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Ms Abbott: It is perfectly clear that Ministers are sincere in what they say. I am even prepared to believe that the senior levels of the armed forces are equally sincere. However, from my experience of working and managing in other spheres of life, I know that it is one thing to get the top management to say the right things, but it is another to make sure that correct practice permeates all the way down through an organisation.

We hear about cases of quite unacceptable abuse and violence, but we never hear of anybody being disciplined for perpetrating these actions against fellow soldiers. Until members of the armed forces know that they can be disciplined for committing acts of gross racist abuse and violence, those practices will continue. The Office for Public Management found that officers saw nothing wrong in calling people "coon" and "nigger" and came out with extraordinary stereotypes, such as the notion that black people cannot fight or that they do not like water.

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It is one thing to talk the talk, but what we require of the armed services is that they walk the walk and implement these measures all the way down to the bottom.

Dr. Reid: I thank my hon. Friend for the several points which she raises. Her first point was that words were not sufficient--we need actions. I agree entirely and, apart from expressing our commitment, the Government, Defence Ministers and service chiefs want to examine practical ways in which to implement those policies on the ground--walking the walk, as my hon. Friend puts it, rather than talking the talk. I shall talk about that point later.

My hon. Friend's second point was that she accepts--I am glad that she does--the sincerity of Ministers and service chiefs in this respect, but that that is not sufficient in any organisation. Although not sufficient in any organisation, it is more useful in the armed forces, where the chain of command ensures that subordinate command structures carry out orders to a greater extent than could be achieved in many other organisations. That is in the nature of the armed forces.

Nevertheless, the service chiefs and I are completely in accord with my hon. Friend in the realisation that changing the ethos, culture and educational programme of personnel at all levels of the armed forces is essential. I say that with all due respect to generals, admirals and the hierarchy of all the services, but I have no doubt that, in many ways--operationally and culturally--the dynamo of the British armed forces is often found at the level of sergeants, warrant officers, corporals, and so on. Just as that pertains to our effectiveness as a fighting force, so it does to our effectiveness in changing the culture. I give credit to service chiefs, although their commitment is not a sufficient condition to achieve a solution to the problem.

I mentioned the criticisms earlier, because that was the first step in beginning to solve the problems. A vigorous implementation of policies designed to allow and encourage the recruitment of young men and women from the ethnic minorities is good for the forces, good for the defence of the country and good in terms of the numbers in our armed forces. It is also good because it offers the opportunity to able and talented young people to seek a pathway to progress through a system that offers promotion based on merit and ability, not on background. My hon. Friend has highlighted that change, which benefits all sections of the community.

Since coming to office, we have made plain our unequivocal commitment to stamping out racism. Let me spell that out again to anyone who may be listening to the debate. There is no place whatsoever for racial discrimination within the British armed forces. It will not be tolerated. I can assure my hon. Friend that that commitment is shared by the service chiefs, and is now well understood.

That is also made crystal clear to all personnel serving in the armed forces. We are trying hard to ensure that it is also made clear to those who might be considering applying to join either the Royal Navy, Army, or Royal Air Force, because it will be self-evident to everyone in the House that we recruit not in a vacuum, but from society. Many of the problems mentioned by my hon. Friend are prolific in society, particularly in some of the areas from which many of our recruits are drawn.

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Our starting point is that, if we are to attract and retain sufficient young men and women of the right calibre to serve in the armed forces, progression through the system must be based on merit alone, without reference to colour, race, gender or religion, and without fear of harassment or bullying.

On the practical measures which have been taken, all three services have either issued or revised their equal opportunity policies and directives. They leave all personnel, of whatever rank, absolutely clear on where their personal responsibilities lie. The Government are working with the service chiefs to build a climate within the armed forces that ensures that all personnel are free from any form of harassment--racial, sexual or religious.

It is also important for service chiefs to continue to underline publicly their personnel commitment to that cause. In my view, that is more important than leaving it just to politicians. I am particularly grateful to the service chiefs for the manner in which they have done that since the Labour party took office. As my hon. Friend has said, the Army's Chief of General Staff, Sir Roger Wheeler, did just that in October, when he relaunched the Army's equal opportunities strategy. He did so from a platform in a room packed with journalists and others who represent media interests. He did it without the presence of any Ministers or a display of political correctness. Sir Roger, like the other chiefs of staff, recognises that such a strategy is vital for the armed forces.

On that occasion, Sir Roger quite rightly said:

I also congratulate the Royal Air Force and the Second Sea Lord, Admiral Sir John Brigstocke, who also made clear his public commitment to equal opportunities at the British diversity award ceremony in December. My hon. Friend referred to the problems encountered in the Navy, but, to its eternal credit, it was shortlisted for one of the equal opportunities awards to be given at that ceremony. We should recognise the good that is being done, as well as some of the problems.

Ms Abbott rose--

Dr. Reid: I shall give way in a moment, but there is not much time left, and I know that my hon. Friend wants me to respond in practical terms. I should therefore like to list what we are doing.

Before I do so, I should like to note that Admiral Sir John Brigstocke made clear his public commitment to equal opportunities at the British diversity awards when he said that the Navy

Such high-level commitments are important, because, ultimately, it is only by influencing attitudes that the true breakthrough will be made.

My hon. Friend has asked me to detail the practical policies in hand. Let us turn from rhetoric to reality, from

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talking the talk to walking the walk, as my hon. Friend said. We are determined that the quality of our monitoring during recruitment, and subsequently in service, is improved. We are looking at, and want to look more closely at, performance across ethnic group and gender in both recruitment and subsequent career progression. We have made it clear previously that we wish to ensure the widest possible array and talent. If we failed to do so by monitoring, we would pass up a great opportunity to the detriment of the long-term efficiency of the armed forces.

Ms Abbott: Some regiments, such as the Guards and the Household Cavalry, have deliberately excluded black people. Will my hon. Friend introduce cap badge monitoring--monitoring by regiment?

Dr. Reid: Would my hon. Friend do me the courtesy of allowing me to answer the question? She mentioned the Household Cavalry three times. I am delighted to tell the House that, last week, the Major-General commanding the Household Division was in Brixton, mixing with people to find practical ways to take forward one of the initiatives that I shall mention.

Of course the figures will be studied in terms of targets across cap badges. There are no get-out clauses. There is no way out. We want to do that; we are not trying to escape from it.

We realise that we need to work hard to overcome the barriers among some ethnic minorities about careers in the armed forces, so the initiatives that we have taken in Sandwell, and in Newham in London, are crucial. We are working closely in those two boroughs--not using rhetoric, but working with local councillors and leaders of education and the ethnic minorities, and we are trying to find practical ways, resulting from their partnership, to build on the initial work done. We are also looking to involve local cultural leaders and the racial equality councils in that work, because we need to sell the message nationwide and locally--at the highest level and in the streets and on the ground.

I mentioned local visits by senior commanders such as the Major-General commanding the Household Division. Our goal is simple: we want the armed forces better to reflect the ethnic balance of society. I have said that publicly. I have said it to the Commission for Racial Equality and I think that it will accord the new Government and the service chiefs appreciation for the attempts that we have made.

We want it to be widely known that we resolutely wish the number of black and Asian personnel to increase during the next few years. We are providing role models. We have established ethnic minority recruiting teams. We have placed increased emphasis on targeting the gatekeepers who are influential in determining the career choices of young people, and we are seeking to make the best possible use of the ethnic media to communicate the message so that the services recruit and welcome applications.

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Our priority is clear. I was able to announce to the House earlier today, in answer to a parliamentary question, that I have established targets for recruitment from ethnic minorities of 2 per cent. for next year, of 3 per cent. for the following year, of 4 per cent. for the

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following year and of 5 per cent. for the following year, throughout the British armed forces. Those targets are not ambitious. They will put into practice our resolution to--

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

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