HL Deb 18 January 2001 vol 620 cc1222-4

3.9 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to ban disabled people from serving in the Armed Forces.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, there is no such ban and there is no intention to introduce such a ban. However, the Armed Forces are exempt from disability legislation. Service personnel who become disabled may be retained subject to operational effectiveness, but people with a disability which might put themselves or others at risk are not recruited. The Armed Forces have a unique role and members of them must be prepared at short notice to fight and prevail in the most demanding of circumstances.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. However, is she aware that the Government and the generals are wrong to suggest that disabled people are demanding a right to join the Armed Forces in a combatant role? It would be ludicrous to talk of having blind tank drivers and deaf radio operators. The reality is that only certain disabled people seek an opportunity to serve in the Armed Forces in a non-combatant role and in jobs they are capable of doing. Was not the old idea that all soldiers, including cooks, should be flexible enough to serve in the front line in an emergency demolished by the Army itself when it accepted women—who are not allowed to serve in combat roles in the front line—as soldiers? Noble Lords smile, but all we are asking is that disabled people receive the same kind of consideration as women soldiers.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, there are women in the front line on our ships in the Royal Navy and serving as fighter pilots. No serviceman or service woman can be guaranteed not to be called upon to fight. Although they may not be called upon to fight, it is a possibility. They must not only be willing to do so; they must physically be able to do so in not merely dangerous, but extraordinarily dangerous, circumstances.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, as disabled people have been accepted by the Army for suitable jobs in the past, is the policy that every soldier must be transferable to a combat unit a result of overstretch? Is the Minister aware that I agree that disabled soldiers should not fight on the front line? I speak from personal experience, having been wounded and disabled while serving in a Scottish division in its last major battle of World War II.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we are possibly dealing with a problem of definition. "Disability" has a legal meaning within the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. There are people who would be categorised as having a disability under that Act but who might be eligible for recruitment into the Armed Forces—I make the point forcefully to my noble friend Lord Ashley—if their disability did not affect their operational effectiveness. For example, people with certain kinds of facial disfigurement who are covered by the Act may have a fruitful career in the Armed Forces. The point is that the criteria must be based on a military judgment regarding the operational effectiveness of the individual concerned.

Lord Davies of Coity

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I and many others were required some years ago to complete our National Service? At that time, many people with minor disabilities were exempted. Were conscription to be reintroduced, is there a danger that under any current change disabled people might be conscripted?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I do not believe that there is any question under this Government of conscription being reintroduced.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, as the Chief of the Defence Staff has recently given unequivocal support to Her Majesty's Government on so many matters, will the Minister assure the House that the Government will totally support his views on this subject?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as I am sure the noble Lord will acknowledge, the Chief of the Defence Staff gives support when the case is well argued, well reasoned and well merited. I am happy to say, as the noble Lord notes, that that has been so on a number of occasions recently.

I read the remarks of the Chief of the Defence Staff to the RUSI conference and I found nothing exceptional in his remarks. He made an extremely sensible statement of policy. It was compassionate to those in our Armed Forces who have suffered disablement. As I said in my initial Answer, many of those people still have an operational value for the Armed Forces and so are retained. The Chief of the Defence Staff struck the proper balance. As we must never forget, the criterion is one of operational effectiveness.

Lord Morris of Manchester

My Lords, does my noble friend know how General Guthrie, for whom all of us have due respect, defines disability? Does he accept the Government's definition, in which case approaching 9 million disabled people could be excluded from serving, among them many Gulf War veterans who are in the forces now? Will my noble friend ask him to accept that those us who have battled over the years against no-go areas for disabled job applicants never argued for blind bus drivers or deaf piano tuners but simply that disabled people should have the same right as everyone else to he fairly considered for the jobs they can do?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the point about the definition that Sir Charles may or may not have been using is that the Armed Forces do not use the definition in the Disability Discrimination Act. The definition that we are dealing with here is one of the operational effectiveness of the individuals concerned. I point out to my noble friend, and to my noble friend Lord Ashley, that the MoD as a whole, under the guidance of the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Permanent Secretary, has a very good record on disability: 5,900 out of 100,000 civilians employed in the MoD have disabilities, and the MoD has been commended by the Royal National Institute for the Blind on the work it has done on disability issues in the past couple of years. Sir Charles has contributed. to that. But there are different criteria in our Armed Forces.