HL Deb 23 June 1992 vol 538 cc387-97

3.26 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Viscount Cranborne) rose to move that the draft order laid before the House on 1st June be approved [1st Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I beg to move. The purpose of the order is to continue in force for a further year the Army and Air Force Acts 1955 and the Naval Discipline Act 1957, which together, as your Lordships know, provide the basis for the disciplinary arrangements of all three services. The idea of annual parliamentary approval of the special legal position of the serviceman, who, as your Lordships also know, is subject to the constraints of military discipline as well as to the rule of civil law, is a long-established one in British constitutional practice. Every five years the service disciplinary system is reviewed in depth and an armed forces Act is passed making such amendments to those systems as are considered necessary. Such an Act, your Lordships will remember, was passed in July last year and is known as the Armed Forces Act 1991.

The Select Committee in another place which considered the Armed Forces Bill made a number of recommendations in its report published in April last year. With the leave of your Lordships, I suggest therefore that it would be an ideal opportunity in this debate on the three service discipline Acts to try to respond to the committee's principal recommendations, as was done by my honourable friend the Minister of State in another place on 17th June.

Undoubtedly the most controversial issue discussed by the Select Committee related to homosexuality among members of the armed forces. Your Lordships will be aware that it is the Ministry of Defence's policy that homosexuality or homosexual activity is incompatible with service life. Your Lordships will also be aware that the Select Committee acknowledged this policy and agreed that the armed forces should not be required to accept homosexuals. However, it recommended that homosexual activity of a kind that is legal in civilian law should not be an offence in service law. After very careful consideration by the service personnel authorities both they and Ministers have concluded that the recommendation should be accepted.

This announcement has of course been the subject of a good deal of publicity and comment, as your Lordships will be aware. For these reasons, if no other, I feel it is important that I should give a careful explanation of the effects of the decision that the Ministry of Defence has taken. The Sexual Offences Act 1967 which allowed homosexual acts between consenting males over the age of 21 in private, many provisions of which were initiated and debated in your Lordships' House, did not extend to the armed forces, and it has been possible, though rare, for service prosecutions to be brought for offences which are not illegal in civilian life. The Government's view now is that such prosecutions should not be brought and that the special provisions of Section 1(5) of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 relating to the armed forces should not apply. Action will be taken to repeal that part of the Act as soon as the legislative programme allows. The ministry regards that as a sensible measure of decriminalisation which will align service and civilian law more closely.

However, that does not mean that the policy of the Ministry of Defence towards the acceptance of homosexual activity within the armed forces has changed or that no serviceman or servicewoman can ever be prosecuted for a sexual offence which involves a homosexual relationship. Your Lordships will be aware that military life has particular characteristics. It is the Government's view that homosexuality remains incompatible with service in the armed forces, and men and women who are involved in homosexual activity will continue to be discharged administratively, whether or not they are charged with any offence. Where a serviceman or servicewoman has committed an act that is a criminal offence in civil life, or has committed an act which is a breach of service discipline, then a service prosecution will still remain possible. It is important to be aware that in service life, especially when homosexual acts may take place between two people of different rank, an element of coercion is always possible. That is something of which the monitoring authorities must be aware and against which they must guard.

I should like to turn now to the related subjects of ethnic monitoring, racial harassment and racial discrimination. The Select Committee recommended that the MoD considers how best to identify incidents of racial harassment in the armed forces and to keep records accordingly. It also recommended that the Ministry should reconsider its opposition to the ethnic monitoring of service personnel. On that latter point, I am happy to repeat the announcement made on 14th May in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces in which he stated that we shall be extending to service personnel our present practice of monitoring the ethnic origin of applicants to the three services. The announcement I made at a press conference soon after that announcement was made in another place has been well received in a number of quarters, especially by listeners to ethnic minority radio stations and programmes. It is important that we follow up that initiative as soon as practicable.

On the questions of racial harassment and discrimination, I remind your Lordships that it is the armed forces' clear policy that no form of racial discrimination is tolerated. In view of recent publicity, it is essential that I underline that point. Any complaint of discrimination or harassment by a serviceman or servicewoman will be investigated fully under the redress of grievance procedures laid down in the Service Discipline Acts. When the committee considered the recording of the incidents of racial harassment, it recognised the difficulty of identifying cases of bullying or ill-treatment in which race was the determining factor. In common with civilian law, the Service Discipline Acts do not contain any specific offence of racial harassment. However, the Army records centrally all complaints of assault or other ill-treatment, and records separately those cases in which there is clearly racial motivation. The Navy and the RAF will introduce similar central recording arrangements in September and August this year respectively. I need hardly say that, apart from any question of racial abuse, bullying is itself regarded as a serious matter. It has been made clear throughout the services that bullying and ill-treatment will not be tolerated.

There are two other matters addressed by the Select Committee to which I shall draw attention. One relates to the detention of service personnel. The committee recommended that a timetable be announced for the closure of RN Detention Quarters at Portsmouth and the transfer of the facility to the Military Corrective Training Centre at Colchester. I can confirm that, as is usually the case, a rigorous investment appraisal is being undertaken to establish the costs and benefits of such a step. I hope that that appraisal will be completed by the end of July this year. Were the transfer to take place, a certain amount of building work at Colchester would be required. For that reason, the existing detention quarters at Portsmouth will continue to be used until 1994 or early 1995.

The committee also recommended that the services ensure equality of sentencing between men and women. That followed a visit to the Colchester centre where detention facilities for women are now available. I can assure the House that it has always been the intention of the armed forces to follow an equal sentencing policy. The provision of those specific facilities for women gives added practical effect to that policy.

Secondly, I wish to mention two recommendations about the employment of young people which are receiving careful consideration within the MoD. First, the committee expressed the view that people under 18 should not be sent on active service unless there was an overriding requirement for their skills or the threat to national security warranted the conscription of minors. All three services believe that their deployment of under-18s is broadly consistent with the Select Committee's view, but the matter remains under consideration and constant review. Secondly, the committee also recommended that the MoD examines the terms of enlistment for under-18 year-olds and brings forward proposals for change within 12 months. We are also carefully considering that recommendation.

I am conscious that I am taking up a great deal of your Lordships' time, but there is a series of important matters which I wish to draw to your Lordships' attention. There are other matters of which anyone who reads the Select Committee's report will be aware and which I have not mentioned. I should welcome it if your Lordships wish to speak to any of them. It is the MoD's intention to deal with those outstanding matters in writing. My right honourable friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces will therefore write to the Leaders of both Houses as soon as possible.

I should like to conclude my remarks by paying a heartfelt tribute to the professionalism and dedication of the men and women who serve in our armed forces. It is universally recognised that we are extremely fortunate that the traditions and skills of our armed services are without parallel. I have no doubt that that effectiveness which is constantly improving is enhanced by the fair and equitable system of discipline that operates in the Navy, Army and Air Force with the consequent high morale that that engenders. That system of discipline is founded upon the three Service Discipline Acts. I therefore beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 1st June be approved [1st Report from the Joint Committee]—(Viscount Cranborne.)

3.39 p.m.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, for the trouble he has taken in presenting the order and for the full explanations he gave. He will know that there was a general welcome in the other place on all sides of the House for the order. However, that does not mean that there are no questions. On matters such as harassment and bullying the committee would have liked to have been given an indication of the figures in the period, 1991 to 1992.

In his speech, the Minister tended to separate the two, harassment being racial harassment and bullying being different. Perhaps that is not the case. I believe that there is a difference but it applies not only to the ethnic minorities. A point was raised in another place on the figures for ethnic minorities. Whereas 5 per cent. of the population of this country are from ethnic minority groups, only about 1 per cent. of the personnel in the forces are from that group. I suppose that we and the Minister must hope that time will overcome the problem.

Another point which the Minister did not mention which was raised in another place is the presence of senior NCOs at courts martial. There seems to be a feeling of slight disbelief that the mere fact that junior officers are officers overrides the need for NCOs to be present at their courts martial. The feeling was well accepted, I believe, that as senior NCOs have a far greater knowledge of the men immediately under them, they should be able to make an invaluable contribution to courts martial.

These are the only points about which I have been asked. From what we have heard, I believe it would be helpful if these matters could be dealt with in future discussions when the time comes for revision.

Lastly, can the Minister give an indication as to when legislation on decriminalisation of homosexuality will be possible? As he said, that was the aspect which received headlines in the newspapers, and I am sure that it is important to many people in the armed forces.

3.42 p.m.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, I believe that my noble friends would wish me to congratulate the Government on the positive way in which they have reacted to the recommendations of the Select Committee on Defence. I should have liked to hear that the Government were also reacting to points made in this House over many years. I have no doubt that we also influence the Government, albeit in a smaller way. Not only do we make these points year after year, but in some cases we made them before the recommendations of the Select Committee.

The order gives us on these Benches the chance to pay tribute to the servicemen and servicewomen of all ranks who have continued for another 12 months to give this country their dedicated professional service.

We gladly support the order, knowing that discipline and good order are essential to effective and rewarding service life.

I wish to ask only a few questions of the noble Viscount. Decriminalisation of homosexuality has been debated many times in this House and is a familiar subject. I do not know what excuse the Government will produce for not introducing such legislation soon in view of the empty months ahead in the Government's legislative programme. No doubt when the legislation comes before the House, we shall go more deeply into the subject of homosexuality in the forces. It is not simple; in my view not even as simple as the noble Viscount indicated.

Whereas open homosexuality and homosexual practices are not to be tolerated in the forces any more now than in the past, it is not clear to me that the non-practising homosexual predisposition is not also a barrier to service life. It is more difficult to decide whether homosexual orientation should be a barrier to service. It is debatable and should be discussed when the Bill comes before the House.

The Select Committee was against even that modest reform. Probably those who have had experience of service life, especially active service, will agree with the Select Committee on the point. Perhaps when he replies the noble Viscount could comment further on it.

The Government deserve congratulation on their handling of bullying since the matter was last debated in the House. It is a fact that steps have been taken and bullying is not as bad as it was. I do not understand why the RAF and the Navy have to wait for the Army on this. Admittedly, I believe that the Army has a bigger problem, but I am surprised to hear from the noble Viscount that the Navy and RAF are only now beginning to address the problem on which the Army has achieved results.

I am also grateful to the noble Viscount for accepting a point made several times over the years in this House, and by the Select Committee, that there should be an extension of racial monitoring. Yet the results are still dismal; I believe that only 1 per cent. of the armed forces are black. I wish the Minister could say more about it. Why are we so far behind the United States on this? It is not only through conscription; the United States has done brilliantly with the racial mixture in its armed forces. Has the Ministry of Defence examined that? Have people been to the United States to investigate the situation? Why can the United States, with much greater racial tensions, do so much better than us?

I wish to ask a further question. Yeltsin's extraordinary suggestion that there may be British prisoners of war in the Soviet Union is hard to believe. It is a terrible thought and the Government must find out whether it has any substance. I have given the noble Viscount notice of the question and I should like him kindly to tell us what the Government are doing to clear up the matter. I am not saying it is true; it seems incredible. However, whether or not it is true, the matter must be cleared up without delay.

From this short debate on the order there emerges again the importance of the Select Committee on Defence of another place to the welfare of the services and to the proper conduct of our defence. Its report has been the foundation of the changes and the committee has done extremely well. It is sad that this House is not represented on it; I suppose that that cannot be allowed. There is a sad contrast between the stringent and disinterested inquiries made by the committee and the work of our own All-Party Committee on Defence in this House.

However, there is some indication that the Government listen to what we say in this House as well as to the Select Committee. We are grateful for that and hope that it will continue.

3.48 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I should be grateful if my noble friend the Minister would further clarify exactly what the Government propose to do on the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in the forces. He will correct me if I am wrong; but, as I understood him, at the moment it remains an offence against military law, although it is intended to introduce amending legislation at some unspecified date in the future. In the interval, while such acts remain criminal, is it intended to issue a statement that the law will not be enforced? If that be so, has my noble friend considered that in principle if the policy is carried out for any length of time, it will be an unfortunate state of affairs?

If an act is criminal under the law, for the Government to say they do not propose in any case to prosecute would be, from a lawyer's point of view, quite a serious matter. I hope my noble friend will deal with that matter. If I understand him aright, when the amending legislation comes, it will provide that most military law, and the law of the other services, will be the same as the law applicable to civilians. That is to say, the same age limit for such acts —I believe it is 21 —will apply. In the cases where a prosecution would take place if the persons concerned were civilians—that is to say, if they were under 21—a prosecution would still take place. But in the case where, because of the amendment, although homosexual acts have been committed there has been no prosecution, if I understood my noble friend aright it would be intended to dismiss from the services both the parties. Is that right?

If that is right, I put to my noble friend a problem which it seems to me will arise. If the penalty for these acts is to be dismissal from the service, we must be sure that the evidence supporting the charge is adequate. If there were a prosecution, that is secured by the ordinary working of the law, but if there is just to be dismissal without a prosecution, will my noble friend say what steps will be taken to ascertain the truth of the allegation that such acts have been committed? To many serving members of all three services, dismissal from the service is a serious penalty. I hope my noble friend can take this matter further. Does dismissal in these circumstances involve forfeiture of pension rights? I hope my noble friend can clear that point up.

I have a further question of a totally different nature. How far does the present law and its proposed changes apply to the Gurkhas? Are they subject to exactly the same military law as the rest of the forces or is there some special separate provision in respect of them? I am unaware of the answer to that question; but in view of the special habits and customs of members of that fine regiment, some aspects of the legal system may be different.

I was glad to hear my noble friend pay a proper and nicely expressed tribute to the serving members of the forces generally. I would add that this good demeanour, this acceptance of a situation and courage in facing difficulties is all the more important in the light of the real problems being imposed, particularly on the Army, by the reduction in numbers. A number of units, including a unit in which I once served, are losing their second battalion. That is an immensely serious matter for any unit. Apart from involving redundancies for a number of people, it means that the number of appointments of commanding officers, adjutants and others is halved. The Army is being subjected to great stresses. I have always had my doubts as to whether the Government were not going too far in this respect. I doubt that the world situation is all that safer than it was, but in any event—I do not think my noble friend will dispute this—this action which the Government are taking is imposing considerable stress and a good deal of unhappiness upon a great many units. It is therefore all the more justifiable and right to pay tribute to the courage, devotion to duty and sense of discipline which the units are showing.

3.55 p.m.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall try to answer the points which various noble Lords have made in this debate. I must say how grateful I am to those who have spoken for their welcome of the main thrust of the Government's response to the Select Committee in another place. It was remiss of me—I freely admit this to the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew—not to acknowledge that perhaps the Select Committee in another place is merely going where, as is so often the case, your Lordships' House has gone before. I am grateful to the noble Lord for pointing something out that I should have pointed out during the course of my remarks.

Noble Lords raised a number of points. First, I shall address myself to the points raised by my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter. My noble friend and, I believe, the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, asked when the Government would be able to introduce the legislation to which I referred. The short answer is —I apologise for its imprecision—as soon as is practicable. I hope this means precisely what it says because it is clearly unhelpful if the law in existence does not reflect the action that is taken in everyday life in respect of the matter to which it addresses itself.

I must also say to my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter that at present in changing the law we are doing no more than catching up with what is in effect existing practice. The present system in so far as is possible is that practising homosexuals are administratively discharged. Such a fact is registered on the officer's discharge papers, if the case concerns an officer. I believe the phrase for other ranks is "services no longer required". The services take great care to try to ensure that this device does not leave a black mark on the records of ex-servicemen, particularly as they will be trying to find employment in civilian life. Many noble Lords who have had occasion to look at the remarkable encomiums produced by commanding officers for former servicemen will realise that, if anything, they tend to err on the side of over-praise.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, before my noble friend leaves that point, will he also answer my question as to whether personnel discharged under that provision forfeit their pension rights?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, as far as I am aware, that is not so. As regards my noble friend's question about the Gurkhas, I am advised that they are subject to the same rules under this head as the rest of the armed services. I also wish to add—this gives me an opportunity to reinforce a point made by my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter—that morale during what is unquestionably a difficult period for the armed forces, with the beginnings of the draw-down as a result of the Options for Change paper, is in my limited experience remarkable. That factor more than anything else bears witness to the extraordinary professionalism of our armed forces. During these periods of great stress they are able to perform their duties with no apparent ill effects on the professionalism and standards which we have come to expect of them.

I should like now to address myself to a number of other points made by noble Lords. First, on the question of NCOs taking part in courts martial, I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove, that the matter was last fully considered as long ago as 1985. The review concluded that the existing system commanded a high degree of confidence in the services among all ranks. In those circumstances perhaps the old saw, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it", should apply. Nevertheless, it is clear that there is an argument here, but at present there is no proposal to change the system.

I turn now to the question of ethnic monitoring to which both noble Lords who spoke for their respective parties drew attention. The noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, and the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, mentioned the fact that the Army and the other two services have made considerable efforts to make sure that bullying will become a thing of the past. Perhaps it is worth my quoting the recent figures for allegations of bullying which have been substantiated by courts because your Lordships will be gratified by the trend that those figures reveal, particularly in the light of the amount of publicity which has been given of late to particular cases. I shall not weary your Lordships by going back a great many years. But in 1987 there were 31 cases; in 1988, 17 cases; in 1989, 25 cases; in 1990, 11 cases; in 1991, six cases; and in 1992 so far there have been two cases only. It would be nice if those two cases turned out to be the only ones.

The noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, drew attention to the very low proportion of people from ethnic minorities who are members of the armed services. I am grateful to the noble Lord for having given me notice of his question. He rightly said that only 1.4 per cent. of applicants come from ethnic minorities and that 1 per cent. of entrants come from the same group: why are the Americans apparently so much more successful than we are? I cannot speak for the United States except in so far as I was able to make observations when I lived there for an extensive period. If your Lordships will allow me a moment of speculation, I gained the impression that membership of the armed forces, and the army in particular, in the United States was seen by blacks very much as a means of social and professional advancement, perhaps rather more so than here. As a result there is the very gratifying result that the head of the American armed forces at present is someone who is not only from an ethnic minority but who was also born a subject of the Queen.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount for allowing me to intervene. Before he leaves that point can he say why it is that blacks in America see the armed forces as a route to professional and social advancement when that is not the case here? Why do we not invite some of their excellent black generals and air marshalls over here to tell the Ministry of Defence what to do?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, your Lordships will be aware that the relationship between the armed forces of America and the armed forces of this country are very close and that matters of almost every nature are discussed regularly between them. One of the principal reasons for our making the announcement to which I referred earlier is to try to make sure that members of ethnic minorities living in this country realise that there is a fine career for them in the armed forces and that the armed forces welcome them, not only as ordinary private soldiers or ordinary seamen but also see them working their way up the career ladder in exactly the same way as anyone else. I agree with the noble Lord that there are many talented people from the ethnic minorities who the armed forces could use.

I am conscious of the time, but if your Lordships will allow me I should like to refer to the question which the noble Lord raised concerning the possibility that British prisoners of war are still alive and in custody in Russian labour camps. We have seen no evidence to support such claims. There is a list of about 100 names of combatants in the Korean war of whom there is no trace. However, clearly the possibility of such an eventuality as the noble Lord suggested is so horrific that it is incumbent upon Her Majesty's Government to make sure as far as is possible that no such prisoners are still alive and in custody.

I assure your Lordships that we are in touch with the American authorities in order to gather all the information that we can. We shall continue to co-operate in that way. I stress that we do not wish to raise false hopes. That would be cruel. However, we must examine with the greatest of care any material or evidence that comes to light and act on it as swiftly as possible. The relative new openness in Russia can perhaps provide more information, if such information is available, and we intend to take full advantage of it.

I hope that your Lordships will forgive me for taking so much time. It has been a worthwhile debate. A number of important issues have been raised. There will he other opportunities to discuss them when the legislation to which I referred is brought before your Lordships' House. In the meantime I commend the order to your Lordships.

On Question, Motion agreed to.