HL Deb 18 July 1994 vol 557 cc106-16

7.45 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretery of State, Ministry of Defence (Viscount Cranborne) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 23rd May be approved [21st Report from the Joint Committee]

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, 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 provide the statutory basis for the disciplinary arrangements of the three services.

As noble Lords know, it is a long-established practice that the Services' disciplinary system is fully reviewed every five years through the consideration of an Armed Forces Bill and an Armed Forces Act is passed making such amendments to that system as are considered necessary. In each of the four intervening years the disciplinary code is reviewed annually by an Order in Council. The last Armed Forces Act was passed in 1991.

With the leave of the House, I wonder whether noble Lords would allow me to follow previous precedent and take the opportunity of this debate on the three service discipline Acts to mention a very small number of subjects in my opening remarks that are being undertaken in the Armed Services on disciplinary and personnel matters.

Perhaps I may begin with homosexuality. Noble Lords will remember that the Select Committee in another place recommended, and the Government indeed accepted, that homosexual activity of a kind that is legal in civilian law should not constitute an offence under service law. In announcing acceptance of that recommendation, the Government stated that Section 1(5) of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 would be repealed as soon as the legislative programme allowed. As noble Lords are aware, that legislative opportunity presented itself through the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, and Clauses 144 and 145 of that Bill seek to achieve the repeal of Section 1(5) of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 and corresponding provisions in respect of Scotland and Northern Ireland.

We debated this matter in Committee, where the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lord Boardman was carried. We have now reflected on this and have tabled further amendments which are designed to tidy up the amendments carried in Committee. It would perhaps be otiose to anticipate the debate which we expect to have tomorrow at Third Reading. Therefore, with your Lordships' permission, I shall not say anything further on this subject, except to treat this occasion as something of a trailer to tomorrow's proceedings.

Noble Lords will also be pleased to know that the new tri-service guidelines on dealing with homosexuality in the Armed Forces were distributed down through the services' chain of command in March and a copy was placed in the Library of the House on 22nd April.

Perhaps I may emphasise to the House, as I have done on several previous occasions, that it remains the firm policy of the Armed Services not to accept homosexuals or homosexual activity within the Armed Forces. That policy is made clear to all applicants when they first apply. Service personnel are no longer prosecuted for homosexual acts that are legal in civilian law provided that no other service offence has been committed.

I turn now to the question of ethnic monitoring—a subject that has come up a number of times before in the debates in this House. I told the House last year that we intended to introduce in-service ethnic monitoring later on in 1993 and that that would begin with an ethnic origin survey. I am sure that noble Lords will be interested to hear that instructions on in-service ethnic monitoring and the code of practice on race relations in the Armed Forces were distributed throughout the services in December 1993. So we just made the deadline.

I can also advise the House that the ethnic origin survey began last December and was completed in May. Questionnaires were distributed to all regular personnel, with the obvious exception of the Brigade of Gurkhas. Completed questionnaires are being returned. Later this year they will be analysed and appropriate statistics compiled. The speed of response has been variable. Your Lordships may be interested to know that so far, of those distributed to the RAF 67 per cent. have been returned, of those distributed to the Navy 55 per cent. have been returned and of those sent to the Army 48 per cent. have come back.

The information obtained from the survey will allow us to establish the numbers and ranks of ethnic minority personnel in the Armed Forces and will also enable the services to monitor their equal opportunity policy, for example, by checking whether ethnic minority personnel are achieving the same promotion rates as their white counterparts. The ethnic origin information will remain strictly confidential and will be used only for monitoring the Armed Forces policy of equal opportunities for all personnel, whatever their racial origin.

We intend that statistical analyses of the ethnic origins of serving personnel by service and rank group will be published in due course in UK Defence Statistics, which is the statistical publication that accompanies the annual statement on the Defence Estimates.

The ethnic minorities continue to be under-represented among applicants and indeed entrants to the Armed Forces, despite strenuous efforts made by the services to encourage their recruitment. However, the services will continue to introduce a range of measures aimed at increasing ethnic minority recruitment and will also continue to monitor the ethnic composition of applicants to the Armed Forces. All of the services' recruiting organisations have an officer responsible for ethnic minority recruitment matters and all three services have ethnic minority awareness training for recruiting staff.

The services are fully integrated, non-discriminatory organisations. They are also subject to the Race Relations Act 1976. It has been made quite clear throughout the Armed Forces that racial abuse or discrimination of any sort will not be tolerated. Any complaint by a member of the Armed Forces concerning his or her treatment will be thoroughly investigated under the redress of grievance procedures provided for in the service Discipline Acts that we are discussing. If the complaint is substantiated, appropriate action will be taken against those found to be involved.

Although complaints are generally dealt with by the commanding officer, if a complaint cannot be resolved at that level or if the complainant is dissatisfied, the complaint may be referred up the chain of command and ultimately to the appropriate service board. The Army and the Royal Air Force already keep a record of complaints which involve a racial element and the Royal Navy expects to introduce a similar reporting system soon.

Your Lordships will be aware that women have always undertaken a wide variety of duties in the services and that over the past few years their employment opportunities have been widened. They now represent nearly 7 per cent. of the total strength and very few roles remain closed to them. Women entering the services now have the same opportunities to pursue careers which qualify them for a wider range of the most senior posts at one-star rank and above. The highest rank held at present by a woman is that of brigadier or equivalent. In fact, there are five of them.

Your Lordships may be aware that during the Gulf conflict over 1,000 women served in a variety of roles, including aboard Royal Navy ships. Women also served with the United Nations peacekeeping forces and are serving in the former Yugoslavia and Cyprus. They are now able to serve as air crew in all three services. The Navy has one female pilot under training and seven women under observer training. The Army has two trained women pilots in the Army Air Corps and a further two are in training. The Royal Air Force has three women pilots, two on multi-engined aircraft and one on rotary wing aircraft. Eleven female navigators have also entered service on multi-engined aircraft. A further 29 pilots and 14 navigators are under training. The Army is revising its policy on the employment of women to increase further their employment and indeed deployment opportunities.

I mentioned last year that the Army was developing proposals for the introduction of what has been called gender-free physical testing. The Army hopes to introduce that into the service in spring 1995. It will enable physical capacity rather than sex to determine suitability for a particular specialisation. Gender-free testing is not a policy in itself but will be an aid to determining suitability for a particular role according to physical capacity. The Armed Forces are of course continuing their work to remove remaining differences in the terms and conditions of service of men and women wherever that is possible.

Before I finish, I should like to take the opportunity to pay tribute—I know that your Lordships will wish to be associated with it—to all the men and women who serve in our Armed Forces. It is very much to their credit that at a time of unprecedented change for them their morale, dedication and professionalism have never wavered. It is important to remember that in order that they can continue to be as effective as they are, particularly in the face of danger in areas such as Northern Ireland and the former Yugoslavia, we should do our very best to support them, introducing an element of stability which will put their minds at rest about the future of their careers after the turbulence of the past few years and months. Part of their effectiveness is undoubtedly based on the fair and equitable system of discipline that operates in the Navy, Army and Air Force and the consequent high morale that that engenders. That system of discipline is founded upon the three service Discipline Acts. Therefore, I ask your Lordships to approve the draft order laid before the House on 23rd May. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 23rd May be approved [21st Report from the Joint Committee].—(Viscount Cranborne.)

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I apologise to the House and particularly to the Minister for the absence of my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel who unfortunately has to be elsewhere. I have spoken on these matters from these Benches in the past and I am now very pleased indeed to have the opportunity to come back to issues in which I have always taken a keen interest.

Let me begin where the noble Viscount ended; namely, his valedictory remarks about the service that this country receives from its servicemen and servicewomen. This is a fine opportunity to pay tribute to our Armed Forces. We have celebrated and commemorated the events of D-Day and I know that the Minister played a major role in serving his country. He is to be congratulated on the success of the organisation with which he was involved. This House is not short of men and women who, when younger, served in the forces and continue to take a sharp interest in the welfare of those who now serve in those forces. There is not a whisper in the country against the quality and loyalty of any elements of the services. I myself served in the forces during the Second World War. There were times when criticism was made about the behaviour of personnel, unruliness and on occasion the attitudes taken. However, to the best of my knowledge at this time the standing of our forces is as high if not higher than it has ever been in the past. The Minister and his colleagues can be satisfied and grateful about that.

Quite rightly, the noble Viscount told us that the discipline in the services owes much to the framework of the Acts that are under discussion tonight. Nevertheless, the debate provides us with the opportunity to ask questions. I know that the Minister will have come to the House prepared to deal with them.

In his speech, the Minister spent some time on the introduction in December 1993 of an ethnic monitoring survey. Clearly it is far too early to draw conclusions from any data that have been collected. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what kind of consultation took place, for instance, with not merely the Commission for Racial Equality which was consulted, but with any of the groups putting themselves forward as representing ethnic minorities. I think particularly of those who are not merely part of an umbrella organisation like the Commission for Racial Equality, but others who say that they represent the views of black people, Cypriots or West Indians. There must be a range of bodies and I wonder to what extent they were consulted.

I am sure that the Government must be as puzzled as we are when looking at the disappointing shortfall that exists between the potential numbers of ethnic minorities that could be recruited and those who are recruited. I am sure that the Minister must be disappointed that, despite pay and conditions which, if not of the highest, are certainly at as high a level as they have ever been, and despite the undoubted loyalty of ethnic minority groups to the flag and the state, the proportion of ethnic minorities in the services is exceedingly low.

Of course we are talking of volunteers; about people who want to serve. Therefore two questions arise. Why are we unable to make it more attractive for those in ethnic minority groups to serve in the forces? Does the Minister have any idea of the reasons for the reluctance on the part of those in ethnic minority groups to come forward and serve in this way?

The Minister raised the question of the extent to which women now serve in our forces. Having served in the Second World War I can say that percentage-wise the ratio was considerably higher at that lime. We are told that 7 per cent. of the total strength of the Armed Forces is made up of women. Clearly 7 per cent.— meaning that 93 per cent. are men—does not reflect the balance of the sexes in the community. Does the Minister have any target in that regard? I think he will agree that 7 per cent. is too low. What kind of figure will he accept as being reasonable? Is it 20 per cent., 30 per cent. or what? Does the Minister have any comparison of figures to give the House in relation to the proportion of women in the services in, for instance, America, France or Germany? If they have been more successful in inducing women to serve, what techniques do they use?

The Minister referred to the Navy. I shall be interested to know whether the small proportion of women who want to go to sea to serve can be strengthened. We have gone past the days when a furore broke out over this aspect of women's service. Two years ago when, for the first time, women were allowed to go to sea, all sorts of tales were raised as to what may happen. I am not asking whether or not anything did happen because from time to time the newspapers tell us. But can the Minister say whether or not the Government are endeavouring to increase the proportion of women who serve in the Navy?

The Minister quite rightly drew attention to the hiatus in the intentions of the Government to deal with Section 1(5) of the Sexual Offences Act. I am a little puzzled. He made reference to the amendments to be moved tomorrow designed to tidy up the legislation. Does that mean that there will be an attempt to negative the purport of the amendment carried against the Government's wishes by the noble Lord, Lord Boardman? I see also that in the Commons the Minister said that what happens in this Chamber will have no impact on the Government's intentions.

I shall not be drawn into the decriminalisation aspect, which is what the Government intended and what the noble Lord, Lord Boardman, and his colleagues sought to correct. But I shall be grateful if the Minister will spend a minute or two telling the House whether what was carried in this House on the Criminal Justice Bill at Report stage has any meaning and whether any amendments at all passed in your Lordships' House at Report stage have any meaning.

Perhaps the Minister can say something in relation to the incidence of drinking. It is a social problem and something about which the Minister and the Government will share my anxiety in regard to the excesses that occur in the taking of drink or drugs. We know that drug-taking, sadly, is on the increase in society. Drinking is something which has always been associated with certain aspects of the services. Perhaps the Minister can tell us something about that.

Finally, perhaps the Minister can comment on a remark made by my honourable friend in another place, Mr. Eric Martlew, when he said during the fourth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments that in a recent homeless report it was found that one in four people who were sleeping on the streets were ex-service personnel. I do not know how valid that information is. However, it must be a source of worry to the Minister. Is he satisfied that the arrangements that should be in place when servicemen are discharged are in place? A mechanism of some kind is in place; it cannot be perfect. One cannot walk out of the Armed Forces and say, "I do not want this; I do not want that; but I will take the other". Can the noble Viscount tell the House what steps are taken to monitor what happens to ex-servicemen when they leave the services?

Another general question on which the Minister may like to comment is that of prejudice in general to coloured people in our services. It is not a question of the aggravation of percentages. It is a question of hostility. I listened carefully to what the Minister said regarding the intentions of the ministry. But can he say that he and his colleagues are doing more than issuing instructions and guidelines? Is there anything more that they can do?

This is one of those occasions when there is no difference between these Benches and the Government on the need for both the Act and the orders. We thank the Minister for the care he gave in presenting them to us.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, I am sure that we are all agreed that the question of homosexuality in the forces can best be dealt with tomorrow during the Third Reading of the Criminal Justice Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Graham, will find that there is no point of substance here. It is a question of whether or not we put into the Bill the question of administrative discharge. It is a procedural matter.

I was sorry that the noble Viscount took some credit for the Government for putting the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the forces into the Criminal Justice Bill. I put it to him that it was by no initiative of the Government at all; it was an initiative by the defence spokesman of the Liberal Democratic Party to whom he should have paid tribute for his enterprise and wisdom in what he did.

On the question of ethnic monitoring, it is obvious that, when the survey is published and we see the results, we shall be disappointed. That is certain. The situation is appalling. As I understand the last figures published, whereas 5 per cent. of the population is from the ethnic minority groups, only 1 per cent.—perhaps less than that —are in the forces. I wonder why that is.

I had a great deal of experience during the war of working alongside black soldiers in the United States Army. I know that conscription explains a lot; but I cannot understand why, in the United States Army, people from ethnic minority groups are in all the senior posts and yet we cannot do better here in that regard. I am sure that there are ways of improving the situation. I wonder whether we have studied the American experience; whether we have asked for co-operation from highly successful military personnel in the United States Army, Navy and Air Force who are black and whether we have asked them to come here and help us? I am sure more could be done. Perhaps the ministry's new idea, which is a good idea, of closing the recruitment offices and recruiting through the jobcentres may give an opportunity for more recruitment from the ethnic minorities. Something must be done because the situation at the moment is appalling.

The noble Viscount said that promotion results were as good for the ethnic minorities as for the run-of-the-mill recruits and soldiers. That is surprising and welcome. But, heaven knows, we need to make more progress in this field. In this context the noble Viscount described very accurately the machinery of making complaints about assaults and other ill treatment. How many complaints have been made? Is the figure going up or down? How many of them are racially motivated? If the noble Viscount has the facts we should be very glad to see them.

The remark about gender-free physical training fascinated me. Has gender-free physical training been tried anywhere else outside the Armed Forces? We shall all be very interested to see the results. It may in some circumstances help the cause of those who wish to see women playing a bigger part. In other respects it may make them think again. But it is a sensible idea for the Armed Forces and the results will be fascinating. Following up what the noble Lord, Lord Graham, said, how is the project of sending Wrens to sea going? We have heard conflicting reports. I should like the noble Viscount to tell us whether all is well there.

Those are the main questions to which I should like to have answers. I end by saying, as the noble Viscount said, that these have been trying years for the forces. It is not only that Northern Ireland and Bosnia are two of the more unattractive operational tasks for the forces but it is also that they have had this constant uncertainty from repeated, often piecemeal, cuts and reorganisations by the Government. Now they face another one—the noble Viscount did not make it clear. There is the whole question of conditions of service. That is another source of disruption and worry. We are not altogether satisfied by what we hear about the way it is being conducted and we suspect that there is more civilian input than is sensible.

It is a very good tradition on these occasions to pay tribute to the wonderful service that we get in this country from the Armed Forces. It is more sincere than ever when I say that this country owes them a great deal, especially in the unusually difficult circumstances in which they are serving.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, the noble Viscount has been so deluged with questions that I feel diffident about asking one further question, especially as it will take me a moment to explain the context of the question. In the Sex Discrimination Act and in the Race Relations Act the Armed Forces were excluded from the jurisdiction of the ordinary courts, including the industrial tribunals. Parliament took the view in the mid-1970s that it was better for grievances to be redressed internally by the redress of grievance procedures. As a result though of European Community law that exclusion was ended a couple of years ago when the Divisional Court decided that the exclusion would not pass muster under the equal treatment directive.

Consequently, as the noble Viscount knows only too well because of the damage awards that resulted, men and women in the Armed Forces can have their complaints of sex discrimination dealt with in the ordinary way just as the police and prison officers can. But I do not think that that has been applied to complaints under the Race Relations Act. Whereas in the past the Government have very wisely decided always to implement the knock-on effects of Community law by uncapping damages, for example, and by dealing with interest payments, they have not decided to do so in the sphere of race relations. At least that is my understanding of the position. My question comes out of that. Will the Government consider, as one way of encouraging racial justice and racial equality in the Armed Forces, doing the same in race relations as they have in sex discrimination cases and entrust the jurisdiction to the independent courts rather than to internal procedures, which however fair they may be are not able to have the same virtues and benefits as the independent judicial process?

8.15 p.m.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am grateful to the three noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. I certainly felt that the noble Lord, Lord Graham, was at the very least an extremely graceful and charming substitute for the noble Lord, Lord Williams, who normally speaks for the Opposition on these matters in your Lordships' House. I was particularly grateful to the noble Lord for the kindness that he displayed about the organisation of D-Day. As he knows, we are indebted mostly to members of the Armed Forces for the magnificence of that occasion. The tribute paid to the Armed Forces by the noble Lord and by the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, will have been noted by the Armed Forces and appreciated. I extend my gratitude to the noble Lords for what they said.

The noble Lords raised a number of points which I shall do my best to answer as succinctly as I can. I start with the question of race relations. All three noble Lords raised this matter. I am very pleased that they did because it is a matter for which I have a personal responsibility in the Ministry of Defence and it is one which I have endeavoured to take extremely seriously during the two years or so that I have enjoyed that responsibility—I use the word advisedly.

I was particularly interested by the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, about whether we had looked at the United States experience. All of us are aware of the extraordinary competence of General Colin Powell, who is an example for all soldiers, white and black. For that reason I was particularly pleased to be able to encourage the organisation recently by the Adjutant General at Bovington Camp of representatives from all over the Army to discuss the question of how we could do better in this important area

I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, will be interested to learn that we asked a former colonel in the United States Air Force to lead part of our discussion. He himself is black and is now resident in this country— I assume he likes living here. He has already done a great deal of work for both public and private bodies based on his experience. I hope I do not misquote him, but when I asked him how we could breed our own General Powell, if I may put it that way, he said, "You must have people who are prepared to be standard bearers because the only way in which you can encourage people"—this is where I address myself to another question asked by the noble Lords, Lord Graham and Lord Mayhew—"and convince them that there is a worthwhile career in the Armed Forces for them, particularly if they have black or brown skins, is if they see people in senior positions who also have black or brown skins".

The point that my American friend made to me was that the first people, even in the American forces, who crossed that line were exceptional people. There is no way of avoiding finding exceptional people because if they are going to gain acceptance from all their colleagues of whatever racial origin, they have to be self-evidently highly competent in the jobs that they do. I hope that that one example will be enough in this brief debate to give some flavour to the work which we have been trying to undertake particularly in the past 18 months in this important field.

I now address the question which the noble Lord, Lord Lester, asked me. As a distinguished lawyer, he will be familiar with what I believe have come to be known as the Anderson principles. I shall not bore your Lordships by reading them. The noble Lord will know of the High Court's review of the Army Board's decision in respect of Private Anderson's racial discrimination case and that five principles emerged. We have adopted those principles. I hope that that will go at least some way to satisfy the noble Lord, Lord Lester, although I am aware that he asked us to go a little further than that.

The department consulted the Commission for Racial Equality about the code of practice on relations in the Armed Forces and instructions on ethnic monitoring. We did not consult other bodies as such, but we made sure that recruiting staff developed contacts with ethnic minority communities about increasing recruitment among them. If I am spared this autumn, I intend to take a personal interest in that and to develop close contacts with people from the ethnic minorities at ministerial level. If your Lordships are interested, I shall be happy to report in due course on the effects of that work. Unfortunately, thanks to DCS and other matters, I have had to postpone my original intention rather longer than I intended to.

I am aware that this has been a short debate. There were a number of other questions which your Lordships asked. I shall explain this tomorrow, but it is very important to understand that there is no wish on the part of the Government to negative the amendment of my noble friend Lord Boardman. I believe that there is no difference between my noble friend and the Government on the intention. We shall accept the principle of putting the matter and the intention on the face of the Bill. I have endeavoured to point out in your Lordships' House some of the disadvantages which are attendant on that course of action. We lost, and we hope to show ourselves to be good losers. The amendments are merely technical in nature and address the very deficiencies in my noble friend's own amendment which he acknowledged during the course of his introduction of it.

As regards targets for women which the noble Lord, Lord Graham, asked me about, the percentage of women in the British armed forces is I believe higher than in most of the armed forces of our allies. I believe that only the American armed forces have a higher proportion of women. Certainly, the British armed forces have a higher proportion of women than our European allies. That may have something to do with the professional nature of our armed forces and with the professional attainment of the women who work in them.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham, and, I believe, the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, also, asked about conditions concerning the Bett Inquiry. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, has been showing a great deal of interest in that matter. Is there too much civilian input? It is important that there should be civilian input because employment habits have moved on very much in the past decade or so. It is important that the armed forces should examine best practice elsewhere to see whether we can learn from it. Your Lordships will be as aware as I am that the armed forces are a very different case from ordinary civilian employment. Therefore in the end the terms and conditions of employment examined by the Bett Inquiry must always have as their guiding rule whether they will add to or subtract from the operational effectiveness of the armed forces which is why they exist.

I am most grateful to your Lordships for the spirit in which you have participated in this debate. I am more than grateful for the unanimity in your Lordships' House with which the armed forces of the Crown are admired. My more than two years so far in the Ministry of Defence have convinced me that there is no finer department for any Minister, however junior, to serve in. I have counted it an enormous privilege to have done so. I shall do my best to serve their interests in your Lordships' House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.