HL Deb 26 June 1995 vol 565 cc589-98

7.3 p.m.

Lord Henley rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 22nd May be approved [21st Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move that the draft order laid before the House on 22nd May 1995 be approved.

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. These provide the statutory basis for discipline in the three services.

The House will be aware that an Armed Forces Bill is brought before Parliament every five years, with the primary purpose of continuing in force the three single-service discipline Acts. Each Armed Forces Bill is also an opportunity for the services and Parliament to review service discipline.

Between each five-yearly Bill, the services' statutory arrangements for discipline are renewed annually by the continuation order procedure, involving an Order in Council which is approved by resolution of both Houses. The last Armed Forces Bill was enacted in 1991; the next one is obviously therefore due next Session. I thus ask the House today to give the necessary annual renewal to the discipline Acts by approving the order.

I hope that the House will find it useful if, as is customary on these occasions, I say a few words about some of the disciplinary and personnel issues facing the Armed Forces.

In April this year we published Sir Michael Bett's report Managing People in Tomorrow's Armed Forces.The review which Sir Michael and his team undertook was a major independent examination of all aspects of service manpower, career, rank and pay structures and of terms and conditions of service. Its aim was to enable us, against increasing competition from the outside world, to continue to recruit and retain the high quality people we need in the Armed Forces. The review and the follow-up to it are looking ahead to the early years of the next century.

The Bett Report contains some 150 wide-ranging recommendations. Given their complexity and importance, we do not intend to take decisions precipitately. Many of the proposals need further consideration and development before we can take a view on their intrinsic merits. I can assure the House that the services are fully involved in this process, and we have encouraged individual members of the Armed Forces to give us their views and comments. We shall consider all of those very carefully.

It will be some months before we are in a position to make a final response to the report. However, we intend, before the Recess, to make a Statement about the further internal work we have commissioned to take the Bett recommendations forward. When, some time after that, we respond to the report's recommendations, we shall do so in terms consistent with the establishment of the review in the first place; namely, to enable us to continue to attract high quality people to a rewarding and worthwhile service career.

As now, we shall be seeking to attract these people from both sexes. Significant progress has been made recently in increasing employment prospects for women in the Armed Forces, and that progress is continuing. For example, there are now 11 qualified female pilots in the three services, including one in the RAF qualified as a fast jet pilot. Of course, these numbers are still small. But they must be seen as a start—even five years ago, few would have dreamt that we would he training and employing women in roles such as these.

Today, very few roles remain closed to women. The Armed Forces' policy is that in future they will normally be excluded only from those posts where their presence would impair combat effectiveness.

Last year's Criminal Justice and Public Order Act included provisions decriminalising the generality of homosexual acts by members of the Armed Forces. That fulfilled an undertaking given by the Government in response to the recommendation made in another place by the Select Committee on the last Armed Forces Bill, that homosexual activity that is legal in civilian law should not constitute an offence under service law.

Nevertheless, it remains our policy to exclude homosexuals from the Armed Forces. Many Members of this House were instrumental in inserting a reference to that policy in the provisions which decriminalised homosexual acts by service personnel. The reason for that policy is the special conditions of service life which, as I explained on another occasion, are quite different from those in the civilian community. I am glad that the judgment in the recent judicial review cases found the policy of excluding homosexuals from the Armed Forces to be lawful under United Kingdom domestic law, and that the EC equal treatment Directive was not applicable. However, a number of points were made by the court and we are giving them careful consideration.

It is customary on these occasions to pay tribute to the men and women who serve in our Armed Forces. I am delighted to follow that tradition. I know that all Members from all corners of this House share the admiration, respect and affection which is felt for our servicemen and women by the nation as a whole. Those feelings are the entirely deserved result of the professionalism, commitment and loyalty demonstrated wherever British forces are deployed. We have seen in Bosnia examples of the more obviously exacting challenges which confront our servicemen and women. But your Lordships will appreciate that difficulties and challenges of many kinds are successfully faced day in and day out by members of our Armed Forces, usually away from the public gaze.

The excellence of the British Armed Forces rests on a number of pillars, including training and equipment of the highest standards. Another pillar, I believe just as important, if not more so, is high morale. I can report that this is in as sound condition as ever. But even so, we cannot take good morale for granted. It needs careful maintenance. One tool which is necessary in maintaining high morale is a fair and equitable system of discipline, visible to all. That is what the service discipline Acts provide, and I therefore invite the House to approve the order.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 22nd May be approved [21st Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Henley.)

7.15 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, we on these Benches do not seek to impede the order. The Minister has carefully pointed out that every five years there is what I call a major opportunity to consider these matters. That will fall next year.

I wish to say how impressed those of us who take an interest in such matters were with the thoroughness of the Bett Report. The Minister is absolutely right. There is so much to consider, and so many ways in which one can give effect to the report. We certainly do not expect precipitate action on any aspect of it.

However, as the Minister rightly pointed out, the opportunity is taken for Members on all Benches in this House to raise matters. Will the Minister say a little more about the role of women? He fairly pointed out that from a standing start five years ago, it appears as though there has been great increases in the effectiveness of women undertaking certain roles. However, he used the phrase, "roles such as these". Apart from the physiological limitations placed on women by the difference in the sexes, I should have thought that we ought to have a positive, encouraging, upbeat attitude towards using women far more widely to undertake aspects of the defence services. Is the noble Lord prepared to say that the Minister, the Ministry and the service chiefs are wholeheartedly behind encouraging an expansion in and extension of the use of women in our Armed Forces; or are they, as sometimes seems, simply going through the motions, not being as supportive as they might be?

Will the Minister say something about the incidence of drinking and the methods used in the forces to deal with that? We know, because from time to time there arc illustrations in localities, that in the forces, as in other areas where there are clubs or groups, it is possible for drink—sadly, alcohol—to he used as a means of dulling the senses. Those of us who have been in the services know just how easy it is to resort to drink. The Minister could be helpful to the House, and I believe to the nation, if he were to underline how the Government seek to eradicate the incidence of heavy drinking.

In his reply, will the Minister refer to the problem of drugs in the services about which there is deep anxiety? As he knows—I have never hidden the fact—for many years I had a close association with the Prison Service through the Prison Officers' Association. For years the Home Office denied strenuously that there was such a thing as a "drug problem" in prisons. Yet we who were close to the service knew that the problem existed; and it has been difficult to deal with it. Happily, I believe that it is being dealt with in a far better way now. It is not nice to say that there is a drug problem in the forces. I note that the Government, the Minister and the defence establishment seek to do their best.

Will the Minister tell us the position regarding the incidence of steroids? Where do steroids figure in the impact of drugs? As the Minister knows, steroids are the kind of substance which often is taken, especially by young men, to improve their physique. However, we also know that the drug can be addictive.

Will the Minister say something about the ethnic make-up of the services? At col. 7 of the Commons Official Report of the Fifth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments &c., my honourable friend Mr. Eric Martlew said: In 1992–93, of the 7,500 people who were accepted by the armed forces, 41 were black, 15 were Asian and 10 came from other ethnic groups". The Minister must be as puzzled as I am that out of 7,500 individuals fewer than 100 were from ethnic groups. Will he tell us how seriously the Government seek to pursue an increase in and improvement to the ethnic mix of the forces? Those statistics—I have no reason to dispute them—certainly give me the impression that they need to be considered.

Perhaps I may deal specifically with the point the Minister made on the treatment of homosexuality in the forces. It was welcome news in respect of decriminalisation. However, the Minister made passing reference to the High Court judgment. That allows me to bring into the debate other aspects of the judgment. For instance, I am told by Stonewall—I believe that that organisation is doing a very decent job, representing lesbian and gay individuals in our community—that although Lord Justice Simon Brown said that he could not overturn a policy which had been approved by Parliament, he roundly rejected the MoD's arguments for maintaining the ban and recognised that the ban involved a fundamental breach of human rights. He commented that: The tide of history is against the Ministry. Prejudices are breaking down … it seems to me improbable. whatever the court may say, that the existing policy can survive much longer". Will the Minister hazard a guess as to how long it might he before the Ministry accepts the illogicality of its present attitude?

The Minister and Ministry constantly say—I noted what the noble Lord said—that there are special conditions of service life. Can the Minister reflect on this factor? The special conditions of service life in Britain can be no more special than those in service life in other countries. He does not have to plead the case that living in closed communities, as servicemen and women have to do. is different from living in a family environment. Yet, with the exception of Turkey, Britain is alone in NATO in totally excluding homosexuals from serving. In Britain identification as a homosexual is reason enough for discharge, and celibacy is no escape from the loss of your career, home and friends. Why do the Minister and Ministry insist on saying that service life is so special that it cannot survive, and cannot service defence needs in the same way as do many of our allies?

For instance, since the Select Committee on the Armed Forces in 1991 reported—we shall review the situation completely next year—there have been a number of changes to the way in which our allies have viewed homosexuality in their armed forces. In October 1992, Canada removed all the barriers to homosexuals serving in the Canadian services. In November 1992, Australia scrapped its ban. In December 1992, New Zealand lifted its ban. In 1993, Israel and Ireland did so. Can the Minister tell me what is special about the needs of the armed services in those countries, and about the nature of homosexuality among the individuals who are members of the armed services in those countries? What is special about either the defence needs of the country or homosexual needs? The Minister has a duty to be more explicit than he was.

I conclude by saying that we on these Benches are no exception, we share the Minister's tribute to our Armed Services and the men and women of whom we are rightly proud. We are proud of what they do, not least in Bosnia, the current field of conflict, but in many other ways. In the 50th year after the Second World War, those of us who served in the forces sadly recognise that many, even those serving now, may expect some of their comrades to he killed in action. They deserve our support; and I believe that the answers that the Minister can give will go a long way towards reassuring those on these Benches that he fully understands the problems.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, I begin by echoing the tribute paid by the Minister to our Armed Forces. The fact that on these occasions we always refer to the achievements of our forces does not mean that we are not sincere. We are particularly struck by the international reputation of the British forces, which grows every year that goes by. We look forward to the Minister's replies to the questions put by the noble Lord, Lord Graham, about drink and drugs and particularly about the ethnic make-up of our forces.

Last year I received the strong impression that the Government were making a serious effort to increase the proportion of servicemen from the ethnic minorities, yet it seems that it has not worked. Can the Minister give us a clue as to the reasons and the action which the Government are taking to overcome the problem?

I was particularly glad to hear from the Minister that the Government were giving careful thought to the implications of the recent court case to which both the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Graham, referred. We recall that three servicemen and one servicewoman challenged the legality of their discharge by the Ministry of Defence for being homosexual. The court upheld the ministry's view on the legality of the action, hut, as the noble Lord, Lord Graham, said, Lord Justice Simon Brown accompanied the judgment with a withering attack on the Government's policy towards homosexuality. However, I have to say that, notably, his colleague Mr. Justice Curtis dissociated himself from the criticisms. Next year we shall renew the Act. There will he debates and possibly divisions. I hope that the Government will think carefully about the situation now and will bring forward proposals for overcoming some of the drastic criticisms. Conditions in the forces are changing, attitudes towards homosexuality arc changing. The Government would be wise next year to bring forward a policy that meets the new situation. At the moment the policy is to ban all homosexuals from all branches of all three services without exception.

There was a contrast in the promising statement made by the noble Lord about the employment of women in the services. Women are apparently now welcome in all three services. They fly planes and drive military transport and there is practically no branch of Army, Navy or Air Force life where they are not welcome.

There is a contrast between the ministry's attitude to women and the ministry's attitude to homosexuals. At Question Time last month I asked whether the Minister was aware of the huge area of service life where sexual orientation was irrelevant. He agreed with me to the extent of saying, "Yes, we agree that sexual orientation is irrelevant. We invite women to do this, that and the other in all three services". I find it illogical and it needs explanation. The Minister said that the justification for the ministry's position is the special conditions which accompany service life. Those who have had experience of it will be slow to brush that argument aside. I am not saying that it is not a problem; on the contrary, it can be.

During the war for some months I shared living and sleeping space with 20 fellow rankers in a small loft above a French cowshed. Homosexual friendships in the group would not have helped at all. Some of us would, no doubt, have been tolerant; some would have been annoyed; some probably would have been repelled. Either way, we would have been divided and less efficient militarily. In my view, it is a great mistake to brush aside the problem, which is the main cause of the Government's policy.

The same problem exists in the Navy. Does opposition to sex discrimination mean admitting men who are openly homosexual to the crowded mess decks of the junior ratings? It is a practical question. The politically correct answer is yes: their orientation should be ignored; they should be admitted to the mess decks and discharged only if misconduct is proved against them. This is the point in my personal view—I speak with some experience as a former Navy Minister—where political correctness parts company with common sense. Sexual misconduct is had in the services, and it occurs. Our aim should be to diminish it and not in the course of opposing sex discrimination to increase it.

However, none of that justifies the blanket ban on all homosexuals in all branches of all three services. That can no longer be justified. That is why I was delighted to hear the Minister say that he was taking to heart and considering the consequences of the famous court case which has just been concluded. Before the Act is renewed next year, we look to the Government to put forward proposals which, while allowing the services to use some common sense about their posting, will remove the blanket ban on homosexuals.

7.28 p.m.

Lord Henley

My Lords, in the main, I am grateful for the general welcome that both noble Lords gave to the order. I am sure they always would because these are necessary orders which we pass every year to maintain the discipline of our Armed Forces. Both noble Lords raised a number of points, and I hope that in the time available I can deal with most of them.

I start by saying that I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Graham, for what he said about the Bett report and its value. I am also grateful that he recognised that it will take time and is not something we should rush into. We are dealing with pay and conditions and other matters relating to service life which will take the Armed Forces well into the next century. It is important to ensure that we develop the right package which will enable us to recruit the best people for the Armed Forces at a time when, because of demographic changes, it becomes increasingly difficult to recruit sufficient people of the appropriate quality.

The noble Lord went on to ask about our policy in relation to the employment of women in the Armed Forces. He asked us to take a positive and, I believe his word was, "upbeat" attitude. That is exactly what we have done in the past. I can give the noble Lord an assurance that the service chiefs are completely behind the policy of employing women. As I made quite clear, very few roles are now excluded to them. It is important that we should make use of half the population in this respect, particularly, as I pointed out a moment ago, given that demographic changes make recruiting generally that much harder.

As the noble Lord quite rightly pointed out, there are physical limitations in regard to what women can and cannot do. A lot of service life is particularly physical; and there are other limitations, particularly in relation to the Navy, where on submarines and some particularly small ships it becomes rather difficult to arrange accommodation. It is also right to point out that the Army believes—this applies to the other services, but particularly to the Army—that, where it is likely to affect combat effectiveness, it would not be right that women should serve. That means the front line units: the infantry, the Royal Armoured Corps, and on occasion the engineers.

The noble Lord then moved on to the question of drinking, drugs and steroids. He was right to underline their importance. Drunkenness is an offence under the service discipline Acts. I can assure the noble Lord that all three services offer a rehabilitation system for abuses of alcohol; but I am afraid that, as always, persistent abusers would have to he administratively discharged. When one is dealing with the very high-tech equipment that the Armed Forces have to make use of nowadays, it would not be right that those who were persistently drunk were retained in the Armed Forces.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, does the Minister have any statistics that might be helpful as to incidence, especially in relation to those who have been discharged? He may not have the answer, but perhaps he will write to me.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I should be happier to write to the noble Lord. I do not have any statistics with me at the moment about levels of alcohol abuse. I shall certainly write to the noble Lord and, if the noble Lord finds it convenient, place a copy of the letter in the Library.

The noble Lord went on to underline problems in relation to drugs, and also steroids. It is sensible to remind the House that the Army introduced a compulsory drug testing programme in January of this year. Its prime objective was to reduce the increase in recent years of drug-related offences within the service.

Introducing a compulsory drug testing programme is a fairly draconian measure. However, taking into account the importance and the threat of drug related problems, it was very important so to do. Since then, nearly 5,500 personnel of all ranks have been tested. Of those whose results are available, only 29 tested positive. Fifteen refused to give specimens. The commanding officers of the soldiers concerned are now taking appropriate action. Refusers have been, or will be, administratively discharged, as is the policy for the compulsory drug testing programme. Only soldiers of the rank of lance corporal or below who have tested positive may be retained—but again, only in exceptional circumstances. We certainly want to examine the individual very, very carefully.

Drug testing policy permits testing for steroids. But they are not perceived to be the major threat that what are termed mainstream drugs present. At present. it is more important, we believe, to use the compulsory drug testing programme to deter soldiers from the misuse of psychoactive drugs. Testing for anabolic steroids could be included in the current contract with the laboratory of the Government Chemist, but it would he at additional expense, or at the exclusion of another drug. Because they are not illegal in themselves. I do not believe it is necessary at the moment to take the matter any further. Were it in the future thought to he a problem, the matter could be looked at.

I now turn to the pleas that both noble Lords made about ethnic minority recruiting. It is obviously regrettable that the ethnic minorities arc under-represented among both applicants and entrants to the Armed Forces. Ethnic monitoring of applicants and entrants has been undertaken over the past seven years. The latest results—the provisional figures for 1993–94—showed that the ethnic minorities represented some 1.5 per cent. of applicants and I per cent. of entrants. We accept that those figures are disappointing, but we recognise that it will take many years of sustained effort before they substantially improve. The communities from which many such people come do not have an Army tradition. To create that feeling takes time. It is important for the Armed Forces to represent the broad spectrum of the community.

I assure noble Lords that all three services are committed to a range of measures to increase ethnic minority recruitment. These include increased use of black recruiters; better representation of ethnic minority service personnel in recruiting literature; special training for recruiters; production of brochures in ethnic minority languages to target parents; development of contacts with the ethnic minority communities; and advertising in the ethnic minority press and on local radio. We will do everything that we can in this field; but I am sure that the noble Lord would not expect an overnight increase of the kind that we wish to see. I assure the noble Lord that we take this matter very seriously.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will allow me to intervene. The noble Lord did not mention using the experience in the United States, for example, or of other countries where ethnic recruiting has been good. Could that not be fed into the mechanism?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I should certainly be prepared to consider the noble Lord's point. Whether we could learn directly from the experience of the United States, where ethnic minorities have been in the country and have come there for different reasons at different times historically farther back than the ethnic minorities to which we are referring in this country, is another matter. It is certainly an idea that I should be prepared to examine, as I should the experience of our other NATO colleagues. As I said, one has to think very carefully as to whether we can learn from that.

Finally, I turn to the question of homosexuality. I am afraid that we are to some extent in opposing camps on this matter. I note the judgment of Lord Justice Simon Brown, and of his colleague. His colleague obviously supported us. Lord Justice Simon Brown spoke about "the tide of history". I have to say that it is not an argument that I ever take very seriously when people say that we must change our attitudes as a result of the tide of history. I do not accept that there is an illogicality in our position.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham, referred to the position in other countries, and particularly in other NATO countries. Perhaps I may deal with that canard once and very firmly. Britain is not alone in NATO—with the exception of Turkey—in terms of excluding homosexuals. If we take, for example, the policy of the Germans, there is an exclusion of officers but not of other ranks. In other words, they exclude their regular personnel but not those doing national service. The Americans, as we know, quite rightly, after pressure from service chiefs after President Clinton made his change, brought in their own revised version of policy which allows the exclusion of homosexuals. The same is true of many other countries. It is rather simplistic to claim that all NATO countries have gone down that particular line. We are pleased that the recent judgment found our policy to be lawful under United Kingdom domestic law, and that the equal treatment directive was not applicable. As I made quite clear, we shall give very careful consideration to a number of points that were made by the court.

I should like to make just two points. First, comparisons with the employment of women are not relevant. The important matter to take into account is the advice of the service chiefs. It is to them that we look for advice in terms of the morale and discipline of the Armed Forces. Their advice is that homosexuality does, and would, undermine discipline and morale. Our approach is based on that assessment and not on a moral judgment. It is for that reason that, inevitably, the ban must be complete. It is simply not feasible to employ homosexuals in some areas of the Armed Forces but not in others.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, would the Minister say, therefore, that if the service chiefs, by one means or another, came to a different conclusion and decided to recommend policies that were more in line with their NATO allies, the Government would then recognise the wisdom of the advice from the service chiefs?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I made it clear that this is a matter where we obviously would have to take advice and consider very carefully the advice of the service chiefs. That was the mistake made by one particular politician in the United States: he did not listen to the advice of the service chiefs. On such a matter it is absolutely vital that we should look to their advice.

The advice from the service chiefs, which is given very strongly indeed, is that this is not something on which we should change our policy. But I shall consider some of the points made by Lord Justice Simon Brown. There is no more that I can say on that matter.

At the end of my opening remarks I paid tribute to the Armed Forces for all that they do and the excellence with which they serve. In responding to me, both noble Lords made similar points for which I am grateful.

I end by repeating, on behalf of the whole House, just how much we all value all those in all three services and all that they do on our behalf. I commend the order to the House.