruits. The summary states: There were about 3,000 ethnic minority applicants to the Army between 1989 and 1994, but none of them were recruited to the Household Cavalry. The weight of evidence was that some at least of these had been steered away to other regiments. A key point is: The Inspector of Recruiting said that recruiters would send ethnic minority recruits to local regiments instead of to the Household Division where they would have a hard time. The summary goes on to state: A member of the MDT had said that the Household Cavalry did not recruit ethnic minorities. An ethnic minority applicant was deterred by others telling him not to go into the Guards because 'they hate blacks'. One ethnic minority recruit to the Household Cavalry in the mid 1980s had experienced a 'barrage of racism' during his training and afterwards. In the year after the CRE launched the investigation, there were three ethnic minority recruits to the Household Cavalry, reversing the total absence in the preceding five years. Later, the summary states: The Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers officer in command had passed the content of this briefing on to the warrant officer second in command, and was not surprised to be told by him that he had got the posting changed because"— Corporal Malcolm, who subsequently made the complaint— was black. The CRE concludes: that the Commanding Officer had, in effect, given an unlawful discriminatory instruction to the officer in command of the REME detachment. That was a scathing report on the racism existing in the Household Cavalry.

I know that the British Army, through the Ministry of Defence, is now committed to a five-year programme of measures to promote racial equality, which is to be implemented in close liaison with the CRE, but that two-year examination of the Household Cavalry found that there had been racial discrimination in recruitment and transfers, and racial abuse and harassment in individual cases.

The Ministry of Defence almost had racial equality measures imposed on it. Only after discussions did it agree to introduce them voluntarily. It had to sign a formal agreement that it would.

I put it to the Minister that the report was damning, the action is now extremely late and implementation of racial equality measures in the Army should be treated as a matter of urgency. The same applies to the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy, which should fall into line quickly with action, programmes and policies of their own to end racial discrimination. I know that, if that does not happen, the Ministry risks having a non-discrimination notice imposed on it next year. It is important that it implements racial equality measures. In its press release in response to the report on the Household Cavalry, the Campaign for Racial Equality said: we can only regret the length of time it has taken the Armed Forces to adopt these measures. There have been appalling cases of racism in the armed forces. I have examples of plenty of them. An article in The Guardian of 5 March gave many. A man called Scott Enion, who fought in the Gulf with the British forces, is now considering taking his case to the European Court of Human Rights because of the racism that he encountered. He said in The Guardian: I wouldn't recommend the Army to any young black person … Lots of people just told me to shrug off the abuse but these problems will continue until the Army makes racist behaviour a specific offence. No amount of publicity is going to attract black people to the Army until the top ranks start clamping down on it. At the moment, they are allowed to get away with it and most blacks know the Army is a racist institution. Although the Minister claims that the Government are out to recruit more people from the ethnic minorities—indeed, there is a crisis in recruitment—the number of recruits from ethnic minorities dropped by 25 per cent. last year. The figures for 1994–95 show that the total was just 1 per cent. in the Navy, 0.9 per cent. in the Army and 0.5 per cent. in the RAF. That compares with an ethnic minority population of 6 per cent. in Britain as a whole.

There really is a danger. As we saw in the previous debate on homosexuals and lesbians in the armed forces, the Army does not want to comply with standards that are accepted as standard elsewhere in the country or to respect civil liberties. In his reply to the debate on new clause, the Minister quoted Colin Powell of the United States forces as saying that discrimination against homosexuals was different from racism, but it is not different in relation to how people are treated by the armed forces. In both cases, the armed forces say that the standards that apply in the community at large do not apply to them. By adopting that approach, the armed services run a risk of becoming a nation within a nation and not properly reflecting the society they serve. That is a dangerous state of affairs in a democratic country.

The report on the Household Cavalry was scathing. The Conservative Government have been in power for 17 years, but they have made no attempt to tackle racism in the armed forces until now—and they are doing so only because the issue was forced upon them by the Commission for Racial Equality.

The Minister mentioned General Colin Powell. The top military man in the United States is a black man. No black man is anywhere near a position of power in the British Army. A black person in the United Kingdom armed forces is probably lucky to reach the rank of sergeant.

The Minister and the Government have displayed enormous complacency in respect of racism in the armed forces. It has continued for 17 years and it has been exposed by the CRE report on the Household Cavalry. I suspect that it will be left to a Labour Government—hopefully, in the not-too-distant future—to tackle racism in the armed forces so that they represent all the people in our nation.

9.29 pm
Mr. Viggers

The Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill is a most interesting Committee on which to serve. It was a great honour to be its Chairman for the second time in 10 years.

Paragraph 4 of the Select Committee report, which I wrote, states: It has been the policy of successive Governments to preserve consistency, as far as appropriate … between civilian and military law. However, there is some tension: Civilian law may reflect changing social attitudes, and these have in recent years involved some relaxation of the stricter discipline and formal personal relationships of former generations. On the other hand, the Armed Forces derive strength from their structured environment and from military discipline … The Committee has been very conscious of the serious and sensitive issues involved in deciding when military law and practice should be consistent with civilian law". There have been a number of important issues for the Select Committee to consider, some of which are outside the scope of the Bill. We took evidence over nine sittings and considered a wealth of written material. We did more work and received more paper than any previous Committee, to produce a more substantial Bill.

I should like to thank the Committee members who helped our work to proceed swiftly and in a spirit of co-operation and good-humour. That was reflected in the need for only one Division, which was also good-humoured, forced by the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George).

I welcome the significant improvements to the courts martial system in the Bill, which introduces a greater element of independence.

The future of the royal naval college, Greenwich excited much interest and local concern. As a loyal Conservative, it is better for me not to look at the starting point and the narrative, but to consider the conclusion, which is immensely satisfactory and better than we could have dreamt of at the beginning of our deliberations.

I am grateful for the constructive attitude of my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, who took a personal interest in the issue. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces more than met our concerns with an amendment proposed in Committee which was made to the Bill.

The hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen), a colleague on the North Atlantic Assembly, referred to the report by the Commission for Racial Equality into allegations of racism in the Household Cavalry. Let me reassure him about the bilateral nature of our approach to the Bill by telling him that, when I discovered the Commission for Racial Equality was about to produce its report, I suggested to the Committee—which readily agreed—that we should postpone our deliberation of matters relating to racial equality until it had been published. We then called witnesses from the Ministry of Defence and made absolutely sure that it was committed to the policy that it had signed with the Commission for Racial Equality.

On Second Reading, I drew attention to the fact that, despite all good intentions, recruitment into the armed forces of those in ethnic minorities had fallen. I am convinced, however, that the Commission for Racial Equality and the Ministry of Defence have reached a firm and clear agreement. Although it is a five-year programme, it will not end after five years; it will commence now and be active immediately. We have received assurances from the Ministry of Defence that it will provide a definitive statement of its position before the next sitting of the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill in four to five years time. That is the long-stop position, and there will be positive action in the meantime.

Some people will no doubt be disappointed by the Committee's conclusions on current policy on homosexuality. After studying the findings of the MOD's comprehensive review and talking to many personnel across the ranks in all three services, as well as to serving personnel in other armed forces, it was impossible to conclude other than that the presence of openly homosexual personnel would cause significant difficulties for commanding officers and other ranks. The risks to operational effectiveness are real. Unless and until that alters, any policy change would be difficult to justify.

Having spoken to representatives of the armed forces of other countries, I am not persuaded that any other country has achieved a more effective system of rules than ours. There has been an assumption in much of the debate in the House that everything is inexorably moving one way—a kind of ratchet—towards liberality without firm, clear standards. In evidence from gay rights activists, we were told that prejudice is immoral. A large number of people in this country and in the armed forces believe that not only prejudice, but homosexuality, is immoral. It may be that the tide is not moving all in one direction.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

Is that the hon. Gentleman's opinion?

Mr. Viggers

I have expressed a point of view that I believe to be widely held in this country. I do not believe that the view is universally held that the movement is all one way and that movement towards liberality is inexorable. That is my personal view; it is not expressed in any other representational capacity.

Consideration of a measure such as the Armed Forces Bill by a Select Committee every five years is a useful way of keeping a check on matters relating to discipline in the armed forces, and we were of course happy to commend the Bill to the House.

I want to give three final votes of thanks. Two are serious and one may sound slightly frivolous. I want to express, first, thanks for the work contributed by the Ministry of Defence. A year or more ago, the MOD set up a team ably led by David Woodhead to deal specifically with the Select Committee on the Bill. That team, and the Ministry as a whole, responded quickly, efficiently and generously to our requests for information and facilities—such as travel and the opportunity to meet forces personnel. I am sure that the Committee would want me to give the most generous vote of thanks to the Ministry and all its staff. I should be grateful if the Minister would make sure that those thanks are conveyed in the most suitable manner.

The Committee would wish me to thank also Chris Shaw, who is the second Clerk to the Defence Committee but who was nominated as the Clerk to the Select Committee on the Bill as his first clerkship of a Select Committee. He has carried his job through exceptionally well, not only in briefing me and other members of the Committee, but in preparing the draft report, which was first-class.

Finally, I give perhaps a more frivolous vote of thanks to the United States 4th Cavalry for providing two Blackhawk helicopters, which got four members of the Committee back from Tuzla to Split in time to catch our Royal Air Force VC10—without which we would not necessarily have had a Government majority in the final stages of the Committee. I thank the US army air force for its contribution to the Committee's work.

9.37 pm
Mr. George

Having heard those last remarks of the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), I am not so sure that I would have been happy to join him in a Blackhawk if I had known that it was to do service to the Government Whips Office. However, our journey was expedited by the cavalry, who came to the rescue—leaving a rather forlorn American-built, but RAF-owned, Chinook on the runway in eastern Tuzla. I experienced some horror in Bosnia when I switched on an old television set and saw Question Time live. That was probably the worst thing I saw during four days in the former Yugoslavia.

Having heard the debate of the past two hours, I have mixed feelings about volunteering to serve on the Select Committee. The procedure reinforced my view that a Select Committee approach is preferable to a Standing Committee approach. Although not everyone will agree with the consensual approach that we are obliged to take on defence issues, I am pleased that the consensus has largely returned on most security issues in the House and, to a great extent, in the country as a whole.

I am sorry that the Select Committee on Defence has not assumed responsibility for dealing with this quinquennial legislation, but we did the next best thing by having four members of that Select Committee, including the Chairman, on the Select Committee on the Bill. The combined approach of part Select Committee and part Standing Committee allows the special Select Committee to do what cannot be done in a Standing Committee environment, which is almost invariably non-consensual. It allows the Select Committee to discuss in detail the rationale, if there is one, behind a series of policies emanating from the Ministry of Defence.

By taking the Select Committee approach, we can exert more influence on the Ministry of Defence instead of allowing a Minister, with his aides behind him and his loyalists endorsing him, to railroad any old policy through a Standing Committee. That appears to be the normal approach to many pieces of legislation. It is a shame that the Government and the Opposition do not connive more frequently to approach legislation in a way more like the Select Committees.

The Select Committee was able to exert an influence over the daft policy of selling or leasing Greenwich naval college and, in that sense, the whole exercise was worth while. It was also very important that we provided a forum for discussion of the Commission for Racial Equality's report on the Household Cavalry, which put more pressure than there would otherwise have been on the Ministry of Defence. As someone who has served for many years on the Defence Committee, I recall time and again trying to enthuse the Ministry of Defence, through the Committee, about ethnic monitoring. The Ministry had its fall coming to it. Remarkably, it was not a parliamentary Committee that put pressure on the Government; it required an external body—the Commission for Racial Equality. The Select Committee provided a forum for that report and never was a fall more deserved, swifter or more full than that embarrassing climbdown by the Government. It really taught them.

The Minister has, on previous occasions, questioned my knowledge of military history. He said that we had not lost a war since 1802, but I must remind him that that war was a draw as opposed to a loss. For a military defeat, the Minister needs to go back much further. We lost several battles around 1802, but the war did not end in defeat.

Mr. Viggers

As the hon. Gentleman is an historian, can he remind me what happened in South Africa at the beginning of this century?

Mr. George

South Africa was a dishonourable draw: it was not a military defeat.

When our endeavours began, the Ministry of Defence got off to a bad start. It was forced on to the back foot within about three minutes of the beginning of our deliberations on the issue of consolidation of legislation. The previous Committee had strongly recommended that single-service legislation needed to be examined more closely and tidied up.

To our embarrassment, and even more to the embarrassment of the Ministry of Defence, the witnesses, who were not responsible for the policy failure, had to explain to the Committee why, despite starting with the MOD and trying to follow up the recommendations of the previous Select Committee, their movement and enthusiasm came to a dramatic halt. They had to appear before the previous Select Committee to explain why they had done nothing to follow and take up the recommendations of the Committee before it. I hope that, when the Committee is re-formed four and a half years from now, there will be substantial adherence to our recommendations.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) on a courageous speech shortly before the final Division. It is not easy, in such circumstances, to make such a speech from the Opposition Benches. It was not easy to support the new clause in the Lobby. We who gave our support may suffer the consequences for our position and our honesty. I voted willingly on the issue, as I did in the Select Committee.

I am sure that the Minister will not agree with me when I say that everything that has been done in this place has provided a stay of execution for present policy. Having read the advice of the Ministry's legal adviser on the likely consequences of the European Court of Human Rights when considering the MOD's policy, I believe that it is almost inevitable that the line that the majority of the House has taken, and the line taken by the MOD, will become increasingly difficult to sustain.

The report commissioned by the MOD contained a proposal, although it is not presented as such, that might be seen as a fall-back position if all else fails. It was not a version of the United States policy, but one in that general direction. I am sure that the Minister will not tell the House that the Government are even considering a fall-back position. He and his fellow Ministers will sustain the MOD's line vigorously in the European Court of Human Rights or in any legal or media forums in which anyone may be obliged to speak or appear.

If there is any furtiveness, I hope that serious consideration will be given, as it was in the United States, to commissioning a study similar to that pursued by the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica on what could be done within the military to prepare a way for an eventual change in policy. That may seem unpalatable now, but I feel that serious consideration must be given to such an approach.

On reflection, I am delighted, despite my initial reservations, to have participated in the Committee proceedings. As our Chairman said, the staff of the Select Committee were excellent. We had good relationships and there were some amusing contretemps with the witnesses. We were all seeking a common objective—a legal framework within which men and women may serve within the armed forces. I do not patronise them when I say that they are probably the best service men and women in the world.

Those service men and women may be criticised. Lee Clegg was referred to by some of my hon. Friends, who implied that, somehow, he was a murderer. That is insulting nonsense. It was also implied that the men in Cyprus who besmirched the reputation of Britain's armed forces were in some way not an aberration. They were an aberration.

I was angered by that debate, because I have seen British soldiers in the most appalling conditions throughout the world—in the Falklands, in some barracks in Britain and certainly in Northern Ireland. They are men and women who offer their services to the country in a way that few hon. Members can comprehend. There are few people who understand what young and not so young men and women sacrifice in order to earn not a miserable but an unsatisfactory salary.

I am not making a political point. Those men and women are experiencing the traumas of a reorientation of our armed forces following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. We should see as typical those people, not the men who did such damage to the reputation of the armed forces, the Ministry of Defence and the British in Cyprus and throughout the world. We can be justly proud of the men and women who are serving us.

I hope that I shall be in a position to serve on the Select Committee that considers the next Bill five years from now. I hope that even more members of the Defence Committee will serve on that Committee, which showed that it is possible to develop a common approach to serious issues.

I hope that the magnanimity that I showed in not pressing amendment No. 81 to a Division, when I would clearly have won, so allowing the Minister to avoid experiencing defeat within three hours of the beginning of the debate, will be reciprocated by the Minister's coming before the Defence Committee with an open mind and listening seriously to our arguments.

I hope that the spirit of tolerance that has been shown by some Opposition Members will be duly rewarded with a compromise that at the moment is not evident. I hope that the consensual spirit that the Minister has experienced so recently will be continued, not in this Committee, which has now ceased to exist, but in the Defence Committee which will pick up a number of issues that were raised by the Select Committee on the Bill.

9.52 pm
Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)

This House of Commons has this evening made a momentous decision in refusing to overturn the British armed forces' long-standing policy that homosexuality is incompatible with military service. That is a delicate matter upon which many hon. Members have held and expressed genuine and passionate views on both sides.

We decided that question after careful deliberation. It was one of the best debates that I have ever heard in the House. All points of view were considered. We drew upon our own experiences and we listened to the experiences of other hon. Members, often eloquently expressed. I was particularly impressed by the contribution to the debate of the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid).

One of the most important points in the debate was that the question had to be decided according to United Kingdom conditions. We were referred to the experiences of other countries. It is clear that other countries, including other European countries, have their own cultures and their armed forces have their own traditions, and that what succeeds or fails in their countries and in their armed forces may not necessarily be a good guide to what we should do here.

But having made the decision on the basis of United Kingdom conditions, and after careful deliberation in this sovereign Parliament, I have one important concern, and that is that the whole exercise may have been completely academic. The European Court of Human Rights, we are told, is going to overrule the decision.

During the debate, reference was made not only to that court but to the European Court of Justice. The two institutions are very different, and there is in particular an important difference between them in respect of the question that we have just decided. Defence matters are specifically excluded from the competence of the European Union, and the European Court of Justice would therefore have no right to decide whether homosexuality should be allowed in Britain's armed forces.

I think that it would be outrageous if the European Court of Justice used equal opportunities legislation to seek to intervene in defence matters, which are specifically excluded from its competence. I find it extraordinary that the British Government conceded the point in relation to pregnant service women, and I hope that they will never again concede that the European Court of Justice has any jurisdiction in respect of defence.

We are bound by the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights because we are signatories to the European convention on human rights. Defence matters are not exempted from that court's jurisdiction, as they are from the competence of the European Union. It is therefore open to the court, when the case comes before it—as it undoubtedly will—to overrule the decision that we have made, after careful deliberation, in this United Kingdom House of Commons. If it did so, that would be an extremely important constitutional matter.

The European Court of Human Rights exists by virtue of a convention signed at the end of the second world war to protect the peoples of Europe from the gross abuses of human rights that were perpetrated during and before that war. It was not signed in order to allow a foreign court to interfere at will in this country's domestic affairs, and to overrule the will of this sovereign Parliament. The House must warn the European Court of Human Rights of the danger into which it may fall. It should be fully aware of that danger before deciding this case, and it should be aware that this sovereign Parliament has the right—although we do not wish to exercise it—to give notice, under article 65 of the convention, of its intention to withdraw from that convention if need be.

9.57 pm
Mr. Soames

I warmly endorse the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), and thank him for being such an admirable Chairman. I join him in paying tribute to the Clerk and the Committee for all the work they did. As the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. Bruce) said, we had a very good cross-party debate. We dealt with important points; Bills such as this are important. As everyone agrees, it is important for the armed forces to know that justice is not only done but seen to be done, and I believe that their affairs were well investigated and looked after by the Committee.

I also join my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport in warmly thanking the Ministry of Defence Bill team, the parliamentary branch of the MOD, my heroic parliamentary private secretary—my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Hawkins)—and all who contributed to the superb job that the Committee has done.

The Bill both preserves and improves the system of discipline in the armed forces, and I warmly commend it to the House. We have settled many important matters. I heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) said; no one could gainsay the important points he made. The hon. Member for Walsall, South also made important points.

Let me reassure the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) that we take the question of the Commission for Racial Equality very seriously. Some of what he said was very wide of the mark. It is not in our interests not to encourage all the recruits that we can get, wherever they come from; we need more, not fewer recruits from ethnic minorities in the armed forces, and they are very welcome. If the hon. Gentleman can offer me helpful suggestions as to how we can better achieve that, we shall pay considerable attention to them.

We thank all who took part in the Bill's passage, and to our armed forces, wherever they may be—in Bosnia, Saudi Arabia or Turkey—we send our warmest wishes, and our thanks for all that they do for this country.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.