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Mr. Key: I need not pass any comment on that intervention. I am very surprised. I know that the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife would need no defence from anyone, and he would have thoroughly enjoyed this little exchange if he had been present, but the hon. Gentleman's comment really does take the biscuit. Now that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is one of those supernumerary Scottish Members of Parliament who have more time on their hands, we should not be surprised that he has become the darling of the BBC and the favourite BBC all-purpose defence rent-a-quote. We had better move on swiftly before anyone else owns up to being a friend of His Royal Highness.
If nations do not have a common purpose in defence, they will not discuss the same issues in the same way; they will not react to the same crises in the same way; and they will not be able to satisfy the Petersberg tasks coherently--let alone high-intensity warfare.
Take the issue of women in the front line. We are frequently told that there is no problem with deploying them there and that the Israelis adopted that approach years ago. Advocates of the Israeli example do not seem to have heard that the Israelis also abandoned it years ago, because it reduced combat effectiveness and simply did not work.
Advocates of women in the front line say that, if our strongest partner, the United States, can deploy them, so can we. They fail to recognise that, with the exception of the marine corps, which continues to thrive and attract massive numbers of recruits, the American military has suffered severe setbacks in its military effectiveness and deployability--an issue that must be addressed by the incoming Bush Administration.
"Frederick the Great must be spinning in his sarcophagus," one officer said, referring to the Prussian leader who hand-picked his strapping male grenadiers.
The really fundamental problem is that, under the German constitution, the Germany military--undoubtedly a good NATO partner and a good partner in peacekeeping it has turned out to be--does not have a front-line offensive role. Its members are not trained for high-intensity warfare, which must remain the first priority for British forces. The sort of questions reported to be occupying the mind of the German military are only a small part of the story.
There is a mass of other evidence. I shall describe three examples that were related to me only last week by a military man of impeccable credentials whose words I have no reason to doubt. The first concerned a young officer commanding a United Nations patrol in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In their blue berets, the members of the patrol came to an unexpected roadblock manned by heavily armed rebels who heavily outnumbered the small British contingent. The commanding officer asked the interpreter what the rebels were discussing. He was told that they had identified a pretty British corporal and were deciding how they would extract her from the group and abduct her for their pleasure. The commanding officer had to decide whether to allow the rebels to take away the corporal unhindered; to call up assistance that might arrive too late; or to commence a fire fight that would almost certainly result in deaths on both sides. In the event, he persuaded the rebels to move on.
The commanding officer said that the incident had changed his whole attitude. He had been a pretty liberal-minded officer, ready to accept change. This incident made him realise that women in the front line of the infantry was an altogether different matter. The crisis would not have arisen if the woman had not been there. It had nothing to do with the woman's ability to do her job, and her undoubted success was rewarded by promotion. It was not even a matter of the reaction of her fellow British soldiers. It was a question of how the modern fighting force of a liberal democracy could handle personal confrontation with illiberal, undemocratic armed forces.
A second officer explained how he had been with the Royal Navy on a resupply-at-sea exercise in a British frigate in a force 6 sea. When the frigate came alongside the United States supply ship in the Atlantic, the pitch and roll were substantial. The visiting officer and the captain were on the bridge and observed the female rating on the bow of the frigate as she tried to pull across the very heavy wet rope. She was physically unable to do it. Her skill and determination were not in question--indeed, she lacerated her hands in the process. All that was lacking was physical strength. The visitor was ordered forward to assist. He subsequently received a stream of invective from the United States sailor, who could not believe that the Brits could be so stupid.
Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): Last April, the Defence Committee visited our forces in the Gulf. We also went to Bahrain, where we saw the commanding officer of the British RAF personnel who provide support on the tankers that refuel the VC10s that enforce the no-fly zones over southern Iraq. That commanding officer was a woman, a pilot and an excellent person. Instead of denigrating the women in our forces, as the hon. Gentleman is doing, is it not time that he praised them?
Mr. Key: I am second to none in my praise for women of all ranks in our armed forces. I was about to say that almost all female and male members of Her Majesty's forces comment on the problem of physical strength and endurance. There is no question of any lack of intellectual equality, motivation, drive or determination. I believe that the majority of women recognise that they would face problems of endurance on the battlefield, which is when the problem of unit cohesiveness will arise. What will be the reaction of the men when their brave female
Mr. Cohen: What is the hon. Gentleman's reaction when women do carry the physical endurance load? Should they not then be allowed in the front line? As for his example of the woman who could have been kidnapped, is he not aware that the last British soldier who was kidnapped was a man in Sierra Leone? All his arguments against women, which I think he and his party will regret, could be applied to women in the civilian workplace. Such arguments have been shown to be nonsense there, and they are nonsense in the armed forces as well.
Mr. Key: I have great affection and respect for the hon. Gentleman, but there is one fundamental difference between us: I do not believe that it is his place or mine to tell the military how to do their job. That is for the chain of command. Politicians should not tell the military to be politically correct, but that is what the Bill is in danger of doing.
My final example is of a young liaison officer to a tented brigade headquarters in a forest in Germany in the middle of winter. It was terribly cold, and he went unchallenged as he approached the headquarters down a track. Only when he was inside the tent and in the presence of all the senior officers was he challenged by the sentry, who was a female lance-corporal who had been allowed to stay inside the tent because of the cold. That was not a summer picnic at Catterick, but a training exercise for high-intensity warfare.
Senior officers have also made it clear to me that it is no longer possible to say with any credibility that women should either be prohibited from serving in the front line or be allowed to serve only in the rear echelons. The reason is that in this age of asymmetric warfare, weapons of mass destruction, electronic warfare and rapidly developing defence technology, it is no longer possible to define a front line or a rear echelon.
What are we to do about political correctness and the application of human rights legislation to the armed forces? I regret that neither this debate nor the proceedings of the Committee stage which will follow will be informed by the inquiry by the Ministry of Defence into women in the infantry, which will not report until March. In addition, we will not have the benefit of the Defence Committee's inquiry into personnel issues, which will be published soon. Both those reports would have helped us.
The United Kingdom did not obtain a reservation when we acceded to the ECHR in 1951 because, as their lordships made clear in 1998, at the time no one believed or intended that the convention would apply to the armed services. In its fourth report, the Defence Committee records that it asked the Minister for the Armed Forces to comment on the suggestion that, as the summary justice system was such a vital element of service discipline, an alternative way of dealing with the problem of compliance would be to leave the ECHR and rejoin with a reservation on armed forces discipline.
I feel obliged to mention that at that time--it was just a few years after the war--I do not believe that members of any party in this country gave a moment's thought to the effect of the convention on military discipline. But now we must consider it. I believe that the Government must review the convention and our acceptance of it in order to ensure that military discipline is maintained.