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Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend intrigued the House by conjuring the vision of the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex floating around. I have learned to my cost about debating history with my hon. Friend, so I shall not pursue him on that. However, I shall deal with the concerns that he mentioned.

I made it clear that we recruit about 25,000--mostly young--people to the armed forces each year. They reflect our society, which has a mixed view of homosexuality. It would be absurd for me to pretend otherwise. Those concerns are reflected in wider society, as they will be within the armed forces and will have to be addressed by commanding officers as they implement the code of conduct and this policy. If I pretended otherwise, Madam Speaker--[Interruption.] I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is clear that I must pay more attention to who is occupying the Chair. Having carefully avoided all sorts of mistakes in the course of my observations, I apologise for not recognising you.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): A bet that I believe that I would win is that no member of the European Court of Human Rights has ever served in a crowded mess in a ship or in a cramped army bivouac. If any of them had done so, they would not have come to such a ludicrous decision, which will damage military effectiveness.

Does the Secretary of State understand that there is a great difference between those who hid their homosexuality and permitting homosexuality to be overt, which the decision will allow? Does he understand that

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no matter what guidance he gives, overt homosexuals will be ostracised and threatened in ships and in barracks, for example? That will do profound damage to the armed forces.

Mr. Hoon: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman chooses to substitute his own prejudices for, first of all--[Interruption.] If Conservative Members will allow me to finish, I shall explain why I think that the hon. Gentleman is dealing in prejudice. First, he is substituting his own view of the law for that of the European Court of Human Rights. It is not acceptable for hon. Members to say that decisions of the courts should be decided in a different way because the courts cannot possibly interpret the law properly.

We are dealing with the European Court of Human Rights, which has carefully considered the law and reached a conclusion. Right hon. and hon. Members know full well that it is necessary in a democratic society that upholds the rule of law to apply such decisions. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman is substituting his view of military effectiveness for that of the service chiefs, who have accepted the code of conduct. They have recognised that they must implement the decision of the European Court of Human Rights, and they are seeking to do so in a way that does not jeopardise military effectiveness in any way.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): Does the Secretary of State not understand that his appalling decision will be greeted with dismay, particularly by ordinary soldiers in Her Majesty's Forces, many of whom joined the services precisely because they wished to turn their back on some of the values of modern society?

How can the right hon. Gentleman claim that operational effectiveness will not be impaired when the Government argued before the European Court of Human Rights that

How can he go back on what was the Government's line? Does he not understand the resentment that is felt by some of us in this country that the power to decide the composition of Her Majesty's armed forces has been usurped by a bunch of foreign judges in some continental city, when it should be decided by the people of this country and by this Parliament? Does he realise that he has created an enormous minefield, in which housing will be only one factor?

Mr. Hoon: I regret to say that the hon. Gentleman is probably the authentic voice of the Conservative party today. I worry about its future if such prejudices are to be on display. I treat his observations as an attack not on the Government but on the Opposition Front-Bench team. Before he makes such intemperate comments, he should ask himself a basic question. In the unlikely event that he is part of a Government at some stage in the future, what decision would he take in the light of a European Court decision? If he cannot answer that question, he should not have said what he has just said in the most intemperate terms. He should think more carefully about the observations that he makes in the House, otherwise he

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will condemn himself and his party to a lifetime of opposition. I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends will agree with that.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): I understand the Secretary of State's predicament, and I realise how difficult this problem is, but there are people who have served in the armed forces who have grave and serious reservations about this decision. Will he address one of the questions that he was asked earlier? I have not read the code of conduct--it has only just been published--but what will be the repercussions on individuals' rights to privacy?

Mr. Hoon: I have dealt with those reservations, so I shall not repeat myself. As for the individual, the essence of the decision of the European Court of Human Rights is to protect the privacy of individuals. I made it clear that, in devising the code of conduct, we had regard to the importance not only of military effectiveness and discipline, but the rights of the individual. Those two matters are complementary, and are set out in the code of conduct. That is why the service chiefs are willing to endorse this approach, and to lead the chain of command so as to ensure that the reservations to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and which I accept, do not dominate the debate about the implementation of this policy.

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South): Will the Secretary of State answer the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), which was based on the example given by the former Minister for the Armed Forces, now the Secretary of State for Scotland, of the woman who felt that her privacy might be invaded in certain circumstances? Why have the Government concentrated their service test on conduct of the individual rather than operational situations? Should not they be giving advice and guidance on whether heterosexuals should be expected to share accommodation with homosexuals, and whether homosexuals should be deployed in the front line in intimate living conditions? Despite this rushed attempt to deal with this most delicate situation, does he agree that this is a much more difficult and complex subject than perhaps he had anticipated, and that this statement is only the beginning of his troubles, not the end of them?

Mr. Hoon: In referring at the outset to the views of hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench, I had in mind the hon. Gentleman's rather intemperate observations when the original decision was promulgated. He now seems to be rowing back from that and asking practical questions about the implementation of the policy.

I have been accused of delaying the implementation of the policy change, and now I am accused of rushing it. Somewhere in between, the Government may have got it just about right. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has not had time to study the document properly, but I have made it clear--and I repeat it--that at the heart of the code of conduct is an emphasis on operational effectiveness, and it clearly must also have regard to the privacy of individuals.

Operational effectiveness depends on a number of individuals working effectively together. Given the emphasis in the court's decision on the importance of

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privacy and the rights of the individual, it is right and appropriate to reconcile the importance of operational effectiveness with respect for the privacy of the individual. That is set out in the code of conduct, and it will be carried through in the operational guidance given to commanding officers. It will allow appropriate and proper decisions on the issue of accommodation that the hon. Gentleman raised.

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Point of Order

5.4 pm

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I gave notice to the Speaker of a point of order that I was asked to raise. I was fortunate to have the 1 pm to 1.30 pm slot in Westminster Hall for a debate on the situation in Serbia and Kosovo. When I went into that Chamber at 12.50 pm, it was stuffy, smelly and airless. It is no exaggeration to say--and others agreed with me--that it smelt like a rather full school pupils' changing room. There may be a ventilation problem, but my point is that it is no place for the House of Commons to conduct its official business.

I ask members of the Speaker's Office and the Office of the Serjeant at Arms to go and not just see but smell for themselves. I am not casting aspersions on the school parties that were present; my point concerns the nature of what we have set up in that place. It is totally unsuitable for prolonged parliamentary activity, at least while it remains as airless as it is now. Could the House authorities examine the matter?

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