HC Deb 08 November 1999 vol 337 cc684-6
9. Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

What assessment he has made of the effects on armed forces discipline of the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights on homosexuals in Britain's armed forces. [96130]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

My predecessor made it clear on 27 September this year that we accepted the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in the cases brought by homosexual former members of the armed forces. We have set in hand an urgent review of policy in this area in the light of the judgment. I shall announce the outcome of that review as soon as possible.

Mr. Howarth

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply. However, given the deep and profound hostility among service men throughout the country to this ruling, and given that the Government argued vigorously at the European Court of Human Rights that to allow openly homosexual people to join the forces would be deeply damaging to their operational effectiveness, is it now his position that operational effectiveness will not be damaged, or is he prepared to accept that an Albanian, an Austrian and a Lithuanian judge are entitled to usurp the right of this House and our elected Government to determine the composition of the Her Majesty's armed forces?

Mr. Hoon

I make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that this Government intend to uphold the law. In the light of the decision by the European Court of Human Rights, it is clear that we need a revised policy that sustains operational effectiveness and is within the law. Discipline is a key element in ensuring that we continue to have operationally effective forces. That is why we will underpin any new policy with a code of conduct that will operate across the three services and cover personal relationships and sexual behaviour generally.

Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement and the progress that the Government are now making. Does he agree that, as we near the end of the 20th century, homophobic bigotry has no place in Her Majesty's armed forces and that it should not determine the recruitment policies of the military?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his observations. I have made it clear that the Government—unlike, apparently, some Opposition Members—are determined to uphold the law, but that we will do so in a way consistent with the operational effectiveness of our armed forces.

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

The question relates to the impact of the judgment on the effectiveness of the armed forces. The European Court gave a split decision by seven judges, one of whom was so biased that he would have failed the Hoffman test and none of whom have served in the armed forces, but the Government tell us that they have no opinion as to the impact on the armed forces of the decision. When he was shadow spokesman on defence, the present Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid) said: Let me repeat that we in the Labour party have never given the green light to homosexual activity, conduct or relationships in the armed forces…We fully accept the particular conditions of the armed forces and that homosexual…relationships…can undermine and be prejudicial to good order and morale."—[Official Report, 4 May 1995; Vol. 259, c. 527.] At that time, the Conservatives supported that view and we support it now. Does the Secretary of State think that the judgment will have an effect on the efficiency, good morale and good order of the armed forces?

Mr. Hoon

I am still unclear as to the position of Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen. I have made the Government's position absolutely clear: we will uphold the rule of law, and promote a policy that is consistent both with the rule of law and with operational effectiveness. It is important that Members on the Opposition Front Bench make it clear whether they are equally willing to uphold the law. I have discussed this matter with the Chief of the Defence Staff on several occasions; I am sure that I shall do so again before any final decisions are reached. However, as soon as those decisions are reached, I shall make a statement to the House.