The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon) : No one could be more delighted than I am that we have this opportunity for a full debate on equal opportunities in the armed forces. It is a matter to which the Government and the armed forces attach great importance. As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State with responsibility for the armed forces announced in the House last week in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer), a new diversity policy has recently been agreed for the armed forces. That policy seeks to define diversity in a military context and to articulate the benefits that diversity will bring to the current and future operational capability of the armed forces. It will build on, rather than replace, the services' existing equal opportunities policies and practices.
The armed forces recognise that in order to continue to operate successfully in increasingly complex, high-technology and unpredictable environments, they need fit, capable, resourceful and highly motivated men and women from all sections of society. To recruit and retain such people, the services must provide a working environment and organisational culture that respect and value individuals from diverse backgrounds.
At the same time, it is important that we do not lose sight of the fact that the armed forces have a unique and highly demanding role, and that the need to preserve combat effectiveness must remain our overriding concern. In practical terms, that means having fully fit, trained and disciplined personnel ready and willing to deploy worldwide at a moment's notice, and to perform many difficult tasks not found in civilian employment. It also means that individual soldiers, sailors and airmen and airwomen must often be prepared to subordinate their own individual needs for the greater good and to abide by certain core values and standards of behaviour that are generally more demanding than those of society at large.
In a military environment, diversity is about valuing individual difference and harnessing the ideas, talents and skills of all personnel, with the aim of maintaining and enhancing team cohesion and performance and thus operational effectiveness. There are, however, limits to recognising individual differences, and it must not be pursued at the expense of team cohesion or allowed to place operational effectiveness at risk. That brings me to the topic on which I would like to focus in opening this debate today: my announcement on 22 May that women would continue to be excluded from serving in close-combat units in the armed forces. I would like to take this opportunity to explain the rationale for that decision a little more fully.
First, as I made clear in my announcement and as was underlined strongly by the Chief of the Defence Staff, women play a vital role in our armed forces. Since the early 1990s, women have taken on an increasingly wide range of roles and tasks, including front-line positions, with great success. They are able to serve as pilots and navigators in attack helicopters and fast jets, and in all roles on board surface warships. They also serve in many parts of the Army including, since 1998, the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers. Demanding roles in support of 3 Commando Brigade of the Royal Marines are also open to women. I am sure that hon. Members will have read about the recent success of Captain Tattersall, the first woman to complete the all-arms commando course successfully and thus qualify for one of those roles.
Some 62 ships have women on board, and more than 900 women currently at sea have served on or are serving on operations. Four women have now commanded P2000 fast training boats and one has qualified as a principal warfare officer and is serving as the executive officer of a type 23 frigate. A female Army officer holds a senior media ops appointment in the international security assistance force in Kabul and, elsewhere in Afghanistan, female Chinook pilots bear heavy operational responsibilities. A female squadron leader has been appointed as the first commander of an operational flying squadron, flying Wessex helicopters in Cyprus, and another female Royal Air Force officer in the UK commands the operations wing on a busy Harrier base.
The great majority of posts within the armed forces are open to women, and their contribution to the combat effectiveness of the armed forces is absolutely essential. In total, they may serve in 73 per cent. of posts in the naval service, 70 per cent. of posts in the Army, and 96 per cent. of posts in the Royal Air Force. More than 10 per cent. of recruits to the enlisted ranks, and almost 20 per cent. of officer recruits, are women. Female personnel may make up more than 8 per cent. of the strength of the regular armed forces. I am determined to see the figures increase, and to see more women take advantage of the wide range of opportunities that a career in the armed forces offers. Further work will be undertaken to consider how that can be achieved.
The only posts closed to women for reasons of combat effectiveness are those that engage in ground close combat, such as those in the Royal Marines general service, the infantry, the Household Cavalry, the Royal Armoured Corps and the Royal Air Force Regiment. The ground close-combat forces operate in small, usually four-man, fire teams. As part of their primary function, they may be required deliberately to close with, and kill, the enemy face to face. That requirement poses extraordinary demands on individuals and, in such extreme circumstances, success, failure, even survival, depends on the cohesion of the team. Even small failures may lead to loss of life, or to the failure of the team to meet its objectives. It is therefore critical that such teams perform to the highest possible standards.
After the last review in 1998, which led to a large number of Army roles opening to women, the Ministry of Defence undertook a detailed study into the performance and suitability of women in close-combat
I want to make it clear that the physical differences were not considered to be a sufficient reason to exclude women from ground combat. The deciding factor in retaining the exclusion was not whether women could physically or otherwise do the job of a soldier or a royal marine, but was based on the military judgment of whether including them would have an adverse impact on the combat effectiveness of close-combat teams in the extreme conditions of the battlefield. Our armed forces are, and will continue to be, raised, structured and equipped principally for combat. We are rightly proud of their ability to engage in high-intensity warfare, and to intervene effectively at short notice in any conflict. That has served us well and has earned us a worldwide reputation for our ability to engage successfully across the full spectrum of operations. A high level of cohesion in small fire teams or tank crews in those units is a vital component in sustaining the combat effectiveness that underpins that capability. The survival of our forces could depend on team cohesion. We will do nothing to risk impairing that.
The study found evidence that including small numbers of women in teams adds to the difficulty of creating the necessary degree of cohesion. The attitudes of group members, especially positive and negative attitudes to gender and gender stereotypes, can affect group dynamics and ultimately group effectiveness. The findings suggest that under normal conditions, and given proper management and training, the presence of women in small units need not affect performance detrimentally. However, the close-combat environment is anything but normal. We do not know whether the findings remain true under the extreme conditions of high-intensity close combat.
None of the evidence available was based on combat situations and, unless we send experimental mixed-gender teams into combat, we have no way of knowing whether they can function as well as all-male teams. Given the lack of direct evidence, the expertise of the service chiefs of staff was critical, and I concluded that military judgment would have to form the basis of any decision. The chiefs of staff view was that under the conditions of high-intensity close quarter battle, group cohesion becomes of much greater significance to team performance. In such an environment, the consequences of failure can be far reaching and grave. To admit women would therefore involve a risk with no possibility of gain in combat effectiveness to offset it.
I am keen however to ensure that women have the opportunity to progress to the highest ranks in the armed forces. Some 168 service women currently hold the rank of lieutenant-colonel or higher, or its equivalent in the other services. I hope that more women will come through to even more senior positions in the future. I am delighted that more women are now successfully combining a career in the armed forces with family life and other commitments. Initiatives are under way to establish what additional support systems are needed to allow more women to achieve that difficult balance. The armed forces are examining ways to introduce more flexible working where that can be done without implications for operational capability.
The Ministry of Defence and the armed forces will continue to work closely with the Equal Opportunities Commission and will share with it the results of further work to examine these and other issues raised by the study on women in close-combat roles. I look forward to seeing that work come to fruition.
We should not forget that the position of women in the armed forces has been transformed in a way that would have been inconceivable 20 years ago when women served in separate women's services, and could not go to sea or fly aircraft. At the same time, there has been an equally dramatic change in other aspects of equal opportunities. The armed forces have made significant progress in several areas. The robust equal opportunities regime introduced in the late 1990s is starting to bear fruit, with evidence of real and lasting change. Indeed, I would like to congratulate the Army, which today has been named the top public sector employer by Business in the Community's race for opportunity scheme. That recognises a significant and welcome culture change in the Army in recent years.
I want to place on the record my recognition of how much all three services are doing to make themselves more representative of our richly diverse society and to engender a culture that truly welcomes and values individuals with talent, skills and commitment from all walks of life. However, much remains to be done and we cannot afford to sit back.
Recruitment of ethnic minorities is one area in which there has been an overall year-on-year improvement but, despite vigorous efforts, results across all three services have fallen short of the challenging recruitment goals we have set ourselves, which culminated in last year's goal of 5 per cent. In the case of the Army, there are already encouraging signs. Although we do not yet have audited figures for 200102, the indications are that the proportion of recruits from the British ethnic minorities joining the Army last year exceeded the 5 per cent. goal for the first time.
For the coming year, we have set a goal for each of the services to achieve an increase of 1 per cent. in their outturn for 200102. If we are to increase ethnic minority recruitment further and meet the targets, we need to build on the work of recent years and endeavour to attract applicants from all sections of the population, including those where we have in the past had comparatively little success. That means building bridges with the ethnic minority communities to increase their awareness of what a career in the services has to offer. I am delighted that all three services are working hard to build strong relationships with ethnic minority communities throughout the country, to raise
Each of the three services has diversity recruiting and action teams in areas with large ethnic minority communities, which forge partnerships with secondary schools, local boroughs, councils, and community and religious organisations. They are engaged in numerous initiatives aimed specifically at people from ethnic minority backgrounds. For example, there are open days at service establishments, graduate recruitment seminars, mentoring schemes and personal development courses for schools and community groups with high numbers of ethnic minorities. In addition to the continuation of recruiting activities nationwide, the services plan a higher concentration of initiatives in Greater London, an area that holds the richest source of ethnic minority recruits. All those initiatives will help to build common ground and a mutual understanding between the armed forces and the diverse communities from which they are drawn, and which they are there to serve.
Increasing recruitment of ethnic minorities is vital, but it will fail if we do not at the same time make sure that we do everything we can to make full use of the individual skills, talents and experiences of all those who join, whatever their race, ethnic origin, religion, gender, social background or sexual orientation. It is paramount that we build on a solid framework provided by our robust equal opportunities regime. Much has been done in recent years to root out racism, sexism and other forms of unacceptable behaviour and to create an environment free from unlawful discrimination and harassment.
Mr. Hoon : That poses a significantly more difficult problem. The test of combat effectiveness runs through all that I have set out, and it would be less than honest for us to change as far as the disabled are concerned. It would be wrong to say that we had opened up positions to disabled groups if we had also set a test that we knew from the outset they would not satisfy because of their disabilities. We have sought to identify areas of disablement that could allow individuals to satisfy the combat effectiveness test, but it is better to proceed honestly and openly.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): I cannot remember where it was, but I visited a military establishment where I was shown, rather ruefully, facilities for the disabled that had had to be installed, even though the probability of disabled people using them was nil because of the qualifications for being an active member of the armed forces. Does the Minister think that there is a case for a legal reform to prevent such a waste of resources?
Mr. Hoon : Obviously, I do not know that example but I suspectI have seen such facilitiesthat the armed forces concerned were complying with public legislation that affects visitors rather than the armed forces.
Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): Regardless of whether disabled people are serving in a unit or in any place of employment, such facilities exist for visitorsincluding the relatives of staff at that place of employment. It is right that such facilities should exist.
Mr. Hoon : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me of the fact that disabled people work for the civil service who need access to military establishments and bases, and therefore need the same access to facilities as any other employee.
Initiatives include setting up confidential advice, support helplines and a network of equal opportunities advisers at every unit and formation. I welcome all the initiatives and look forward to seeing them bear fruit. I also particularly welcome the challenge presented by the amended Race Relations Acts to review the full range of our activities to ensure that in all we do we recognise the importance of eliminating unlawful discrimination and of promoting equal opportunities and good relations between people from all ethnic groups. I am delighted that the Ministry of Defence's race equality scheme was published on 31 May. In the case of the armed forces, that builds on the successful five-year partnership agreement with the Commission for Racial Equality that has been in place since 1998.
It is fundamental to the long-term success of our armed forces that they rise to the challenge of diversity. That means doing everything that they can to reach out to, and engage with, as wide a pool of potential applicants as possible, and to ensure that they take full advantage of all the talent and experience that already exist within the armed forces.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): I disagree with nothing that the Secretary of State has saidI should say virtually nothing, so that I am not caught out later. I thoroughly endorsed the objectives that he set out of maximising opportunities in the armed forces for women, ethnic minorities and, where possible, the disabled, although I fully concur with his fundamental caveat that combat effectiveness must be key. I do not know whether a modern fast jet could cope with a Douglas Bader, who was a paraplegic, but I leave that to technicians; I regard it as a technical rather than a moral issue.
Let no one say that we are not as committed as any other political party to opportunities for all wherever possible. Indeed, I listened with pride to the Secretary of State describing how the major initiatives, particularly for women in the armed forces, were taken in the early 1990s under the Conservative Government. I am sure that he would not begrudge us that. I wish to deal only with his decision on equal opportunities for women in the armed forces. He has not taken a wrong decision: in view of his personal commitment to equal opportunities throughout his political career and the expectations of some in his own party for a different decision, it was right and courageous.
I would add my own viewpoint that the British armed forces exist to defend democracy, not to embody it in its policies and procedures. The advice that really counts is that of the chiefs of staff and we have always maintained that the Government should accept their advice. We have been perplexed since 1997 because the chiefs of staff gave straightforward advice, yet the Government went through the rigmarole of assessing the possibility of extending opportunities for women to enter front-line infantry regiments, the Royal Marines and so forth.
Mr. Jenkin : That is the point. I defer to the Secretary of State's legal expertise on these matters: he is a professional and I am a mere amateur, but I hope that he will be gentle and not tie me up too much in legal knots. I hasten to add that I have taken the opinion of Queen's Counsel and come reasonably well armed.
This is the nub of the matter. When the Government defended the Sirdar case, which was eventually heard on 27 October 1999 and did not start under the present Administration, the argument thenand it was wrongwas that matters of national security were somehow outside the scope of the equal treatment directive and the treaty. The judgment in Sirdar v. Army Board rejected the submissions of France and the United Kingdom that matters concerning the conduct and discipline of members of the armed forces that were relevant to national security fell outside the scope of the treaty of Rome. That subsequently led the Government to attempt to justify sex discrimination in the armed forces on grounds of combat effectiveness.
I am concerned about the grounds adopted by the Government to sustain the policy judgment delivered today. The Secretary of State made it clear in a letter dated 22 Maythe day on which he made the announcementthat in themselves physical and psychological differences cannot be a justification for discrimination. The Secretary of State referred this afternoon to cohesion among team members, which he described in his letter as
My belief and concern is that in time there will be another legal challenge and perhaps a number of challenges. The problem is that the court has already reserved its options for future revisions of its attitude in the Sirdar judgment.
Mr. Hoon : I hope that that largely sound legal advice did not cost the hon. Gentleman a great deal of money. He has criticised the basis on which the case was conducted before the ECJ, and I am not necessarily quibbling with the basis of that or of the court's conclusion. However, to sustain his argument, he should say what should have been the basis either of the argument advanced on the Government's behalf or of the court's decision. Clearly, we were successful in arguing the case before the courtwe were vindicated by its ultimate decision.
The hon. Gentleman may be uncomfortable with the decision, but he has to admit that there has been significant social development on equality and that that will continue. I can see that there is some logic to the line that he is pursuing, but for me to be able to deal with it, he must say what should have been the basis of the court's decision, and so far he has not done so.
Mr. Jenkin : If the Secretary of State, who understands these matters, had been in at the start, there would have been no case, because he would have known that he would be up against it. I think that the previous Government started the case because they were trying to prove something that they did not want to accept, which is that the equal treatment directive has jurisdiction over this matter. I was criticising not the way in which the case was presented, but the basis set out in his letter and comments this afternoon. The basis of a future case will be that particular positive and negative attitudes to gender and gender stereotypes could affect group
Mr. Hoon : Any case that arises in the futureI assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government will not look for a case or encourage it to be brought to courtwill have to be argued on the basis of the existing law, which is the reason for my original intervention. It is not as if we can choose the grounds of the argument. The grounds are chosen for us according to law laid down by the European Court of Justice.
Mr. Jenkin : The right hon. Gentleman is usefully making my case for me. He will not be able to choose the law, but he has already chosen the grounds on which he will defend the case. That is why we have gone through this rigmarole of the report and him writing to me and setting out the arguments in Parliament. He is preparing to prove, in the event of another case, that he has considered all the arguments and that the discrimination is justified.
My difficulty with that phrase is that it is similar to what was used by the previous GovernmentI admit, mistakenly, both morally and legallyto try to deny the rights of homosexuals in the armed forces. That case went to the Strasbourg court, which dismissed an argument based on the views of members of the armed forces canvassed in the "Report of the Homosexual Policy Assessment Team" by categorising the views of the heterosexual majority effectively as equivalent to prejudice against women or racial minorities, which should not be the basis of policy. To talk about positive and negative attitudes to gender and gender stereotyping suggests that the right hon. Gentleman is basing his policy on the prejudice of the armed service men concerned.
Mr. Hoon : I emphasise categorically that the decision was not based on any kind of attitudinal view or stereotyping. The case was fought on the basis of our lawyers' understanding of what was likely to be successful, given a much more difficult equal opportunities legal basis, at the European Court of Justice or the Strasbourg court. That legal advice was vindicated because the case was won, but it was won subject to the existing law, and I repeat my earlier observation. The hon. Gentleman cannot criticise the basis on which that case was won without providing an alternative basis on which it might have been fought ultimately successfully.
Mr. Jenkin : I am probably not being 100 per cent. clear, but I am not criticising the way in which the case was handled. The Secretary of State is setting out his current case for justified discrimination. My point is that that case, which he has set out to the House, the public at large and me in his letter, will not be a sound basis for sustaining the policy that he has chosen to accept. As I said, it is wrong to rely on the known prejudices of service menI am using the wrong words, as that sounds derogatory. It would be more correct to talk about positive and negative attitudes to gender and gender stereotyping, which I submit will be taken to be prejudices by a court at some time in the future. Moreover, because the Strasbourg court has already
Mr. Hoon : I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. I may have read out my observations too quickly. I was referring to research on group dynamics, the findings of which included the fact that, whether positive or negative, the attitudes of group members to gender and gender stereotypes can affect the group's dynamic and ultimately its effectiveness. I said that the report concluded that the presence of women in small units need not affect performance detrimentally and I went on to say that, although it could not be considered a scientific assessment of group performance, in one case the mixed group performed more effectively than any single-sex group.
Experience suggests that mixed groups have a more sophisticated understanding of problems, which is drawn from the diversity of the group's background. I said that that is fine in normal circumstances and with effective management but that those circumstances do not apply in close-combat operations. I went on to say that the very different circumstances in close-combat operations meant that I could not rely upon the results of the assessments of group dynamics in reaching the difficult decision that I had to take. It was to avoid the risk that findings that applied in normal circumstances might not be applicable in close-combat, high-intensity warfare, that I reached the conclusion that I did.
Mr. Jenkin : I wonder whether the Secretary of State is beginning to dig a grave for his policy. By suggesting that group dynamics are sometimes better than single-sex groups, and by accepting that today's gender stereotyping is likely to diminish as society becomes more equal, the fundamental basis for his argumentthat we do not know how the groups will function in close combatrather begins to diminish. It may only be a matter of time before the court takes a different view.
It is very easy. All that the Secretary of State has to doI shall give way to him again in a momentis give me an assurance that if the legal situation begins to change, he will address it either directly in negotiations with our European partners or, if necessary, with regard to our adherence to the European convention on human rights. In the past, we made a strong case that our armed forces, like those of other nations, should not be subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights; that sex equality legislation should not apply directly to the armed forces.
I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that the armed forces have an exemplary attitude to equality of the sexes and to race equality. They have yet to achieve what we want on that front, but the policies are in place and legislation is not needed to improve behaviour in the armed forces. Indeed, the ethos of the armed forces is that what counts is the discipline of the chain of command, not legal sanction.
Mr. Hoon : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way yet again. At the risk of encouraging him further, I repeat that the Government are bound by existing law and by case law. I listened carefully to his
Mr. Jenkin : The Secretary of State is going down an even darker alley. He says that if circumstances change, the armed forces will have had it; they will have to accept whatever ruling comes from the European Court of Justice. It would be better if the Government looked to the future, to ensure that we can protect the armed forces' combat effectiveness, and that we are not subject to a court that may not have their best interests at heart.
Mr. Hoon : I have always recognised the hon. Gentleman as being at the revolutionary end of the Conservative tendency, but he should think carefully about what he has just said. It appears that if he were in government, he would not accept judgments by the European court or, indeed, any court if he were unhappy with them.
Mr. Hoon : The hon. Gentleman says that we should change the law. Perhaps he needs to think a little harder about the treaty of Rome and the way in which European Union law might change. No doubt he and, I suspect, the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), who speaks for the Conservative party on defence matters, retain the logic of their previous position, and would leave the European Union.
Mr. Jenkin : I will not be drawn further on that matter, because that is not our policy. The right hon. Gentleman has, however, underlined the difficulties that we may face if the law develops in the way that it is likely to, even if he hopes that it does not. The Government have no policy to deal with that eventuality.
Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West): We have had two learned and effective speeches. I did not agree with everything that the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) said, but he seemed to have an idea about what he was saying, and he has done a great deal of research.
I want briefly to comment on two of the points raised by Opposition Members. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) raised the interesting issue of disability. I did not intend to refer to it, but the hon. Member for North Essex followed up with a reference to Douglas Bader. That was not particularly helpful; indeed, it was entirely misleading.
I am not an expert, and I may be wrong, but I suspect that there are disability issues relating to serving disabled soldiers. The Disability Rights Commission occasionally refers to the issue, and the Ministry of Defence will have to respond, because it keeps soldiers on where it can in non-combatant roles. The commission occasionally lobbies the Secretary of State
Mr. Gray : I had a particular constituency case in mind when I raised the issue of disability. A constituent was turned down by the Army because of a mild nut allergy, which seems absurd. I hope that the Secretary of State will enlarge a little on his policy so that I can give my constituent some hope.
Mr. Joyce : I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. I do not know a great deal about nut allergies, although the Secretary of State may well refer to them at the end of the debate. My instinct, however, is that there was a sensible reason for what happened.
I noticed that there was a frisson of excitement among Opposition Members at the mention of Europe. It is not for me to counsel them, but they should not let their judgment about the effectiveness of the armed forces be clouded by their assumptions about Europe and about all the evil that they think it brings.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, operational effectiveness is paramount in the organisation and running of our armed forces. The unique demands that we place on them mean that their norms will deviate from time to time from those in wider society. In that context, the role of equal opportunities can be misperceived, unless we are very clear about it. Several sketches in The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph earlier this week were quite funny, but they suffered from exactly such a misperception.
Equal opportunities are important to the armed services, not at the symbolic level, but at the practical level, in that the services need to recruit the best people that they can. That means not putting people out of consideration for irrational reasons, but removing impediments that might have existed historically across our society in terms of race and gender. Those are the two most relevant factors. A successful equal opportunities regime in the armed forces is ultimately needed to ensure their fighting effectiveness, as well as their ability to carry out the wide range of tasks that we have become used to them fulfilling in recent years.
What I say on gender may be fairly similar to what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, but I have arrived at it through my own reasoning. I suspect that there will be an element of difference, so I shall not simply replicate what he said, although I might back it up in some respects. At face value, the decision not to allow women to serve in teeth arms units seems sensible, based on the risk that extends from the lack of hard evidence about how mixed-gender teams perform in combat.
The Ministry of Defence clearly intends to monitor the policy and, if appropriate, to revisit it. I welcome that pragmatic approach, which does not necessarily shut the door to women in close-combat roles for ever. By chance, it reflects residual concern about wider society and combat. I say that having spoken to many of my constituents about it. I have had quite a few letters on the subject. It is not the issue on which I have had the
Interestingly, the full study carried out by the MOD refuted many traditional arguments often used by previous Governments against the wider employment of women. It agreed that there was an element of gender overlap up to and including the most arduous of activities. We have seen that personified recently in Captain Pip Tattersall, now the proud owner of a Royal Marine Commando green beret.
The study also considered psychological factors and decided that, although there might be gender differences, that would probably not prevent women from serving in combat roles. The document from the director of service personnel on the outcome of the study was published in May, and the part of it that struck me most was about psychological factors. It stated:
I wondered what the experimental methodology was. I had an image in mind of white-coated scientists taking a bunch of women down town for 15 pints and then poking them with a stick. How else would one give them
The policy will not have enormously significant implications for manningpersonning, or whatever one saysas there is little gender overlap in relation to physical capacity. Some women could pass the most stringent physical tests, but because the percentage is pretty small, it would not make up a significant part of any shortfall that might exist. In that sense, the decision not to allow women to serve in the teeth arms is probably marginal.
Whatever the current evidence tells us, however, it will be important that senior officers keep an open mind on the subject, in case new evidence comes to light. The literature survey mentioned in the report seems to represent a fairly modest form of scientific evidence. I am not an expert, but I am not aware of a huge amount of literature on the subject resulting from scientific study. Perhaps a wider survey, future studies or the experience of other countries may flag up some significant new evidence. Broadly speaking, however,
The Ministry of Defence and the Army have clearly made enormous efforts in respect of race over the past five years. There is a welter of evidence to that effect, including several awards and warm comments from the Commission for Racial Equality. For five years, there has been year-on-year improvement in the proportion of non-white recruits, although there is still a considerable way to go. There is a great deal of documentary evidence, including reams of policy statements, the Race Equality Scheme 2002, initiatives on mainstreaming, and the Armed Forces Overarching Personnel StrategyAFOPS. Significantly, the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 is referred to in more detail in Ministry of Defence documentation than in any other Government Department's personnel documents that I have seen. The fact that the MOD can take a new policy such as this in its stride is a clear sign that its personnel systems have come a long way in the past five or six years. On the proportion of non-white soldiers and air and naval personnel, it seems that the recent events of 11 September and thereafter created a much more difficult climate in which to reach the ambitious targets already referred to by the Secretary of State.
There is clearly a relationship between people's sense of identity, even national identity, and their preparedness to join the armed services of any particular country. In the past week, The Guardian has been carrying extensive reports and surveys on that subject. I noticed that it said that Muslims in Britain who come from the Indian sub-continent were more likely to refer to themselves as British or British Muslims than as anything else, which is probably encouraging in respect of their likelihood of wanting to join the armed services, and that there is a substantial increase in the number of people who describe themselves as such. That may indicate that, in spite of the events of the past few months, since 11 September, people will be more likely to join the armed forces. That is a significant factor.
I worked at the CRE for a short time, yet I still do not detect quite the enthusiasm that I would like to see from all the leaders of ethnic minority communities in encouraging their young men and women to join the services. Women from ethnic minority communities may be less likely to join the armed forces because of cultural variables, but as women make up a small minority in the Army, that probably does not affect the overall intake. If women make up 7 or 8 per cent., that proportion of the overall ethnic minority intake would be fairly small. The significant factor seems to be the extent to which community leaders and young men and women inform themselves about the significance and benefits to not only themselves, but the country, of joining the armed services.
It is a two-way street. The Government are tackling under-representation relatively successfully and as effectively as they can. The armed services are doing so in an exemplary way, as the CRE says. However, it is a two-way street and the other side have to play their part as well. Although, to an extent, they have done so recently, more could be done in that respect.
Effective equal opportunities is not about making symbolic statements but about making organisations more effective by giving people as many choices as possible. We must ensure that we maximise the chances of those who work for the organisation to make that organisation effective and so that they benefit from that effectiveness themselves.
I remain unconvinced that Opposition Members perceive the matter in that way. The hon. Member for North Essex referred provocatively to Douglas Bader. If he approaches the matter from that point of view, it suggests that he may not be instinctually sympathetic to equal opportunities. A good, sensible and pragmatic equal opportunities policy will invariably help the armed forces to be more effective. That is precisely the direction that the Government are taking.
Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): It is gratifying that you should be in the Chair, Mrs. Roe, as I remember the 12 months that you and I spent assigned to the Royal Navy as part of the parliamentary armed forces scheme. We found that particular role invaluable in understanding the armed forces of today. My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley), who is involved in the Royal Navy scheme as you and I were, is also hoping to catch your eye and participate in the debate. [Interruption.] She is with the Army, in fact. She should be with the Navyit is far better.
It is apposite that we are holding the debate this afternoon, given the Secretary of State's announcement a couple of hours ago that some of our forces are returning from Afghanistan. All of us who have an interest in the subject through our portfolio or who served as members of the armed forces are struck by the extraordinary efforts that our armed forces invest in their work and the high esteem in which they are held throughout the world. That has been the case in Afghanistan and is the case wherever they go.
Most of us are aware of the invaluable role that our armed forces play in peacekeeping as well as war fighting. I remember that when my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) returned from Sierra Leone, she glowed with the praise she had heard for the work that she had seen our armed forces doing and the genuine difference that the British had made. Recently, we saw the excellent elections that followed those efforts.
Whether in peacekeeping or war fighting, our forces perform a wide range of tasks with remarkable skill. Because they have such a remarkable role, the forces should be made up of a wide range of members of society and continue to change in an ever-changing world. One lesson that we learned from the terrible events of 11 September was that if we had had intelligence and security forces to infiltrate al-Qaeda more effectively, we might have understood that organisation better. That is another reason why our recruitment in security services should not be done in the style of James Bond films; we should recruit from members of ethnic groups in our society. That may be an extreme example of why ethnic diversity is important in our security and armed forces, but it at least highlights the need for the armed forces to reflect on the nature of our society while recruiting.
Today, the Secretary of State announced some good news about the Army. Despite measures such as the equal opportunities directives and action plans and the corporate equal opportunities goals and principles, which are worthy ideas, ethnic minorities still make up a small percentage of the armed forces. The Government figures for 200102 show that ethnic minority recruitment rose to 6.2 per cent. of all intake. That is a promising figure, but it includes elements of Commonwealth recruitment, which often make up a substantial part of ethnic recruitment figures. Will the Secretary of State clarify whether those figures include Commonwealth recruitment? Will he tell us what the ethnic recruitment figures for the United Kingdom are?
The Government are to be praised for improvements in the level of recruitment. It has been a rocky road. I recall commenting in 2000 on the Government's failure to meet ethnic minority recruitment targets. If they are doing so now, I will be the first to congratulate them, but the House should be regularly brought up to date on the matter. The Ministry of Defence has made some impact, but more could be done. I suggest to the Secretary of State that we consider in particular ethnic minority recruitment into the cadet forces, because that could be a good way to bring more people from our ethnic communities into our armed forces.
Turning briefly to the role of women in the armed forces, the publication of the MOD's recent document on that subject is welcome and it is right that we are debating its conclusions today. I have stated my opinion on the matter before and I shall do so again. I believe that no post in the armed forces should necessarily be closed to either male or female personnel, provided that they can meet the mental and physical requirements of the task. The Department's document made some valid points. The Liberal Democrats do not want to compromise in any way operational effectiveness or group cohesion. We understand that the demands of front-line combat are severe and we should never compromise on them, because to do so could cost lives. However, as the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce) said, those issues should be kept under constant review.
The Secretary of State mentioned Captain Pip Tattersall, who completed the all arms course at Commando Training Centre Royal Marines in Lympstone and I am aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett), who served with such distinction in 40 and 42 Commando, is sitting next to me. I am glad that Captain Tattersall is pleased that she has performed that task. It goes to show how far women have come in our armed forces. Nevertheless, we still have far too few women in our armed forces. The latest figures suggest that they make up just 8.2 per cent. of personnel. Figures also suggest that there is a distinct correlation between the number of roles open to women in an individual service and the number of women who serve in that service. For example, 96 per cent. of posts in the Royal Air Force are available to women and that force has the highest proportion of women in service10.6 per cent. The Navy, with 73 per cent. of its posts open to women, has only 8.5 per cent. and the Army, with only 70 per cent. of its posts available, has the lowest figure at 7.2 per cent. Those figures are unsurprising, but the point is clearthe more posts available to women in a service, the more women will join, and rightly so.
I want to say something about disability rights, because they were mentioned by the Conservative spokesman and we have had a debate on them. Disability is not always visible. People can be disabled in many waysalthough I do not quite understand why a nut allergy should stop a person from servingand we should not consider disability as solely concerning those who are unable to perform physical tasks. Simply being disabled should not be a bar in any way to serving in the armed forces.
There was a great discussion earlier between the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), about various court cases. In the past, the MOD has been in court or has been threatened with court on cases of basic civil liberties. That is because equal opportunities go hand in hand with equal rights.
Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): On the matter of physical disabilities do I take it that my hon. Friend is not resiling from his earlier point that military efficiency and fighting effectiveness are paramount?
Mr. Keetch : That is absolutely right. I am glad to repeat that nothing should in any way detract from the ability of our armed forces to do the job that they have to do. There may be some roles in our armed forces that people with some disabilities could fulfil. I do not want to go down the Douglas Bader route, but other members of the armed forcesthere are some in my constituencyhave returned from action disabled, some of them recently, and are considering ways in which they can continue to play a role in the armed forces. Those people are very valuable to our armed forces and we should encourage them to stay.
There have been cases of pregnant women being wrongly dismissed and of unmarried partners threatening to claim their pension rights, and recently threats have been made by the Gurkhasat least some of themthat they will claim pension rights. Those cases have landed some bad publicity for the Ministry of Defence. I greatly appreciate the civil servants who work in the MOD and I am happy to repeat that today, but I believe that the Ministry is under incredible financial constraints imposed by the Treasury. Sometimes I suspect that those constraints lead to such cases being brought. The instances in which the Ministry of Defence is seen as, perhaps, too conservative do nothing to help our recruitment initiatives. The MOD has made an excellent effort to become an employer offering equal opportunities and equal rights not just to the serving members of our armed forces but, as the Secretary of State said, to the 100,000 or so civil servants involved in the Ministry's work.
I conclude by offering some suggestions to the Secretary of State which might help all members of our armed forcesmen and womenfrom every ethnic background. The service family taskforce, which we supported, should have its remit extended, to allow it to look after the rights of service personnel even more closely. We must ensure that our soldiers, sailors and airmen are afforded full and equal rights within the armed forces and within the disciplinary procedures of those forces. The zero tolerance approach to bullying and harassment must be enforced and backed up with effective family services. As I have suggested in the past, there should be a family officer on every base.
Mr. Keetch : The hon. Gentleman, too, has excellent knowledge of these matters, but I do not believe that that is the case. Perhaps the Secretary of State can confirm that to both of us, either today or later in writing.
Equal opportunities and equal rights for our forces should be a matter of course. We should be able to assume it and not have to debate it. Nevertheless, I am glad that we are having this debate, because our service men and women are the most important asset that our armed forces possess. If we neglect them, we neglect our own protection.
Patrick Mercer (Newark): I am sorry that I missed the early part of the debate and I apologise to those on both Front Benches. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for having brought the subject to our attention. I should like to throw some light on the comments of the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) about disability. I assume, and he will put me right if I am wrong, that he is talking about one or two of his constituents or near constituents serving in the Special Air Services in Hereford.
That particular regiment has a different role, in that it is one of the few Army units that has a fixed base. He is right that a number of soldiers from the Special Air Services are allowed to serve on, despite, in many cases, hideous wounds and disabilities, because the base is fixed. Those troops will never deploythey physically cannot do sobut I urge him to look at both battalions of the Light Infantry of his county regiment. I do not think that he will find anybody with severe disabilities serving in those battalions. If a ship or a battalion has to move at short notice, every person who deploys has to be operationally capable. It is slightly different in the Royal Air Force and there may be certain military exemptions. While I echo the words about making military bases available and accessible and the jobs thereon available to civil servants with disabilities, and trying to be as accommodating as possible, the matter of disability is not as simple as the hon. Gentleman might make it seem.
Mr. Keetch : The hon. Gentleman knows my constituency wellhe used to live close to it. I was not referring to that regiment; I am always careful about referring to it and to its exact location. Of the constituents concerned, one was a member of the Royal Navy and the other a member of the Royal Air Force. They were going to stay in training establishments. They happened to be constituents, but they wanted to stay in training. They wanted to stay on because they could offer valuable experience to other officers who followed them. I see no reason why people who might have been
Patrick Mercer : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for underlining my point. Such people can, rightly, serve in certain elementsfixed units in the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force and, indeed, inside the Army.
In my battalion, a Corporal Clark had his thumb shot off in Crossmaglen in the 1980s. He was able to continue to serve up to a specific rank. We kept him for as long as possible, but he could not continue to serve in a rifle section or platoon because he could not handle a firearm effectively. He eventually had to be discharged because his promotion possibilities ran out. None the less, I endorse the point about being as flexible as possible. However, it is one thing to keep under arms a soldier, sailor or airman who has bled for his or her country, and ensure that they can rightly gather their pensions. It is a different matter to recruit a service man with a disability, who will always have a restricted ability to serve in different theatres with different units. I ask for the application of a large dose of common sense to that problem.
On the comments of the hon. and gallant Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce) about open-mindedness, I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I restrict my comments to the Army, which I know best. The Army has been remarkably open-minded, especially about employing women. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the many tours that he conducted in Northern Ireland and ask him to consider the way in which the intelligence effort in battalions such as his and mine went from being a largely male domain in the 1970s to a largely female domain in the early 1980s.
In 1982, I took over as intelligence officer in west Belfast and, to my surprise, inherited a platoon of what was then called the Women's Royal Naval Service. It consisted of first-class intelligence operatives, with minds that were better attuned to retention and the analytical aspects of intelligence than those of their male equivalents. I appreciate that I am generalising and being deeply sexist.
I ask the Secretary of State to consider one or two anomalies that may have escaped his attention. The first involves females serving in the Territorial Army infantry. Several years ago, I was sufficiently lucky to be chief instructor of the platoon commander's course. I had a course for Territorial Army platoon commanders, two of whom were women. They served in units in the north and I was a little surprised when the ladies turned up; as we have heard, infantry units do not generally have women in combat roles. I checked whether the ladies should have been on the course and I found that they were platoon commanders with TA infantry battalions. There was no legislation that stated whether they should do the course.
Although both ladies were more than capable of the technical elements of being infantry platoon commanders, they could not cope with the physical difficulties of carrying an infantryman's load. Anyone who doubts those difficulties and strictures can ask the hon. Member for Falkirk, West. Those two ladies
I shall underline another anomaly. Although women are encouraged to serve in more roles throughout the combat arms, female recruiting faces difficulties. The Nottinghamshire Regiment and the Royal Horse Artillery are the only two units that have come to my constituency, which the Secretary of State knows well, to recruit. Neither unit is accompanied by an arm that can and will accept females. Why not? Why does not the Worcester and Sherwood Foresters Regiment have an Adjutant-General's Corps female representative or an Army Air Corps female representative to mop up the pool of ready female recruits who come forward? Young ladies always mob the soldiers who turn up in Newark. Many would make excellent soldiers. However, the lack of flexibility in the recruiting system means that the regular Army is heavily under-recruited, and many potential recruitsmale and femaleare often missed. I commend that to the Secretary of State's attention.
Mr. Jenkin : My hon. Friend referred to anomalies. I believe that an infantry battalion in the Royal Irish Regiment takes women. Will he explain how that fits into what he was saying, or is it another anomaly?
Patrick Mercer : I do not believe that it is an anomaly. The Royal Irish Regiment has several battalions of home-service force soldiers; in other words, battalions that are restricted to serving in Northern Ireland under that regimental cap badge. The old phrase for female soldiers serving there used to be "Greenfinches", and their conditions of service were entirely different from those of what used to be called the Women's Royal Army Corps. They were serving soldiers with a commitment to serve only at home in what used to be the Ulster Defence Regiment and is now the Royal Irish Regiment. The first battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment, which is a general service infantry battalion that is committed around the world, does not allow lady soldiers to serve in combat roles. There is a clear distinction between the two that is eminently workable.
I may be at odds with my hon. Friends on the Conservative Benches, but I believe that homosexuality in the armed forces has been heavily mishandled. Others who have served may disagree with me, but in my 25 years as an infantry officerI must measure my words carefullyI came across homosexuality several times, although I would not say that it was widespread. It did not seem to cause a problem or threaten discipline. Of course, it is different with the more overt and aggressive forms of homosexuality that are so often thrust in our faces on television. Those forms that I saw in the armed forces never gave me cause for concern in my service. What gave me cause for concern was the way in which the armed forces dealt with it. They created a problem where none existed. I would have preferred them to take a more open-minded and flexible approach to
Patrick Mercer : That is a pertinent question. The answer is simple: in his time with the Royal Marine Corps, the hon. Gentleman will have come across difficult sexual relationships springing up between officers and female soldiers.
Patrick Mercer : The commanding officer's firm and stringent hand dealt with any heterosexual relationships that caused a problem. If homosexual relationships cause a problem, the commanding officer would deal with it in the same way.
I take much the same approach on racism. The Secretary of State will understand the mixed racial nature of the county of Nottinghamshire. The Nottinghamshire Regiment in which I served reflected that. In the 1970s, my battalion had a large number of racial minorities, Englishmen all, who served without any difficulty. During my brief period in command of my battalion, I was delighted that all five of my company sergeant majors were black. That did not cause a problem.
I commend the work of the ethnic recruiting team that has put so much work into, and has had so much success in, recruiting ethnic minorities to certain parts of the Army where ethnic recruitment is difficult. It is not necessarily because of prejudice, but it is difficult. I point to some highland regiments where ethnic recruits are simply thin on the ground. I also point to the Brigade of Guards where, rightly or wrongly, there has been a perception that there is ingrained racism.
Mr. Joyce : In pictures of the Royal Scots marching through Edinburgh about a month ago, there was a striking number of non-white faces among them. There has been a substantial advance, although I would not call the Royal Scots a highland regiment.
Patrick Mercer : I will come to the point about recruiting in a moment. The hon. and gallant Gentleman is absolutely right. There have been some extremely flexible and far-reaching approaches to recruiting. I would applaud the way that, despite the highly prejudicial and distasteful question at Prime Minister's questions on Wednesday, our regiments of foot guards and household cavalry now show a considerable number of coloured faces among their ranksand quite right too. I look forward to seeing many more coloured faces in their officers' messes. That has already happened and it will doubtless continue.
Clearly, the first battalion of the Royal Scots has fully embraced the idea of recruiting from the Commonwealth, due to its huge recruiting difficulties in the past. Anyone in this Chamber who goes to a passing out parade anywhere in the British Isles will see a number of ethnic recruits from the Commonwealth. In many cases, English is not their first language, but all the young men and women I have seen have been absolutely first class. I endorse that and I praise the work of the recruiting group, for once, for having achieved it.
I have one question: if we approach the recruitment of Commonwealth members in that way, why do we not try to make up the 8,000 or so shortfall in our Army from members of the Ghurkha regiments? They are Nepalese people who are clearly not necessarily Commonwealth members but they are ready, willing and able. There is no prejudice against them: on the contrary, their reputation stands high. If some military salaries went back to Nepal, it would help not only this country; it would considerably help Nepal in its current difficulties.
In conclusion, I welcome the policy that the Secretary of State for Defence has put forward. I have my reservations about it and I believe that it contains some anomalies. I should be grateful for any answers that he can give me. I would be chary, however, about calling the forces narrow-minded. With their customary flexibility, they have approached the problems that I have described with great energy. For the most part, they have conquered them or are in the process of doing so. They have my warm congratulations and, as ever, my admiration.
Sandra Gidley (Romsey): My hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) has outlined the party position, but I hope that the Chamber will be indulgent if I present a much more personal view. I do not claim to be an expert on gender in the armed forces, but I thought that it might be useful if I described how my opinions have changed since I took part in the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I was delighted to do that with the Army because it is a wonderful organisation. I do not like boats, which is why I did not choose the Navy. Before I recount my experiences I should like to say how impressed I was by the document "Women in the Armed Forces". It laid out the facts in an analytical way, which showed how much work had gone into examining the issues and how much care had been taken to present a range of them.
At the beginning of the year my starting premise was a bit feminist: "Anything you can do, I can do better" or at least "I can do it just as well as you, if you are male." I have a reputation in some quarters as a bit of a women's libber, so it is not surprising that I started with the attitude that women should be able to do everything. The armed forces parliamentary scheme has modified my views. I hope that people will not say, "Jolly good thing, that scheme, if it gets the girls to come to their senses." I hope that that attitude is not prevalent today.
It might be helpful if I describe some of my recent personal experiences, which may put my comments into perspective. Early in the scheme, I visited the Army training school at Winchester and saw recruits undergoing their 12-week training. I was surprised when the Minister said that only 20 per cent. of recruits are female, as the gender balance on the course that I followed was about 50 per cent. I realised that I was working with the Adjutant-General's Corps, which employs a large number of women in clerical and administrative roles. It was clear to the average observer that, in generalone always has to be general in these casesthe men were coping much better with the physical demands of assault courses, for example. It also struck me powerfully that a lot of team building was going on; people were supporting the weaker members who, in some cases, although not invariably, were women, because they realised that ultimately it was a team effort.
I will sidetrack slightly and say that throughout my two days with the course, I was accompanied by a female captain who impressed on me her view that, during her time in the Army, she had not been subjected to discrimination. She was a mother, and was married to another soldier. She said that the Army ensured that in such families there would never be a time when both parents would be separated from the child on an unaccompanied posting. That may be unofficial, and I am not sure that I am supposed to have said it, but if that is the practice, I wholeheartedly support it because it means that the Army is reacting realistically to the practicalities of life.
Another key factor at the start of the scheme was that from day one the Army left us in no doubt about one thing. It used one word a lot, which I have since learnt underpins everything that it does. The word was "win", which should be blindingly obvious, but it takes a while to get to grips with the culture. I realised that this was serious stuff. When face to face with the enemy, people have to win, they must have that mentality and it must underpin everything that they do. There can be no failures, and the Army is highly trained and highly motivated to achieve that aim.
I am a services daughter, so I thought that I knew a reasonable amount about the Army, but the modern Army has changed completely. Twenty years ago, a soldier could enlist and it was feasible that, like my father, he could spend 24 years in the armed forces and never see any action, even in a support role. That is no longer so.
I did not change my views very much until I spent some time with the Second Royal Tank Regiment in Fallingbostel. It was great fun; they let the MPs lose and we were allowed to drive Challenger 2s and fire them. I wondered about the wisdom of it before I did it. Some of the chaps on the scheme got rather excited and talked about boys' toys and I thought, "They could be girls' toys too; let us not have any of this." The reality is that it is easy to drive a tank and incredibly easy to fire it and hit the target, so I have no truck with the argument that women cannot take on those roles.
I asked the tank crews how long they would expect to be cooped up in one of those things and they said that eight to 12 hours was the longest that they had ever experienced, but that it could be longer in a war situation. It was rather unpleasant and stuffy, but I have no doubt that I could put up with the conditions by myself or with a group of women. We women are made of tough stuff. However, I am not sure that I would like to be in a Challenger 2 tank with three men for that length of time. That would present problems. I do not intend to go into the fine details: people can use their imagination.
I do not want to dwell on the issue because I shall return to the physical aspects of war, but the key factor is that, although a woman can easily fire and drive a tank, any member of a tank team must be capable of taking on any of the other roles, which include loading ammunitionpossibly over prolonged periodsand replacing the parts of a tank track. Such tasks are physically demanding. A minority of women could meet the physical demands, but I was struck by the statement in the report "Women in the Armed Forces" that
For the reasons I highlighted earlier, mixed tank crews are a non-starter. I even considered the possibility of all-female tank crewsif one could find women with the physical strength and stamina to perform all the rolesbut that is pie in the sky if one thinks things through to their logical conclusion. It is unlikely in a war that one would have a neat number of women to fit into a tank and, in any case, one does not want to be thinking about such issues in such situations. I have therefore decided, reluctantly, that the practicalities militate against women being used in that way, even though I fundamentally agree with equal opportunities and believe that there should be no barriers as long as women can meet the physical and mental requirements.
That brings me to the question of attitudes, which ultimately leads to the thorny problem of group cohesion, which many hon. Members have touched on today. Before people misunderstand my remarks, I should emphasise that the vast majority of people I encountered on the scheme were open, keen to discuss the issue and unfailingly generous in spirit. The Army seems the last bastion of old-fashioned gentlemanly manners; I have never come across so many well-mannered men in my life.
When I was discussing the mattermainly with men but sometimes with womenthree lines of argument were often advanced. The first argument was that women would not be able to put up with the physical conditions. I think that some could. However, I was very struck in that regard by a piece written by the hon. Member for Watford (Claire Ward) about her time with the armed forces parliamentary schemeit seems to be a trend. She had asked to join the Royal Marines and
Mr. Burnett : I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way because she is making as powerful a case as the hon. Member for Watford (Claire Ward) made in her admirable article. My only operational experience was in the far and middle east, and although no one held a bag for me, the levels of intimacy were such that it would make life impossible to have mixed front-line troops deployed in such circumstances. Does my hon. Friend agree?
The second argument, which has been put forward on occasion, but by no means universally, was something that people have often preferred to ignore. It was put to me on several occasions that women in a minority can become a focus for the attention of men and can be distracting. That seems to be problematic, as it would have an impact on group cohesion. It reminded me of when I was at school. I attended an old-fashioned all-girls school, which did not think that girls should do physics. It arranged for me to go to the boys school down the road to take A-level physics. One girl among 600 testosterone-fuelled boys creates quite a stir, and I was a focus for attention. However, in an average comprehensive where boys and girls work side by side, they do not take a blind bit of notice of each other. Is not part of the problem the fact that women are still a rarity in such situations? If the imbalances are addressed, that factor will disappear.
The third argument, which is commonly held, is that when it comes to it, we do not know if women will be able to kill. I could answer flippantly that there are plenty of women in jail for murder, but that is not the issue. We are talking about a war situation and must think carefully about whether, when push comes to shove, they are up to it. I repeat what was said earlier. The "Women in the Armed Forces" report stated that
I was also struck by the fact that the Minister said that the results of the group dynamic studies could not be extrapolated. Why was that? In the 21st century, with all the techniques that we have at our disposal, we must be able to find the answer.
Patrick Mercer : As a matter of curiosity, what is the hon. Lady's view about the all-female Russian sniper units that operated during the second world war, especially give that the highest scoring Russian sniper at the siege of Sebastopol was a lady?
Sandra Gidley : I do not have a great knowledge of that incident. As I said, I am a bit of a beginner in this field, but it is proven that women have the skills. The report says that the skills exist and that mixed groups perform well. However, before we move ahead, we must answer to our satisfaction the fundamental question of how mixed groups will work in a mixed Army.
Mr. Burnett : My hon. Friend is hitting on the solution. In an intervention, the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) spoke about Russian troops in the second world war. Some Russian tank regiments were not mixed, but female only, and they proved to be brave, distinguished and effective.
Sandra Gidley : I have to agree. I would love to know how well mixed groups perform under pressure, but evidence suggests that all-female groupsoccasionally they are not practical as I explained earliercan perform well. Will the Minister investigate further what ultimately will happen in the group situation and reflect on whether all-female units can be used, as long as all their members comply with the full range of physical and mental requirements?
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): We have had an interesting debate this afternoon and I hope that it receives wider coverage than the depleted ranks, particularly on the Secretary of State's side of the Chamber, might suggest
As I said, our debate was useful and we heard some well-informed contributions. The hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) who serves, like my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) and I, on the armed forces parliamentary scheme, remarked that the Army is the last bastion of old-fashioned manners. I hope that the Army will take that as she intendedas a profound compliment at a time when manners are in short supply elsewhere. Some of the old-fashioned values under threat should be enduring values. They certainly contribute to the professionalism and superb skill of our armed forces, to which the Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex and the whole Chamber paid tribute this afternoon. Results in Afghanistan were no accident: they were brought about by the adherence of Her Majesty's armed forces to a set of standards and values that are enduring but, I fear, under threat.
I shall not rehearse the speeches of other contributors to the debate. However, I was surprised to hear the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) say that the Army should not contain many James Bonds. I have always thought that James Bond was, in some respects, a good role model for the armed forces. That sort of derring-do military enterprise has a valuable role to play in our armed forces.
Mr. Keetch : The hon. Gentleman will see in tomorrow's Hansard that I was talking about the security forces, especially their ability to infiltrate organisations such as al-Qaeda in response to 11 September. I am sure that he will agree that James Bond might not have been the best operative to send to infiltrate al-Qaeda.
Mr. Howarth : I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman's original remark was right. All I can say is that those who are stationed not a million miles from his constituency have made a significant contribution to the battle to win hearts and minds.
The essence of the debate this afternoon has centred on ethnic minority recruiting and the role of women in our armed forces. The ethnic minorities recruiting unit for the Army is based in my constituency of Aldershot. I have met its representatives and pay tribute to their work. It has an important role to play, but I hope, equally, that we are careful to ensure that we are not completely obsessed by targets to the detriment of what the Secretary of State set out as our key objective, which is to ensure the combat effectiveness of our armed forces. That must be the guiding principle and the priority, and other things must be tailored to meet it.
The Secretary of State's announcement on the role of women in our armed forces, and the documentation that he released on 22 May, inspired today's debate. It is important to make the point that women have always played a key role in our armed forces. The idea that the role of women in our armed forces is new is simply not true. Along with countless thousands of other women during the second world war, my mother served in various capacities in uniform, not least in the operations room of RAF Coltishall as a plotterone of those ladies pushing billiard-type cues across a map of the North sea. That was a valuable role that my mother and others like her played during the war. She was also a mechanic. Thank God she did not get too near important components of aeroplanes to do much damage, although women were also involved in physical activity in aircraft engineering during the second world war.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex made clear at the outset, we welcome the Secretary of State's decision most warmly. However, I remind the Chamber that, in an interview with The Times on 2 October 2000, the Secretary of State said:
Greater joy is there in heaven over the one sinner that repenteth. I do not suggest that the Secretary of State is a sinner, but he has clearly heard the arguments of the chiefs of staff that the hon. Member for Romsey articulated. We welcome that change of heart. However, he could have acknowledged at the outset that military judgment had to form the basis of his ultimate decision. Why spend so much time and money and distract military planners in dealing with the issue when he concludes that military judgment was right all along? The Chief of the Defence Staff said that to have made any other decision would have resulted in an irresponsible experiment. The common-sense view has prevailed, and I welcome thatit is important to ensure that common sense prevails.
As the hon. Member for Romsey mentioned, there are physical aspects to serving in the armed forces. I see young girls and older women involved with the Royal Engineers at Gibraltar barracks in my constituency. Sometimes I marvel at their ability to lift large ammunition boxes and huge girders and I wonder what that is doing to their physical health. Interestingly, in his letter, the Secretary of State made the point that each of the services has in place
I shall now turn to an issue that my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex dealt with at length. I shall not do that, but will simply reinforce the point that he made about the judgment that caused him to review the position. As he says,
That was the position of the Labour Government of the day, and the policy was upheld by the European Court of Justice. However, that ignores the developments that have taken place since 1975. The British Government had a policy that determined how we should treat our armed forcesa key issue of national security. Originally, those questions of national security and defence were regarded as being far removed from the treaty of Rome, which related to trade and economic matters. However, as the scope of European Community law has expanded, so the extent of its intrusion into the functions of the armed forces and national security matters has increased. The court rejected not only our submissions, but those of the French Government, suggesting that matters concerning the conduct and discipline of members of the armed forces relevant to national security were outside the scope of the treaty of Rome.
Sovereign Governments are now subject to the will of the European Court of Justice on essential matters of national security. It will decide whether our essential national security is at stake, not the Secretary of State. That is dangerous. My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex pressed the Secretary of State to say how far he could resist if there were a challenge. Essentially, the Secretary of State acknowledged that under EC law we had no defence whatever. We basically have to roll over and accept it.
As others have pointed out, the manner in which the Secretary of State accepted the policy of the chiefs of staff opened the door to a further challenge. Immediately after he announced his policy, the Equal Opportunities Commission announced that it might challenge it. Indeed, the report that I read suggests that
I hope that she gets a copy of the debate. If the Secretary of State does not send her one, I might do so, so that she is aware that hon. Members throughout the House do not agree with the policy and do not expect a challenge.
I am bound to have a swipe at the hon. Member for Hereford who, like the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce), wants to have it both ways. He is reported to have said that the rigorous standards required for front-line roles should not be compromised,
Perhaps he was wrongly quoted. Today, he said that we did not want to compromise our armed forces and that the matter should be under review, but recognised that that could put them at risk. Either a policy is right and changing it would put our troops at risk, or it is wrong; he wants it both ways. He should not try to placate his Army constituents, and also be nice and cuddly with the feminist vote. Sitting on the fence ain't going to work. Our armed forces will expect only an uncompromising stand from all of us in the House.
Mr. Keetch : In what has been a good-natured and well-balanced debate, it is sad that the hon. Gentleman cannot resist petty sideswipes at the Opposition party that has a higher percentage of its Back Benchers present than the official Opposition do. My party's policy is clear. As a matter of principle, we believe that no post should be closed to male or female applicants. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) rightly pointed out, there should be no diminution in the standards required. That is not sitting on the fence, but accepting the facts and understanding them.
As for keeping that position under review, I would have thought that the Conservative party more than any other ought to recognise that policies sometimes need to be reviewed and brought up to date. If it does not understand that, Conservative Members will be on the Opposition Benches for ever.
Mr. Howarth : Of course I intended to provoke the hon. Gentleman, but he has condemned himself out of his own mouth. He said that he wanted to have it both ways. He should go and have a cup of tea with the hon. Member for Romsey. She will put him right, as she clearly has a grasp of the matter. All his time in the armed forces parliamentary scheme has not done him as much good as the hon. Lady's time has done her. It has been a good-natured debate. I am not being ill-natured by saying that I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. For goodness' sake, this is Parliament; we are entitled to differences of view, and I am expressing mine. I think that the hon. Gentleman is dangerously wrong. He seems to want to have his cake and eat it.
Time marches on and I know that we are anxious not to delay the Secretary of State. I understand that he has been in Bulgaria, and I hope that he had as good a visit as I did when I went there with the Defence Select Committee. Perhaps we can have a word after our debate on that country's prospects for NATO membership.
I conclude as I started by casting a note of caution. Today, on the Floor of the House, we paid tribute to our armed forces for their professionalism in Afghanistan. I do not apologise for repeating it, but that professionalism, that happy outcome, in which they suffered no causalities, was not achieved by accident. It was achieved because our armed forces recognise, as their political masters have tended to recognise, that they are not a microcosm of society. They are not supposed to be a reflection of society. It is their job to protect society, and in doing so they may need to be treated differently from other organisations.
As my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) knows only too well, the armed forces operate to very high standards. Indeed, the recently produced document entitled "Values and Standards of the British Army" sets them out; they include selfless commitment, courage, discipline, integrity, loyalty and respect for others. Those qualities are not universally to be seen in organisations in our country, whether in the public or the private sectors, but they are to be seen every day of the week in our armed forces.
If the ethos of our armed forces were to be attackedbecause people did not like the way that they dress, because they did not like the division between officers, non-commissioned officers and other ranks, or because they did not like the way in which certain roles were retained only for menit would do huge damage. As The Daily Telegraph said:
Mr. Hoon : We have had an interesting and valuable debate, which has understandably concentrated on women in close-combat roles, and their role in the services generally. We have also touched on efforts to increase recruitment from ethnic minority communities.
We heard a number of thoughtful speeches. In particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce), who apologises for his absence for the winding-up speeches, made a thoughtful and thorough speech, drawing on his experience. So, in a sense, did the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley). From their respective experiences, both hon. Members came to the same conclusions. The hon. Member for Romsey asked whether it would be possible to conduct further investigations into the impact of group dynamics and the role of mixed groups and I see no difficulty with that. Indeed, I expect that such investigations will be necessary given the legal requirement to conduct further reviews, and I shall mention the legal background in more detail in a moment. I certainly see the need to discuss further investigations along the same lines with the Equal Opportunities Commission.
The hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) made some excellent points about recruitment and brought his usual common sense to bear in seeking to ensure that our approach is as wide as possible. The Government are committed to improving recruitment from all walks of life, and I will ensure that his suggestions are followed up.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the Territorial Army. Notwithstanding the potential anomalies to which he referred, the essential policy is that a woman will not be selected to fill a battlefield role in which she cannot serve as a member of the regular armed forces. The historical background to that was largely exposed in the exchange between the hon. Gentleman and the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman. It is important that we are consistent in our treatment of reserves in close-combat front-line positions and in non-close combat activities.
The hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) made several points about ethnic minority recruitment, and I should emphasise that, with one important qualification, our figures do not include Commonwealth recruits. They include Commonwealth citizens who travel to the United Kingdom by their own means and who are recruited here. They do not, for example, include Fijiansthey are often used to illustrate this pointwho are enlisted in a deliberate recruiting effort in Fiji. The real test is whether people are part of the British labour market when they are recruited or whether, as in my example, they are recruited abroad.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about families officers, and I can confirm that not all services have dedicated officers. The Royal Navy has no one with that title, but there are dedicated trained people with similar roles among naval personnel. The Royal Air Force has full-time community workers and social workers with equivalent responsibilities. Only the Army has dedicated families officers with that title. Most units have officers who are dedicated to that role, although it may be combined with other duties in some smaller units. Nevertheless, the function is carried out.
I shall risk provoking Opposition Front-Bench Members on matters European by setting out the legal background to the European Court decision, because they both raised it. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) largely set out the position in his concluding speech. The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 allows the armed forces to exclude women from posts when the military judgment is that employing them would undermine and degrade combat effectiveness. That was considered in the European Court of Justice judgment in the case of Sirdar v. the Army Board and the Secretary of State. Relevant European Community law upheld the position that the equal treatment directive did not preclude the exclusion of women from certain posts, where such exclusions were necessary and appropriate to ensure operational effectiveness. That was, however, subject to a legal requirement periodically to assess the position to decide whether a derogation from the general scheme of the directive could be maintained in the light of social developments. The directive places the onus on member states to keep such derogations under review. It would be for the Government, not the European Court of Justice, to decide when such a review should take place. Clearly, however, there is a legal obligation on the Government and any future Government of any other political persuasion to conduct such a review.
At the risk of further provoking Opposition Front-Bench Members, the difficulty for them is that we have a legal regime to deal with, which successive Governments have signed up to, accepted and, I assume, agreed with, and which they would have to apply in those circumstances. Although both Conservative Front-Bench Members have huffed and puffed about it, they will have to accept the law as applied by the European Court of Justice. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but it was a Conservative Government who signed up to that.
Mr. Jenkin : I am not disagreeing with the right hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely correct. In fact, he is reinforcing the point. It is not up to the Government to review the situation. It will be up to the Government to defend the next case that someone brings, which will be funded by the taxpayer and the Equal Opportunities Commission. That is the irony of the situation.
I remember the Barber judgment, which threatened to wreak havoc with our pensions industry. The result was an intergovernmental agreement, agreed with the Council of Ministers, and an amendment to the law, so that the effects of the Barber judgment were limited. If we head towards losing a case on sex equality in the armed forces, I would expect the Government to go to the Council of Ministers and seek an amendment to the law, at the very least.
Mr. Hoon : Let us hope that we do not get into that situation. In a flourish criticising the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Aldershot said that we had the freedom to express our views in Parliament. No one can argue with that, but it is the working assumption of Parliament that Her Majesty's Opposition seek to replace Her Majesty's Government, so commenting on policy is not enough. The Opposition must be able to form policies that they would be able to implement in the, admittedly unlikely, event of them being elected to government. I have heard nothing from Opposition Front-Bench Members that leads me to suspect that they have a policy on this subject. I accept the force of some of their criticisms, but there is a real difference between making informed criticisms and having a policy that could, one day, be implemented, however remote a possibility that may be.
Mr. Keetch : Does the Secretary of State recall the detailed policy paper on defence that I sent him from the Liberal Democrats? He may not have agreed with our paper, but has he received a policy paper on defence from the Conservative party since the previous general election?
Mr. Hoon : If I have, I do not remember it. I know that there are difficulties on matters European for the Opposition Front-Bench Members here today. Having tried hard to confuse themselves over European issues, I do not want to provoke them further, but I am happy to give way, if they are still anxious to pursue their psychological difficulties on European matters.
Mr. Jenkin : The only discovery that we have made this afternoon is that the Secretary of State does not have a policy. Until I mentioned the Barber judgment, he had no idea what he would do if he got into legal difficulties on this matter.
The contribution of the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) was extremely effective. Her arguments about combat effectiveness were stronger than the somewhat technical arguments about gender stereotyping.
Mr. Howarth : Obviously my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) has dealt with the fundamental principle of the Sirdar case. However, the intrusion of the European Court into our arrangements has forced us to take a different view. My hon. Friend has offered the Secretary of State a way out in the event of another challenge.
Given that the right hon. Gentleman accepts that he has a legal obligation to review, how does he intend to fulfil that obligation? Does he intend that the periodic review will be annual, bi-annual or quinquennial? Perhaps, as a lawyer, he can tell us whether the European Court itself has the power to check up on what reviews he is undertaking. We cannot simply leave it hanging in the air that there is a liability to review without the Secretary of State telling us how he intends to meet that liability.
Mr. Hoon : I made it clear that the obligation to conduct a review and the timing is a matter for the Government and not for the European Court of Justice. We have just concluded a thorough review, which both Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen criticised because of its cost and the amount of time that it took. However, I hope that they at least accept that it was thorough and presumably, therefore, satisfies our legal obligations in that respect. My judgment is that a further review would be necessary only when appropriate and when the Government of the day had judged that sufficient time had elapsed to make that necessary.
I reaffirm the Government's commitment to making the armed forces more representative of the community that they serve. It is vital that we do this, not just because of the difficulties that we face in achieving full manning in an increasingly competitive market but because it is right that we should do so.
We are committed to rooting out unlawful discrimination of any sort and ensuring that every member of our armed forces, regardless of race, ethnic origin, religion, gender, social background or sexual orientation, has the opportunity that they deserve to make a full success of their career.