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Simon Hinchley-Robson: Discharge from the RAF

Volume 706: debated on Monday 10 January 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Scott Mann.)

Over the last few years, I have been supporting Simon Hinchley-Robson in his pursuit of justice for the way he was treated when he was discharged from the RAF in 1986 for being gay.

Mr Robson signed up to serve his country for 22 years in the Royal Air Force in 1980. He came from a family with a tradition of serving their country: his brother was in the Army, his father had been in the Navy and his grandparents had served in the RAF. In 1986, while he was serving as a chef at RAF Brawdy, Haverfordwest, Wales, he became ill and was diagnosed by RAF medical staff as having glandular fever. After the diagnosis, he continued to lose weight and then requested a test for AIDS. The doctor who was examining him became extremely angry, and he was transferred to a civilian hospital, where he took the test. After 10 days, he was discharged from hospital back to RAF Brawdy. Immediately on his return, he was arrested by the RAF police—the Special Investigation Branch. The request for the test was taken as an admission that Mr Robson was gay.

I will read Mr Robson’s own words, which describe what happened to him from the moment he arrived back at RAF Brawdy:

“What happened next was the most horrendous and awful experience no one should ever have had to endure. I was led to an interrogation room, this, unknown to me, was to be my home for the next 4 days. I was denied food, I was denied sleep and only given small amounts of water.

I was immediately searched, asked to strip and searched internally. They said that this was procedure. As a young 21-year-old, terrified, what do you think was going through my mind?

I was asked to list every person in any of the services I had some sort of relationship with, this I refused. On refusing, I was assaulted and again instructed to strip, the medical gloves went on and I was again subject to what I can only say was ‘RAPE’, while I was again internally searched.

After about 12 hours I was taken, handcuffed, to my billet and the SIB (Special Investigation Branch) then searched all my belongings and personal letters, my mattress was slit open and I was told this was because they were looking for drugs.

My mail was taken away and read...they said, I was most likely being blackmailed and as such, they needed to make sure Defence secrets were not being passed on”—

and this is Mr Robson’s emphasis—

“Hello I am a chef, no access to data, aircraft, secrets etc.

After this humiliation in front of many camp personnel as I was paraded to my billet, not driven, in handcuffs, and for all to see, I was then taken back to the interrogation room. I was thinking that this was the end, and that would most likely be the end of my career, how wrong I was.

It was change of shift, and the process started all over again, searched, told to strip, medical gloves on, internal searches again. At this point, I was now convinced this was happening for their…pure sadistic satisfaction, yet I had no recall to complain to any officers in charge as the SIB were a law unto themselves.

With the change of shift the process started all over again, they wanted names, none were given, and I was slapped for not helping them.”

I should add here that Mr Robson has explained to me that the shifts changed every four hours, and on every change of shift he was stripped, searched and searched internally. We must ask what the purpose of these searches was. Given that he was in custody all of this time and had no means of obtaining drugs, how could he have anything to hide? What was taking place was a form of torture of Mr Robson for being gay. The question has to be asked: was this sanctioned by the RAF? This seems likely: after all, there was remarkable consistency in the pattern of behaviour between the shifts. How common was it for gay personnel to be abused in this way, or does the Minister believe, as Mr Robson asks, that it was to satisfy the sadistic pleasures of those inflicting the humiliation?

Mr Robson continues:

“They pulled out a number of birthday cards and a get-well card. In one it read, ‘Hurry up back to the kitchen Si, Paul is missing you’ with a big smile. This comment refers to a colleague chef, who I didn’t see eye to eye with, it was a joke message.

The SIB were now convinced he was involved. This person was married was serving overseas in Cyprus with his family and that, would be the next port of call.”

I should add here that, according to Mr Robson, two members of the Special Investigation Branch were flown to Cyprus to interview this other chef. They interviewed his wife about his sexuality, and they interviewed his primary school aged daughters.

Returning to Mr Robson’s words:

“Throughout the interrogation I was handcuffed and treated like a terrorist, how was this allowed to happen in Her Majesty’s Royal Air Force.

I was a Chef, no access to any classified material unless they wanted the recipes for a lasagne, all this humiliation went on for 4 days, and to their sadistic satisfaction, it wasn’t until the 4th day we had a new female doctor arrive in camp [who] intervened and stopped the interrogation. I was immediately sent home on sick leave to await my discharge.

I had been spat at, hit, examined by individuals that were plain animals, and all because I had admitted I was Gay.”

Mr Robson states that officers from the SIB told him:

“We don’t have gays in HM Royal Air Force”,

and that they

“should all be put on an island and nuked.”

He was also told that he was

“the lowest level of life.”

The irony of all this is that, at the end, when he went back finally to sign his discharge papers, which he had to do to avoid going to prison for 18 months, he was required to sign to join the reserves for three years, meaning that, if needed, he could be called up to serve in an emergency.

At the time that this took place, none of Mr Robson’s family was aware that he was gay. That meant that he effectively lost his job and home and risked being outed. This left him mentally distressed and suicidal. He has told me of others he knows who went through the same treatment, for whom the distress was too much and who went on to take their own lives.

Mr Robson had signed up for 22 years with the RAF and he considered this to be his life and career. He would have received a full pension and lump sum when he left the service, but instead he receives a minor pension. As a consequence of his forced discharge under threat of being charged and imprisoned, Mr Robson lost his income and the pension that he would have been entitled to.

Mr Robson made clear what he wants from the Government in a 2018 letter to the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May):

“I want the Government to admit that these interrogations and humiliation of gay people were wrong. I should be compensated for this now that it is accepted that LGBT people can serve in the armed forces.

I want my pension, as if I had served my full term, is that not rightful thing to do?

I want a public apology for what I went through and many others and for those who did not have the strength to see it through and took the suicide road.”

At the time of Mr Robson’s ordeal, the Sexual Offences Act 1967 had ended prosecutions against civilians who were gay. This did not apply to members of the armed forces until 1992. Subsequent decisions of the European Court of Human Rights clearly demonstrate that armed forces personnel were discriminated against and had their rights denied at this time. Many suffered the additional personal and physical abuse that Mr Robson endured, and have had no recognition of their treatment or compensation for the salaries and pensions that they have missed out on.

I am aware from answers I have received in letters from Ministers that section 10 of the Crown Proceedings Act 1947 was in force at the time of Mr Robson’s discharge and that although it was subsequently rescinded, this was not applied retrospectively. In a recent answer, the then Minister for Defence People, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), quoted the Limitation Act 1980, section 11 of which provides a three-year period after the date on which the cause of action accrued in which personnel can make a complaint.

My view is that those regulations cannot be used to deny Mr Robson his right to justice. I would point to the illegal actions of the RAF’s Special Investigation Branch when Mr Robson was in its custody. He was physically assaulted on at least 12 occasions by multiple individuals, he was denied his right to legal representation, and his human rights were violated.

I would argue that there is no statute of limitation that excuses this criminal behaviour and can prevent Mr Robson from being compensated by the country that he wanted to serve. Although 36 years have passed since Mr Robson was discharged from the RAF, I urge the Minister to go away and reflect on his unacceptable treatment at the hands of the SIB, and, having done so, to accept that the Government are morally bound to compensate him for being denied the chance to serve his country as he had planned, and for the physical torment that he suffered for being gay.

Let me begin by associating myself with the tributes from Mr Speaker and many others to Jack Dromey. He will be missed across the House, and I send my condolences to the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and the rest of Jack’s family.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) on securing an important debate on an important issue. I know that he is a long-standing and formidable advocate for the LGBT+ community in his constituency, and the issue that we are discussing tonight clearly has broader implications for the way in which Defence treats its people. That, however, should in no way diminish the harrowing experiences of Mr Hinchley-Robson in the 1980s. I have no wish to defend that behaviour. It was plainly appalling. It was inexcusable, it was wrong, and it unfairly tainted a promising career. It is certainly to Mr Hinchley-Robson’s great credit that despite receiving that treatment, he has been able to go on and serve his community with distinction, as he once served his country.

I want to address the issue of compensation from the outset. As the hon. Gentleman noted, at the time of Mr Hinchley-Robson’s service in the RAF, section 10 of the Crown Proceedings Act 1947, which barred members in Her Majesty’s forces from pursuing common law claims for compensation against the Ministry of Defence, was in force. As the hon. Gentleman also noted, section 10 was subsequently repealed by the Crown Proceedings (Armed Forces) Act 1987, but that was not made retrospective.

However, in 1999 the European Court of Human Rights concluded that the MOD had discriminated against service personnel in relation to sexuality as a protected characteristic. That led to the Court directing the MOD to provide a remedy for those who were affected, with most pay and pensions claims being settled by 2008. As regards new claims for compensation, the MOD would always advise that independent legal advice be sought. When common law claims are received, they are considered on the basis of whether or not the MOD has a legal liability to pay compensation. When there is a proven legal liability, compensation is paid.

We should not forget that, shocking though Mr Hinchley- Robson’s case is, it is historical. The MOD of 2022 is a very different entity from its 1980s incarnation. Mr Hinchley-Robson was discharged from service in line with the policy in place at the time. That unjust and retrograde policy was rightfully changed on 12 January 2000, and the RAF, in line with the other services, now has a range of policies and processes to ensure that such unlawful discrimination is eliminated.

I did point out in my speech that those regulations were in place at the time, and they have been quoted to me in previous correspondence with Ministers. What I am also highlighting, however, is the physical abuse that Mr Robson suffered at the hands of the Special Investigation Branch, which went way beyond just applying the rules and regulations that existed at that time. Surely the Government have some responsibility to him as a consequence of that behaviour.

I have seen the correspondence to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, and I am aware of the allegations that have been made. They are very serious, and, as I said earlier, my advice is for Mr Hinchley-Robson to make a formal claim to which the MOD will respond.

In 2012, power was conferred on the Home Secretary to formally disregard certain convictions for specified repealed homosexual offences and, in 2017, automatic pardons were introduced for individuals who had had their convictions disregarded, as well as posthumous pardons for those who had died before the provisions came into force. I am proud to say that, at the start of this year, the Government unveiled plans to expand those powers so that more veterans could benefit. Amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will enable individuals who have been convicted of same-sex activity under any offences that have now been repealed or abolished to apply to the Home Secretary to have those convictions disregarded. The scheme is also being extended to all general disciplinary offences that were used to prosecute men and women for same-sex activity.

At the turn of this decade, 20 years after military personnel were allowed to serve as openly lesbian, gay or bisexual, the MOD main building was lit with rainbow colours and both the RAF and the Army were listed among Stonewall’s top 100 employers. In February last year, we began returning medals to veterans who had been forced to forfeit them for reasons connected to their sexuality. And, last November, I was proud to see our LGBT+ military and civilian personnel marching with pride in the Remembrance parade. Today we have a thriving LGBT+ network in the MOD, and all serving personnel and veterans can access a range of support mechanisms, from the 24/7 anti-bullying and harassment helpline to the Veterans’ Gateway.

The fact that things have changed out of all recognition does not mean we are complacent. On the contrary, reports such as those released by Air Chief Marshal Wigston in 2019 and by the House of Commons Defence Committee last year act as constant reminders to keep doing more to ensure that all armed forces personnel can thrive. That is why the MOD’s leadership, from the Secretary of State for Defence down, has been crystal clear in stressing that there is a zero-tolerance policy on unacceptable behaviour or discrimination of any kind within the organisation. Today, all personnel are encouraged to call out such bad behaviour, whether they are a victim or a witness. They will never be penalised for doing so. I also want to reassure the hon. Member that our upcoming veterans’ strategy action plan will include further steps designed to address past wrongs.

Today we are looking to build a force fit for the future, but we will not succeed if we exclude parts of our community. Nor can we claim the moral high ground as a proud defender of global freedom, tolerance and justice if we fail to show the same regard for our own people. Yet our desire to make the MOD a more diverse, more inclusive and more welcoming place has less to do with operational imperatives and much more to do with a fundamental respect for human dignity. Every individual, no matter their sexuality, their gender, their colour, their race or their religion, deserves to be treated with consideration. This commitment to diversity and inclusion is one that I take personally and seriously, as the first ever Member of Parliament of British Chinese heritage and the first ever Government Minister of British Chinese heritage to speak at the Dispatch Box.

We should be especially proud of those courageous individuals who are prepared to stand up and, if necessary, lay their lives on the line for their country. Individuals such as these are the best of us—individuals such as Mr Hinchley-Robson. The fact he and others within the LGBT+ community faced discrimination in the not-too-distant past remains a cause of shame and huge regret, but it is now incumbent on us to use this case as a powerful reminder that such shocking incidents must never happen again.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.