20 Mar 2000 : Column 699

House of Commons

Monday 20 March 2000

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Public Access (Departmental Land)

1. Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire): If he will make a statement on progress in providing public access to his Department's land. [113688]

10. Angela Smith (Basildon): What review he has made of the criteria on which his Department allows access to his Department's land. [113697]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): There is a presumption in favour of public access to the defence estate subject to safety, security and operational reasons. Although those have been the overriding factors governing access by the public, we have also taken into account the criteria--which are now in the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill--of land management, nature conservation and heritage protection as well as the interests of our tenants. Our forthcoming strategy for the defence estate, which is due for publication in June, will be the vehicle for improving the quality, extent and certainty of access to the defence estate.

Mr. Pickthall: I thank my hon. Friend for that positive reply. Will he nevertheless consider some of the changes that could be made under current legislation? For example, will he consider complaints about Dartmoor, where about 40 firing days every year are not used by the Army, and 60,000 acres can be closed off when only a handful of troops are using a corner of the territory? Does he not agree that an awful lot of efficiency and compromise could be achieved under the present regulations?

Dr. Moonie: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. Ease of access is clearly one of the main principles that we have in mind, and although we must also be careful about public safety, allowing access wherever possible will be an overriding consideration.

Angela Smith: I, too, welcome the Minister's answer, but may I push him further? I welcome the current review, but is he aware that in 1986 public rights of way were

20 Mar 2000 : Column 700

withdrawn from areas of Salisbury plain? Despite that, the Royal Artillery hunt is allowed access to it even when the red flags are flying, although many ordinary ramblers are not--it is still out of bounds for those who want only to walk. Given the unpredictable nature of fox hunting--the fox runs, and the hounds and riders follow--would not it be appropriate to open up access to those who merely want to walk?

Dr. Moonie: While it remains a legal activity, hunting with hounds is permitted on the defence estate. It is restricted to recognised hunts, and licences are granted only to those that have held such permission previously.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): Will the Minister confirm that, under clause 26, he will seek to exempt all military training lands from the provisions of the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill? Given the severe shortage of training land and the training shortfall, particularly in the Army, when can we expect an announcement on the outcome of the inquiry into the Otterburn range's improvement, which is putting a great deal of strain on the Army's training programme?

Dr. Moonie: First, the presumption has to be that the public have right of access, but clearly the needs of the service must be taken fully into account in that presumption. Secondly, I am sorry to say that Otterburn is not in my hands.

Ethnic Minority Recruitment

2. Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush): What proposals he has to increase recruitment from the ethnic minority communities into the armed forces. [113689]

9. Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): What action has been taken by the Army to tackle race discrimination; and if he will make a statement. [113696]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): In the spirit of our partnership agreement with the Commission for Racial Equality, all three services continue to work vigorously to increase recruitment from ethnic minority communities. Challenging goals have been set, rising to 5 per cent. in 2001-02, and we are beginning to see considerable signs of progress. Along with the other two services, the Army is fully committed to tackling and removing prejudice in keeping with the zero tolerance policy towards racism. A number of other organisations are now consulting our armed forces to learn from that successful approach.

Mr. Soley: Will the Minister convey my thanks to the members of his Department who organised a brilliant effort by those--mainly non-commissioned officers--who visited various constituencies and came to the White City estate in my area to lead a recruitment campaign? They were from the ethnic minorities and did not dress up any of the problems of racism that are encountered from time to time, but, with enthusiasm and commitment, made it abundantly clear to the young people from the

20 Mar 2000 : Column 701

ethnic minority communities in my constituency what rewarding careers the Army, Navy and Air Force can offer.

Mr. Spellar: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments, which reflect those I have heard from around the country on the members of the ethnic minority recruiting team and my experience in meeting them in a number of locations. They are not only fine members of the armed forces, but extremely effective communicators of their message to young people. They are perhaps far more effective than Ministers in that regard because they wear the uniform of the armed forces and are themselves from the community. They have an effective message to put over. They do that extremely well and have a great impact on the youngsters they talk to.

Fiona Mactaggart: Is the Minister aware that, before the general election, the Commission for Racial Equality was considering a formal investigation into recruitment practices in the armed forces and that there has since been an agreement between the CRE and the armed forces, which Herman Ouseley described as

Will he say unequivocally that my constituents--many of whom have ancestors from the Caribbean or the Indian sub-continent and family traditions of gallant service in our armed forces--are as welcome to serve in the defence of Britain as people from any community in this country?

Mr. Spellar: I thank my hon. Friend for her remarks. We want to re-emphasise that message. We pay tribute to the long history--two centuries--of involvement in the British armed forces of people from overseas, many of whose families are now in this country. The answer that I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) was important because that is the real-life experience of members of the ethnic community in the armed forces, and that is the message that they are getting across. It is not the distorted vision that is portrayed in the media. It is extremely important that people who hold senior positions and positions of influence in the ethnic community also get the message across that the armed forces is a good career for their youngsters and offers great opportunities to serve this country.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): Does the Minister agree that it is important that we get across the message that there will be no discrimination prior to entry or while people from ethnic minorities proudly serve in our armed forces? Does he also agree that with 18,000 savage cuts in the Territorial Army, there are now fewer opportunities for young people from ethnic minorities who are working to be able to contribute to our armed forces?

Mr. Spellar: In spite of the fact that we have had the best year of recruitment into the armed forces in 10 years, there are still a considerable number of vacancies. We welcome into our armed forces all those who qualify and wish to serve this country. We are glad that that message is increasingly getting across. As I stressed earlier, we have zero tolerance of discrimination in the armed forces. I emphasise the fact that when one looks into many of the cases that hit the headlines, one discovers that they often relate to events that occurred some years before, and that

20 Mar 2000 : Column 702

there has since been a sea change in attitudes in the armed forces. That is welcome and is a tribute to the leadership of the senior command and the way in which they have brought that about.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): Encouraging the recruitment of people from ethnic minorities into the armed forces is to be welcomed, but will the Minister confirm that there will be no positive discrimination, and that the selection of people from ethnic minorities will be solely on merit?

Mr. Spellar: I certainly hope that that is the case; indeed, I know it is. That is the view of people from the ethnic community who serve in the armed forces. If the hon. Gentleman has met any of the recruitment teams in particular, he will recognise the high quality that we are talking about. I should make it clear that this policy is not based on political correctness, but is to ensure that we have the widest possible pool of talent from which we can recruit so as to maintain the high quality and high reputation of the British armed forces.

Next Section

IndexHome Page