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Armed Forces: Racism and Diversity

Volume 803: debated on Wednesday 17 June 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking (1) to address racism, and (2) to improve diversity, in the Armed Forces.

My Lords, recent events have brought the issues of racism and diversity into sharp relief. While the Ministry of Defence has long recognised that any form of racism or discrimination is absolutely unacceptable and has continued to challenge itself to become more diverse and inclusive, we recognise that the pace of change needs to quicken. Efforts are being redoubled to fulfil the key objectives in the Defence Diversity and Inclusion Strategy 2018-2030 to eliminate discrimination and improve diversity throughout defence.

My Lords, last year 12% of service complaints were made by BAME personnel, despite the fact that they make up just 8% of our Armed Forces. A third of those complained of bullying, harassment and discrimination. Clearly there is a problem. The whole House will welcome the announcement of the Chief of the Defence Staff that the defence chiefs will meet regularly to change the “lived experience” of BAME personnel. Can the Minister tell us what that means precisely? How will it make a difference, and will the House receive regular reports on the progress of this initiative?

We owe it to our black, Asian and minority-ethnic personnel to understand these issues from their perspective. We must listen and continue making change happen. I assure the noble Lord that this will be led from the most senior level. I am the Defence Minister responsible for diversity and inclusion. Chiefs of staff, senior management and personnel are all now engaged in addressing the challenges and ensuring that the laudable objectives of the diversity and inclusion strategy are delivered.

My Lords, I encourage the ethnic minorities to join the Armed Forces. The problem is that very few are promoted above the middle ranks, which causes frustration. Furthermore, ethnic minorities make up only 2.5% of officers, which is very low. For us to improve diversity and assist the mental and spiritual well-being of servicemen, chaplains of all religions need to be full-time officers. Muslim and Sikh chaplains have received full officer training but are part-time reservists. They need to be regular full-time officers with adequate ranks. Can my noble friend the Minister look at this point?

I listened with great interest to the point raised by my noble friend. I have no specific information about the appointment of chaplains or the backgrounds from which they are appointed. I shall investigate and write further to him.

My Lords, I have never thought it entirely fair to hold the Armed Forces to account at an individual level for being a mirror image of the society from which they are drawn, with all the imperfections that implies. It is an inevitability. However, I absolutely agree that, in institutional terms, our Armed Forces should strive to be exemplars of the very best that can be achieved in values and standards. Can the Minister therefore inform the House what has been achieved since 2016 in policy terms in the areas of bullying, harassment, discrimination and opportunities for women?

I reassure the noble and gallant Lord that various initiatives and programmes have been deployed within the Armed Forces to cover these very areas of concern. If we want to prevent this unacceptable behaviour, we must create a culture within our civilian and military workforce that represents, includes and celebrates all elements of the society that we defend. Within the MoD, we need to institutionalise anti-racism.

My Lords, the Royal Navy is very conscious of the need to tackle racism and improve diversity, not only because it is right to do so but because it enhances its effectiveness—and, at the end of the day, the Navy’s job in extremis is to fight and win. For the last seven years, the Royal Navy has been listed by Stonewall in the top 100 employers. It was recorded in the Times’s top 50 employers for women 2019 and in the top 50 employers for social mobility. Sadly, only 4.2% of the total regular service are BAME; a target of 10% intake into the forces has been set for 2020. Where do we stand on the Wigston report on inappropriate behaviours, dated 15 July 2019, what are the timings of the implementation of its recommendations and who is ensuring that they are implemented?

First, I commend the Royal Navy for the fine example that it has been giving. I say to the noble Lord that, in pursuance of the diversity and inclusion strategy, to which I referred, numerous procedures are now afoot to advance awareness, to educate, to audit and to monitor performance. As the Minister with responsibility for this issue, I am certainly very clear that I shall be driving forward these checks, tests and examinations, and progress.

My Lords, the Minister rightly said that the culture needs to institutionalise anti-racism, but what can she offer in terms of a more immediate response to service men and women who are suffering from racism and bullying? At the end of last year, the Services Complaints Ombudsman said that racism was on the rise in the UK’s Armed Forces and that incidents of racism were occurring with “increasing and depressing frequency”. Changing the culture is necessary, but we need to have results sooner than that might entail.

The noble Baroness is correct to focus on results. I share her interest in doing that and, within my ministerial role, I will endeavour to ensure that that happens. I reassure her by saying that just this week departmental-wide communications have been released by the Permanent Secretary and the Chief Operating Officer. Indeed, the Chief Operating Officer proposed a step-by-step plan to diversify the organisation, starting immediately. On Monday this week, I briefed my Secretary of State and ministerial colleagues on diversity and inclusion, and this very afternoon I shall be part of the MoD all-staff dial-in in respect of diversity and inclusion. I shall certainly reiterate the message of inclusion, try to reassure staff that concerns will be listened to and, in particular, invite the input of staff from minority backgrounds to get involved. I want to hear from them.

My Lords, the target for female representation at 15%, as set out in the biannual diversity report, seems to me too low. Why are they not being more ambitious, with a higher target? Nearly half the BAME staff are of non-UK nationality. Why are they not succeeding in recruiting people from United Kingdom BAME communities, and what lessons can be learned from the recruitment for Future Forces 2020, which seems to have a much better record with both women and BAME communities?

We are anxious to learn from any source about how we might improve our approach, but it would be wrong to imagine that no good things are happening. A number of very good things are happening and very positive developments are taking place. However, particularly having regard to the events of recent weeks, it is critical that we reassure staff within the MoD that this is not some transient focus of attention. There is now an ongoing serious conversation that will continue. It is being driven by the senior levels of management and personnel and at the ministerial level within the MoD.

Will my noble friend work with her colleagues at the Department for Education to ensure that history lessons reflect the contributions made by service people of colour? Will she provide the House with a copy of guidance that provides the Armed Forces with a clear interpretation of how to ensure genuine access to opportunities in real career progression? Will she meet me to discuss the work that I have done in other sectors on inclusion and diversity?

I might be able to offer my noble friend some reassuring examples of the strategies that are currently being deployed to address the very issues that she referred to. I shall of course be very happy to meet her to discuss her own experiences. As I said in response to an earlier question, if there is anyone or anywhere from whom or from which we can learn, we shall do that.

Sitting suspended.