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Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): I was one of the Members who, when this matter was debated in 1996, supported the amendment tabled by Edwina Currie, to whom I pay tribute.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the common-sense decision that he has taken this afternoon. Since it stems directly from a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, I may point out that, had the Conservative party remained in power, it would have had to make a decision on the matter. As Conservative Governments accepted the authority of the European Court of Human Rights throughout their periods in office, it is difficult to see what other decision they could have come to.

Over the years--indeed, centuries--homosexuals have served at every level in our armed forces with loyalty and distinction. Is it not better, therefore, to accept that fact than pretend that it does not exist? It will not do for people to say that they oppose discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in principle while they act differently in practice.

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his observations. He is right to say that as this was a significant decision by the European Court of Human Rights, it was necessary for the Government to implement it. I am equally grateful to the service chiefs for the constructive way in which they have approached a change in policy. It is not enough just to analyse legally the decision of the court; it is necessary to find a policy by which to implement it in the United Kingdom.

I am grateful to the service chiefs for their constructive and positive approach to this matter. They have drawn up the code of conduct, which will allow us both to preserve operational effectiveness and to ensure that the rights of individuals are properly protected, as my right hon. Friend suggested.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): I too thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in giving me an advance copy of his statement. The Liberal Democrats welcome his announcement. The European Court of Human Rights has shown that homosexual service in the armed forces of the United Kingdom is an issue of civil liberties. In that respect, the sexual orientation of an individual should be no bar to service, either in recruitment or promotion.

I have served with hon. Members on both sides of the House in the parliamentary armed forces scheme and have heard about some of the concerns of members of the armed forces. In my constituency, I have also heard about those concerns, but our armed forces must reflect the make-up of the modern society from which they are drawn. The hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) said that there are no occasions on which men or women have direct control over each other. That is clearly wrong. Every warship in the Royal Navy is run according to the chain of command, whether that is male or female.

The Secretary of State pointed out that the implementation of the new code of conduct will be a challenge for the leadership of our armed forces. He is

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right. Does he agree that great sensitivity to the concerns of gay and straight personnel will need to be exercised, if a cultural sea-change is to be achieved without damaging the morale and efficiency of our armed forces?

The Secretary of State referred to the experience of other nations which have implemented such a code of conduct. Will he tell the House which other countries he has consulted? I met some Australians this week, who confirmed that their overall experience in this matter was positive.

I have a few questions for the Secretary of State. Does he agree that the delay in changing the policy, and the continuation of the Tory fight with the European Court means that the retrospective claims for compensation for dismissed personnel are likely to be substantial? Is he aware that £60 million has already been paid to 5,000 service women, who were obliged to leave the service on the ground of pregnancy?

Does he agree that, as MOD budgets are already tight, the Government's belated realisation that the UK armed forces should reflect their society is likely to cost the MOD money? How many compensation cases does he expect? What is his estimate of the cost?

Finally, will he confirm that, in the UK, if people are fit for the task--whether they are black or white, male or female, straight or gay--they should be welcome in our armed forces?

Mr. Hoon: I shall deal solely with the specific questions put by the hon. Gentleman towards the end of his observations. We delayed only as long as it took to review properly the implications of the court's decision, and to consider extremely carefully their effect on the armed forces. We obviously wanted to ensure that we agreed on a code of conduct that was accepted by the service chiefs and by the armed forces. We took the minimum amount of time to do that. I agree that any continuing uncertainty would have cost money, but, perhaps more crucially, it would have left the armed forces unsure as to which policy they were required to implement. I do not accept that there was undue delay; there was a proper delay--consistent with the need to find the right answer.

I am unable to give the hon. Gentleman precise figures as to the cost of any claims for compensation, because we are still negotiating with those people who are affected. However, when that process has been completed, I am willing to write to him to give him an indication of the costs.

Laura Moffatt (Crawley): I very much welcome the fact that the Government have accepted with good grace the ruling of the European Court. I look forward to reading, in the next defence White Paper, that sexual orientation will be included with all the other high ideals that we set for our society. [Interruption.] I see the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) having a fit of apoplexy, but we are a decent society now and we must reflect the way in which we live today. Unquestionably, the armed forces are up to that job--they are able to respond--but naturally there will be some concerns, especially among people from the lower ranks.

The Secretary of State has told us that the higher ranks are strongly committed to the programme, but will he answer two questions? First, what extra training has been

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given to members of the higher ranks to enable them to ensure that the information gets through to others in a way that helps them to understand what this will mean for them in their working lives? Secondly, because of the unease from the ranks, is there any way in which people may be able to share some concerns--many of which are unreal? They would be much better put at ease by people who have been properly trained.

I very much welcome today's announcement.

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her observations. I shall deal solely with her specific questions. On extra training, approximately 3,000 packs of detailed information and guidance for commanding officers have been sent out, and should have been opened in connection with the statement that I am making to the House today, so commanding officers will have detailed briefing, which they will pass down the chain of command.

I am confident that the concerns that my hon. Friend mentioned in her second question will be allayed by the clear leadership given by service chiefs. As I said earlier, I am extremely grateful to them for the leadership that they have shown in this difficult area.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that he sounded deeply unconvincing when making his statement? Does he further accept that the announcement will be greeted with dismay through all three services, which surely, by their faithful and gallant service over generations, have earned the right to be exempted from these lunatic politically correct nostrums? Will he assure the House of Commons that he will listen very carefully to the chiefs as they report back to him, as this militarily disabling rule comes into force?

Mr. Hoon: I always listen with the greatest care to the hon. Gentleman's observations on the armed forces because I recognise that, in the course of a lifetime's interest in the armed forces, he has accumulated a good deal of knowledge. I am slightly concerned that he might just be out of touch on this question, and that he may not have reflected properly on his observations, especially in light of what the service chiefs have been saying on the subject. The service chiefs have made it clear that they endorse and support the code of conduct. They were largely responsible for its drafting. As the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green said, it is important that we find ways to ensure that the decision of the European Court is implemented in a way that is consistent with service effectiveness.

Therefore, I do not accept the observations that the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) has made. Sadly, they sound very much like the observations that were made by very many people--members of the Conservative party, perhaps not wholly familiar with the services--in relation to the admission of women to the armed forces. In the short time that I have been Secretary of State for Defence, I have learned how successful and effective women have been in the armed forces.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): Is my right hon. Friend aware that his decision and his announcement today will be very welcome indeed? First, it will be

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welcome in upholding the authority of the European Court of Justice and its interpretation of the European convention on human rights, which is the basis on which we, as a party, fought the last general election and which has been part of our party policy for a long time.

Secondly, is my right hon. Friend aware that, some years ago, from the Opposition Front Bench, I moved that homosexuality should not be regarded as grounds for debarment from service in the armed forces? I did so for two reasons. I did so, first, for the sake of the human rights of the individuals involved, whatever one may think of people's particular sexual preferences; and secondly, because it removed a major cause of blackmail, suspicion and unhappiness.

In the 1970s and 1980s, we had obvious examples, including the major scandalous trial in Cyprus, in which representatives of foreign powers--the cold war is irrelevant to this--were prepared to use what they perceived as weakness, shyness or disability to blackmail people to force them to release secrets. There are strong and powerful military reasons for accepting this proposal.

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