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Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): First, I begin by thanking the Secretary of State for his courtesy in giving me an early sight of his statement. I appreciate that courtesy and, given the nature of the subject, I am sure that the House will too.

The Secretary of State referred to the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, and set out why the Government have decided to change existing policy. At the outset, may I say that I regret the nature of the ruling.

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I have always believed--as did both the previous and present Governments--that we should follow the advice of the armed forces. That advice has always been that lifting the ban would adversely affect operational effectiveness.

The right hon. Gentleman was right to state that, because the armed forces have a special function and exist solely to protect our rights, a careful balance has always had to be struck. I regret that the court chose to dismiss the advice of the armed forces. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that the matter has never been to do with prejudice, but with the operational effectiveness of our armed forces?

However, the fact is that the Government have decided to act on the ruling and to implement the change in policy by means of the code of conduct. As the Secretary of State said, they do so without having to introduce legislation or hold a debate. Today, we must focus simply on the code's practical implementation, in the hope that we can iron out what we perceive to be some of the major problems that may lie ahead.

The code is all about sexual behaviour, as the Secretary of State made clear. I agree with him that, in this context, the only way to write a code such as this is to make it as broad as possible and not to be specific. However, despite the guidance and advice in the statement, the matter boils down to a two-line service test, which in essence comprises only one sentence. How that test is operated will be critical. Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore place the guidance and the advice to commanding officers in the Library of the House, so that hon. Members can see how he intends the code to operate in practice?

In addition, I believe that four questions must be answered if we are to understand how the code is to work, and whether it will change how the armed forces operate. The first question concerns the rights of all service men and women.

The issue was neatly summed up by the former Minister for the Armed Forces, now the Secretary of State for Scotland. In our last debate on this matter in 1996, he raised the case of a service woman who had asked him whether her rights would be protected if the ban were lifted. She explained that she would not now be expected to share intimate surroundings with a man, irrespective of whether he had sexual intentions towards her. She went on to ask how Parliament would protect her rights if she had to share accommodation with another woman whom she believed to be sexually attracted her. She said that the matter was not one of prejudice but about her rights to privacy--much as the Government have set out today.

I accept that the question is incredibly difficult to answer, as the Secretary of State said. However, now we have a code covering all sexual behaviour, both heterosexual and homosexual. What guidance has the Secretary of State given to commanding officers for dealing with such a situation? Furthermore, in dealing with such a matter, different services and units may implement the test set out by the right hon. Gentleman but arrive at very different solutions. That could lead to concerns in other units about injustice if they are not treated in exactly the same way as others.

Secondly, what provision has the Secretary of State made in the guidance to commanding officers about those placed in authority over junior leaders, cadets and other

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young men and women who enter the armed forces at an early age? The right hon. Gentleman tabled an amendment concerning such matters during proceedings on the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Does he agree that the nature of forces discipline and the way in which the forces operate, which gives huge power to those in authority, places an even greater duty of care than exists outside the forces? How will he deal with that, and what advice has he given?

Thirdly, how do the Government propose to deal with the disparity in approach between the three services as well as between units of each of the services? Recent cases such as the Army Air Corps colonel and a female lieutenant-commander in the Women's Royal Naval Service led to very different outcomes. Even though the colonel was acquitted at his court-martial, he was fired from the Army, while the lieutenant-commander has subsequently been promoted. Such disparities in treatment will have to be dealt with, particularly now that this has widened to such a degree.

As for those serving in the same unit, although problems and conflicts arising from relationships between different sexes have been contained--partly because there are fewer occasions when men and women are in command over each other--there is, as a result of the judgment, a possibility that same-sex relationships that develop quite legitimately outside the barracks or the ship may lead to conflicts and difficulties within those units, especially if the individuals are of different ranks. What guidelines has the Secretary of State given to commanding officers? What advice has he given them about how to deal with such relationships? Should they be declared immediately, and will the individuals be allowed to serve in the same unit or barrack room if challenged, for example, about the possibility of favouritism from others who may perceive there to be an issue?

Because of this huge change that will affect the behaviour of armed forces personnel, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there should be a fundamental review of the effects of the policy at the earliest possibly opportunity? I believe that there should be. As and when the Conservative party returns to power, we will pledge to conduct such a review and act on the advice of the armed forces. I hope that the Secretary of State will do the same.

Surely one of the greatest concerns arising from the judgment is the way in which the convention is being applied to the military. There is a danger that issues such as the role of women in the front line and even our training policy could be decided by the European Court of Human Rights and not by our own Government and armed forces. Has the Secretary of State discussed the matter with other signatories to the convention, many of whom have opt-outs regarding its operation? If he has not, will he undertake to do so as a matter of urgency?

In conclusion, all of us can only hope that there will be no ill effects as a result of this change of policy and that the Government's policy will succeed in resolving the matters that may arise. I hope that the Government will pledge to the House today to undertake whatever action is necessary to rectify any problems that may arise immediately.

Mr. Hoon: I begin by welcoming the significant shift that has been obvious from the comments of the

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Opposition Front Bench in recent days. The hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) originally appeared to condemn out of hand the judges of the European Court of Human Rights and questioned their right to decide this sort of question, so I am delighted that he has now accepted the decision. He has set out a series of practical and sensible observations about the way in which it should operate. In particular, he emphasised the paramount importance of maintaining the operational effectiveness of our armed forces. I emphasised that point in my earlier comments, and it is also emphasised in the code of conduct.

The hon. Gentleman said, rightly, that the code is set out in broad terms. It is inevitable, when dealing with delicate questions of personal relationships, whether they be heterosexual or homosexual, that commanding officers in particular will have to operate extremely sensitively in dealing with these matters. Again, that is set out in the code of conduct, but it is not practicable to list every type of conduct that might constitute social misbehaviour. Commanding officers already have to deal with issues according to the circumstances in which they arise, as is inevitable when dealing with delicate matters.

I am willing to place the guidance issued to commanding officers in the Library of the House of Commons, and I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will take the opportunity to see the detailed way in which commanding officers are to be guided. Ultimately, however, commanding officers must have regard to the circumstances with which they must deal, and they will apply the code of conduct in a sensitive and sensible way according to the cases that confront them.

I was a little disappointed to hear the hon. Gentleman suggest that we would need to review policy. It is difficult to see where a review might lead. I have made it clear, and he appeared to accept it, that it was necessary to implement the decision of the European Court of Human Rights. If he accepts the importance of implementing the decision, it is difficult to see how it can be reviewed, other than by saying--as, I regret, the hon. Gentleman originally appeared to--that we should seek not to implement it. We are bound to implement the decision, and we have done so in a way that is wholly consistent with operational effectiveness.

The hon. Gentleman knows that the United Kingdom ratified the European convention on human rights as long ago as 1951. It has been accepted by all UK Governments ever since, and decisions have been complied with by successive Governments. As far as discussions with other signatory states are concerned, the hon. Gentleman may find it interesting to know that only one NATO nation appears to have a formal ban on homosexuals being members of the armed forces. Clearly, this has not been a problem for NATO nations.

The hon. Gentleman properly emphasised the point that problems between the sexes are every bit as sensitive, delicate and difficult as problems that might occur involving members of the same sex. The code of conduct deals firmly with such matters on a non-discriminatory basis, which is the only way to proceed. I am pleased to welcome the hon. Gentleman's measured comments. We need to emphasise the need to preserve operational

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effectiveness in our armed forces to ensure that British forces maintain the excellent standards admired around the world.

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