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Armed Forces Front-line Combat Roles: Women

Volume 753: debated on Tuesday 6 May 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps the Ministry of Defence is taking to evaluate whether women should be allowed to serve in frontline combat roles in the infantry, prior to making a decision in 2018 in accordance with the European Union rules on reviewing that policy.

My Lords, first I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Captain Thomas Clarke of the Army Air Corps, Flight Lieutenant Rakesh Chauhan of Joint Helicopter Command RAF Odiham, Acting Warrant Officer Class 2 Spencer Faulkner of the Army Air Corps, Corporal James Walters of the Army Air Corps and Lance Corporal Oliver Thomas of the Intelligence Corps, who were killed while on operations in Afghanistan on 26 April. These tragic deaths remind us of the continued commitment and sacrifice of our Armed Forces, and I know that our deepest sympathies are with their families at this very difficult time.

Defence is required by EU law to conduct a review into the exclusion of females from ground close combat roles no later than 2018. This would include posts in the Naval Service, the RAF and the Army. While the nature, scope and timing of the review have not yet been determined, we are considering whether to bring it forward, recognising the need both to improve the diversity of the workforce across defence and to maintain operational effectiveness.

My Lords, will the Minister accept that the whole House will wish to be associated with his message of condolence to the families of those who have very sadly lost their lives?

I shall mention a past interest in this subject: 70 years ago my aunt was a pioneering woman who used to fly military aircraft to front-line aerodromes in the Second World War. If women have the inclination, aptitude, ability and strength required, is it not time for the Government to consider following the examples of such countries as Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and, not least, the United States of America, all of which either have allowed women to take their place in combat roles on the front line or are in the process of doing so?

My noble friend is right, which is why we keep this subject very much under review. Women already serve on the front line with great distinction, and we will take into account the factors that my noble friend has mentioned, as well as other aspects, particularly the effect on unit cohesion. My noble friend mentioned other countries. That will be very relevant, although we need to be sure that the answer is right for our Armed Forces and the way they operate.

On this side, we also wish to express our sincere condolences to the families and friends of the five members of our Armed Forces who have recently lost their lives on operations. We are reducing the numerical strength of our Armed Forces in Afghanistan, but the dangers remain, and the enormity of the sacrifices which young service personnel continue to make on our behalf has been brought home to us all once again.

Women currently serve in theatre as engineers, intelligence officers, medics and fighter pilots. The ban on women serving on submarines has been lifted, and increasing numbers of women have been appointed to senior military posts in recent years, but more needs to be done to make sure that our Armed Forces reflect the communities they serve, in line with a key objective of Army 2020. Serious consideration needs to be given to the further roles that women can play, including serving in front-line combat, since we need to maximise the talent and expertise available. The Minister said that the Government are looking at bringing forward the review, which is due by 2018. I wonder whether he can be a bit more specific on that. Is it currently the intention to wait until 2018, or is there an earlier target date for a decision? What are the considerations that will be taken into account by the Government in looking at the issue of women serving in front-line combat roles?

My Lords, as I said in my Answer, we are looking very clearly into the possibility of bringing the review to an earlier date than 2018. As soon as I have any information, I will come back and report it to the House.

My Lords, I associate these Benches with the condolences to those who were killed in the helicopter accident. Given the news, mentioned by the noble Lord, of the first women to serve in submarines and the appointment of the first two-star officer in the Royal Air Force, will my noble friend say what opportunities the Army is giving to extend career opportunities to women, whether in combat roles or elsewhere?

My Lords, I am very grateful for my noble friend’s kind words, very much in memory of her late husband, who was a very distinguished helicopter pilot. She asked what front-line roles women already serve in. They already serve in a variety of front-line roles, including as medics, fire support team commanders, military intelligence operators and dog handlers, with at least two having won the Military Cross. Looking round the House, I know that a number of noble Lords have been to Afghanistan, and I am sure they have met many of the women who play a very distinguished part in supporting our troops out there, particularly the medics, who do an incredible job.

When the Minister is able to inform us when the review will take place, will he also inform us of the factors that will be taken into account? A number of us have heard “force cohesiveness” over the years, but it is a bit like Heinz 57 varieties; it can mean a lot to different people. If we are not clear what factors are to be taken into account, the outcome may in fact be a different decision than many of us would want to see.

My Lords, in 2002 there was a review that took approximately two years. There was another review in 2010. The conclusions of both were mixed. As a result, Ministers concluded that a precautionary approach was still necessary and the exclusion of women was retained. It might be helpful to the House if I were to write to the noble Baroness and other noble Lords who are interested, giving a link to the Written Statements made in November 2010 and setting out the full report of the review and the information and research that was carried out.

My Lords, great progress has been made in the Armed Forces in dealing, for example, with homosexuality or pregnancy discrimination and other matters of that kind. Will the Government, in considering whether to bring forward the review, bear in mind a case in which I appear, Johnston v Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, in which it became clear that women already are performing vital undercover works of a combative nature, facing real danger, and are at least as important in the work that they are doing as their male colleagues?

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. As I say, we are reviewing seriously a date earlier than November 2018. I can say to my noble friend that the Ministry of Defence remains fully committed to treating everyone fairly and properly, whatever their gender, ethnicity or other characteristic. We will continue working to eliminate any form of discrimination.