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Ms Taylor: I am sure that the Chief of the Defence Staff did not say that that was tosh--[Hon. Members: "You said that it was tosh."] Indeed, and I believe that I am right to say that the statement made by those on the Conservative Front Bench is tosh. As the Chief of the Defence Staff has complimented the Bill, I am equally sure that he will consider the statement to be tosh.
The Bill defines a commitment to retain the fundamentals of the way in which the armed forces administer justice. I regard that as crucial. It is no less crucial that Ministers and their researchers acknowledge that there are concerns about some of the structures and some of the activities, and that they propose operational remedies. Those remedies should invoke the European convention on human rights, which states clearly that all public authorities should act in a way that is compatible with the framework and principles of the convention.
The Bill deals with the way in which the armed forces operationalise investigations. I was surprised that that is virtually under the command of the commanding officer, who has inherent powers. It is important that that is being questioned and challenged. I do not have a problem with the commanding officer's involvement in the process, but I find it highly problematic that he should have exclusive rights. The Armed Forces Discipline Act 2000 will replace the inherent powers, clarify the rules of search, entry and seizure and put the process on a statutory footing. That is valuable.
If we want people to give of their best in the armed forces, they should know that those who exercise power and those who subject them to that power are clear about the limits of their power and the safeguards that apply to the exercise of that power. That is inviolable and should always have applied.
I welcome many parts of the Bill, such as the inclusion of warrant officers in court martial membership, which is long overdue. I also welcome the section on drug and alcohol testing. My hon. Friends have spoken about the problems that we face in our communities with regard to drug and alcohol use. It is vital that the armed forces confront the issue and implement effective testing. I was pleased to see the changes to the Marriage Act 1949, which are profound and long overdue.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): I do not necessarily oppose what the hon. Lady says, but would she care to acknowledge that, in testimony to the Defence Committee, the Equal Opportunities Commission readily accepted that, when women apply for posts in the armed services, they must meet objective standards of performance, and that standards must not be lowered in order to enable them to take up posts? On that basis, there can be some sort of convergence across the Chamber on the issue.
I passionately believe that everyone should be able to give what he or she has to give, and women believe that they should have the right to serve in the armed forces. A woman who does not have operational competence should not be given, or considered for, a particular role, but that is equally true of any male who wants to join the armed forces. My commitment, and it is total, to women being given an opportunity to serve is based on my belief that rights are inviolable. If they are not, they are not rights. Rights cannot be given to some and not to others, especially one as basic as the right to serve in the armed forces.
I was seriously disappointed by contributions from Opposition Members. Only time will tell. In time, people will be converted. They will be convinced that women not only have a right to be on the front line but can function there as effectively and valiantly as any man.
I echo the points made by many hon. Members today about the recruitment of ethnic minorities. That is a serious problem, which we should all be more than keen to address. Their recruitment is at a seriously low level. The House has been told today that they face a cultural lag, that they do not feel included. That is probably the appropriate explanation, but I find it difficult to accept. The British Army was a powerful force in India, so why cannot we link the greatness and grandness of the British Army with the ethnic groups who have served it so valiantly? The Gurkhas were and are part of our force structure. Why on earth are we not using those people to persuade our ethnic groups to become a part of our armed services? Image is crucial here. When I speak to schools
Mr. Key: I wholly support what the hon. Lady has just said. We pursued that matter in the previous Quinquennial Bill. Some of us took evidence from the Sikh community. The British Army has had wonderful Sikh regiments--not only the Indian army, but the British Army as well. We sought advice from the Commission for Racial Equality, but we were told that such ideas are old hat, that things are not like that any more, and that ethnic minorities should be wholly integrated into the regular regiments of the British Army and the other services. Therefore, to have separate Sikh regiments, for example, would not be appropriate. Does the hon. Lady agree that we should have another look at that?
Ms Taylor: That is an important point with which I think I agree. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will not say, "No way." We have a serious problem here, and it is not one for political bat and ball games. We must see why the engagement is not there and persuade the ethnic minorities to come on board.
I have virtually come to an end, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I have great pleasure in saying how pleased I am to see you in the Chair. Congratulations. However I am disappointed to have to end on a down note. This is an excellent Bill which we shall debate heartily and with determination and integrity in Committee, but I was disappointed to hear my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South, who has been a close friend of mine since I entered the House, deprecate the Committee's composition. He has every right to make his comments to the House this evening and I hope that, if all goes well, I shall be a member of the Committee. I am most certainly a woman who fights her corner with integrity and determination. I have no intention of not letting the Back-Bench voice be heard.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), with whom I shared an enjoyable two years on the Select Committee on Defence. It was a great sadness that she moved on; indeed, it was something of a sadness for me to move on only a year after her. However, I hope that I am broadening my knowledge by my service to the House on another Select Committee.
I do not immediately want to follow the hon. Lady down the path that she trod because I fundamentally disagree with her on several matters, which I shall pick up on later in my remarks. First, however, I want to comment on the welcome reiteration of the Opposition's commitment to put right the deleterious effects of the European convention on human rights on our armed forces by extracting them from the ambit of the convention. That commitment was explicitly made explicit, and I welcome it. The only way to achieve it is to denounce the treaty, immediately reapply, and then get the reservation that we require for the armed forces. Countries such as France, which joined in 1974--23 years after the United Kingdom--have such a reservation. In 1951, however, it could never have been anticipated that
Mr. Hancock: Does the hon. Gentleman really believe that it is right to put one's life in harm's way to defend people's human rights and their position in the world, while not having those rights oneself? He would deny that to the armed forces of this country. He relishes the opportunity to take those rights away from men and women whom we regularly expect to put their lives on their line to defend the same rights for others.