In 2006 the Ministry of Defence published an overarching equality and diversity scheme that sets out our approach to equality and diversity. Measures that we intend to undertake are set out in our annual action plan, published in conjunction with the scheme. The armed forces have entered into formal agreements with the Commission for Racial Equality to promote racial equality and take action to prevent racial harassment and discrimination, and with the Equal Opportunities Commission to prevent and deal with sexual harassment.
In the light of recent comments that again highlighted the continuing existence of racism in the armed forces, will the Secretary of State guarantee that he will address any forms of latent or overt racism in the armed forces by developing measures to tackle the problem head-on—for example by developing an independent military complaints body to give voice to those who have experienced any form of discrimination and bullying?
On the point about an independent military complaints authority, we set up an independent complaints system as part of a Bill that recently went through Parliament. There is no place at all for discrimination or harassment in the armed forces, and I can tell the hon. Lady that from the very highest levels downward, there is clear commitment to making sure that they do not take place and to dealing with them when they do. For instance, we ensure that progress reports are made to the Equal Opportunities Commission, and we have a new complaints procedure in place. Of course, training and education are key, and above all else, it is leadership that delivers that. That is why I am confident that the armed forces are clearly moving forward on the issue. Any discrimination or harassment is just not acceptable.
Last Thursday and Friday, I visited Her Majesty’s naval base Clyde at Faslane, and I was impressed by the quality of the new single living accommodation for new recruits to the Navy. There was slight concern that because the new accommodation is en suite, there is a danger that the young ratings will just go to their rooms of an evening, so bullying and harassment may go undetected. Does my hon. Friend agree that commanding officers will have to take on board and recognise that? Although the new accommodation is much better for the ratings, commanding officers have to recognise that such a problem could occur.
Like my hon. Friend, I have visited a number of single living accommodation units in recent months, and I was very impressed by their quality and standard. I have also talked through the issue with commanding officers. For instance, I have discussed with regimental sergeant majors how we can ensure that protection, advice and training are given to look after our young recruits. She may have noticed that the adult learning inspectorate recently concluded that substantial improvements had been made everywhere, and that there were some marked achievements. It described our achievements as
“something of a triumph of focused effort to resolve serious problems.”
A tremendous amount of effort and time have gone into ensuring that we deal with bullying and look after our new recruits. The living accommodation in the new facilities that we have put in place is one way of doing so.
This evening, “Panorama” will show a programme about a huge increase in soldiers going absent without leave from active service. If that is the case, does it have something to do with bullying, or are our servicemen being stretched too far and not receiving the medical back-up that they need?
I totally rebut any such allegations. In fact, there has been a decrease in the past few years in the number of people going absent without leave. The latest figures are lower than they were seven years ago, and there is strong support for people who have developed mental health problems in the armed forces, on the bases and elsewhere. Some of the evidence shows that a key reason for members of the armed forces going absent without leave is relationship issues. In my surgery on Saturday, I met someone who had been in that position and wants to rejoin the Army—that was exactly the position in which they found themselves. That is how many of the issues arise. The support is there, and there is a welfare line that people can contact, so I reject and rebut the allegations completely.
The hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) is clearly not aware of the excellent provision for a service complaints commissioner in the Armed Forces Act 2006. Will my hon. Friend the Minister tell me when that office will be set up? I have tabled written questions on the issue, but because of the snail’s pace at which the Department answers questions, I have yet to receive a reply.
Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that while of course there is no place for bullying and discrimination, it is nevertheless a fact that those young men and women, who are covering themselves in immense distinction under circumstances of great difficulty in Iraq and Afghanistan, can do so because they go through a very tough and robust training programme, which is designed to prepare them for what they are likely to meet if they have to go on active service? Will he therefore be very careful, and not be seduced in any way by the siren voice of the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), whose talk is of a kind unknown to the armed forces, which want to get on with it and do the job that they know they need to do, and be trained to do it.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. Clearly, we have to have robust and challenging training, because of the nature of operations and service that our armed forces have to undertake. Again, I have visited a number of training establishments in the six months I have been in this job. I have been impressed both by the robustness and the challenges of the training for recruits, and by welfare support and support generally, given the issues that recruits may encounter. I completely accept the point made by the hon. Gentleman—we need robust and challenging training, but we must put procedures in place to make sure any complaints can be dealt with and that people are comfortable, if they suffer any difficulties, with the system for making a complaint.