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Armed Forces (Prevention of Discrimination) Bill

Volume 574: debated on Friday 24 January 2014

Second Reading

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I want some guidance regarding the question of where the money will come from following the loss of the short-selling case at the European Court of Justice. Will it come from estimates or otherwise? The Government are now obliged to pay all the costs and, despite predictions, the amount of money in question will be substantial. The Government’s case has been completely dismissed and they have had costs awarded against them. I just wonder where the money will come from.

The hon. Gentleman poses his question as a point of order to the Chair and I suppose the direct answer is that I do not know. Thank goodness it is not a matter for the Chair. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is not a point of order, but he is very thorough and assiduous in pursuing such matters. I say without fear of contradiction that he will have other opportunities—nay, that he will create other opportunities—to pursue his point, but that will not happen during today’s sitting.

I call Thomas Docherty to move the Second Reading of his private Member’s Bill.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak—I hope relatively briefly—about an important issue. As I am sure hon. Members are aware, this is my second attempt to change the law on the protection our society offers to members of the armed services, including the reserves and veterans, as well as their families.

I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), to her place. To begin on a consensual note, she has a very hard act to follow in her role, because her predecessor, the Minister for the Armed Forces, cares deeply about armed forces and their welfare. I think that the whole House congratulates him on his new role. I hope that the hon. Lady and I will continue the debate in the same manner that he and I finished it at approximately this time last year.

We are all delighted to see the Minister in her place. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is slightly surprised, as I am, to see her there, because from my reading of it, the Bill appears to be more a criminal justice one than an armed forces one. What are his thoughts on which Minister should respond to this debate?

I think that the hon. Gentleman is on occasion slightly closer to the Government than I am, so he is better placed to speculate about which Minister should reply. Perhaps the hon. Lady will pick up that point when she speaks.

I hope that the House will unite on the issue. I very much welcome the constructive way in which hon. Members on both sides of the House have approached the subject not just today, but during the past 18 months. Of course there are times when we have different perspectives on the future of our armed forces and on how they should best be deployed and equipped. However, I hope that the whole House will agree on one point—that we owe a special duty to the brave men and women who risk their lives defending our freedoms and our rights. I very much welcome the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), to his place, which is a welcome sign of my party’s commitment on this important issue. I think that the whole House recognises that we owe a very special debt to those who risk their lives abroad to defend our freedoms in ensuring that they receive, as they deserve, the full shield of Government protection when they return home.

I will not repeat what I said last year, but I want to talk briefly about the first two clauses. Clause 1, which would amend the Criminal Justice Act 2003—the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) has already mentioned criminal justice—simply says that an assault on a member of the armed forces or their family that is motivated by their service to our country should be treated as an aggravated offence.

The House will recall that the noble Lord Ashcroft, who I suspect is in the other place—I understand that a minor issue is being considered at that end of the Building—carried out a survey, with the support of the Ministry of Defence, of some 9,000 serving personnel across the three armed forces in 2012. Some quite astonishing and, dare I say, horrific figures came out of that survey. About 5% of members of our armed forces reported that they or their family had suffered physical or attempted physical assault during the previous five years, while 18% or 19% of them reported that they had been the victim of verbal abuse in that period. I am sure we can all think of the type of abuse that, regrettably, is hurled by a mindless minority at members of our armed forces, and I will cite one example that my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling might also refer to.

A few years ago the Royal Anglian regiment came back, I think in 2010, for its homecoming parade, and an extremist organisation called Muslims Against Crusades organised an attack on that parade, which I think crossed the line between free speech and intimidation. The survey by Lord Ashcroft also reported that almost one in five members of the armed forces have been refused service in shops, pubs and clubs for being members of the armed forces, and clause 2 of the Bill covers that issue.

The hon. Gentleman said earlier, if I heard him correctly, that he was trying to extend the law to cover somebody who was, or was presumed to be, a service person in the course of their duties—or along those lines. I wonder where the Bill refers to that, because it states simply

“the victim being, or being presumed to be, a service person,”

without any qualification. He seemed to be adding a qualification to his remarks that I cannot see in the Bill, and I wonder whether he can clarify that.

I expect the hon. Gentleman was wistfully thinking about all the times he has supported his Government, and he therefore misheard what I said earlier on. This measure is not about people who are carrying out their duties, but about those who are members of the armed forces. If he will indulge me, I will explain that briefly as I do not wish to detain the House.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on promoting the Bill, and I am sure the whole House will support it. In a small number of cases a member of the armed forces might go into a shop and be refused access because they are wearing a uniform, which I think is outrageous. It is only a few years since the armed forces have started to wear a uniform again. I remember when they were encouraged not to wear their uniforms in Northern Ireland, and it is welcome for the point to be clarified. People should not verbally abuse our armed forces, or have the right to refuse them entry.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and the House will want to pay tribute to his work championing the armed forces in Scotland. He served on the Defence Committee for a number of years, and has taken a keen interest in his local barracks at Glencorse.

It might help if I give a couple of examples of what we are talking about.

The hon. Gentleman was right about what he said earlier, and the qualification he referred to—which I mistook—is someone being a member of the armed forces. Nobody disagrees with any of that sentiment, but I wonder where the Bill refers specifically to the fact that the abuse is happening because someone is a member of the armed forces. I cannot see that in the Bill. I understand that that is its purpose, but I cannot see where it states that specifically.

If the hon. Gentleman looks, for example, at clause 1(a), (b), (c) and indeed (d), “service person” is mentioned repeatedly. I want to make a bit of progress because otherwise there is a danger that we could be perceived as trying to slow the progress of this important Bill.

We all saw with horror the events that took place in summer last year in Woolwich, and I am sure the whole House was in a state of revulsion at what happened. That is an extreme example, but later in the summer there was a lot of media interest in the Bill, and the BBC made a series of case studies as part of a day covering the issue of discrimination against the armed forces. The number of anecdotal examples that service personnel had suffered—although not on that same extreme level—was astonishing.

There seems to be a potential distinction between what happened in Woolwich, which was clearly an act of murder and terrorism that was prosecuted under existing legislation, and discrimination legislation. It seems slightly dangerous to muddle criminal justice legislation and discrimination legislation. Will the hon. Gentleman please clarify what the link is between Woolwich and the legislation he is proposing?

If the hon. Gentleman shows a little forbearance, he will see where I am going with the argument.

A number of examples were cited. In the interests of making progress today and not getting bogged down, I will not talk about them all, but I want to mention one specific case. A young soldier from Bolton—coincidentally, he was also called Lee—phoned in to a Radio 5 Live programme on the morning of the BBC’s day of coverage on the issue. He said that he had returned from a tour in Afghanistan for a couple of weeks of well-deserved rest and recuperation and to see his family. It was the first time in three months that he had been home from deployment. He got off the train at Bolton quite late on the Saturday evening. He was in his uniform and had his bags with him. He was set upon by four or five drunken yobs. When the police caught them, the reason they gave for the assault was that they wanted to prove “how hard they were”. Those five brave yobs had attacked one soldier going about his business, having returned from service. I hope that answers, to an extent, the question the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) asked. While we see the attack in Woolwich as the most extreme and horrific example, there are examples reported every month.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State shakes her head. I would be grateful if, when she replies, she sets out why she so adamantly opposes providing support to members of our armed forces and protecting them from that kind of attack.

I was not shaking my head because of any desire not to give our armed services personnel all the support and protection they require; I was shaking my head because four or five yobs setting upon a soldier in order to prove, in the hon. Gentleman’s words, how hard they are is certainly not in the same category as the appalling murder of Drummer Rigby, or indeed in the same category as discrimination. I know that I am a lawyer, but those are different jurisprudential matters and there is a real danger, especially with this type of legislation, of confusing the issues. I will explain that later in my speech, but I wanted to set the record straight that I was not shaking my head for the reason that was alleged, but because I disagree that we can liken four yobs trying to show how hard they are and discrimination against armed forces personnel.

I am grateful to the Minister for that attempt to clarify her position. I hope that she will have another stab at it later on.

The key point is that such attacks are too common, and that is unacceptable to this House and to the country, as I know from the feedback I have had not only from my constituents, but from the number of people who have contacted me, particularly since the summer. Indeed, there are people in the House service who have told me only this week how delighted they are to see the Bill coming forward. It is about sending a clear signal that we stand with those who risk their lives for our country to protect our freedoms and that it is unacceptable to attack, physically or verbally, a member of the armed forces because of that service.

I do not wish to try to take the Minister’s argument apart just yet—I will hear what she has to say first—but I suspect that on this occasion the Ministry of Defence, building on her point, will say that it is very difficult to look into somebody’s mind. With the greatest respect to her, this is an amendment to an existing criminal justice Act. Actually, the hon. Member for Shipley makes a valid point about this being a criminal justice matter. If the Minister wishes to go to the Library and get out the Hansard report from 2003, she will see that the debate was had then about how in principle to go about determining the motivation. The key point is that the Bill is a simple amendment of that existing principle. The Minister—and I forgive her for being a lawyer, as I am sure the whole House does—knows that it is the job of lawyers to prosecute and make their case. It will be a matter for the Crown Prosecution Service to set out why the motivating factor was the fact that the victim was in uniform rather than a general disagreement or some other factor.

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that even if questioning motivation is bad criminal justice law in the first place, there would be no harm in extending the provision to the armed forces? If the question of motivation applies in other areas, it is only reasonable to extend it to this category. The previous debate covered motivation and that is not at issue today. What is at issue is the category of people included.

I am incredibly grateful to the hon. Gentleman because he has, as ever, made my argument more successfully. The onus is now on the Ministry of Defence. I am certain that the Minister does not dispute the validity of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, and I am sure that she and her Department are full supporters of the principles it contains. The only issue before us today, therefore, is whether the protection it gives to specific other groups should be extended to members of the armed forces.

It is almost a year since the Second Reading of a similar Bill in the previous Session. Does the hon. Gentleman have any specific examples of discrimination against a member of our armed forces, in his constituency or that have been brought to his attention by others, that have happened in the intervening year?

The hon. Gentleman leads me on to the point that I was about to make. I have mentioned physical assault already, but clause 2 would extend the prohibition on discrimination to what are colloquially called “trade and sales” issues. For example, a pub, restaurant or shop cannot refuse to serve a member of the armed forces simply because they are a member of the armed forces. Again, this is not about whether it is possible for lawyers to make a case on motivation, because the clause would amend an existing Act, on which very smart lawyers have already built cases successfully. This is a debate about whether the principle should be extended.

The work by Lord Ashcroft, carried out with Ministry of Defence support, reported the problem, but I also have two specific examples that happened relatively recently. The first was in Edinburgh, so not far from my constituency. The warship HMS Edinburgh was in dock in Leith to receive the freedom of the city in a civic ceremony at the city chambers. At the end of the ceremony, a group of crew members, in their dress uniforms, visited a pub called the Ensign Ewart. I do not know whether you are familiar with that pub from your visits to Edinburgh, Madam Deputy Speaker—[Interruption.] I can assure the House that it is a delightful watering hole and the type of place that Madam Deputy Speaker might visit during her frequent visits to Scotland.

The group of young sailors, in their dress uniforms, visited that pub in the middle of the day having just received the freedom of the city. The irony that the pub is named after one of the heroes of the Napoleonic conflicts is not lost on me, and I am sure that the House can guess what happened next: the landlord refused to serve them because they were members of the Royal Navy. The city council and most people in Edinburgh were indignant. The Edinburgh Evening News, the local daily newspaper, ran a huge campaign saying it was absolutely ridiculous and an embarrassment to Scottish hospitality, which I know the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) enjoyed a few years ago in central Fife. That is one good example of the ridiculousness of the situation.

The hon. Gentleman appears agitated. I think he is trying to get my attention. Of course, I will give way.

That is exactly the point I am coming to. The landlord said that the sailors were in uniform and therefore likely to cause trouble. I think the House will agree that that is absolutely absurd. Our young men and women serving in the Royal Navy, wearing dress uniform, in the middle of the day, when entirely sober, are not likely to cause trouble. The House will think that an absurd and ludicrous argument, and it goes to some of the prejudices regrettably still facing members of our armed forces.

On this point, the previous Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir David Richards, made some valid points a couple of years ago. He said that our country was undergoing a cultural change and that the perception of our armed forces was changing. I am sure that a few years ago there was the perception that groups of young squaddies or officers were likely to cause trouble. The service chiefs and the chain of command have worked phenomenally hard— [Laughter.] The Minister seems to be chuntering something about this being ridiculous. If she wants to explain what she thinks is ridiculous about the debate, I would be happy to give way. I think this has been a good and thoughtful debate and I regret that she is not approaching it in the manner—

I am sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the conversation between me and my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) had nothing to do with the hon. Gentleman’s speech.

Order. I am grateful to the Minister for being so frank, but it is not quite in order to have conversations not pertaining to the speech by the Member who has the Floor, although we understand that the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) is good at making the House laugh from time to time.

I will give way one last time, but then I want to wrap this up, because this is an important debate and I do not want it to appear that there is filibustering by either side.

Given that this example from Edinburgh is clearly absolutely central to the hon. Gentleman’s argument, it would be good, in terms of the policy implications and what the House can do to support the armed forces, to try and understand what exactly is going on and to get a bit deeper into this question. On the surface, it looks a bit bizarre. Here is a publican clearly keen to make some money and who normally would take people in. What exactly is the nature of the prejudice? He said they were in uniform, but can we get a bit deeper into this? What is it that makes a publican turn down sober people in uniform in the middle of the day? Unless we understand that, it will be difficult to come up with a policy solution.

I shall explain very clearly. The publican’s argument is that these personnel will cause trouble, which is an absurd argument to put forward. I am sure that the Minister and I will agree that there is no reason to expect that men and women who are proud to be wearing their uniform at a civic event will cause trouble. The Bill is narrowly drawn—I am grateful to the redoubtable Kate Emms for her assistance, as ever, in drafting it—and very clear: it would amend existing legislation. Under the Equality Act 2010, a publican can still turn down somebody if they are drunk or if they have a genuine reason to believe they are likely to cause disruption. I stress, again, that this is not a debate about whether there should be exemptions under the 2010 Act, but whether those exemptions should be extended to cover members of the armed forces.

I thank my friend—he is my friend—for giving way. I support him totally. When soldiers, sailors or airmen go out in uniform, particularly dress uniform, they are under a remit to behave in an exemplary way. By wearing the uniform, those boys and girls go out knowing that they are representing their unit, and there is no way, normally, that they would get drunk.

The hon. Gentleman—who, of course, gave his service to the country for 30 or 40 years —has made a compelling point, on which I hope the House will reflect. As a member of the Defence Committee, he has taken a close interest in this issue, and has championed me and supported my aims. He is entirely right: as the Minister would surely agree, it is ridiculous for a publican to say, “These young men and women in dress uniform are going to cause trouble.” As I have said, the Bill amends an existing Act. Safeguards already exist to enable a shop owner, publican or restaurateur to turn down someone’s custom if there is a genuine fear of trouble. All that we seek to do is extend the umbrella of protection to members of the armed forces.

When, nearly a year ago, the hon. Gentleman withdrew exactly the same Bill, he said that he looked forward to working with my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), the present Minister for the Armed Forces, who responded to that debate. Will he tell us what negotiations or discussions have taken place since then?

I was in two minds about whether to mention this, and it is with some regret that I do so now. If I were being charitable to the Department, I would say that it had not entirely fulfilled the expectations that were raised at approximately this time last year. The hon. Gentleman was present at the time, and made a thoughtful contribution to the debate.

The Minister and his officials undertook to look into the issue, and to include their conclusions in the 2013 Armed Forces Covenant annual report. Earlier this year, during defence questions, I asked whether a Minister would meet me, but although I was given assurances, and although I chased the matter up several times, no such meeting, either with a Minister or with officials, was forthcoming. I find that very disappointing. Moreover, the 2013 report—which is, of course, available in the Vote Office—makes no mention of any study building on the work of Lord Ashcroft.

I should be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the matter in greater detail. However, page 54 of the report deals with precisely this issue of discrimination against members of the armed forces.

It is true that there is a passing reference to Lord Ashcroft on page 54, but, with the greatest respect, it does not meet my expectation that Ministers would look into how widespread the practice was, although a clear undertaking to that effect was given last year. It merely restates the officials’ existing position. There is no examination of how often discrimination takes place, how widespread it is, or what types of discrimination are involved. Let me read the offending two sentences to the House:

“Our view is that, in the last year or so, the extent of public knowledge and sympathy for the Armed Forces has continued to grow—aided by the Community Covenant and the new Corporate Covenant. We therefore continue to believe that education, rather than legislation, is the key to eradicating the kind of behaviour that we all abhor.”

That is all motherhood and apple pie, but it does not meet the undertaking that was given last year to look at the Ashcroft report in detail and to follow it up. There is no mention of HMS Edinburgh, and no mention of any of the other instances of which we have heard from all over the country. The MOD claims that the figures cited by Lord Ashcroft—it is not for me to question the veracity of Lord Ashcroft’s figures—are not the whole picture, but no evidence is presented to show that those figures are wrong. There are no facts to back up the MOD’s assertions.

To finish on a consensual note, let me say that I do take the Minister at her word. I accept that she believes that that protection is sufficient, and I will take up her generous offer and meet her to discuss how to take this matter forward, but, 12 months on, this issue continues to be a problem. This is not a debate about how one measures the motivation. That is covered by the two Acts in 2003 and 2010. This is not about “Would the Crown Prosecution Service have an ability to demonstrate this in the courts?” That is already covered in the debates that took place a decade or so ago. This is a debate about whether we in this House believe that members of our armed forces and their families who risk their lives to protect our freedoms deserve to be given the greatest level of protection.

I commend this Bill to the House, and I look forward to it receiving a speedy passage.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) on introducing a Bill that obviously reflects a deep intuition, a deep sense of respect for the military, and a deep desire to show the public admiration for the military for the service they provide and the sacrifices they make. So I begin by acknowledging that the Bill has been introduced with the best of intentions and to reflect that public respect.

I also want to say that discrimination legislation can, in the right place and at the right time, make a very useful contribution to society. It can be difficult, is often controversial, and has been a huge problem over the last 50 or 60 years, but, in the right place and at the right time, discrimination legislation can be hugely important. However, what I hope briefly to say is that unfortunately I do not believe, notwithstanding the hon. Gentleman’s good intentions and the importance of showing respect for the military, that discrimination legislation is the correct way of addressing this problem.

There are three reasons why: the first is to do with the inherent nature of discrimination legislation; the second is to do with the other forms of policy measures we can take to support the military and veterans without having to invoke discrimination legislation; and the third is the more complex and deeper issue of the kinds of values and attitudes that would be encouraged by introducing discrimination legislation, in particular the fact that it would begin to portray soldiers and veterans in the guise of victims, which would be very dangerous for our public policy relationship with the military in general.

There are four major issues around discrimination legislation that need to be addressed, notwithstanding the fact that discrimination legislation has been useful. The first of them is the complexity of discrimination legislation. It is extremely difficult and complex to operate. We get in trouble with it all the time in the courts on any number of issues. The second is the problem of futility: the number of cases in which discrimination legislation actually turns out to be futile because it does not address the problem concerned. The third is the problem of perversity: the way in which discrimination legislation of the wrong sort can in fact have a negative impact on a whole series of elements in society. The fourth is what I call the problem of jeopardy: the way in which discrimination legislation can in fact rebound on the very group it is attempting to protect and actually increase prejudice.

This is not an argument against discrimination legislation in general. It is simply an argument that it should be done only in the most specialised and careful circumstances. Discrimination legislation in general, although controversial, has been hugely successful. Probably one of the greatest contributions our society has made—one of the things I hope we will be remembered for in the future—is the introduction of legislation protecting people on the grounds of race, gender, disability and age. We must remember that that is not a small thing. There was a time in this country when it was legal for a landlady of a bed and breakfast to put up a sign saying, “No blacks admitted”; when women in this country could be paid three-quarters of the amount that men were paid; and when so-called public bars could exclude people on the basis of their gender or race and were not open to them.

As Lord Hoffmann said in justifying discrimination legislation, the basic idea that similar cases should be treated in a similar fashion and that different cases should be treated differently is a basic axiom of rationality. It is based on two fundamental principles: the fundamental principle of equality, which is the idea that people should be treated as ends and not means to ends; and the fundamental principle of rationality, which is that only relevant characteristics should decide how somebody is treated. However, the problem is that although we have made huge progress in those areas, legislation is a last resort. It is an incredibly complex and frequently counter-productive form of law to introduce, so much so that it should be limited to cases only where there is such a deep-seated prejudice extended over so many centuries that there is no alternative measure open to us. If we were to introduce such legislation in relation to the armed forces, we would have to go through a legal nightmare over the succeeding decades in trying to work our way through such cases.

Broadly speaking, discrimination legislation—I am not a lawyer—is based on five grounds. We need to determine the ambit of the legislation; the prescribed ground of the legislation; that unequal treatment has taken place; an analogous situation; and exactly what the justification is. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife will point out that, in relation to the armed forces, at least three of those measures are relatively straightforward, including the ambit of the definition in the case of the armed forces. In other words, is this discrimination in employment or in private life? The prescribed grounds in this case could be, although this will be more difficult to define, in relation to gender or disability, and they involve a relatively straightforward determination of what somebody’s gender is or what their ethnic background is. He could argue that it should be reasonably straightforward to determine whether or not someone is a member of the armed forces or has served in the armed forces. Unequal treatment requires the definition that this individual who comes from these particular prescribed grounds and operates in this particular ambit has been treated unlike someone else would have been treated in—and this is the fourth condition—an analogous situation and, fifthly, that that is unjustified.

We can all see again and again—we only have to open a copy of any newspaper—that hard cases and bad law have led to a situation in which discrimination legislation appears to go in the face of what has been normal practice. Hard cases will emerge again and again, and we have seen it. We can see it in things that everybody will have discussed in this House over the years. I am talking about, for example, whether or not it is possible for a Church of England school or a Jewish school to discriminate on the basis of religion; for a single-sex school to discriminate on the basis of gender; or for the police or the immigration authorities to discriminate on the basis of Roma ethnicity—that was a Supreme Court judgment. If we were to define the armed forces as one of those categories, a whole series of cases would begin to emerge in case law in which anybody who served in the armed forces or was a veteran of the armed forces would begin to be able to claim discrimination in everything from education through to employment. Importantly, it would not be possible simply to limit discrimination legislation—we would be struck down in Strasbourg—to admission to a public house.

I am very clear that the legislation applies not just to public houses, but to any commercially procured service. The hon. Gentleman seems to suggest that the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and the Equality Act 2010 are flawed. Will he be clear that what he is referring to is not the principle of discrimination law? As I understand it, his problem is that he does not think that those laws should be extended to our armed forces. Is that his central argument?

My central argument is that a general protection exists for all citizens. The general principle that we do not create special categories of citizens is central to our notion of equality. We should only create special categories of citizens in the most extreme hard cases. My argument, to get to the nub of it, is that there have been over the centuries such extreme examples of sexism, chauvinism and discrimination on the basis of disability that despite the general principle of equality, and despite our general objection to special treatment, there are certain categories where that difficult decision has been correctly made, landing us in a nightmare of complexity but done for the public good. Including an individual’s occupation among the prescribed grounds for discrimination would be a very serious error and would open the floodgates to huge complexity.

The hon. Gentleman must have heard my opening remarks, in which I said that the statistics from the noble Lord Ashcroft, produced with the support of the Ministry of Defence in the largest ever study of attitudes to and within the three services, show that one in five members of the armed forces has been refused service and one in four has been the victim of physical or verbal assault. If the hon. Gentleman can point out to me another example of a type of employment where that goes on, I want to hear it. Otherwise, I fear that he is not making a coherent argument.

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, that is not exactly the point I am making. I do not deny that members of the armed forces can be treated unfairly, nor do I deny that because they are going somewhere in uniform they are likely to be identified as a special category and treated unfairly as such. My argument is based not on the notion that there are no examples of unfair treatment but on the general assumption that expanding discrimination legislation is a very dangerous thing for this House to do. It is not simply that as a Conservative I feel that we already produce too much legislation and that we feel the effects of excessive legislation, but that extending discrimination legislation, in particular, should be done only in the most extreme situations.

On that point, and in support of the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty), did the landlord in this particular case act illegally by discriminating against a group of people who went in to his pub to have a drink? Did he break the law by saying no?

A whole body of case law exists exactly to resolve such issues of discrimination of any sort that we have not to date felt a need to resolve. Discrimination can already happen in the United Kingdom against people who are not in protected categories. It is possible, for example, to take legal redress as a white male former member of the armed forces. My hon. Friend himself would be able to seek legal redress in many situations in which he felt that he had been unfairly treated. The particular question of the rights of publicans to admit or not admit people into their establishments is another area of case law.

This is a question for the Edinburgh courts; it is not for me to determine what the publican did. My sense, as regards the publican’s right to do what he did, is that in this case the publican’s argument was not the argument that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife has suggested; the publican’s argument was not that he believed that the people in uniform were going to cause trouble, but that he had had a lot of experience of the other people in the pub causing trouble and attacking people in uniform when they came in. In other words, he believed that it was an exacerbating factor and he was in no way criticising the people in uniform. He was trying to protect against violence breaking out in his pub on the basis of experience of that happening in the past. Unless the hon. Gentleman has a deep understanding of exactly how much violence has happened in that pub and why the publican, who would have an interest in trying to generate income from alcohol sales, excluded those people, it would be difficult to judge in this case.

I lived in Edinburgh for years, and I know this pub particularly well. I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman was in the Chamber for the start of my speech because, as I said, I know this pub; it is a nice pub in a nice area. It is not a rough pub, but a normal pub. The hon. Gentleman must have missed the start of my speech because the point he is making has been covered.

The hon. Gentleman is very kind to suggest that I missed the start of his speech; I did not. I was here for the entirety of his eloquent speech.

To be honest, I do not think we should get dragged down into discussing this particular pub; this issue is a bit of a rabbit hole, and I would like to close it down. But there still seems to be a bit of an issue. On the one hand, the hon. Gentleman is presenting the pub as a wonderful pub that has absolutely no problems at all; on the other, we have the slightly imponderable question of why the publican, who presumably wishes to generate income from his pub, did not allow these people in. It seems that there is an issue that the hon. Gentleman needs to address about the pub.

However, that is not my point. My point is a bigger one about the kinds of things for which we introduce discrimination legislation. Hard cases make bad law. It would be unfortunate if what happened in a single pub in Edinburgh, or indeed many scores of times up and down this country, were to lead to the introduction of something almost unprecedented: to add, suddenly and out of nowhere, an entirely new category based on occupation to the broad categories of inherited characteristics—gender, race, sexuality, age and disability. That could be the beginning of something that all of us in the House would regret.

Why do I feel that? It is not only because of the complexity of the legislation that would be introduced, which I have touched on, but because of three additional points: futility in legislation; jeopardy in legislation; and counter-productive legislation.

When I talk about futility in legislation, particularly in relation to discrimination, I mean whether introducing this form of discrimination legislation would address the basic problem. Criticisms have been made of all discrimination legislation during the last 40 years; it has frequently been said that the law may not be the best way to address deep-seated cultural prejudices or inherited attitudes.

I will be concrete. Addressing discrimination against the armed forces should be attempted in the first place through policy, by ensuring that the correct social attitudes are promoted in schools and through how Government and public policy makers talk about the armed forces, so that we address exactly what the prejudices are. If there is an existing prejudice that members of the armed forces have certain characteristics, it is incumbent on the many armed forces charities—wealthy and well-supported charities, which enjoy a huge groundswell of positive public opinion—and the Ministry of Defence, as well as the regimental associations, to try to establish what those prejudices are and to address them.

My second point is about jeopardy. Introducing new discrimination legislation imposes a huge element of cost. That cost was justified in relation to gender, race, disability, sexuality and age. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to consider the costs of legislation to deal with employment discrimination. He would need to reflect on the exact implications for a small or medium-sized business that employed somebody from the armed services, and for the human resources department of a company that did the same.

The hon. Gentleman will find—this is central to my argument—that in Strasbourg and at the Supreme Court the attempt to create a special category of occupation that is determined as an object of discrimination in relation to, for example, public houses and bed and breakfasts, cannot stop there. It will be extended immediately to employment law.

If the hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene on that point, I would like to hear why he believes that such legislation would not eventually be extended to employment law, once the basic philosophical argument on discrimination had been accepted.

I know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you will shortly rule that there is a danger that the hon. Gentleman and I are going out of order. However, I will respond specifically to his last point—we covered that issue in the Defence Reform Bill in this Session, and amendments about it were rejected. We cannot have similar amendments in the same Session. Also, the one thing does not logically follow the other in the way that he suggested.

Having said that, I know that if I continue to debate this issue, Madam Deputy Speaker, you will rule both the hon. Gentleman and me out of order very soon.

On the contrary, both hon. Gentlemen are in order as they deal with this narrow Bill in, if I may say so, an intellectual way that the House appreciates.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Let me expand on this a little for the hon. Gentleman. This is a question of proscribed grounds for discrimination, which is one of the five aspects of discrimination legislation that I set out. One needs to ask what the proscribed ground for discrimination is, and the Bill would add to gender, sexuality and disability the ground of occupation in the military. If the law accepts philosophically that there is an additional category in the proscribed grounds for discrimination, it would not be possible—no judge would consider this possible—to limit that simply to the provision of hospitality and not extend it to employment law, because the precedent of a proscribed ground of occupation would have been created.

As I said, many of these arguments were covered during our consideration of the Defence Reform Bill, when I think that the Minister was a member of the Defence team. That Bill includes measures on employment discrimination, but things have not gone the other way. The Ministry of Defence is confident that the Bill’s measures on anti-reservist discrimination will not roll on in the way the hon. Gentleman describes. Additionally, the Scottish Parliament is working on measures regarding the assault of NHS employees, but it is confident that they will not fall foul of the Strasbourg Court. The hon. Gentleman’s argument does not hold up because there is precedent in the United Kingdom of cases on which the European Court has not required that a provision covers everything.

With respect, I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. We might not have time to explore this fully, but I shall try to make myself clearer.

There is a basic problem in making a new extension to discrimination legislation. All the grounds in that legislation are extremely complex. It has been difficult to operate the legislation over the past 50 years, but doing so has been absolutely necessary because of centuries of prejudice and abuse against women and racial groups. The sort of stuff that happened was so horrifying that the House felt that it had no alternative but to introduce an extremely difficult and clumsy form of law that has produced a whole series of consequences—often futile or perverse, and even counter-productive, in that prejudice increased against the group that we were attempting to protect.

I promise that this will be my last intervention on the hon. Gentleman. He talks about gender, but there are still men-only golf clubs today—I know that the Minister and I are both appalled by that—despite years of anti-discrimination legislation covering one or both genders. His argument breaks down because some extensions of protection have not led to intended or unintended consequences.

The hon. Gentleman is producing an argument against his Bill because he seems to be saying that there are examples of legislation that was futile. Does not his example of the golf club suggest that, despite the existence of legislation, there was a minimal impact on the group to be protected?

There is a danger that we will run out of time, but the Equality Act 2010 was not designed to apply to golf clubs, and there has been no successful challenge in the European Court to get it extended to golf clubs. The Scottish Parliament is working on measures to deal with assaults on emergency workers, but that will not roll on to cover trade and sales. One cannot say that these things will automatically go forward. I am sure that clever lawyers such as the Minister could find creative ways of making their case about that, but so far the courts have not extended such legislation.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. May I perhaps make a little progress? Some of what the hon. Gentleman wishes to achieve could be achieved without discrimination legislation. Without getting into all the arguments on the appropriate ambit of legislation, unequal treatment, analogous circumstances, justification and prescribed categories, many other things could be done to achieve the same objectives. Importantly for the House, there is a fundamental distinction between what can be addressed through discrimination law and what can be addressed through sensitivity to context and culture. Saying that we do not wish to create a special category of soldiers or veterans who are treated differently from other citizens is not the same as saying that the House cannot come up with any policies that might provide more support for soldiers and veterans, that acknowledge the obligations that we owe them and the unique service they have performed, and that find concrete ways to help them.

I shall give an example that might interest the hon. Gentleman. Without introducing discrimination legislation, it is possible—the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), the shadow justice spokesman, has proposed this—to consider ways of working with military personnel and veterans in the criminal justice system without defining a proscribed category of discrimination. It might involve, for example, ensuring that a police officer is aware that someone they have arrested has served in the armed forces, not so that the police officer could give them lax or special treatment, or because they should somehow be immune from prosecution, but because awareness of their context or background could lead to more constructive engagement between them and the police officer. The same could be true in the prison system, with military mentors working with prisoners with a military background, so that they may be able to develop a more constructive rehabilitation programme. If the probation service paired ex-military probation officers with ex-military released prisoners, that might radically reduce the chance of reoffending. For example, in Buffalo, New York, where such a system has been applied, reoffending rates among veterans and soldiers have dropped to 0%, and across the United States the rate has dropped to 20%. That is not discrimination legislation or special treatment; it is an understanding of the context.

I appear to be losing the attention of the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife so I will move on to the final stage of my speech. We need to be careful about discrimination legislation for a third, more difficult reason, which is that—I appeal to my hon. Friend the Minister here—we should not begin to have an unrealistic attitude to our relationship with the armed forces. We must balance carefully showing respect for people’s sacrifice and service with realism. We cannot begin to create a sentimental context in which, through special treatment, by which I mean treatment that is not justified on the basis of people’s service or sacrifice, it is not possible for us to engage realistically with the military. What do I mean by that? This is important: the danger of this discrimination legislation, apart from the problems of complexity, futility and jeopardy, and apart from the fact that we have alternative policy solutions, is that it reflects a cultural attitude that, though understandable and admirable, is sometimes in danger of portraying soldiers and veterans as victims.

In other words, there is a danger of sentimentalising soldiers and believing that they need to be treated with kid gloves. More dangerous—this is particularly relevant in relation to how we deal with policy in Afghanistan and Iraq—is the idea that we should not criticise the armed forces and that they need such special treatment as to affect the job of this House, which is often to hold soldiers and generals vigorously and aggressively to account, to disagree with the policies that they propose, and sometimes to make an even more difficult decision to withdraw soldiers from combat notwithstanding the fact that there will be a huge public outcry demanding to know whether soldiers have died in vain. Putting forward soldiers as victims and talking about their sufferings can become very dangerous for the soldiers themselves and for the public policy process.

What we need, and what I am afraid this Bill goes against, is a realistic, respectful attitude towards the armed forces—not an attitude that treats them with kid gloves or suggests that they are suffering the form of discrimination from which minority ethnic groups, disabled groups and women in this country have suffered, but one that recognises their sacrifice and recognises that it can often be difficult to be a soldier or a veteran. It is an attitude that puts in place concrete, plausible policies—for example, in the criminal justice system—to help soldiers and veterans as they reintegrate into society; shows, through the forces charities, memorial days, poppy collections, the media, documentaries and the things that are said in this House, our immense admiration for the armed forces; and continues to improve this country’s cultural attitudes towards the armed forces, which, incidentally, have never been so positive. This is not the Victorian era when soldiers were treated with contempt; instead, the armed forces, as shown in every opinion poll, now constitute one of the single most respected and admired ingredients of our society, as they should be.

Introducing this legislation is exactly the wrong thing to do. It would prove to be a nightmare for us, opening the door to the introduction of other special occupational categories and involving us in complexity, futility, perversity and jeopardy. I worry that it reflects a sentimentalising of soldiers that also uses them as a means to a political end, and that it is an attempt to portray them as victims when they are in fact autonomous, independent, confident individuals capable of holding their own with anyone else in society. If they require special treatment from this House, it is not through anti-discrimination legislation but concrete, small, focused measures that can easily be introduced by the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Justice to the benefit of the public as a whole.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Would it be possible for the Leader of the House to be called to the House to explain the circumstances in which, as I understand it from the House of Lords, the European Union (Referendum) Bill is now, in effect, a dead parrot?

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman wishes to bring this news to the House and is using the mechanism of a point of order so to do, but this House has not, as yet, been informed of anything that has happened in the other place this morning. I am sure that the House will be informed in due course in the proper manner, and that when the news from the other end of the Palace reaches this end of the Palace, the necessary steps will be taken by the Ministers responsible.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) on bringing to the House this very important issue on which he has done an amazing amount of work. He deserves a great deal of credit for that, as does my predecessor, the former shadow Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy), who worked very hard with him on the matter.

I do not think there is any difference between any Members in this House in terms of the regard in which we all hold the armed forces. This has been a very good debate about how to ensure that the warm words and rhetoric that we all use, sincerely, are reflected in policies and in the legislation that we pass. It is in that context that I hope hon. Members will reflect on my remarks. The Minister, whom I know well, will understand and accept that.

The hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) made some important intellectual points. Sometimes when it is said that someone made a good intellectual argument the suggestion is that that somehow undermines the case, but I mean it as a compliment, because rushing through policy without giving it an intellectual context can result in legislation that is either not good or unclear.

The hon. Gentleman made some good arguments. I agree with him that, when dealing with particular issues in society, policy may be developed through education and debate as a means of changing attitudes that we think are wrong. He gave examples of some of the awful sexism and racism our society has seen, but, in order to change things, this House deemed it necessary not only to promote the sort of cultural change that he talked about, but to legislate to give effect to it. That is what this debate boils down to. We all agree that we can change practice through education, debate and encouraging people to reflect on their attitudes. We tell people, “It is wrong for you to act in this way,” in the hope that social pressure will change how they behave.

In my view, the majority of people respect members of the armed forces because they are in the armed forces. They do not need legislation to tell them to do that. However—this is where my view differs from that of the hon. Gentleman—sometimes educational policy and cultural change alone are not sufficient and need legislation to back them up and to lead society in the direction we want it to go. That is what the Bill does, in a narrow way. As the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) has said, of course we want attitudes to change, but at times we need legislation to give effect to that change. That is probably the point of difference between me and the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border.

It is important to say to the country and the public at large that we recognise—other Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife, have said this—that this country’s armed forces have never been as highly regarded as they are now. I hope this will not be out of order, Madam Deputy Speaker, but, having spoken to Members throughout the House, I think that was most reflected in the record attendances at the recent Remembrance day services. The turnout—if that is the appropriate word; perhaps “attendance” is better—including by very young people who understood the significance of what was happening, was a fantastic tribute to them all and spoke well of our society and communities. The coming together of people to reflect on services done and duties that will be done gave an opportunity for them to show the sort of patriotism that I think we all welcome and want to see. That is the context of this debate: the high regard people have for the armed forces, as demonstrated at the Remembrance day commemorations.

My hon. Friend’s point about Remembrance Sunday was certainly reflected in my constituency. I was also very proud to see such a strong turnout when the square in the heart of Corby was this year renamed the James Ashworth memorial square after our Victoria Cross hero, who was posthumously given that honour.

May I ask my hon. Friend to comment on the character of this debate? We recognise and it is good to acknowledge that most serving and former soldiers are strong and proud, and very capable and successful in their lives, but we all know from surgeries in our constituencies that people who have been in our armed forces at times find their lives very difficult for all sorts of reasons. I support the Bill because I believe that it could make an awful lot of difference to a small number of people who find civilian life very difficult.

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. Of course some members and former members of the armed services have the difficulties that he mentions, which we should reflect on and recognise in this debate. It was good to hear about the attendance of people at the Remembrance day event in Corby.

All of us agree about the high regard people have for our armed forces, both past and present. I support the Bill because legislation is needed to protect our armed forces, both past and present, in particular circumstances. The point of difference between the Minister and me is about how we do that.

May I say that it is very important to have a bipartisan approach to the Bill? I very much agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife about that. I say gently to the Minister, and perhaps she will reflect on this with her colleagues, that she is right to say that there is a paragraph about discrimination on page 54 of the Armed Forces Covenant annual report 2013—it states that the Government have reflected on the issues, but are not sure that legislation is the right way forward, as she will have read—but from the way in which the Minister for the Armed Forces responded to a similar debate a year ago, we all expected a little more than that. I say gently to the Minister that because the issue is so important, as today’s debate has shown, she should reflect with her colleagues on whether a more detailed response is needed.

My hon. Friend is entirely right, and I concur with the point he is making. Very clear indications were given to me and to hon. Members on both sides of the House that the MOD would question and look at Lord Ashcroft’s figures, and then put a “section” into the report about it. The MOD has neither put in such a section nor provided any evidence. I genuinely believe that if the MOD thinks that the figures are inaccurate, it needs to demonstrate why that is not supported by its own study.

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. The Minister has heard his and my remarks, so will she reflect on whether in next year’s annual report, or in the interim, a more detailed assessment can be made?

There is evidence that progress has been made on the military covenant. To go back to the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, I think that a cultural change is taking place. One thing that has happened is that there are more soldiers on the streets, which is good to see. I am interested in whether the hon. Member for Beckenham agrees. More soldiers as well as Air Force and Navy personnel—armed forces personnel—feel able, in many circumstances, to wear their uniforms in public. That is a positive thing of which we should all be proud.

I thank the shadow Secretary of State for saying that. I absolutely agree: I want to see many more people in uniform. I listened very carefully to the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), who is right and wrong. He is wrong because, as the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) suggested, this House should send a signal that we do not in any way still support the misconceptions produced by poems such as “If” and

“For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ Chuck him out, the brute!”

Despite the difficulties, which I accept exist, of legislating in some form, this House should say clearly to the nation, “Have respect for our armed forces.” That should be written into law, and I totally support the shadow Secretary of State’s position.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. It is good that more members of our armed forces feel able to wear their uniform, and that they are proud to do so and are accepted. That is part of the important cultural change that has taken place.

May I reflect a little on what my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) has just said? Sending a signal is a strange reason to introduce a highly complex form of discrimination legislation. Nobody in this House would disagree in any way that we should show immense respect for the military and do all we can culturally to enhance that. Does the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that discrimination legislation must be introduced on much more detailed and serious grounds than simply being a symbolic act that sends a signal?

Like the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) I both agree and disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Of course we should not introduce this measure just as a way of sending a signal, and we must have a reason for doing it other than symbolic purposes. In a minute, however, I will come to some of the evidence we have seen and why I think this is more than a symbolic gesture—yes, I regard this as a sign, but it is also necessary. That is where I and the hon. Member for Beckenham disagree with the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border. The issue is not about the regard in which anybody holds the troops, or any such thing; it is just a disagreement about how best to take forward the issue and deal with some of the things that we know occur.

The Minister will no doubt say that the previous Government had the opportunity to introduce this Bill in 2008. They did not, but it is fair to say that we all sometimes reflect on decisions that we did or did not make. After the past two or three years, and particularly after the evidence provided by Lord Ashcroft, we must clearly reflect on whether, in the light of new evidence, we should continue to hold our current position. The 2012 report, “The Armed Forces & Society”, described worrying incidents of verbal and physical abuse, and we must therefore reflect on that and consider whether further legislation is necessary.

There exists a body of evidence, including from the book by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), “Tommy this an’ Tommy that”, and the several things that have occurred that were mentioned previously—somebody who had been at a Remembrance day service in their uniform being refused service by Harrods and allegations of banks and building societies turning down mortgage applications. Such things have taken place and, with the example given by my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife about a pub in Edinburgh, some evidence suggests that we perhaps need to take action that backs the armed forces in legislation and makes the rhetoric in this House a reality.

I would like the House to reflect on a quote from Lord Ashcroft’s report, which I think sums up the situation and the reason for the Bill:

“Personnel often said their priority was not special recognition, but not to be disadvantaged in society because they were in the Forces.”

My hon. Friend is making a consensual speech. On the point about signals, the MOD has previously said that service chiefs have indicated no desire for this measure, but during my time on the Defence Committee and in my many visits to military establishments, and indeed when members of the armed forces come to this place, I am constantly being thanked by personnel who say, “You’re the MP bringing in that Bill. It’s great that someone’s doing it.” My hon. Friend is right to say that the Bill has been hugely welcomed by members of the armed forces who no longer wish to be discriminated against.

As I have said, it is really important to say to members of our armed forces, both past and present, that we respect what they have done, are doing and will do in future, and the Bill would make the rhetoric a reality. It would enshrine it in legislation. That is a really important signal.

Clause 1 would make an assault against a member of the armed forces an aggravated crime. In answer to the point made by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) on whether the Bill refers to armed forces personnel undertaking their duties, my reading of it indicates that that point is covered in clause 1(a), which refers to their

“status as a service person”.

That is where in the Bill membership of the armed forces is shown to be the important element with regard to an aggravated offence. That is the important point.

I say to the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border that of course this is a difficult area, but it is also difficult in some of the other areas in which discrimination legislation operates. Ultimately—I know that he knows this—that is why the Crown Prosecution Service makes decisions, which are sometimes very difficult, on whether prosecution is in the public interest and whether there is a reasonable prospect of a case reaching a conclusion. What we are saying is that the aggravated offence would be added to the list that already exists so that the CPS can take that into account when it makes those prosecuting decisions.

To use the hon. Gentleman’s phrase, I agree and disagree. Of course it is true that existing discrimination legislation is unbelievably complex and difficult to handle. However, that is a reason for not extending it further. Precisely because of the problems of application, it should remain absolutely focused on the most egregious, extreme and centuries-old cases of discrimination and should not be pushed into new categories.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s position, but we will have to agree to disagree, because I think that it is worth extending the discrimination legislation to allow an assault against a member of the armed forces because they are a member of the armed forces to be an aggravated offence. Of course, if we have anti-discrimination legislation, that does not mean—this might answer the point about being in a pub—that all the other laws that normally apply to people would not apply. For example, if somebody breaks the law by being drunk and disorderly, by fighting or by stealing, of course other laws apply, but we are specifically dealing with people being discriminated against simply because they are members of the armed forces.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again; he is being very generous. On the specific question of aggravating circumstances with regard to violent assault, it is difficult to understand how the hon. Gentleman would propose to limit it simply to members of the armed forces. It would be relatively easy for the House, and indeed for any judges or campaigners, to think of many other cases in which there could be an aggravated assault against an individual on the basis of their occupation, for example against a train conductor because they are an employee of a railway company, or against an individual because of their relationship to some aspect of the emergency services. Given that he is arguing that this extension to the armed forces would not open a floodgate of precedents for its application to many other restricted occupations, how does he expect to limit it and ensure that many other categories of aggravated assault will not be introduced as a result?

This House legislates for the country, and those who support the Bill are saying that we believe that laws on discrimination should be extended to members of the armed forces. If other categories or occupations are regarded by other hon. Members as needing the protection of the law, they will need to bring a Bill before Parliament to that effect. We are saying that legislation is necessary in respect of the armed forces.

The hon. Gentleman has put his finger on the nub of the problem. If this Bill would open the floodgates for every Member of Parliament to come forward with other restricted occupations that they wish to add to discrimination legislation, the basic idea of that legislation—which was to protect gender, race, disability and age—would be extended into specialised occupations. That would be very dangerous for the operation of the law.

That is the first thing that the hon. Gentleman has said that I fundamentally disagree with. It is the “dancing on the head of a pin” argument. Of course it is possible that that would happen, but would it actually happen? No, it would not. The House makes law sensibly and reasonably, notwithstanding one or two obvious examples.

Today, the House is being asked to consider whether the specific category of the armed forces should be included in legislation to prevent discrimination against them on the basis of their membership of the armed forces. I do not believe that that would open the floodgates to other occupations in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

I shall give a concrete example of what might occur. It is plausible that there could be thousands of assaults over a two-year period against employees of train companies. At present, we protect employees of train companies under existing legislation. If a conductor on a train is assaulted, they are protected under the legislation that also protects a soldier from being assaulted. But once the Bill has been passed, it would be relatively straightforward for people to try to address a scandal that emerged—which was a problem of occupation—through discrimination legislation rather than relying on the existing law.

As the hon. Gentleman says, that goes to the nub of the argument. Of course there are criminal laws that try to prevent people from being assaulted. The point that we are making is that assault should be an aggravated offence if it occurs simply because someone is a member of the armed forces. I think that would be a proportionate response by the House, and I do not believe that it would open the floodgates to other occupations.

Clause 2 would mean that armed forces personnel could not be discriminated against in the provision of goods and services simply as a result of their status, and similar arguments apply to the clause as applied to clause 1.

This has been an incredibly good debate on this hugely important issue. The issue between the two sides of the debate is not the regard in which the armed forces are held: we all hold them in high regard, as we have said. But I support my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife and others because we can change the legislation to ensure that we back our armed forces not only with rhetoric but by addressing problems they face. They face discrimination simply because they are members of the armed forces and the House needs to tackle that. We have the opportunity to do so today.

It is a genuine pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), who knows full well that I am a big fan of his. He made it clear today why I am such a fan, because he set out his case reasonably clearly and in a way that many of us could subscribe to. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty), who is a regular on a Friday. He pursues his agenda with vigour, and has done the same again today, and I do not doubt the sincerity of the case he makes. The shadow Minister made one of the most pertinent points when he said this was not about our regard for the armed forces. It goes without saying that we are all strong supporters of the armed forces, on both sides of the House; I am not aware of anybody who is not. The issue is whether the Bill is the right way to proceed.

Yes, I know Bradford West. It is my neighbouring constituency. I have not heard even the hon. Member for Bradford West (George Galloway) say anything against our armed forces. He might disagree with the conflicts in which they participate, but I have not heard my parliamentary neighbour say anything adverse about them—but that is for him to deal with.

In this debate, I generally come down on the side of my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), who I thought made an excellent speech, as he always does in this place. He made an excellent case and one to which I wholeheartedly subscribe. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who I rarely disagree with, and the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife said several times that the Bill was important in order to send a signal. My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border rightly picked up on that point. Yes, it is often important to send a signal about things we consider important, either individually or collectively, and that is often the purpose of our debates. What I question, and what I think my hon. Friend questions, is whether that is a sensible basis on which to pass a law. That is my issue with the Bill.

It might help if I clarify this point. Sending a signal is a valuable part of the Bill, but the simple hard facts, which the MOD has not been able to dispute, is that from Lord Ashcroft’s studies and our experiences as MPs, we know that one in four members of our armed forces has reported, through the study, that they have suffered discrimination. With that level of discrimination, it is not a matter of symbolism, but a need that requires action.

I am not sure I totally follow the hon. Gentleman’s logic. Of course we want to send our support to the armed forces; we all agree with that. For goodness’ sake, they put their lives on the line to defend our freedoms. I have no doubt either that members of the armed forces—he gave examples—have faced discrimination for being members of the armed forces. I do not quibble with that. Personally, I think that any attack on or discrimination against service personnel based simply on their being service personnel should be and would be wholeheartedly condemned by every right-thinking person not only in the House but in the country. Of course it would. I do not think anybody is disputing that for one minute.

If we follow the hon. Gentleman’s logic, however, we could name all sorts of categories of people who might say that their category has faced discrimination on many occasions, and it goes way beyond the already protected characteristics that my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border set out. I know lots of people who would say they had been discriminated against in the workplace because they were bald, fat or had ginger hair, or for all sorts of other reasons. I am sure that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife accepts that many people in those categories have said that from time to time they have faced discrimination that has been totally unfair, without merit and irrational. I am not sure whether he is suggesting that everybody who comes along and says, “We have faced discrimination at some point in the past,” should have their characteristic protected. Surely even he would not want to go that far.

Let me say first that I cannot imagine why anyone would ever discriminate against people with reddish hair, Madam Deputy Speaker—except, perhaps, out of jealousy.

If the hon. Gentleman can point to a category of people in which one in four has suffered physical or verbal assault or have been turned away from trade and sales outlets, I genuinely think that that should be looked into, but I suspect that he cannot name a single such category.

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman can prove beyond any doubt that people in any category have not been discriminated against. I suspect that no research has been done to ascertain whether people with the characteristics that I have mentioned have or have not experienced discrimination. It just so happens that the characteristic identified by him has been the subject of research by Lord Ashcroft—whose excellent polling activities I am sure we all welcome—and the hon. Gentleman knows about it for that reason. There may be other discrimination issues that we do not yet know about because no such polling has been carried out.

It may be worth looking at the statistics. My instinct tells me that employees of railway companies are more likely to suffer physical or verbal assault than members of the armed forces. That is just one example of another category.

My hon. Friend is entirely right. Indeed, I think that we could go somewhat further. We have probably all come across evidence of people working in jobcentres who have faced terrible abuse because they have had to turn someone down for a benefit. As I have said, we all appreciate the work done by our armed forces, but I struggle to understand why attacking someone for being a member of the armed forces—bad though that is—should necessarily be considered any worse than attacking someone simply for being a member of staff at a jobcentre who happened to implement a policy that he or she was employed to implement. Surely those attacks are equally unacceptable and equally unjustifiable.

Similarly, we hear of accident and emergency staff being subjected to terrible attacks and abuse on a regular basis, and I consider that to be as unacceptable and unjustifiable as any attack on someone simply for being a member of the armed forces. I cannot for the life of me understand why the hon. Gentleman wants to restrict himself to members of the armed forces. If he feels that a certain category of people should not be abused simply because of the role that they perform, surely he must want to extend that to those in all the other occupations I have mentioned. If he does not, I should like to know why. It seems to me that they, too, do a fantastic job in the public service, and should be recognised for that reason.

I do not think that I need probe my own logic. My position is absolutely clear. I have established that there is a systemic problem: evidence provided, with the support of the Ministry of Defence, shows that one in four members of our armed forces has suffered physical or verbal assault, or other forms of discrimination. The MOD has yet to provide any evidence to refute that. As I said, it promised last year to undertake a study, but has so far failed to do so.

We seem to be going round in circles, and I am trying to resist doing that, because I am sure we all want to hear from the Minister.

I have not yet heard anyone—including my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border—deny that people may well, on occasion, feel that they have been discriminated against or abused simply because of their membership of the armed forces. I have heard no one disagree with that premise as yet. The fact is, however—and this is what the hon. Gentleman does not seem to accept—that the same thing happens to plenty of other people simply as a consequence of their jobs. Staff in jobcentres, people who work in accident and emergency departments, and other public sector workers who do a fantastic job for the country should not suffer assaults and abuse either, and yet they do.

I do not want to start trying to decide which jobs are more important than others, because I do not think that would be particularly healthy. They are all crucial jobs. We all rely on the people who do those jobs, and, in my view, they all deserve equal protection before the law. For instance, I cannot think of anything that the hon. Gentleman has said that would not apply to police officers. They get terrible abuse simply for being police officers. I hear them being called all sorts of names that are totally unacceptable. The police do a fantastic job.

Where the law does apply specifically to the police is the special offence for an assault on a police constable in execution of his duty. I might be reasonably sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman’s case if he came along and said, “I think that what happens for the armed forces should mirror what happens for the police,” but he is not trying to bring in an equivalent measure. He is trying to bring in something completely different which has nothing to do with the execution of duties. It simply relates to the occupation of members of our armed forces.

My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border touched on the point that there is a slight irony in the Bill and I want to highlight it. Clause 2, on the prohibition of discrimination, is designed to ensure that members of the armed forces are treated equally with everybody else in the country. It is a perfectly laudable aim that people should be treated equally. It is one that I agree with. However, clause 1 tries to ensure that members of the armed forces are not treated equally compared with everybody else, but that in some respects they should be treated differently from other people in the eyes of the law. I have always thought that an essential tenet of the law is that everybody is equal in the face of it. I think that should apply to victims as well as people who commit crimes. We should not be trying to separate out different categories of people. We should look at the offence committed and prosecute people based on the seriousness of the offence, and the victim should be treated equally whoever the victim happens to be, based on what happened to them. When we start trying to pick and choose and say attacks on one category of people are more serious than those on another, we are going down a dangerous road.

There are some exceptions; my hon. Friend touched on them. I particularly feel that attacks on people who have a disability are especially abhorrent for all sorts of reasons, but the main one is that they are often vulnerable people who are in no position to defend themselves. Cruelty to children can be put in a similar category. But these are all matters of individual viewpoint and down to our own values.

Beyond that, however, it becomes very difficult to decide which person is more important and which offence is more suitable simply based on the fact of who has been attacked as opposed to the nature of the offence.

But Members of our armed forces are different. They are treated differently. They are subject to civil law and on top of that they have to answer to military law. In that respect, they are different to everyone else.

My hon. Friend says that, but, of course, police officers would say their terms and conditions are very different from the situation of people in everyday life; they do not have the same protections. Also, what he does not refer to in making that point is that this Bill’s reach goes way beyond people who are currently in service. It talks about people who have been in service. It also talks about relatives of people who are in service, and the Bill’s definition of a relative specifies that it “shall mean any relative.” We are not even talking about parents or siblings, therefore; we are talking about any relative no matter how distant they may be. I am not entirely sure on what basis my hon. Friend thinks they should be protected compared with everybody else. I see absolutely no justification for that, yet there it is on the face of the Bill. The hon. Gentleman has made a special case for any relative, which I think goes way beyond what even my hon. Friend believes is reasonable. It worries me that what the hon. Gentleman is doing is trying to send a signal—make a political point—rather than provide a serious basis for what the law of the land should be.

I want to make a couple of other brief points, explaining how I think the hon. Gentleman would be better served. First, offences against people in the public sector and in public service is already an aggravating factor in the law. Given the Minister’s background, she will know all about that. The sentencing guidelines on assault, for example, have as an aggravating factor an offence committed

“against those working in the public sector or providing a service to the public.”

Given that that is already in the sentencing guidelines, I am not entirely sure why we need a new law. Judges can take that into account as an aggravating factor when it comes to passing sentence. On that basis alone, the Bill is unnecessary.

There is a great irony. Although it is not like me to get party political about such matters, I have to say that the hon. Gentleman represents a party which, when it was in government, introduced a law that insisted that people who were sent to prison had to be released—not had to be eligible for release—halfway through their sentence irrespective of the crime they had committed. The shadow Minister was part of that Government and so is more culpable in that matter.

If the Bill is aimed at people who commit assaults and attacks on members of the armed forces, it would be far better and more productive if the hon. Gentleman were to work to scrap that law passed under the previous Labour Government, to ensure that when people are sent to prison they serve in full the sentence handed down by the courts. That would ensure that those people whom he wants to see spend longer in prison actually do spend longer in prison. If he wants to go down that line, it would be far more productive if we ensured that everybody served their sentence in full.

Everyone in the country was absolutely horrified at what happened to Drummer Lee Rigby. I am not sure whether that was what prompted the hon. Gentleman to introduce this Bill. The Government have already changed the law in relation to those who are convicted of the murder of transsexuals and people with disability. The starting point for their life sentence and the minimum sentence they should serve has gone up. If that is what he wanted to do—to make the starting point for a conviction for the murder of a member of the armed forces 30 years as it is for those other hate crimes where a murder is involved—he should have tried to ensure that we rejected the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights on life sentences and followed the line that if someone is sentenced to life in prison for murder, they serve the rest of their life in prison.

If the hon. Gentleman really wants people who are committing those particular offences to serve the time in prison that we all want them to serve, it would be far better to ensure that life means life and that prisoners serve their sentences in full. That would achieve what both he and I want, which is for serious offenders to be treated properly no matter who the victim is. That would suit the people in the armed forces who are victims of these crimes; they would see that justice had been done.

Although we can all agree with the sentiment behind the Bill—that we should support our armed forces and that we think any attack on them or discrimination against them is unjustifiable and unnecessary—I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border, think that passing a Bill to send a signal is not what this House should do. On that basis, I cannot support it. I hope that the Minister will come down on the side of my hon. Friend and me, and not think that this Bill is the right vehicle with which to proceed.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) on bringing this Bill before the House. Like the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), I thank and congratulate all those who have contributed to the debate. I share his observation that this has been a very good debate. In particular, let me single out my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), who made one of the best speeches that I have had the pleasure of hearing in this place. He said that he was not a lawyer, but he spoke with all the jurisprudential knowledge and understanding of one. I fully endorse all that he said but, if I may, let me make only one criticism. Every time he said soldier, I would add, “sailor, airman or airwoman” to reflect all members of our armed forces.

I disagree with my hon. Friend, however, about what he would call the downside of those great Acts of Parliament that have sought to end discrimination in our country. The Race Relations Acts and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 are huge achievements that have changed our society. I was brought up in Worksop and I well remember what it was like when I was a child. I remember with some horror, watching a documentary—in fact, I think it was in Birmingham—in which signs in boarding houses said “No blacks.” It is inconceivable. My children cannot believe that that ever happened in this country.

We know that, sadly, there is still racial discrimination, but goodness me, the scale of it now is much smaller than the scale that we remember from when we were young. I think the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr Hamilton) is about the same age as me. Of course I will give way.

I recall that when we went to Blackpool, which was a favourite haunt of the Scots, the signs read, “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs”, all on the same sign. It was outrageous.

Indeed. I do not want to dwell on it for too long, but my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border made a point about those great pieces of legislation and why we introduced them. We did it because we recognised that there was a deep-seated long-standing discrimination, prejudice or intolerance that we no longer tolerated. In order to cure that great evil, those great pieces of legislation were properly passed by this place.

I just want to put it on the record that what I was hoping to argue—perhaps I was not articulate enough—was that that legislation has, of course, been one of the great achievements of our age and something of which we should be proud as a civilisation but it was also cumbersome, difficult, sometimes futile and sometimes perverse and should therefore not be extended too widely. As an achievement, it has been extraordinary. The change to cultural attitudes is something of which we should be deeply proud.

I am grateful for that intervention.

Let me turn to this Bill and why I would argue against it. It is not that I do not share any of the sentiment and many of the concerns that have been articulated. If I thought for one moment that there was the widespread prejudice, discrimination or so on against members of our armed forces in our society in the UK that is being suggested, I would not hesitate not only to support the Bill but to introduce and make the case myself. As yet, however, I have not heard such a clamour at my door as the Minister responsible for personnel, welfare and veterans.

I agree with the Minister that this has been a good debate. On the specific point about the evidence, if the MOD sincerely does not believe that the Ashcroft study is a fair reflection of the situation, will the Minister undertake that, as my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State has already suggested, the MOD will do its own work to refute the Ashcroft evidence? That is the only study out there and it shows high levels of discrimination.

I shall deal with the Ashcroft study in a moment, but let me make it absolutely clear that I listen to any arguments that are made. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that there is no clamour at my door at all. My understanding is that there is no demand among our armed forces for such legislation. I understand that we disagree, but let me explain one important point. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) made an extremely important point about the law and protections that already exist. It is incredibly important that we remember that. Of course, an assault is an assault, and where the police believe that there is evidence to support a charge, they charge, and in due course the Crown Prosecution Service considers the evidence and decides whether to proceed to a full court hearing.

I remind the hon. Member for Gedling that the CPS’s own documentation makes it clear that the CPS has a duty, when it believes that there has been an assault on somebody because of their public service, to bring forward a prosecution and to do everything it can to ensure that that prosecution is successful. In its code of practice, the CPS recognises that it should pursue prosecutions for assaults on public servants.

That is reflected in the sentencing guidelines, which my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley has already referred to. Perhaps this point is not understood widely and I hope to ensure that people understand it: when a judge considers sentencing, they consider the mitigating features that might be advanced on behalf of the defendant and then the aggravating features that might be advanced by the prosecution. It is absolutely clear that an offence against those working in the public sector or providing a service to the public is an aggravating feature. That means that if the custodial threshold is passed, any sentence of imprisonment is automatically increased by the judge.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley has already made the point about people working, for example, in jobcentres or accident and emergency units, including nurses and security staff, who are sometimes assaulted. Indeed, there was a spate of assaults against nurses and other workers in A and E units, and the provisions about the aggravating features in the sentencing guidelines were highlighted, so that judges were left under no illusion whatever that if someone assaults an individual purely because of their public service—including, of course, members of our armed forces—that is a seriously aggravating feature.

In short, the law currently provides the special protection for members of our armed forces, and indeed all public servants, that we would expect, and there is no need to change it.

I thank the Minister for giving way a second time. This is getting worrying; in my 13 years in Parliament, this is the second time that I have agreed with the Conservatives on something. Will she undertake to ensure that what she said is also the case under Scottish law? Scottish legislation was changed last year to do the same things that are being done in England. Can she ensure that what she has said also applies to the armed forces under the Scotland Act 1998?

I am grateful for that intervention. Of course, what I have just outlined did not require laws to be changed. Sentencing guidelines in England and Wales are set by the Sentencing Council, and of course the direction to the CPS comes from the office of the Attorney-General.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me: although I worked in Scotland for about three or four years and had the great pleasure of appearing in the sheriff court—I digress—I am not entirely familiar with the Scottish legal system. However, as I say, establishing the aggravating features did not require legislation, and knowing that Scottish law is—with few exceptions, I would have thought—extremely good, I would be surprised if there was not provision within existing Scottish legislation to ensure that these aggravating features are set out.

A mistake that we often make in this place is to think that if we have not passed a law, we have not sought to cure an ill that we have identified. The hon. Member for Gedling made the good point that there are occasions when this place has rushed into legislation. The legislation on dangerous dogs is a really good example—that was created under a Conservative Government, so I am not making a cheap party political point.

There is a danger of rushing into legislation. I would even go so far as to say that at times in this House we become slightly over-sentimental. The sentiment in the House is absolutely right, because we all pay tribute to everyone who serves their country as a member of the armed forces and know of the huge sacrifices that they are prepared to make, but that should not cloud our minds into seeing people in our armed forces as a special category—other than perhaps that they are even dearer to our hearts than others who serve our country, such as those in the police, and the ambulance and fire services—although we know that they regularly put their lives at risk and we have great respect for them.

The hon. Members for Corby (Andy Sawford) and for Gedling talked about current public opinion of our armed forces personnel, which I do not think will diminish. We see people turning out not just on Remembrance Sunday, but for home-coming parades. When I visited the home-coming parade at Stapleford in my constituency only last year, on a really wet, cold and miserable May day, I was staggered that one simply could not move as the streets were literally jam-packed.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife was right to raise the important point of the Ashcroft report. I am told that the report was based on a survey of about 9,000 service personnel that was conducted at the end of 2011. Those people were asked to talk about their experiences over the previous five years—since about 2006—which is important because, as we have heard, there has been significant change in the attitude of some sections of society to our armed forces.

Some 61% of personnel who responded to the survey said that they rarely or never wore their uniform in public in everyday situations in the United Kingdom. More than half all personnel, including two thirds of Army respondents, said that strangers had approached them to offer thanks or support while they were wearing their uniform in public. I suggest that that figure would now be considerably higher, given when the survey took place and the fact that it investigated the previous five years.

I will, but first I want to conclude this important part of my speech.

Some 29% of respondents said that strangers had offered to buy them drinks or similar, while a quarter, including a third of Army respondents, had received spontaneous offers of discounts in shops or other businesses. With the work of the covenant and through various schemes such as the blue light card, an astonishing number of businesses—often small, independent ones—are offering special discounts to our armed forces personnel and veterans, which demonstrates the huge shift in public attitude.

I suspect that this is the bit that the hon. Gentleman will like. Actually, I do not mean “like”, because I know that these statistics trouble him, but they do relate to the purpose of his Bill.

More than a fifth of respondents had experienced strangers shouting abuse—that might not in itself, in any event, be a criminal offence—and 18%, including a quarter of Royal Marines, had been refused service in pubs, hotels or elsewhere. More than one in 20 had experienced violence or attempted violence while out in their uniform in the United Kingdom. Of course that is concerning, but the figure is one in 20.

The Minister is sincere in questioning whether the data are correct, so will she give an undertaking that the MOD will carry out a survey this year so that we can have the updated figures?

I am absolutely not able to say that I will ask my team to conduct a survey, but I absolutely undertake, and I know that my predecessor did this, to ensure that we are alert to any increase in discrimination or prejudice towards, or assaults on, our servicemen and women. The reality is that since my predecessor gave such an undertaking, we have kept ourselves absolutely alert, as hon. Members would expect—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Gedling suggests from a sedentary position—that is not a problem; it would be wrong for me to complain about him doing that, given that I did quite a lot of it myself—that that is not reflected in the report, but we are not aware of any increase or problem. We are not receiving from our armed services the various representations—

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 28 February.