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Mr. Gerald Howarth: As I may have said to the House before, when I attended a reception after a Remembrance Sunday service in Aldershot a couple of years ago, I specifically asked some of the very young recently commissioned officers why they had joined the armed services. Their answer was that it was because they rejected some of the values of civilian society and embraced the very values that the hon. Gentleman suggests the services should abandon to make themselves more relevant to the civilian community. That is a very dangerous course of action.
Mr. Gapes: I am going on what I was told when I visited HMS Collingwood near Southampton as a member of the Defence Committee, on a personnel visit, just before Christmas. We talked for several hours with people of all ranks in the Royal Navy. They said unanimously that the attitude of new recruits has changed. Even young women in their early 20s said that the attitude was very different from what it had been when they were 17. That was their perception. Perhaps the people in Aldershot on Remembrance Sunday were different. The young people I spoke to came from many different parts of the United Kingdom. The feelings that they expressed to me were that the old values are important, but must nevertheless take into account changes in society as a whole. That is the essence of the matter.
That is why the Armed Forces Discipline Act 2000 was so important. I served on the Standing Committee that dealt with that legislation. We must recognise that we need to change not merely because of the legal judgments against the Government over the years, but because of the need to have armed forces that are relevant and in touch with society.
Mr. Keetch: On the fact that the armed services have moved on and changed so much in the past 10 to 20 years, senior serving soldiers and those from more junior ranks have told me that one reason why they like Defence Ministers and spokesmen who have no previous military experience is that they do not have the preconceptions that some older soldiers still have. That is no criticism of former serving Members.
A few weeks ago, there was an excellent exhibition on display in the Ministry of Defence to celebrate the role over 50 years of the ethnic minorities in the British armed forces. Relatives of people from the British Indian Army who had been awarded the Victoria Cross were there, as well as people from the Caribbean whose relatives had served with our forces in the 1940s. Some very elderly men and women were there as well as their children and grandchildren. For me, the exhibition was important because the Ministry of Defence and the Government were seriously attempting to tell everyone in our society, "You have a place in the British armed forces. We recognise your contribution and we will value it."
Unfortunately, the recruitment figures do not bear out the commitment. The Select Committee has seen the figures. The target of 5 per cent. is good, but it is unrealistic and will not be achieved. At present, we have a recruitment rate of about 1.3 or 1.4 per cent. in two of our services and about 1.7 per cent. in the third. Perhaps the Minister will correct me if my figures are wrong. Clearly, the message has not yet got through to society in general.
Young Asian men and women in my constituency, who are British born and educated, tell me that they do not want to go into the armed forces. They do not want to go into the police force or into the public services at all. They want to become lawyers and accountants, or to do media studies and become journalists. Few young people have the commitment to do public service and that reflects a wider problem--the value people place on public services, such as the armed forces, the police and even teaching and the health services. All those professions have the same problem. That is part of the legacy of 20 years of the Thatcherite undermining of public values and the public sector ethos. We have to change that. It is not merely a question of money, although that is important. Recruitment to the armed forces is a part of the problem.
Furthermore, as has been said, we must recognise that serving in the military today is probably more demanding and dangerous than it was when soldiers were parading up and down on the inner German border. At the height of the cold war, things were very stable. We did not have expeditionary forces in different parts of the world. There was no danger of being shot at by allegedly friendly Kosovans, or of suffering from malaria in Sierra Leone.
Mr. Gapes: There were exceptions, as the hon. Gentleman points out. Malaysia was not necessarily a comfortable place to be in the 1950s--nor was Korea. I was talking not about 1953, but the 1960s and 1970s.
We must get that message across to young people. We must tell them that if they want not merely to travel the world but to meet and work with people from other countries and cultures in an environment where they are doing good, then joining the armed forces is a vital contribution that they can make.
Mr. Hancock: I endorse much of what the hon. Gentleman has said. If all of what he has said is true, and he genuinely believes it, why are not people from ethnic communities taking up his offer of the good life in the armed forces? What is the impediment to their joining?
Mr. Gapes: It is partly a general economic problem. People can get far more money in the more fashionable jobs to which I referred. It is also due to a cultural lag. People's perceptions are based on bad stories in the media five or seven years ago. People from ethnic communities do not have older brothers or sisters in the forces. The same applies to working class cultures. White and black working class people will not, in general, join the police service due to the same sort of perceptions. I suspect that one of the main reasons why Catholics in Northern Ireland will not join the Royal Ulster Constabulary is cultural. It is not merely fear of IRA intimidation. Army recruitment figures are going up there--20 per cent. of applicants are now Catholics, whereas the percentage of Catholics serving in the RUC is much smaller.
All that will change and it is essential for the future of this country that it does. We need our role models. We need our British Colin Powells. We need people at the top from ethnic minorities who can act as a symbol and a role model for their communities and for society as a whole. That will come, but it will take time. The policies are in place and the commitment is there. We must spread that message throughout society. When that happens there will be a remarkable change but it may take some time.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way because he is making a sincere contribution. He has already acknowledged that recruitment and retention is a problem in our armed forces. Does he accept, therefore, that the political correctness and the gross or excessive attention to bureaucracy and legislation on armed forces discipline may be one of the factors deterring some of our youngsters? After all, they join the armed forces for a sense of excitement. They are not interested in armed forces discipline Acts; they want to get out into the world and experience what is going on there.
Mr. Gapes: The simple answer is no. If the hon. Gentleman thinks about what he has said for a moment, he will realise that 17, 18 or even 22-year-olds are not particularly bothered about the wording of the armed forces discipline Acts when they decide to go to Army recruitment offices. Wider factors are involved;
I shall conclude by dealing with another issue. As a stepfather, I always welcome legislation that recognises that 6 million people live in step-families and that there are 2 million stepchildren in our society. Those are large numbers. The provisions in paragraph 31 of part VI of schedule 7, which will amend section 68 of the Marriage Act 1949, may seem modest, but they are symbolic. Frankly, it is long overdue that stepsons and stepdaughters of qualifying personnel can marry in service chapels. Is not it absurd that we have had to wait until the 21st century for that change?
Previously, the daughters of individuals in the services were eligible to marry in service chapels, but their sons were not. It seems crazy that it has taken so long to get to this point. People might imagine that the change might have been introduced in 1950, but it is 2001 and a lot of catching up has to be done. Many things should have been done many years ago. I hope that when we deal with the consolidated legislation in 2005, 2006 or whenever, we at least recognise that we must bring everything together so that we do not have to keep on going through a catch-up exercise. The regulations should take account of the realities of society.
Things have moved on and society is changing, and our armed forces and the legislation that underpins our democratically, parliamentary-controlled armed forces should reflect that fact. For that reason, I hope that the House will resoundingly vote to give the Bill a Second Reading and that, even at this late stage, the Conservatives will realise the absurdity of their position. I also hope that the Bill will act as a symbol, encouraging people to join and support our armed forces, which play such a vital role in international peace and security.