HL Deb 10 June 1986 vol 476 cc192-204

7.28 p.m.

Report received.

Lord Graham of Edmonton moved Amendment No. 1:

Before Clause 2, insert the following new clause:

("Persons under 18 years entitled to be discharged after one month.

Terms and conditions of service

. After section (2) of the Armed Forces Act 1966 (Regulations as to variation of term of service) there shall be inserted the following section—

"2A. Notwithstanding section 2 above, a person to whom this Act applies and who is under the age of 18 years, shall be entitled to be discharged after one month's notice in writing by that person."").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, for the convenience of the House we can also discuss Amendments Nos. 2, 3 and 5 at the same time, because they all fall as part of a piece. As the Minister well knows, at Committee stage we on this side of the House raised a number of issues that stemmed directly from the special report of the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill. There was no proscription as to the amount of time available to us then, but there were limits to the number of issues that could be raised and there were one or two which I had marked when I read the report of the Select Committee and which I felt it would be appropriate to raise this evening, and the burden of these amendments is contained in the proceedings.

What I have to say arises particularly from the evidence presented by a body called At Ease. The Minister and his advisers will be well aware both of what it said in its memorandum and of what took place in the Select Committee. I am also deeply indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, and to the committee. He reported substantially—perhaps not directly, and I have no knowledge of his attitude to these amendments—on the ground which I wish to cover.

The present position is that a member of the armed forces may discharge himself as of right only during the first six months of service if he should join under the age of 18, and during the first three months of service if he should join over the age of 18. After that no one may apply to buy himself out until after he has attained the age of 21 or has completed three years of adult service, whichever is the longer. Premature voluntary release therefore applies only to those committed to long engagements who have already completed three years' adult service. At this stage release is discretionary on the part of the military authorities and may be and often is refused.

In its memorandum, the At Ease organisation gave a considerable amount of what it claims to be evidence but, I am bound to say, in deference to what I consider to be the facts. The supporting data to justify its evidence was somewhat sketchy. Nevertheless, I raise the matters here because the Minister himself may appreciate the opportunity to correct some of the impressions that were given. For instance, the organisation said at page 106 of the evidence: The minimum engagement of three years, effective from the time they reach age eighteen, can seem like an eternity for a boy of seventeen, and many of them take desperate action such as going absent without leave, deliberately injuring themselves, in some cases attempting suicide and showing other signs of extreme distress. It is a common occurence for this behaviour to follow a discovery of what their real situation is regarding their terms of engagement".

I read very carefully what I would call the rebuttal evidence which was contained in the Select Committee report. For the purposes of the debate I refer to page 111, annex A, and to the Ministry of Defence commentary on At Ease. It says: A young applicant under 18 years of age is not allowed to join the armed forces without the consent of his parents. If he applies for entry at a Careers Information Office he is asked to bring his parents in so that the terms of engagement may be fully explained to them all in detail. He is not asked to sign on immediately but is sent away to consider the matter before entering into an engagement. The potential recruit and his parents are given a 'notice paper' to consider which clearly sets out the minimum period of service which will be expected of him, and which spells out the earliest date on which his service may end, particularly as his length of engagement, in the Army and RAF, affects his rate of pay. It also clearly states the statutory rights of exit which the recruit has during his first few months in the armed forces". The defence of the Ministry to those two statements is, "You know what you are signing on for before you sign; you know there is circumscription as to the ease of getting out; and therefore it is entirely up to you".

I now turn to the report by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson. At paragraph 2 of page 1 the report says: Within the limits of Service discipline"— No doubt the Minister will lay heavily upon that— Boy volunteers at any rate should be free to change their minds with due notice and after a fair trial or when a new situation arises. The weakness of the present system is that they cannot as of right except during their first 6 months". That is the explanation for one of the amendments in which I plead the case that persons under the age of 18 should be entitled to be discharged after one month.

Paragraph 9 of the report says: We therefore recommend a major change in the recruitment of boys under 18; namely, that every boy apart from certain apprentices, at the age of 18, should have the option either to confirm his original engagement, or to convert it to one of 3 years only from 18. In this way no boy would be held against his will after 21. In the special case of apprentices receiving 2 years' training or more, we recommend that they should have a three-fold option, to confirm their original engagement, to reduce it to the completion of training plus 5 years' service, or to leave altogether at 18".

I have been struck by the incredible lower limit. We are talking not about men but about boys of 16 and 17. I am reminded of the fact that although I did my service during the war, we always talked in terms of 18 being the time at which one saw active service. Of course there was boy service and people then joined the forces at a younger age. From reading the details of the Falklands War, one sees that there were boys who were doing a man's job below the age of 18 in my old service, which was the Royal Marines. Therefore I am not raising the issue of the ability of boys or men below the age of 18 being competent and doing a job about which we would all be proud. But I am struck by the fact that many boys at the age of 16 or 17 in this context are terribly, terribly young.

I have two boys of my own who are well beyond that age. I try to reflect on their mental attitudes to life at the age of 16 and 17. I say that if boys have thought about it, if their parents know about it, and even if they have signed and understand all of the paraphernalia of engagement, it is still terribly, terribly young. We need to look yet again at what we are doing.

The report of the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, at the top of paragraph 121, has a very telling paragraph: No Binding Commitment until 18". That is, in effect, the gravamen of my first amendment.

The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, says: The next course to consider is to introduce a break point at 18 so that any boy could leave then as of right. This, it seemed to us, should dispel all criticism. Boys joining from 16 onwards would have had a fair experience of Service life, and if they did not like it they could go when they came of age. There seemed to be no particular moral objection to a man making an agreement at 18 to serve on for a term of years. The objection has always been to his committing himself at too early an age. This solution, again, would be very costly in manpower, though it could be feasible in the specific case of long-term apprentices". The report from which I quote is now 16 years' old and the statistics may not be relevant. Therefore I do not quote them. But I hope the Minister will understand—I certainly do not intend to divide the House on matters of this kind—what I am saying in the context of the Acts of Parliament which govern discipline in the armed services. In particular, the At Ease organisation is indicating in its evidence that many of the cases that come to it concern young men or boys who are below the age of 21 and who are absent without leave because they have in effect realised all of a sudden the enormity of what it is they have signed on for. I am not talking here about service life itself but about the length of service.

My amendments seek to provide for young men, who I continue to look upon as boys because they are certainly below the age of 18, better opportunities to say "No thank you" to a service life earlier than the present arrangements allow. I beg to move.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, my recollection of 17 years ago, when the report was made, is not very clear, and I have not had time to read the report right through. The noble Lord the Minister thought that it was written by the Master of The Rolls, which shows you how things go.

The important paragraph—and I do not want to waste a lot of time on the ages—is that which the noble Lord, Lord Graham, just mentioned, which is paragraph 121: Boys joining from 16 onwards would have had a fair experience of Service life, and if they did not like it they could go when they came of age". We were considering a break point at 18. We compromised after that because the services were very nervous about it. They said, "Let them decide at 18 whether they will go on for their full 12 years or whether they will get out at 21". We came to a conclusion in relation to the importance of getting something done because the National Council of Civil Liberties had a room full of documents about men who had been arrested, who had deserted, or who had gone away. The situation really was dreadful and something had to be done. Therefore we included a recommendation, and that was about as far as we could go at that moment.

I have not monitored the consequences of the report. I know that it was commissioned by a Labour Government and presented to a Conservative Government, who said that they were accepting it more or less in toto. However, I am ashamed to say that I have not looked back year after year to see what they have done. I would ask the Minister to say whether there is a lot of trouble at the particular age in question. It seems to me that it should be possible to go a step further than we did and to say that a boy who joins at 16 or 16½ years of age may have six months in which to make up his mind whether he will give it a run until he is 18. He has another chance to do so at 18, or then to sign on for the full period unless he is an apprentice, in which case the matter can be dealt with slightly differently.

I believe that the position is this. If one's training is really good, and it certainly was at the time of the report and I feel sure that it is now, then one will not lose at 18 many of the boys one wants to keep. But if one does not give the boys the knowledge that they can get out at 18 if they want to, then one will not recruit a lot of very good boys whom one would like to recruit and keep. For example, I and, I am sure, most Members of this House, given our present knowledge, and not aged 16½, would not sign on at 16½ to a commitment for 12 years' service that we could not get out of before we had served for five years. We would say that we would sign on for two and a half years and then consider the options. Therefore I believe myself that it might well be to the advantage of the forces if the option provided by the first amendment were accepted.

On the other hand, I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Graham, that we want to hear what are the arguments now. I know what the arguments were in the past, and they seem to be very much the same except in respect of a far more serious situation. It is rather like the difference between unemployment in the 1920s and unemployment now. In the 1920s, children were starving, and now at least they are not. Therefore the situation of a number of boys between 16½ and 18 becoming very depressed and miserable because they cannot get out is one thing, whereas the situation in the old days was that they were 21 or 22 and wanted to get married and simply could not do so. That was not acceptable and so they deserted. Then they were captured, they ran away, and the whole situation was a great deal worse.

I do not want to make too much of this. I personally believe that the armed forces would lose absolutely nothing by giving the option to leave at 18, but I should be very interested to hear what the Minister has to say.

7.45 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, this amendment and the others relating to discharge all appear to be based, as the noble Lord has said, on a paper submitted to the Select Committee of another place by an organisation called At Ease. That paper, and the Ministry of Defence's very full response to it, are included in the Select Committee's published special report. Our view of the proposals reflected in the noble Lord's amendments has not changed in any way since my department's memorandum was given to the Select Committee, and I do not propose to go into all its detail here today; noble Lords will no doubt have seen it.

However, I must emphasise that it would be wrong to equate service in the armed forces to any other employment. Special considerations apply to the armed forces, who are recruited specifically for the defence of the realm. The crucial importance of that role means that the services must at all times be manned to the fullest extent and at constant readiness. If servicemen had the right to opt out at short notice, any unpopular service or activity could be brought to a halt by the sudden departure of the trained and experienced personnel upon whom its success depended.

Fully-trained replacements cannot simply be recruited off the streets; the necessary training to cope with the increasingly complex technology of service life is lengthy, intensive and costly. Both the interests of the taxpayer and the security of the nation demand a reasonable return on such training. The right of discharge for the under-18s at one month's notice, or at three months' notice for those over 18, would completely disrupt the stable manning of the armed forces and their ability to fulfil their allotted tasks.

I should, however, stress that the services bend over backwards to ensure that new recruits, especially those under 18, and their parents fully understand the nature and length of the commitment they are considering. There are statutory break points after entry at which a recruit can leave as of right. Thereafter, premature voluntary release is often possible for those dissatisfied with service life, while those clearly unable to adapt to the life may be administratively discharged. In my view, therefore, there are no grounds for viewing the terms of service for young recruits as being unnecessarily restrictive. They are of course less free than their counterparts in other employments, but that is fully justified by the services' vital need for stable manning and fully-trained personnel.

I may say that before my recent change of responsibility in the Ministry of Defence, I had junior ministerial responsibility for dealing with many such cases, so I am well aware of the background to the matter to which I have referred tonight. Indeed, some of the detailed cases brought to me by Members of Parliament and, on occasion, by Members of your Lordships' House were cases that I dealt with personally. I hope your Lordships will accept that they were always dealt with with care and, in appropriate cases, with the compassion that they deserved.

So much for Amendments Nos. 1 and 3. I turn now to Amendment No. 2, upon which Amendment No. 5 is consequential. I was not clear what the noble Lord, Lord Graham, meant by the right to renegotiate a contract on reaching the age of 18. The noble Lord could mean that a young serviceman would have the right to renounce his commitment to the armed forces altogether and to leave; or he could merely mean that the recruit should have the opportunity to reduce the term for which he is engaged.

I have already explained in relation to the earlier amendments the reasons why we cannot accept very short notice periods for servicemen: because of the vital importance of stable manning and the need to ensure a reasonable return on training. We could not, therefore, accept any proposals which would give volunteers an absolute right to leave on reaching the age of 18. However, the services are well aware of the dangers of committing young recruits to lengthy terms of service when they are perhaps not absolutely certain of the career they wish to pursue. For that reason, all recruits are able to exercise a statutory right to leave at break points within the first six months of their service.

The services also realise that a young recruit might pass those break points and only later decide that he does not wish to be committed to the armed forces for the six or nine year engagement he originally undertook. As a result of proposals made in 1970 by the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, youngsters joining the Army and Royal Air Force under the age of 17½ are able to alter their terms of service at the age of 18 in order to reduce their six- or nine-year engagement to three year notice engagements. There is no "Donaldson option", if I may call it that, as such in the Royal Navy since its single open engagement effectively allows all servicemen to leave after completing four years of adult service.

Therefore, I hope that your Lordships will accept that the services offer young recruits committed to long engagements the chance to reconsider at the age of 18. But I do not believe that we can go further. For those reasons I hope that the noble Lord will not seek to press this amendment and will not seek to move Amendments Nos. 2, 3 or 5.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, as we are on Report may I ask a question? Is the noble Lord aware that the arguments he has used are, without exception, exactly the same arguments which were used to us when we made the major changes which I think—and I ask the noble Lord to tell me whether this is so—have worked rather well?

Lord Trefgarne

Yes, my Lords, I dare say the arguments I am deploying this evening have some similarity to the arguments deployed on a previous occasion, but they have lost nothing in the intervening years.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, without dissenting from a great deal that the noble Lord has said, may I ask whether calculations have been made in his department as to the effects on Army numbers of implementing the proposal in the first amendment? Obviously some recruits would leave but recruiting might be a little easier if this proposal were accepted.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, if I have your Lordships permission to speak again, I am not certain whether any work has been done specifically along the lines suggested. In any event, it is rather difficult to assess in isolation the effect of such a change without actually trying it. I shall make some inquiries and if there is any further information available I shall be glad to write to the noble Lord.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I am as disturbed as is the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, that the Minister uses the phrase "completely disrupt". How do we know that if the amendment were carried it would completely disrupt unless one has done some homework and has some idea?

The Minister is not normally guilty of this but he is simply using a phrase unless he has some basis for it. The noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, would not be expected to know because he did not take a major part in the debate but when the matter was raised in Committee statistics were given as regards a likely effect. On page 28 of its report the Ministry of Defence estimates the manpower effects of the changed conditions, and the figures are given. I should have thought that the Minister would have had some information in anticipation of the possibility that someone, if not myself, would ask for some figures. Therefore, I am disappointed in that respect.

The Minister talks in terms of the vital defence role played by the Army. Everyone in this House, including the Minister and myself, pays full tribute to the need for fighting forces who are fit and efficient and able to respond to the needs of the nation. However, I was somewhat struck and very sombre when I realised that young boys below the age of 18 were fighting in the Falklands. I may be wrong. and I know that the Minister—

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, if I may prevail upon your Lordships for permission to speak again, I understand there were no soldiers under the age of 18 fighting in the Falklands.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I will get out my cuttings and ask the Ministry of Defence to clarify what is contained in them. If there was no one under the age of 18 actually engaged in the fighting—

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, that is not what I said. I said there were no soldiers.?

Lord Graham of Edmonton

No soldiers, my Lords. The Royal Marines would be upset if they were not classified as soldiers in this context.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I apologise to your Lordships for rising yet again. The Royal Marines, of course, count themselves as part of the Royal Navy and I should have thought the noble Lord would know that.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

That is right, my Lords, so what we have is a joke made about boys under the age of 18 fighting not only for their lives but for ours who, apparently, are not included when I make a general remark. If we are saying that there are Royal Marines and members of the Royal Navy who are under the age of 18 who were fighting, then my case is made.

The purpose of these amendments is to seek to establish two things—first, that the young boys who sign on know exactly what they are signing on for and, secondly, that below the age of 18, in particular, they have the opportunity to review their contracts. The Minister quite fairly said that I had not dealt in detail with what I meant by "renegotiate the contract". The Minister says, in effect, that they can renegotiate the contract at the age of 18 and that they can now shorten the contract from six or nine years down to a three-year period. To that extent, the amendment is perhaps not built upon a sound premise.

However, I am very uneasy because it appears to me that the arguments used 17 years ago, as the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, said, are exactly the same and the Minister says that nothing has changed. I think a great deal has changed in 17 years, not least the firm conviction that the whole raison d'être of our armed forces has changed. It is very much a volunteer force. It was then, but it is very much more so now.

I am satisfied that I have raised important matters here. The noble Lord has made a very effective point in saying that the position cannot be compared to that of a boy of 16 who takes on an apprenticeship or an indenture in civilian life. The nature of the job needs to be clearly understood. As I said in Committee, people who join the forces, having been attracted by a great deal of publicity and the better wages compared with civilian life, not only need to believe that they will like the life but also need to understand as fully as possible the dangers that exist. One of those dangers might be that if they do not like it they are circumscribed as to the manner in which they can terminate their contracts.

I am certainly grateful to the Minister for having taken part in what I think has been a very valuable exchange. There are people outside the House who have formed the view that there are some terrible detriments and hurts suffered by these young people. I said at the beginning of my remarks that I do not accept at face value what I am told is the size of the problem. The noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, certainly wanted some statistics, and so do I, but this is perhaps not the appropriate time to raise this matter. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 not moved.]

8 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton moved Amendment No. 4:

After Clause 4, insert the following new clause:


. After section 69 of the 1955 Acts and section 39 of the 1957 Act, there shall be inserted the following section—

"It shall be an offence for any person subject to this Act to discriminate against, harass, hold in contempt or ridicule any person or persons on the grounds of religion, race, colour or political belief.".").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, Amendment No. 4 is all of a piece with an amendment that I moved at Committee stage which was phrased in terms of discrimination. The thrust of my arguments then was centred on sectarianism and the UDR. I am mindful of the reply which the noble Lord's ministerial colleague gave in another place, which in substance the noble Lord has repeated here—and I make no objection to that. The Minister in another place said: I want to take the opportunity of the debate to make it clear that discrimination on grounds of race, religion, colour or any other grounds by members of any regiment or service of the armed forces in their dealings with other service men or with the public would not be tolerated and would be viewed extremely seriously".—[Official Report, Commons, 10/4/85; col. 452.]

I spoke on the grounds of what I had read; and my bible on these matters does not derive from pressures from outside. My interest had been awakened by what I had read; I made inquiries, and the line of my honourable friend Mr. Kevin McNamara on the argument about discrimination dealt with sectarianism. I was struck, as no doubt the advisers to the Minister, if not the Minister himself, were struck, by an article in the Observer last Sunday which was headed, "Blacks in the Army: The Thin White Line". The article begins: At the Trooping the Colour ceremony next Saturday, it will be hard to spot a black face among the Guardsmen. Nor is it easy to find a black Army officer—or even a black NCO. In a special Observer investigation, Paul Lashmar and Arlen Hams reveal that there is widespread racial prejudice in the Army that keeps black Britons out of 'prestige' regiments, like the Guards, and stifles their progress up the ranks".

The Minister will understand that I was interested in what the article had to say and I believe that the House will also be interested in it. It reads: As the elite Guards regiments march by the Queen at next Saturday's Trooping the Colour, the casual observer may be aware of one curious fact. There is about as much chance of a black or brown face featuring among the 2,000-odd soldiers on parade as a Guardsman who is only five feet tall. The reason is simple. The seven regiments of the Household Division—protectors of the Royal Family, Colonel in Chief Her Majesty the Queen—operate an unofficial colour bar. The Ministry of Defence denies its existence"— and of course the Minister did, too— But the fact remains that you do not see a black or Asian Guardsman outside Buckingham Palace or on ceremonial duty. The Guards refuse to reflect today's multi-racial society in which there are at least two million people of Afro-Caribbean and Asian origin—over 4 per cent. of the population. One serving senior Guards NCO told us: 'There are no blacks in the Guards. There have never been and never will be. People do not want to see a black face under a bearskin. Blacks are generally persuaded to go elsewhere.' A Guards officer who left recently told us: 'Blacks do not get to the depot. It has become a tradition not to have blacks.' He added, apparently unaware of the illogicality of his statement: 'There is no racial discrimination' ".

There is much more that I am tempted to read, and this will depend on the reply from the Minister, but there are quite clear instances of harassment, racial prejudice and bigotry reported by black men, and in one instance a black woman, from their own experience.

The Minister may tell us, as his colleague in another place told us, that this is not a matter of policy; and yet the facts remain. The Minister needs to tell the House that not only is racial prejudice not practised but that all the other opportunities that can be taken by the MoD are taken to ensure that those who belong to an ethnic minority are provided with exactly the same opportunities as others to serve in the regiment of their choice.

Of course, I understand that there are regiments of a local character which recruit from within their own catchment area and in which there may be fewer black or ethnic minority citizens in comparison with other regiments. There may also be policy criteria such as the height of the servicemen and so on. Clearly, we are not arguing that a person who is black ought to be advantaged by comparison with someone else in matters about which there can be no complaint. However, I want the Minister to explain to the House that the points made in this article are not only capable of being rebutted but have been rebutted and that the evidence mentioned in the newspaper has actually been called for and investigated. If that is the case and the evidence has been investigated, I want the Minister to tell us the true situation.

The Minister knows that in addition to the area of the armed forces there are other sectors in our public life—and I am thinking in particular of the police—where at one time it would have been beyond belief that such things as a colour bar or racial prejudice existed. Such a thing could not have been contemplated. But we know that over the years instances of such prejudices have appeared in the courts. We all recognise this sad fact. Such instances are not to be blown out of proportion, but they are a fact of life. Racial prejudice exists. This article tells us that it exists to a disquieting degree in some branches of the armed forces. I invite the Minister to respond to the amendment that I have moved in terms that will satisfy me and others outside the House that this article is ill founded and not well based. I beg to move.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, I do not think that this is a subject that was dealt with by the Select Committee. Nevertheless, the noble Lord, Lord Graham, has done well to give the Minister an opportunity to comment on the points that he has made and on the article which has aroused a great deal of interest. We want to be quite assured by the Minister that there is not discrimination such as the noble Lord, Lord Graham, described.

I am bound to say that I think the amendment goes a little wide. To make it a criminal offence to ridicule someone for their political beliefs has some remarkable implications for those of us in this House. I am thinking in particular of the relationship between the militants and the moderates in the Labour Party. Under this amendment I think that Mr. Kinnock may be very easily convicted. As a matter of fact I recall that when I was in the ranks of the army I was a Labour candidate for Parliament. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Graham, that this exposed me to a great deal of ridicule, but I should not have wished those who ridiculed me to have been subjected to criminal proceedings. That would have been carrying things too far. Nevertheless, seriously, the noble Lord, Lord Graham, has raised an important point and given the Minister an opportunity to reassure the House, on this matter.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, on the last occasion that your Lordships met to discuss the Bill we considered an amendment not dissimilar to the one before us today. At that time I stressed that all forms of discrimination by members of the armed forces whether on racial, religious, sex or other grounds would not be tolerated regardless of whether the victims of such discrimination were members of the public or other servicemen. I explained the various statutory safeguards in the Race Relations Act, the Service Discipline Acts and the code of practice on the treatment and questioning of persons by the service police which apply to the armed forces both in their internal discipline and to their recruitment practices. I am fully satisfied that these provisions are more than adequate to make it quite clear that racial or other discrimination within the armed forces will not be tolerated and will be most firmly dealt with if any instances of such behaviour were to be discovered. I do not believe that the noble Lord's amendment would contribute anything useful to our efforts to prevent discrimination, but I agree with him that such discrimination is to be utterly condemned.

Perhaps I may just touch on the article to which the noble Lord referred. The entire armed forces, as I said, operate a policy of non-discrimination and no form of discrimination is tolerated in any regiment or unit. Recruitment and promotion are achieved by merit alone. I can do no more than stress that there are equal opportunities for those of equal ability, regardless of ethnic origin. I hope that those clear assurances and declarations of the Government's and the armed forces' policy in those areas will reassure both noble Lords.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, methinks the Minister doth protest too much. He is saying that there is a creed that all advancement is on merit. Over the coming weeks he will need to consider Answers to the Questions that I shall table. We are led to believe that those with a black skin or of ethnic minority are persistently and universally in comparison with white people less able and inferior, and that is a matter of serious concern.

The Minister says that the Government have tried to abolish the practices mentioned in the article. I invite him, with the leave of the House, to comment further. Damning and damaging statements are made in the article, and he has not rebutted them. Eight or nine cases are mentioned. Next week's Observer may carry a statement dealing with those eight or nine cases, and that arrangement might satisfy me. But let me read to the House two quotes from the article which are of deep interest: Perhaps most damning is the poor comparison the British Army makes with its American counterpart. The US Army runs a highly-successful equal opportunity policy and blacks in the American Forces face little of the racism suffered by their British colleagues. One retired black American officer, Major-General Roger Blunt, a West Point graduate, told us: 'The British experience is 30 years behind America'. Leading US social scientist Charles C. Moskos reports that blacks now make up 30 per cent. of the US Army's 776,000 men and women. And at a banquet held in Washington in 1982 for black officers of flag rank, there were 76 black generals and admirals present". Of course the numbers are completely different and the ethnic mix in America is different, but we are catching up. If the Government rest their argument on the premise that it is completely different, I disagree. It is possible to compare our practices with those in America provided that one builds in certain qualifications.

Let me give one final illustration: Evan Virtue left the Royal Green Jackets two years ago after 11 years' service, thoroughly disillusioned by his experiences. He believes that it is virtually impossible for a black soldier to rise above the rank of corporal, no matter how long he has served. Originally from Jamaica, Virtue had wanted to be a soldier from the age of five. He joined the regiment in 1973 at the age of 17 straight from his south London school. He was a crack pistol shot and represented the British Army in a number of shooting competitions. He also completed three tours of Northern Ireland. Virtue was promoted three times to lance-corporal and 'busted'—demoted—each time. Promoted to lance-corporal, he was twice recommended by his immediate superior for promotion to corporal and passed his sergeant's exam. On both occasions his promotion was turned down. 'The simple truth was that they did not want black sergeants in the battalion. But what used to get to me more than anything was that you would be part of a group of men that you were prepared to die for if necessary and then one of them would turn round and call you a coon or a nigger' ". That is now in public print. I should have thought that the least the Minister could say was that he takes a serious view of what was said, particularly as it has caused an investigation to be made and the man to be interviewed, and that he will write to me.

There are other parliamentary means whereby I can pursue the matter. I am disappointed with his reply. It is as bland as his replies to me on the issue at Committee stage.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, before we close the discussion let me put two further points to the Minister. I do not doubt his sincere intention to avoid all forms of racial discrimination in the forces, but he must concede that there is a problem. There is a disproportionate lack of coloured people in the armed services. I ask him to give us the reasons, which he did not do in his reply. No doubt there are many perfectly straightforward reasons, but we should like him to tell us what they are.

My second point is this. The problem is well recognised by the police, and the police are making special effort to increase the recruitment of coloured people. Is the Ministry of Defence making a similar effort? This is a subject to which we may well return. We have the Defence Estimates ahead. I should like the Minister to reassure us (perhaps not now) that his ministry has made a thorough investigation of the reasons for the disproportionate lack of coloured entrants and that special steps are being taken by the ministry to overcome the problem.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, the Minister is not replying. Therefore I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 5 not moved.]

Viscount Long

My Lords, I beg to move that this House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.30 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.18 to 8.30 p.m.]

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