HL Deb 10 April 2002 vol 633 cc510-20

9.16 p.m.

Report received.

Clause 5 [Extension of the 1995 Act to police etc.]:

Lord Swinfen

moved the amendment: Page 4, line 39, leave out "to (8)" and insert ", (6) and (8) The noble Lord said: My Lords, the amendment stands in my name, the names of my noble friends Lord Campbell of Croy and Lord Astor of Hever, and the name of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, who, unfortunately, is unable to be here today because he has been delayed in Moscow. I understand that my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy is not as well as we would like him to be.

In the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 provision is made for the exemption of the Armed Forces. However, under the Bill proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, that exemption would cease to exist. As I mentioned in Committee, it is my contention that that would be a mistake. I hope that the House will agree to my amendment.

At Second Reading, the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, said: While including them in this Bill, we can ensure that, for the Armed Forces in particular, there should be nothing to interfere with their operational effectiveness".—[Official Report, 23/1/02; col. 1533.] I am afraid that the Bill would interfere with their operational effectiveness. That is why I am bringing forward this amendment for a second time.

In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, said: but as modern wars are fought largely with computerised equipment and communications, the British Army would be in a sorry state if it had to call on butchers to operate those computers".—[Official Report, 6/3/02; col. 359.] It is not a case of getting butchers to operate computers. It is a matter of getting trained soldiers to operate computers.

I speak mainly about the Army because I served in the Army a number of years ago. Other noble Lords will know more about the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. Servicemen are trained as servicemen first and foremost. It is only later that they go on to their specialised training, whether as cooks, computer operators, mechanics, storemen, or whatever else the Armed Forces need—and, in modern warfare, they need a great many skills and trades. Wherever a soldier serves, whatever his trade, he is, and must be, first and foremost a soldier prepared to fight.

Any general worth his salt who is fighting a campaign will endeavour to knock out his opponent's headquarters. That is where a number of the clerks and computer operators work. They must be prepared to defend those headquarters; and our servicemen must be prepared and properly trained to defend our army headquarters. Any enemy will also want to cut off the lines of communication and supply, so that those fighting in the front line are starved of ammunition, food and fuel. It is up to those in the lines of communication, at headquarters far in the rear, to be able to fight and defend those headquarters if called upon to do so. I suspect that if the noble Lord's Bill goes through unamended, sadly, our Army's efficiency will be affected.

It is also the case that if by any chance the enemy does break through, it is the cooks, the computer operators, the drivers, the mechanics and the storemen who have to pick up their weapons and make a counter-attack to save the situation.

The Armed Forces already sometimes bring in people who do not have total agility—who do not have total movement in their arms or legs. They bring in some with a degree of colour blindness and possibly some with a degree of hearing loss. I am sure that that practice will continue. But it is my contention that the Armed Forces must be allowed to set the standards that they demand to make certain that we have the Armed Forces that this country deserves to defend the nation and to carry out what the politicians want them to do overseas.

I said in Committee much of what I could go on to say. Many noble Lords will have heard my remarks or will have had the opportunity of reading them in Hansard. Therefore, I shall not delay the House. I beg to move.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, I support the amendment moved so eloquently by my noble friend. The first duty of any elected government is defence of the realm. The Government are right to insist that the Armed Forces should not be brought under the remit of the Act. They must have full fighting capability and should not be compelled to discriminate against existing servicemen and servicewomen. I do not believe that the disability lobby, which I support enthusiastically, has anything to fear from this amendment.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, I support the amendment. Perhaps I may begin by expressing my admiration for the determined and doughty way in which the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, has espoused the interests of people of all ages who are, in one way or another, deemed to be disabled.

But I also deem it important—I am sure that the noble Lord does too—that the defence of the realm is entrusted to those who are best able to undertake the duties expected of them. That is in the interest of every one of our countrymen and women, whether they are in the services or not. The ability of our Armed Forces to carry out their physically and mentally demanding, and at times dangerous, roles must never be compromised. The armed services are not a group of individuals, even if at times the bravery or dash of a single man or woman is recognised and honoured. Teamwork, with each member being able to contribute, is a key element of service life and operations.

The measure of that capability so far as clinical judgment is concerned is a matter for the Armed Forces themselves, as the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, has argued. They are best able to make the judgments about the levels of hearing, eyesight, physique or whatever that are appropriate to the role or trade for which the individual may volunteer. To set other standards, however worthy their aim, for the services' clinical or medical use with which to judge the suitability or acceptability of an individual volunteer is to put the cart before the horse. It would seem akin to making it law that anyone who wishes to be a teacher has to teach maths, regardless of their limited mathematical capabilities.

I hope that on reflection the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, will accept that there is a finite limit to the good that he is trying to achieve. There are many alternatives for those who wish to serve their country that enable them to contribute to its good and its security but do not amount to seeking to impose on the Armed Forces medical standards that do not accord with the roles and responsibilities of our servicemen and women.

It has been argued that there have been many—and some very famous—individuals who have become disabled after joining their service and have gone on to give continued service. The counter to that argument is that they were already trained. If such people can continue to give service that is acceptable medically, good luck to them. However, it is not reasonable to argue that because a pilot who lost a leg in an accident may be retained in one of the services in a ground role, or possibly even in a restricted flying role, it is therefore acceptable that all one-legged individuals who wish to be pilots should be recruited, trained at great expense and then restricted to the types of aircraft that their disability would not preclude them from flying—and all at the expense of a fully medically acceptable individual who will not start out with a restricted employment category.

Today's services no longer have places for the non-combatant individual in their ranks, if they ever did. Every job and task that could be identified as fitting such a description is no longer filled by a man or woman in uniform. The post will have been civilianised or contracted out, because that is a less expensive way of covering the task. Today, all who are in uniform are potential front-line individuals, even if at times they are filling headquarters or other less exposed appointments. Career development and structures also have a part to play in this argument. Those who are to go on to lead and command their services at higher rank must gain experience from the range of appointments open to them, both combatant and in headquarters.

I think I have said enough to explain why I strongly support the amendment. I hope that, on reflection, the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, will agree with me and the other noble Lords who feel as strongly about the issue as I do. He will thereby strengthen his case, rather than weakening it by going over the top.

Lord Vivian

My Lords, I strongly support the amendment. As your Lordships have heard, it would remove the exemption for disabled civilians to join Her Majesty's Armed Forces. The role of the Armed Forces is to defend the realm and to meet the Government's foreign and defence policy commitments. To do that, all service personnel must be fully fit and combat effective to meet obligations on a worldwide operational liability. They must be able to be deployed at short notice to the trouble spots of the world. It would endanger the lives of servicemen and servicewomen if one of the team was disabled and therefore not combat effective. Furthermore, it could place the life of the disabled individual in peril.

All service personnel, whether they be cooks or clerks, must conform to the basic military training and fitness standards. However, that does not mean that a number of disabled civilians could not join civilian firms that are contracted to the Ministry of Defence. There are many such contracts in existence. Some of the firms into which they could be incorporated are companies dealing with security, clerical and information technology work, catering, electrical and mechanical engineering, driving and maintenance instruction, store keeping and many others. At the same time, many disabled civilians can join the Civil Service and be employed in the Ministry of Defence.

There is no need for the disabled to join the Armed Forces, and if they did so it would reduce combat effectiveness. I strongly support the amendment and hope that the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, will agree with our proposals.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Addington

My Lords, this series of arguments seems to be charging around in a circle. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, himself said that we do not want blind bus drivers. By the same token, he is not attempting now to place in the Armed Forces those who are incapable of doing the job.

So where does that leave us on the amendment, which seeks to maintain the status quo? Most of the objections to the status quo centre on the fact that a blanket ban is being applied to a very wide variety of people with various abilities, precluding them from joining a profession. Over the years, dyslexics have comprised large parts of all the Armed Forces. I have also been told in a private conversation that, because of the current recruitment problems, the chances are minimal that people who are dyslexic would be refused entrance to the Armed Forces as infantry soldiers simply because of their dyslexia. However, when unemployment levels are high, for example, they could be refused entrance because of that blanket ban. That is the objection to the status quo.

I would be happier if the Bill simply stated that those who cannot complete basic training, because of a disability or any other reason, should be excluded. I think that that would be a much more sensible, middle way. I should now, however, put up my hand and say that I have not tabled an amendment to that effect; the rearrangement of the House's business has prevented me from doing so. The issue for us now, however, is the amendment. I do not think that there is much ground between us on the issue. I think that everyone agrees that the concept of reasonableness, as argued in the courts, would cover most of the objections. Let us also be clear that the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 is not the most perfect vehicle for addressing the issue.

I feel that this issue should not stand in the way of the Bill's passage. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, will be able to shrug and say, "95 per cent of a loaf is better than nothing". I also think that we shall return to the issue. The Armed Forces change slowly—not so long ago it was unimaginable that women would carry weapons. Other arguments will arise, and technical advances may remove some disabilities. There have been advances in restoring hearing, and other disabilities may simply cease to exist.

I believe that this Bill and the underlying arguments are more important than this one issue. I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, but I accept that he has an argument that will have to be answered at another time and in another place. I simply hope that this Bill is passed.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, this is a good Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Ashley, is to be much congratulated on promoting it to smooth out issues that were left unsettled in the 1995 legislation. On Second Reading and in Committee, the Bill received general approval, but with one exception—the issue of the Armed Forces and disabilities. My noble friend Lord Swinfen and other noble Lords have outlined the case why disabled people are not suitable for service in the Armed Forces. In one sentence, the case is that they may be expected at any time to serve on the front line.

Disability does not always prevent someone serving. The smartest soldier I have ever known, General John Swinton, lost his leg in the last month of the 1939–45 war. He went on to serve as a Major-General in the Scots Guards. His father had lost a leg in the last month of the First World War in the Scots Guards and went on to serve thereafter. In his case, the loss of a leg did not prevent him doing everything necessary as a soldier.

If the Bill were to be enacted in the way suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, it would enable someone to address himself to the Ministry of Defence and insist that he serve—although the existing system whereby people already serving may continue to serve seems to work extremely well. It is a major problem. On Second Reading, the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, who I am delighted to see in her place, said: I hope that suitable employment can be found for people who wish to work in their chosen profession. But a realistic and safe framework should be found; they must never put fellow workers at risk because of their disability".— [Official Report, 23/1/02; col. 1549.] Unfortunately that is what might happen if disabled persons were, by right, to work and serve in the Armed Forces.

This is a good Bill, but it has one misguided aspect. I therefore ask the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, to accept the amendment.

Baroness Darcy de Knayth

My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Addington. I do not like blanket bans, but I better understand since we have had these debates what the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, has been saying: that a serviceman, whatever his employ in the Army, must be prepared to fight. As the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, said, this is a good Bill. I believe that the Government have no real objection to anything in the Bill apart from this proposal—perhaps the Minister will confirm with a nod—and that it is a question of timing.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Hollis of Heigham)

My Lords, I have said on many occasions that the Government are staying neutral on the Bill. We do not agree to it and we do not accept the arguments behind certain of its propositions. We do not propose to engage with them at this time. It is the wrong Bill at the wrong time.

Baroness Darcy de Knayth

My Lords, I did not mean to lure the Minister to her feet. I believe that it is a good Bill and that, by and large, this is the provision to which most people, including the Government, object. I hope that the Bill will go its full passage with the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, because it would then be more acceptable.

I hope that there will be more talks with the Armed Forces. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, referred to a blanket right for disabled people. Whom are we talking about in referring to "disabled people"? Are we talking about people who are mildly dyslexic, or those with, say, two fingers missing? We do not know. It is not a blanket right because there are the concepts of justifiable discrimination and reasonable accommodation. If those concepts were better understood, perhaps we could have more chats with the Armed Forces and see whether there is some middle ground. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, in his wisdom will feel able to accept the amendment for now.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, perhaps I may point Out to the noble Baroness that the view I take relates to the current situation whereby disabled persons with certain disabilities are enabled to serve, which is a very satisfactory method. However, I also said that it was not desirable for this to be recorded in legislation.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, I support my noble friend's amendment. I believe this to be an issue upon which people are learning. My noble kinswoman Lady Darcy de Knayth has just admitted that she has changed her views somewhat in this respect.

I have two points to make. There has probably never been a period in my lifetime when greater demands were made on Her Majesty's Armed Forces all around the world. Indeed, I am not sure whether we have ever had a Prime Minister who is as ready, willing, and sometimes, almost eager, to commit Her Majesty's forces to a whole variety of tasks around the world. One effect of that has been a constant worry about over-stretch, which is primarily a shortage of resources — financial resources.

There are many jobs in the Armed Forces that disabled people can do, but there are also jobs that they cannot undertake. As my noble friend Lord Vivian pointed out, operational effectiveness is of paramount importance. At this time in our history, there is no way in which the Parliament of this country should be responsible for passing legislation that would reduce the most effective possible use of the limited resources that the Government are able to make available for Her Majesty's forces in the context of the apparently almost limitless demands upon their activities around the world.

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, will realise that those of us who fully support the concept behind his Bill recognise the importance of disability being accommodated in every possible way. However, I trust that he will also acknowledge that the paramount requirement in this case is operational effectiveness, which means 100 per cent physical flexibility as regards the people who are recruited to serve in uniform.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I remind the House that I have an interest as a serving TA officer. I have DDA credentials, as I strongly supported Section 37 of the 1995 Act. I also strongly support my noble friend's amendment. I very much hope that the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, will accept it.

I had not realised the effect of the noble Lord's Bill. Indeed, if I had, I should have contributed much earlier in the proceedings. I am still a serving TA officer, and was recently deployed on Exercise "Saif Sareera" in a headquarters situated in Oman. It was an exercise, but also a deployment overseas. At one point I was involved with the management of an emergency situation; namely, a serious road traffic accident.

All officers expect their subordinates to act in a pre-determined manner: they are trained to do so. I know what minimum levels of physical performance I can expect from all the soldiers. If I tell a soldier to run somewhere, I know that he will be able to do so; if I tell him to pick up a piece of kit and run with it, I know that he will be able to complete the task.

One of my previous officers commanding had miniature fingers—they were about half the length of normal fingers. But, obviously, he could complete all his physical tests; and, therefore, he was accepted for service. But the decision as to whether or not he should be accepted for service was purely a military decision and one that was made by a medical officer who understood the military requirements.

I have a great fear that we are constantly but slowly reducing our military effectiveness not by one significant change in policy or legislation but by a process of salami slicing, each thin slice bearable but the totality damaging to military ethos. It is also tempting to think that a lot of military employment opportunities could be away from combat areas and therefore suitable for persons with some disablement. That is quite true, but what about servicemen who become disabled as a result of their service? Surely those "soft" postings ought to be reserved for existing servicemen who are no longer able to carry out the full range of military duties. I ask the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, seriously to consider accepting the amendment.

9.45 p.m.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, it seems a great pity if a trained soldier who becomes disabled cannot be found a suitable job in, say, administration so that he does not have to be invalided out and leave his regiment. That would be a very expensive exercise. Nelson had one arm and one eye and still remained in the Navy. I still abide by my view that no one should be put in the position of endangering a colleague. I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, and I feel strongly that there should be flexibility.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I was sorry to learn that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, was unable to attend the debate as he is unwell. I send my best wishes for his full recovery. I was also sorry to learn that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, was unable to attend the debate due to being delayed in Moscow. I looked forward very much to hearing the noble and gallant Lord speak. His comments would have added a great deal more weight to the weighty and marvellous debate we have had. Some absolutely brilliant speeches have been made.

Instead of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, we heard a contribution from an equally distinguished serviceman, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley. His contribution, like those of many others, was significant. Like all of the speeches in the debate it was constructive. I shall try to respond in kind.

First, there seems to be some misunderstanding about what the Bill states. One noble Lord said that the Bill removes the exemption to join the Armed Services. However, it does no such thing. The Bill seeks to extend the protection of the Disability Discrimination Act to disabled service personnel. That is all. It does not seek to interfere with the arrangements for recruitment to the Armed Services or with any exemption.

The noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, spoke with his usual felicity and fluency, as we have all come to expect. However, I am sorry to have to say that, although some of the speeches were absolutely splendid, I disagree with them. I want to explain why. But first I should say that there is a great deal of legitimate pride in the British Army, Navy and Air Force. Anyone proposing such a Bill, as I do, must not be seen to oppose that concept of fine services in any way. I too am an ex-soldier and I also believe that we have the finest Army, Navy and Air Force in the world and the most professional services in the world. That should and will be unquestioned despite the numerical superiority of other countries. We have brilliant Armed Forces of which we are proud.

One of my great pastimes is reading military history. I tell the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, that I have just finished reading the diaries and biography of one of his distinguished predecessors; that is, Lord Alanbrooke, although he was in the Army, not the Air Force. I am fascinated by the great captains of industry—indeed, by captains down to privates. I have a very high regard for the services.

It is utterly wrong to try to expose any disabled serviceman to discrimination. The object of the clause is to protect them. Why should we leave our servicemen at the whim of anyone who decides to discriminate? My position is that I disagree with the amendment but I propose to agree to it. I should explain those two contradictory statements.

My first point relates to the argument that every single member of our service personnel should be available to fight in the front line. That is an outdated concept, which was relevant in the Boer War, in trench warfare and perhaps in the Second World War, but it is of absolutely no relevance in this modern age of sophisticated, computerised warfare. The armed services, despite the dogmatic statements of noble Lords, act as if they support my view in this regard.

I understand—this has been confirmed by noble Lords on all sides of the House—that the services retain some disabled personnel because they became disabled during their service. It is admirable that the services retain such people and I strongly support the practice. However, they would surely not retain those people if they expected every single one of them to fight in the so-called front line. Nor would they retain them if the operational effectiveness—that majestic phrase has been bandied about—of the services was affected. Would the Army, the Navy and the Air Force really retain disabled personnel who were disabled in the services if that interfered with the operational effectiveness of the services? I do not believe for a moment that they would. Noble and gallant Lords who have been Chief of the General Staff could not possibly allow any interference with operational effectiveness. The Army, Navy and Air Force give the lie to the contentions that have been made about the damage that would be caused by the Bill. That is why the basic idea that lies behind the amendment is wrong.

The object of the Disability Discrimination Act is simply to prevent any person or organisation from unreasonably discriminating against disabled people. The idea that disabled personnel who—properly and admirably—have been kept on in the services after they were disabled in service duties should be denied the protection of that Act is grossly unfair to those who have served their country, often heroically. It is a shoddy vote of thanks to those disabled service personnel for their dedication. In a sense, it is a two-fingered salute to their disabilities. That is why the amendment is wrong.

So much for the merits of the amendment. I turn to my reason for agreeing to it. In Army terms, the main strategic objective of the Bill is to secure the widest protection for disabled people. That objective will be most readily achieved if the Government agree to the Bill. The Government are already on record as supporting most of its clauses. By removing a clause to which they object, I shall bring the day closer when they take on the Bill as one of their own.

I am delighted that the Minister, my noble friend Lady Hollis, is listening with her usual rapt attention to our debate. I see her weighed down with those great briefs and I know that she has read all of them because she does her homework so very well. I know that she is a great realist and can recognise a good thing for her Government. I expect her to report to other Ministers the good news about the removal of this clause which so upsets them. Then we can all get together and make progress with Ministers. I accept the amendment.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, I shall not make a long speech. There is no need to do so at this hour of the night. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, for accepting the amendment. I am very grateful to him. I also want to thank all those who supported me.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

House adjourned at four minutes before ten o'clock.