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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.

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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.

Nearer to home, all eyes are on Germany. Only last week, on 3 January The Times reported from Berlin:

We know that, last year, the European Court of Justice ruled that the German Government must provide equal opportunities for women in their forces. The Times adds:

A tank commander has written several rules which, according to the report, include:

The report points out:

The Times also reported that the physical health and mental aptitude of women recruits were good. It reports Colonel Volker Spangenberg as saying:

However, does the army have a clear idea of what it wants from the women?

Mr. Mackinlay: To which clause of the Bill is the hon. Gentleman directing his remarks?

Mr. Key: The hon. Gentleman will not have to wait long to find out.

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.

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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

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colleagues cannot physically carry the battlefield load in the front line of the infantry, or when their female comrades are wounded or just utterly exhausted?

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 Secretary of State states on the face of the Bill that,

his view is that

However, the Bill was printed on 11 December last, and time moves on quickly in matters of political correctness.

During the passage of the Human Rights Bill in 1998, assurances were given by the Lord Chancellor that it was not intended or anticipated that the armed forces would

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be affected by it, and that if that appeared likely, special legislation might have to be introduced to correct it. He said:

He went on to attempt to allay the concerns that were expressed about the possible effect on the armed forces. He indicated that he was willing to consider designating military courts as the proper venue for the consideration of complaints on convention grounds by armed forces personnel. Most interestingly, he said that

Just over a year later, the Armed Forces Discipline Act 2000 was dumped on the armed forces. They were given no blanket or partial derogation from human rights law, despite the Government's promise. The Defence Committee examined that matter in its fourth report on that legislation. It pointed out that some countries have approached difficulties with compliance of their armed forces discipline system with the European convention on human rights by obtaining a reservation on ratifying the convention. France did that on its accession in 1974. Of course, a reservation is available to a state only on accession to the convention. A state can make a derogation after acceding, under article 15, in time of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation.

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.

In paragraph 5 of the report, the Minister told the Committee:

The Committee reported to the House:

The Government did not address that possibility, and they certainly should have done so.

During the passage of the Armed Forces Discipline Bill in another place, my noble Friend Lord Renton made a significant intervention. He said:

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Lord Renton went on to restate a basic principle. He said:

Our position is clear. On 21 December, my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, said:

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