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22 Jan 1998 : Column 1246

Racism (Armed Forces)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Jane Kennedy.]

10.12 pm

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): In the past few days, we have read in the newspapers of a particularly sad case of a black marine, Mark Parchment, who was subjected to the most horrifying racial abuse and violence in the marines.

Among other things, he was subjected to a special initiation for "niggers", which involved being soaked with a bucket of urine, attacked and having his genitals shaved. He was made to carry a spear on parade at all times and he was routinely taunted and assaulted.

Such episodes of racial abuse and violence in the armed forces are peculiarly tragic because in all cases, they occur with young men who have more than the normal sense of patriotism and of belonging to Britain. It seems peculiarly tragic that young men who really believe that they are British and want to serve their country are being treated in that way. Sadly, the Mark Parchment case is not the only one; it is but one of a series of sad cases to which I wish to draw the attention of the House tonight.

Black and Asian involvement in the armed forces is not new. The black and Asian peoples have had a relationship with the British armed forces going back to the 18th century. During the French revolutionary wars, locally recruited black regiments were first raised in the West Indies. In 1914-18, the Indian army served with distinction on the western front, and by the time of the 1939-45 war it had grown to 2.5 million men.

Thousands of West Indians--as many as 8,000--served with some distinction in the Royal Air Force. Along with other black Britons of my generation, I am often saddened that when this country remembers those who fought and died in the second world war, the contribution of West Indians and Asians is sometimes forgotten. Those people came and fought and died for this country, because they believed that they were citizens of the empire, serving king and country. It is important to remember their contribution.

Sadly, despite that history of centuries of patriotism and commitment to this country and its armed forces, the Army has a history of institutional racism and of operating quotas and exclusions. As late as 1961, the War Office had a 2 per cent. quota on black recruiting; and as late as 1964, it formally banned black and Asian soldiers from the Guards, the Household Cavalry, Scottish regiments and other supporting organisations, including the military police. In 1967, the Army was still operating a formal quota.

In 1989, across the Atlantic in the United States, the Americans appointed General Colin Powell, the child of West Indian immigrants, as head of their joint chiefs of staff. No one, even Conservative Members, who are quick to talk of tokenism and positive discrimination, would argue that General Colin Powell did not serve his country with distinction.

What were the British armed forces doing during that period? Their progress towards even the basics of racial equality was painfully slow. It is important to remind the House that the Commission for Racial Equality first took

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up with the military the issue of racism in the armed forces 17 years ago. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the British armed forces have spent their time in denial of the problem.

As late as 1990, the then Under-Secretary, Lord Arran, was saying that the armed services had done all that they could to stamp out racism. Tell that to Richard Stokes, who was desperately proud in 1990 to be the first black man to join the Household Cavalry in its entire history: a history, until the 1960s, of a formal ban on black men. He was driven out by hate mail, racial abuse and violence.

Tell that to Jacob Malcolm, who in 1991 was barred from the Household Cavalry because of his colour. Tell it to Stephen Anderson, another black man, who in 1991 was awarded damages for years of racial abuse. Tell it to Mark Campbell, who was the first black man in the Guards. In 1994, he was driven out by the taunts of "nigger", the abuse, the violence and the bed soaked in human urine.

In 1994 again, Geoffrey McKay was awarded damages by the armed forces. He was one of the brightest recruits in basic training, but on his very first parade his sergeant said to the rest of the assembled troops, "We've got a nigger in the troop, lads." Inevitably, like the others I have mentioned, he was driven out by abuse and violence. Eventually, the Army had to pay damages. With such a history of violence, abuse and racism, it is no surprise that two thirds of black and Asian young people--even those who have joined service cadet corps--believe that there is racism in the armed forces.

Today, black and Asian candidates are a third less successful than white candidates. That is a curious statistic. Only 1 per cent. of all black and Asian people are in the armed forces, compared with 5 per cent. in the civil service and 6 per cent. in the population as a whole. Only a handful of black and Asian people are above the rank of colonel. It seems to me very sad that the armed forces have continued to deny the existence of racism in the services and have had to be painfully dragged into the 20th century under the threat of a formal investigation by the CRE.

In the autumn last year, the armed forces launched a big initiative to recruit more ethnic minorities, bring some of their personnel practices up to modern-day standards and implement some measure of ethnic monitoring. It is now important that the Government monitor that process very carefully. It has taken the armed forces 17 years to get to such a stage. We hear all the time about the difficulties of recruiting suitable people to the services, yet, despite a potential pool of recruits in our big cities and communities, black and Asian young men and women are so painfully under-represented in the armed forces.

I am talking about people such as Richard Stokes who, as I said, was the first black man to join the Household Cavalry. I am talking about people such as Geoffrey McKay--and Solomon Raza, who was abused and beaten on a daily basis because his father was a Pakistani. Eventually, one of the beatings put him in hospital with a ruptured kidney and he had to leave the service. Many bright, idealistic young black and Asian men had to be terrorised, abused and brutalised before the armed services reached the standards of basic personnel practice, number-taking and monitoring that we find in any modern business.

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Black and Asian people in the Indian subcontinent, Africa and the Caribbean have a history of loyalty to the British Crown which goes back centuries. They want to serve their country, but they are being kept out--I believe--partly through fear following well-documented cases of abuse and maltreatment. The black and Asian community and the wider community want not just policies on paper, a verbal commitment and lip service to be paid to the issue from Ministers and the armed forces, but real commitment, and a line drawn beneath the history of the issue. They want the armed forces to reach out to young black and Asian people to say, "You are welcome, and once you are in the services, you will be treated as equals." Then, the brutality and humiliation suffered by the Richard Stokes, Mark Campbells, Stephen Andersons, Geoffrey McKays, Solomon Razas and Mark Parchments of the world will not have been in vain.

10.24 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Dr. John Reid): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) for securing this debate. It provides me with an opportunity to reiterate clearly the Government's commitment to encouraging racial equality in the armed forces. In a vignette of the history of the British armed forces, she referred to the honourable, in many cases glorious, role of comrades in arms in the British Army who came from Asia and Africa. She did well to remind us of that.

In supporting that testimony, I wish to add a personal note. My father lost his oldest and youngest brothers in the second world war in what was probably the most glorious hours of the British armed forces when they stood alone against the most poisonous regime ever to emanate from Europe and possibly the globe--the Nazi regime. The poison at the centre of that regime was racism. The eradication of any element of racism inside our armed forces is compelled not only by the history of the black and Asian community but by the history of the whole of the British armed forces and the sacrifices that they have made.

The Government's commitment stems as much from what will be good for the operational effectiveness of the armed forces as from the inherent laudability of the ideal. Armed forces that better represent the society that they exist to defend will be better able to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Over many years, the armed forces have not enjoyed a good reputation among members of ethnic minority communities. I understand why that has been so. But I, the Secretary of State for Defence and the armed forces do not accept that that perception or experience of reality should be allowed to continue. There have been, as we have heard from my hon. Friend, a number of highly publicised instances across all three services of unacceptable behaviour towards non-white personnel. Over the years, such events, however isolated they may be as a proportion of the personnel in the armed forces, have done immense harm to the image of the armed forces among the black and Asian communities. They ensured that we face an uphill struggle in persuading those from ethnic minority families that they can have a worthwhile career in the services. Although there are few such incidents, that in no way diminishes their seriousness. One act of racism proven to have taken place in the British armed forces is too many.

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Hon. Members will recall the severe criticisms mentioned by my hon. Friend made by the Commission for Racial Equality, which conducted a formal investigation into the Household Cavalry in 1995. These related not just to the Household Cavalry but to some common aspects of service personnel policy. That critique was followed by a report in 1997 by the Office for Public Management, an independent consultancy, into service and civilian ethnic minority recruiting initiatives, which called for greater commitment and leadership at all levels to the goal of equal opportunities. The Ministry of Defence and the services were challenged to do more to embrace greater diversity and to make greater efforts to create armed forces which better reflected the ethnic diversity of the United Kingdom.

I have been frank on the history and I want to be frank about the present and contemporary efforts. First, to their credit, the services have been prepared publicly to face up to these trenchant criticisms and to recognise the problems. Recognition through that self-criticism is the first and necessary step in confronting and solving the problems to which my hon. Friend referred.

I mention those criticisms because they are an important backcloth against which to consider the position today. However, I do so on the basis that increasing the currently inadequate level of ethnic minority representation in the armed forces is good, not only in its own terms, although it is; nor is it only a matter of correctness--political, social, moral or otherwise--although it is morally and socially justified; but because, in the interests of effectiveness throughout the armed forces, it is vital that we recruit people who represent the widest possible pool of talent in our community.

We want the best for the British armed forces, based on merit, not on background, skin colour, religion or creed. To neglect the 7 per cent. of the population who are of ethnic minority origin would be to ignore a valuable seam of potential recruits. That is a seam that we cannot afford to ignore, for our own sake and for the many reasons I mentioned.

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