Select Committee on Defence Second Report


Ethnic minorities

35. The Armed Forces must try therefore to deepen the pool of talent in which they fish for recruits—but the fishing still needs to be skilful and the bait chosen carefully according to circumstances. If the Armed Forces' appeal is to reach the widest range of the population, this clearly means they must draw from ethnic minority groups from whom in the past recruitment has regrettably been poor. Racial discrimination in the Armed Forces has concerned the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) for many years and they say that—

    Historically this discrimination operated both to exclude ethnic minority men and women from many parts of the Army, Navy and RAF and to subject those who had joined to physical and verbal racist abuse and harassment. Inevitably the occurrence of racial harassment within the Services has affected the ability of the Services to recruit and retain ethnic minority personnel.[59]

Our colleagues on the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill in 1996 commented on ethnic minorities in the Armed Forces at a time when the CRE was formally investigating racial discrimination in the Household Cavalry.[60] This was a nadir for race relations in the Armed Services, and our colleagues expressed their disappointment that so little progress had been made since the previous Armed Forces Bill in 1991. Having examined what the MoD and the Armed Forces have done since then, we believe much progress has been made: the situation is still far from perfect but we should not lose sight of how far the Armed Forces have come and how much has been achieved in tackling racial discrimination in the last five years. The achievements of the Armed Forces in tackling the issue of racial discrimination are considerable—even if the actual results in terms of recruits remain a little disappointing, the culture change has, we believe, been profound.

36. Figures for recruitment from ethnic minorities are shown below.

Table 6
Recruitment from Ethnic Minorities

Sept 1996*

Source: Commission for Racial Equality, Ev pp 91-92
*First ethnic monitoring survey
Notes:   Percentages shown are of total numbers of 'non-white' personnel and include personnel recruited from Commonwealth countries. Ethnic minorities make up 7-8 per cent of the UK population.

The targets for 2000-01 and 2001-02 are 4 per cent and 5 per cent respectively.[61] Despite the change of attitude we have noted above, since 1997, when targets for ethnic minority recruiting were first set, the Services as a whole have failed to meet them and at the current rate of progress it will take 30 years to reach the MoD's target of 5 per cent ethnic minority recruitment set for 2001-02. The Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Personnel) assured us—

    We are not complacent. We set ourselves very demanding targets and we are progressively getting towards them ...[62]

And the Second Sea Lord told us—

    We were set some quite stiff targets to achieve and we are extremely disappointed not to be achieving them, but this is very much a question of a glass being half full rather than half empty. Three years ago the Navy recruited six officers and 35 other ranks. Two years later it doubled those figures: 12 officers and over 70 other ranks ... Those percentages are 2.9% for officers and 1.7% for ratings, so they are below the targets, but they are moving in the right direction.[63]

37. The Services are seeking very actively to increase their appeal to ethnic minorities. The Adjutant General described the Army's outreach programme to ethnic minority communities. After some initial confusion, the Commission for Racial Equality agreed that this project was giving impressive results and was worthwhile. It had involved 32 events around the country, starting in April 1999, and was attended by a total of 191,000 people from ethnic minority communities. The actual recruitment yield was only 330, but this was slightly better than could be expected from a similar exercise aimed at the general population. This sort of initiative also has a wider value in raising the profile of the Armed Forces specifically amongst ethnic minority communities.[64]

38. Nevertheless, there are continuing differences in the rates at which inquiries from members of ethnic minorities are converted into applications and then into recruits, as compared to the rest of the population. For the Army, three and a half inquiries from the ethnic minorities translate into one enlistment, compared with a slightly lower figure of one from three for white people. In the Navy, for every eight enquiries from the ethnic minorities, six turn into applications from which there is one enlistment; for white people the figures are six, four and one. Although the differences seem fairly slight, the CRE has encouraged the Services to investigate the reasons. As a result, best practice guidelines have been issued to careers offices. Conversion rates have improved in the last few years, and we look forward to further improvement.[65]

39. The need to ensure equal opportunity in the Armed Forces for people from ethnic minorities is indisputable on moral grounds. It is important that the Armed Forces be seen to be the defender of the nation as a whole. From the viewpoint of the Services' own self-interest, in ensuring they recruit sufficient and appropriate people, it is vital that the potential offered by young people from ethnic minority communities is fully exploited. The CRE acknowledge 'the considerable efforts and expenditure deployed to increase levels of ethnic minority representation within the Armed Forces' and the scale of the task facing the Services. But they remain of the view that the targets are achievable. They recommend moving towards a more coherent strategy, which would be achieved by the three Services sharing best practice, having analysed their various recruiting strategies on a systematic basis, so that the successful ones can be pursued and the failures discarded.[66] This is one area in which we are sure that an over-arching, tri-service strategy is relevant and useful. We recommend that more systematic evaluation of all recruitment strategies is carried out to identify those which are most successful, with particular attention to those directed at ethnic minorities. In this context, we were particularly disappointed that our MoD witnesses did not lay much greater emphasis on the cadets as a rich recruiting ground for members of ethnic minority communities, despite the success of the cadets in attracting large numbers of youngsters from ethnic minorities into uniforms.

40. The Armed Forces have made significant, and in the context of traditionally conservative organisations rapid, progress in ethnic minority recruitment, albeit from a very poor starting point. This progress has resulted from the commitment and hard work by many in the MoD and the Armed Forces, assisted by the CRE. But, because the targets have not been met, what should appear as a success story can be made to look like failure. The Second Sea Lord expressed obviously heartfelt views about this—

    The people I feel the greatest sympathy for are the young, black and Asian recruiters out there, who absolutely work unbelievably long hours, going out into the community, and after two years of quite an improvement in the Navy we flattened off last year. That is an area which we are looking at very hard.[67]

Professor Dandeker expressed reservations about the value of targets in this area—

    I think it is unwise when one constructs targets for recruiting particular sections of the population to have any in-built assumption that it is normal to suppose a random probability of members of that society wishing to join the armed services. There is little evidence for that ... The crucial thing is to ask the question if they do not want to, why do they not want to? Is it because they are going to be made to feel unwelcome and bullied and harassed? ... The second thing is the danger of targeting recruitment at a particular minority community, in this case a minority ethnic one, which can lead to problems in the sense that some would respond and say, 'Hold on, I am British and I would like to join the armed services. I do not need a special targeted attack on my community. You are making all sorts of assumptions about my status in British society. I am British and want to be treated in that way.' So the targeting does not always deliver necessarily what you think it will.[68]

Targets were an essential element in getting the Services from the low starting point in 1996 to their improved position today. It is crucial that momentum is maintained in ethnic minority recruiting and we believe the commitment exists to achieve this. However, as is suggested by some witnesses, the relative motivating and demotivating effects of targets need to be examined. They have been a useful spur but they should not be allowed to become a disincentive. Eventually, of course, the need for them should wither away.

41. Less measurable than recruitment statistics, but equally important, is the way ethnic minority personnel are treated in the Services. We consider this later in the context of assessing whether the working environment in the Armed Forces is one which will encourage people to stay.


42. The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) recognises—

The table below shows the numbers and percentage of women in the trained strengths of the Services.

Table 7
Number and Percentage of Women in the Armed Forces
(Trained Strength) at 1 October 2000

Trained Strength
Number of Women
All Services
 Other Ranks
Naval Service
    Other Ranks
 Other Ranks
    Other Ranks

Source: Defence Analytical Services Agency, Trained Requirements and Strengths of Service Personnel at 1 October 2000, TSP 2 Revised, 6 December 2000

Of the total number of Armed Forces personnel (ie, including the untrained strength) 8 per cent were women at 1 April 2000 (8.8 per cent officers and 7.8 per cent other ranks) compared to 5.7 per cent (5.9 per cent officers and 5.6 per cent other ranks) in April 1990.[70] Recruitment of women of the last five years has remained fairly steady as shown in the table below.

Table 8
Intake of Women to the Regular Forces
(Years to 1 April)

All Services
    Total Intake
    Women (%)
    Officers (%)
    Other Ranks (%)

2,174 (12.3%)
234 (16.8%)
1,940 (11.9%)

2,935 (13.2%)
246 (16.5%)
2,689 (13.0%)

3,336 (14.2%)
356 (21.3%)
2,980 (13.6%)

3,431 (13.2%)
296 (19.7%)
3,135 (12.8%)

3,159 (12.4%)
388 (20.0%)
2,771 (11.7%)
Naval Service
    Total Intake
    Women (%)
    Officers (%)
    Other Ranks (%)

351 (15.0%)
31 (14.0%)
320 (15.1%)

562 (14.2%)
51 (14.0%)
511 (14.2%)

634 (13.8%)
72 (19.2%)
562 (13.3)

661 (13.9%)
38 (9.9%)
623 (14.2%)

703 (14.2%)
71 (17.4%)
632 (13.9%)
    Total Intake
    Women (%)
    Officers (%)
    Other Ranks (%)

1,377 (10.7%)
135 (15.2%)
1,242 (10.3%)

1,939 (12.5%)
121 (15.0%)
1,818 (12.4%)

2,005 (13.0%)
177 (19.6%)
1,828 (12.6%)

1,975 (11.6%)
152 (21.8%)
1,823 (11.2%)

1,743 (10.6%)
203 (19.4%)
1,540 (10.0%)
    Total Intake
    Women (%)
    Officers (%)
    Other Ranks (%)

446 (18.4%)
68 (24.5%)
378 (17.6%)

434 (16.2%)
74 (23.0%)
360 (15.2%)

616 (17.5%)
107 (27.0%)
590 (18.9%)

795 (18.7%)
106 (24.8%)
689 (18.0%)

713 (17.4%)
114 (23.6%)
599 (16.6%)

Source: Defence Analytical Services Agency, UK Regular Forces Strengths and Changes at 1 October 2000, TSP 1,

2 November 2000

    It is disappointing that the figures do not show sustained growth. The Armed Forces received adverse publicity, in the early 1990s, in legal cases brought against them by pregnant women dismissed from the Services. The EOC believes that, although the situation has now changed, it has left a perception that the Services do not represent a good career for women and that women are not welcome.[71] The EOC made the point that, if women are seen to be reaching high-ranking positions in the Armed Forces, the recruitment picture might again show improvement.[72] They drew a comparison with the police force where the percentage of women is now about 35 per cent, having remained at 20-25 per cent for a number of years. It is vital that the Services continue their drive to publicise the career opportunities they offer and it is in the Armed Forces' own interest to appeal to women, given the current shortage of personnel.

43. The EOC accept that the Armed Forces sincerely wish to see a larger percentage of women joining and staying. but that one of the obstacles to this is the continued exclusion of women from a number of posts.[73] Women are able to serve in 70 per cent of posts in the Army; 73 per cent of posts in the Naval Service; and 96 per cent of posts in the RAF.[74] The continuing restrictions are reviewed from time to time, but the MoD's view is that units whose primary purpose is to 'close with and kill the enemy' should recruit only men.[75] Posts which are not open to women on these grounds are: the Royal Marines General Service; cap-badged posts in the Infantry and Royal Armoured Corps (including the Household Cavalry); and the RAF Regiment. The Chief of the Defence Staff recently set out his views as follows—

    Some have suggested that the answer to our needs may lie in opening up more combat roles to women. At present about 8 percent of our total trained strength are women and they fulfil some very important roles ... We have taken an incremental approach to widening the roles for women in the Services and are currently conducting a study into their suitability for close combat roles. I am not sure that the nation is ready for such a step yet, but from my perspective we must ensure that nothing, I repeat nothing, damages the combat effectiveness of the British Armed Forces. The Chiefs of Staff have a duty to recommend to the government how to produce the best operational capability for the nation. We will have to see what conclusions the study draws, but I stress the Chiefs of Staff are not in the business of designing Armed Forces for the good times. We have to advise what will work when conditions are tough, dangerous and frightening. When the time comes, if the Chiefs of Staff advice upsets those who seek equality as an end in itself then so be it.[76]

It is not made clear, in enunciating this policy on women in combat roles, whether this exclusion is on the grounds of physiological ability or moral distaste for women having to do such work. If it is the latter, it is time it was abandoned.

44. The Army is currently conducting a study into the effects, if any, on combat effectiveness since the number of posts open to women was increased to 70 per cent. The study will also assess the impact on combat effectiveness of removing the continuing exclusions.[77] The EOC had not yet seen details of the study but understood that the trials were looking at the way mixed teams would work in an infantry environment, rather than combat effectiveness itself, as 'it is obviously impossible to replicate combat until you are in it.'[78] Despite this problem, the Commission was emphatic in its evidence that, in deciding whether to expand the role of women in the Armed Forces, 'operational effectiveness must be the primary factor' and that there should be no question of lowering the standards—

    If you can pass the tests that are necessary for the job to be done, then you should have a go at doing it. What we are absolutely not saying—and I want to make this very clear because sometimes it is not heard—that women should be able to do it regardless.[79]

We raised with the EOC some of the common arguments used against women on the front-line, particularly the often-cited one that men would instinctively try to protect their female colleagues in combat. Their view was that proper training equips personnel to deal with any crisis: personnel would respond in combat in the way in which they had been trained to respond, and if this involved working in a mixed team of men and women, they could be trained in that way.[80] It was possible to look at experience in other countries, particularly the United States, but the EOC stressed the importance of considering these issues in the British military context because of the distinct role the British Forces fulfil in international interventions.[81]

45. In the Navy, women are excluded from service in submarines and as mine clearance divers on medical grounds. The latest review of these restrictions reported early in 1999. It found that in submarines there is potential danger for pregnant women from contaminants which build up during long periods of submersion. These are not harmful to adults but may harm foetuses. The MoD believes it should not compromise its duty of care to women by allowing them to serve in submarines even if the women themselves are prepared to take the risk. The risks from mine clearance diving are also to unborn children.[82] The obvious danger for the MoD is that if unborn children were harmed by conditions experienced by their mothers, some women might choose to sue. The EOC believes that for these reasons 'the Royal Navy may be unlawfully discriminating against all women because of a possible perceived danger to a few'.[83] It is a difficult area, but not an insuperable one in practical terms. Women should know if they are likely to be pregnant; there are comparisons which can be made with NASA, who disregard pregnancy as a potential problem because they make it clear to women that they should not be pregnant at times when they know they are going on space flights. The EOC also thought the Navy could do useful comparative research into the number of women who are unwittingly pregnant in surface ships.[84] We agree.

46. There is a secondary issue of privacy and decency in submarines. Baroness Symons, the MoD minister with a particular responsibility for equal opportunities, believes this to be a more important issue than the risk of pregnancy.[85] Living space is extremely limited and it would be very difficult in the present classes of submarines to allocate separate sleeping and washroom facilities for women. The EOC has discussed these issues with the Royal Navy and the Navy believe it may be possible to adapt the accommodation in some submarines meet these concerns. But there would be a transitional problem in building up an appropriate number of women submariners to avoid gapping (falling below the manning requirement), as nuclear-powered submarines have to be 100 per cent manned at all times. Because submariners have to use the same sleeping accommodation on different shifts, the complementing challenge would be complex. Of course, issues of privacy and decency are different for different individuals and cultures—the Royal Swedish Navy appears to be able to allow women and men to work together as submariners with less concern about these questions. Immediate change may not be possible, and if it did demand larger living quarters, could be costly. However, the Navy has to decide what its policy on women submariners should be in 10 to 15 years' time and factor this in when designing or refitting submarines for the future.[86]

47. Professor Strachan's view on women in the Armed Forces was that—

    ... it is important to distinguish between equal opportunities and equal rights ... This is exactly where the physical issue comes in. You do not have to make a distinction on the grounds of gender if somebody is not physically capable of doing the job.[87]

In the past all three Services applied different test standards for men and women, known as 'gender fair' tests, to reflect the difference between the two in physical strength, particularly upper-body strength. The Armed Forces find physical fitness is a recruitment issue for both men and women because young people are in general less active now than previously.[88] What the EOC regard as appropriate are 'gender free' tests which assess the actual requirements of a job and test potential recruits on that basis. The Army have made great progress in analysing every post on this basis and identifying specific fitness standards accordingly. Its system of gender free physical fitness selection tests for recruitment has operated since April 1998. The EOC believes this system should be extended to all parts of the Services. The Navy still have different physical fitness standards for women. The EOC points out that this could in fact constitute discrimination against men.[89] Gender-neutral physical fitness tests can meet the primary criteria of ensuring operational effectiveness. We recommend that all three Services follow the Army's example in adopting them to assess physical fitness for any post. The Army's study of the impact on combat effectiveness of women on the front-line may provide more objective evidence on which to make policy decisions. But operational effectiveness must remain the overriding consideration.

59  Ev p 89 Back

60  Special Report from the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, Session 1995-96, HC 143, paras 25-29; see also Ev p 90 Back

61  Defence White Paper 1999, Cm 4446, p 38 Back

62  Q 261 Back

63  QQ 259-60 Back

64  See QQ 217, 219-21, 263-4 and 312 Back

65  Ev p 93; see also QQ 270, 312 Back

66  Ev pp 92 and 97 Back

67  Q 112 Back

68  Q 50 Back

69  Ev p 72 Back

70  Ev p 34, para 12.1. The figures in the table relate to the trained strengthBack

71  Q 157 Back

72  Q 164 Back

73  QQ 162-3 and Ev p 72 Back

74  Ev pp 34-35, paras 12.4-12.8  Back

75  Ev p 74;  Back

76  RUSI speech, op cit Back

77  HC Deb, 14 November 2000, c 574w Back

78  QQ 170-171 Back

79  Q 165 Back

80  Q 174 Back

81  Q 172 Back

82  Ev p 77-8, paras 6.1-6.6; HC Deb, 24 February 1999, cc 300-301w Back

83  Ev p 78, para 6.5 Back

84  Q185-6 Back

85  See Part of my job: equal opportunities in the Armed Forces, interview with Baroness Symons, in RUSI Journal, October 2000 Back

86  QQ 180-182 Back

87  Q 16 Back

88  QQ 85, 115, 251, 715 Back

89  Ev pp 75-6, para 4.2.1-4.2.3; Q 465 Back

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