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Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South): In the 1980s, I was quite nervous about the Labour party's defence policy. I was rather fearful about it. I am not one of those who have changed their minds on defence in general, but, having observed the Government in action on defence matters for approaching four years, they have done little that causes me a great deal of anxiety. What does disturb me is that many of the things that Conservative Members supported enthusiastically, they now appear to oppose.
My wife accuses me regularly of being the personification of political incorrectness, but, in the many military units that I have visited, I have not discerned that women in the armed forces are a profound liability--quite the reverse. The recruiting crisis that began a long time before 1997--[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) stays, he might learn a little more, but prejudice does not meet reason too frequently.
I have seen women in the armed forces performing admirably. They are not there for reasons of political correctness, but because they have a right to be there. When my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) talked about a woman in charge of transport command in Bahrain, he unfortunately forgot another example, which is that when we visited the Kuwaiti air base, which was occupied by the United States air force and the Royal Air Force, the pilot of the fourth Tornado aircraft, about to do some nasty things to Iraqi equipment, was a woman. No one to whom we spoke said that, somehow, that woman was not worth her place in the RAF.
It was, after all, the Minister for the Armed Forces in the early 1990s who courageously and famously announced that, forthwith, women would be allowed to serve on board Her Majesty's warships, and that he was confident, as ever, that the senior service would rise to meet the challenge. Those are words that I shall remember for many reasons. Therefore, if the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) looks at the Conservative party's record in introducing women into the armed forces, he need feel no embarrassment. The idea that women could be extricated from the armed forces without a catastrophic effect on the armed forces is beyond words.
Mr. George: I promise that I will give way, but I must add that, from one or two things in the hon. Gentleman's speech and what he has said he intends to talk about, the Select Committee should be fun. It is a great shame that no member of the Defence Committee will be on that Committee, but more about that later. It will be a fun Committee, because all the prejudices that have been displayed by Conservative Members will replace serious debate on serious issues. We have heard little about the technicalities, perhaps because the hon. Gentleman has not gone into them. We have been treated to an incredible exercise in political prejudice--against the disabled and almost every category whom he represents in his constituency. I shall not threaten to send a copy of his speech to disablement and women's rights organisations, and every other category of minority that apparently can expect no place in the armed forces under a Conservative Administration. I shall simply say, having read that it
Mr. Key: Indeed I do. The right hon. Gentleman--I congratulate him--has known me over many years and in some tight places, literally as well as metaphorically, and he knows that I recognise the contribution that women have made. He is misrepresenting my views, and I believe that he knows it. I invite him in riposte to anticipate the reports of the Ministry of Defence and of his Committee, to which we are looking forward keenly. What is his judgment of, and what would he say to the Chief of the Defence staff about, the role of women on the front line of the infantry?
Mr. George: I promise the hon. Gentleman that I shall not avoid his question. I had hoped that our report could be produced in time for Committee members to bring their experience to the Select Committee considering the Armed Forces Bill. Regrettably, that has not been possible: the time scale for introducing the Bill has made it difficult to produce our report in time to do that. However, we are struggling to bring the report to the Select Committee's attention--in fact, before the Committee is operational.
The Defence Committee report is the product of the work of advisers, staff and the 11 Committee members. However, my own view is that perhaps it would be wise in future if the Defence Committee looked at the reforms to see whether the forebodings have been realised: whether women in the armed forces means mass fornication, cowardice and retreats in the face of the enemy; whether gays in the military will cause excessive problems; and whether the argument that some people--if not the hon. Member for Salisbury--have used, that blacks in the military will be a disruptive force, holds. Of course, it does not.
Political representatives in government have every right to tell the Chief of the Defence Staff the parameters within which he must operate. We have not given that power to the military. If members of the military want to become politicians, they can. There is an example in the House this afternoon, and there are several less successful entrants on the Opposition Benches. I say that mischievously, not malevolently.
The hon. Member for Salisbury was correct about one thing. I regret the forthcoming retirement of the Chief of the Defence Staff, although the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) will not be despondent when that day finally arrives. The ultimate test of the military is not necessarily how well it reflects society, but how well it performs when it is required to perform effectively. Even though I support the reforms, uppermost in my mind and, I hope, in the minds of Ministers, is the question of how much farther we shall have to go to achieve a perfectly representative military that will include ageing, obese cowards like myself. Frankly, I would forgo the right to be represented in the military--as, looking around, would most, if not all of my colleagues. We cannot expect the military to be a microcosm of society.
Although I support the reforms, one has to be cautious and say that there are limits beyond which one should not go. That is why I would argue strongly that, at some stage early in the next Parliament--or perhaps a little later to give the reforms a chance to mature--we should see how successful or otherwise the reforms have been. If reforms or changes need to be made, I hope that the Government will have the courage to take the appropriate measures.
Mr. Mackinlay: I like the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) very much and, contrary to his better judgment, he may have some regard for me. However, his speech ought to be read by every woman in the land because it was full of stereotyping and anecdotal prejudice. It portrayed the confused and sometimes malevolent thinking in the Conservative party. I wanted to share with my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) the fact that I spent a day with the hon. Member for Salisbury on HMS Invincible. He would certainly be disqualified from serving because of his lack of agility. However, I remember that the commanding officer of HMS Invincible telling us of the high proportion of women ratings and officers on his ship.
The Select Committee that is being formed will be interesting. Obviously, politics will rear its ugly head. Later, we shall have a vote, which, unfortunately, will destroy any hope of a consensual approach on some issues.
Mr. Viggers: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way--I have never had a chance to call him that before. He and I serve on the Defence Committee, of which he is a distinguished Chairman, and have both served on the Select Committee considering a previous Armed Forces Bill. He knows that the Defence Committee has influence but no power, whereas the Committee considering such Bills has enormous power to scrutinise the Government and, effectively, to hold them to ransom. What does the right hon. Gentleman think is the Government's motive for not choosing any member of the Defence Committee to serve on the Select Committee considering the Bill?
Mr. George: It is worse than that: it is the exclusion not only of members of the Defence Committee, but of Back Benchers. The composition of the Select Committee considering the Bill is a classic case of the Executive dominating the legislature. After 300 years of alleged parliamentary supremacy, that Committee has Executive supremacy, not parliamentary supremacy. From the Opposition, there are two wannabe Ministers; there is also the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), who is another wannabe, but he will wanna be for a hell of a lot longer than the Conservative Members who sit proximate to him. There is also a Whip and a parliamentary private secretary, so Opposition membership of that Committee is dominated by would-be members of the Executive. Labour membership of the Committee consists of two Ministers, who are extremely competent, two private
My hon. Friend the Member for somewhere in the frozen north--I am sorry, I cannot remember Dari Taylor's Teesside constituency, but her football team is improving by the minute--will be unique. I hope that she will be looked after, although she can look after herself, because she is the only Back-Bench representative on the Committee. I profoundly regret that, but I shall say no more. However, I thank the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) for giving me the opportunity to raise that matter rather earlier than I intended.