HC Deb 20 March 2000 vol 346 cc700-2
2. Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush)

What proposals he has to increase recruitment from the ethnic minority communities into the armed forces. [113689]

9. Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

What action has been taken by the Army to tackle race discrimination; and if he will make a statement. [113696]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar)

In the spirit of our partnership agreement with the Commission for Racial Equality, all three services continue to work vigorously to increase recruitment from ethnic minority communities. Challenging goals have been set, rising to 5 per cent. in 2001–02, and we are beginning to see considerable signs of progress. Along with the other two services, the Army is fully committed to tackling and removing prejudice in keeping with the zero tolerance policy towards racism. A number of other organisations are now consulting our armed forces to learn from that successful approach.

Mr. Soley

Will the Minister convey my thanks to the members of his Department who organised a brilliant effort by those—mainly non-commissioned officers—who visited various constituencies and came to the White City estate in my area to lead a recruitment campaign? They were from the ethnic minorities and did not dress up any of the problems of racism that are encountered from time to time, but, with enthusiasm and commitment, made it abundantly clear to the young people from the ethnic minority communities in my constituency what rewarding careers the Army, Navy and Air Force can offer.

Mr. Spellar

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments, which reflect those I have heard from around the country on the members of the ethnic minority recruiting team and my experience in meeting them in a number of locations. They are not only fine members of the armed forces, but extremely effective communicators of their message to young people. They are perhaps far more effective than Ministers in that regard because they wear the uniform of the armed forces and are themselves from the community. They have an effective message to put over. They do that extremely well and have a great impact on the youngsters they talk to.

Fiona Mactaggart

Is the Minister aware that, before the general election, the Commission for Racial Equality was considering a formal investigation into recruitment practices in the armed forces and that there has since been an agreement between the CRE and the armed forces, which Herman Ouseley described as a good, ground-breaking model for other employers…? Will he say unequivocally that my constituents—many of whom have ancestors from the Caribbean or the Indian sub-continent and family traditions of gallant service in our armed forces—are as welcome to serve in the defence of Britain as people from any community in this country?

Mr. Spellar

I thank my hon. Friend for her remarks. We want to re-emphasise that message. We pay tribute to the long history—two centuries—of involvement in the British armed forces of people from overseas, many of whose families are now in this country. The answer that I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) was important because that is the real-life experience of members of the ethnic community in the armed forces, and that is the message that they are getting across. It is not the distorted vision that is portrayed in the media. It is extremely important that people who hold senior positions and positions of influence in the ethnic community also get the message across that the armed forces is a good career for their youngsters and offers great opportunities to serve this country.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Does the Minister agree that it is important that we get across the message that there will be no discrimination prior to entry or while people from ethnic minorities proudly serve in our armed forces? Does he also agree that with 18,000 savage cuts in the Territorial Army, there are now fewer opportunities for young people from ethnic minorities who are working to be able to contribute to our armed forces?

Mr. Spellar

In spite of the fact that we have had the best year of recruitment into the armed forces in 10 years, there are still a considerable number of vacancies. We welcome into our armed forces all those who qualify and wish to serve this country. We are glad that that message is increasingly getting across. As I stressed earlier, we have zero tolerance of discrimination in the armed forces. I emphasise the fact that when one looks into many of the cases that hit the headlines, one discovers that they often relate to events that occurred some years before, and that there has since been a sea change in attitudes in the armed forces. That is welcome and is a tribute to the leadership of the senior command and the way in which they have brought that about.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

Encouraging the recruitment of people from ethnic minorities into the armed forces is to be welcomed, but will the Minister confirm that there will be no positive discrimination, and that the selection of people from ethnic minorities will be solely on merit?

Mr. Spellar

I certainly hope that that is the case; indeed, I know it is. That is the view of people from the ethnic community who serve in the armed forces. If the hon. Gentleman has met any of the recruitment teams in particular, he will recognise the high quality that we are talking about. I should make it clear that this policy is not based on political correctness, but is to ensure that we have the widest possible pool of talent from which we can recruit so as to maintain the high quality and high reputation of the British armed forces.