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Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend tempts me to make a party political point about the incorporation of the European convention on human rights. I recall that Lord Hailsham and the late Keith Joseph conducted a campaign in the 1970s calling for its incorporation. It is unfortunate that some Conservative Members have forgotten their party's history. [Interruption.] It is suggested that they were not born, but I rather think that they were.

It is right and important that we find a mechanism for emphasising the rights of the individual while not in any way jeopardising the effectiveness of our service personnel. I am sure that this code of conduct, which was endorsed by the service chiefs, will achieve that.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): If the chiefs of staff really have not conveyed to Ministers the sheer depths of the anger in the armed forces at being forced to share their homes--the cramped barracks and ships in which they often live--with practising homosexuals, will the Secretary of State say whether, in his forthcoming and fairly frequent meetings with his French counterpart, he will discuss the fact that France has a derogation from all matters connected with military discipline in the European convention on human rights? Are there any circumstances whatever impinging on the morale and effectiveness of our armed forces under which the right hon. Gentleman would be willing to stand up to the European Court and apply for us to have such a derogation?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman needs to study a little more carefully the way in which the European convention operates. He needs to understand that the French derogation was secured at the start of the process. Since 1951, no Government--neither Conservative nor Labour--have sought to negotiate the kind of derogation that he advocates. In reality, it is not possible to secure such a derogation after the event; it would not have any effect on decided cases. I made it clear in my opening remarks that it is not possible for Conservative Members to pick and choose the European Court decisions that they would implement. That is simply not possible.

Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble): My right hon. Friend's statement will be welcome to the many people

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who have long argued and campaigned for lifting the ban on gays serving in the military. In 1998, I took part in the armed forces parliamentary scheme and had numerous discussions over many months on this with various ranks. We discussed in detail how military discipline could cope with such a change and, although it was clear that there was resistance to change in all ranks of the Army, it was acknowledged that, when it came to the bottom line, military discipline and regulation would ensure that the code could be operated properly.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating ex-service men and women in the Rank Outsiders organisation on the dignified way in which they have campaigned so successfully on this issue? Will he also ensure that the new codes are monitored effectively, so that the House can have another opportunity to ensure that they have operated properly and have not prejudiced any member of the armed forces?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his measured and thoughtful observations. On his final point, I made it clear that the services' policy of not tolerating discrimination and harassment will apply to those who are affected by my statement.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): I think that I am the Member of this House who has the most recent service in the regular armed forces. I do not presume to speak for members of the armed forces because that would be wrong, but I have some understanding of how they feel. The Secretary of State should understand that the vast majority are not homophobic--a dreadful word--and know that there have always been homosexuals in the armed forces, many of whom have served with great distinction.

Does the Secretary of State understand, however, that when members of the armed forces hear of this decision they will, for very good reasons, feel betrayed? They will think that political correctness has triumphed over operational effectiveness and the defence of the realm. Furthermore, they will believe that the Government are undermining our distinguished armed forces so that they will no longer have the respect that they have had up to now. I have a supplementary question on a point that may further undermine the armed forces. Will gay partners be allowed to share married quarters?

Mr. Hoon: I hope that when the hon. Gentleman reads his contribution, as he may in Hansard tomorrow, he will ask himself whether his first two sentences about the role and attitudes of the armed forces and the position of homosexuals in the past were wholly consistent with his next observation. There was a clear inconsistency in what he said.

I invite the hon. Gentleman to read my statement carefully because it is not in any way motivated by political correctness. It is motivated by a clear decision of the European Court of Human Rights, with which the Conservative party, in the unlikely event of its ever returning to power, would have to deal. That is the position that we have taken. We have dealt with the matter in co-operation with the service chiefs. He is right not to try and substitute his view of the services for those of the chiefs. They have accepted the need to implement the court's decision.

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I make it clear that homosexual couples will not have rights or access to service quarters because they will not be married and will not therefore be treated any differently from other unmarried couples.

Dr. David Clark (South Shields): I too congratulate my right hon. Friend on introducing a sensible solution, which we all accept, to this tricky problem. I welcome the practical response from the Opposition Front Benchers.

In a modern society, it is important that we have armed forces that reflect that society. Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to make the point that almost every other NATO nation operates a similar policy? Will he also pass on to the service chiefs the congratulations of Labour Members on the practical, common-sense way in which they have introduced a proposal that will solve the problem without in any way challenging the efficiency of our armed forces?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his remarks. On his observation about the practical response from Opposition Front Benchers, I cannot help but reflect that they may have to do a little more work on educating those who sit behind them, but they have made progress in recent days and no doubt that progress can continue.

Every time that an hon. Member has commented on the need for the armed forces to reflect society, it has caused certain Conservative Members apoplexy, not least the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex. Regardless of any ideological debate about whether we should try to ensure that the armed forces reflect society, the forces recruit about 25,000--mostly young--people every year, so they inevitably reflect the society in which we live. There are different policies in different countries in NATO, but, as I said earlier, only one NATO country has a formal ban on homosexuals serving in the armed forces.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): Will the Secretary of State ensure that, for the isolated people who may need advice, Rank Outsiders will be able to advertise its helpline number in armed forces journals, which it has so far been barred from doing?

The Secretary of State said that the change was being made because the law is the law. Could not he say that it is because human rights are human rights? He said that maintaining the ban was no longer legally sustainable. Does he agree that it is also not ethically or morally sustainable? Does he feel any remorse about, or can he offer any apology for, the careers that have been wrecked under his Government, as well as under previous ones? How many careers have been wrecked under the Labour Government? How much does he think that that will cost? Does he not think that the £10,000 rumoured as the compensation to be offered for the wrecking of careers and the most intrusive, rude and oppressive harassment is pathetic and inadequate?

Mr. Hoon: I should make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that this matter has been given very careful consideration; I am sorry that he has not given it quite the care and consideration that I might have hoped for. In the

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briefing pack for commanding officers, there will be a number of details of further advice and information that can be given to service personnel who need it.

I made it clear that negotiations on compensation were still under way, so it would not be appropriate for me to comment on amounts that have been agreed.

I should make it equally clear that, subject to obvious considerations of fitness, we shall look very sympathetically at applications from service personnel who wish to rejoin the services following discharge for homosexuality.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): While I am a strong supporter of the Secretary of State in this matter, precisely what were the "some concerns" to which he referred in his statement and from whom did they come?

Does the Secretary of State think that the shade of the grandfather of the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) would approve of his grandson's comments? What would he think, for example, about the situation of the Chindits? Speaking as a relation of Orde Wingate and as one who knows something about the matter, it is an outrageous slur on the Chindits, the Eighth Army and other units to suggest, as the hon. Gentleman did, that the decision is totally unacceptable. Since there are very many Mid-Sussexes floating around, would it not be a good idea to bring to public notice the distinguished service rendered by homosexual personnel and the units in which they operated--frankly, under force majeure--during the war?

I do not know whether my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) wants my support, but for once I strongly support his comments.

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