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Ministry of Defence: Diversity, Equality and Inclusion

Volume 836: debated on Thursday 22 February 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to review the Ministry of Defence’s policies on diversity, equality and inclusion.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a serving Army reservist. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence has ordered a review of all equality, diversity and inclusivity policies to ensure that all those who are willing and able to serve our nation can do so freely in an environment that is welcoming to all, with no policy distracting from or hindering defence’s priority of defending our nation and being able to fight our enemies in a more dangerous age.

I am grateful to my noble friend for that reply. Has he seen the Army Race Action Plan and the Army’s policy guidance on inclusive behaviour? Does it make sense, at a time of unprecedented overstretch and undermanning, for the military to have 250 full-time diversity officers? Surely, they should be redeployed out of these non-jobs to the front line. Can he also confirm that demands by the Army’s race plan to dumb down Remembrance Sunday by removing the Christianity element will be firmly rejected?

If the people who author these reports—I hope that they will be called in by the Secretary of State and informed that their naivety is doing great damage—want to learn about diversity, they should go to the Memorial Gates on Constitution Hill, which commemorate the tens of thousands of Commonwealth soldiers who gave their lives for our freedom. They came from every race, creed, colour and religion.

I thank my noble friend for the question. He is absolutely right. From trailblazers such as Walter Tull to the Rajputana Rifles, the Gurkhas, Commonwealth personnel and our British Overseas Territory regiments, the British Army has a long and proud history of diversity and inclusivity.

On my noble friend’s specific question about full-time staff, the figure I have is that it is closer to 40 than 240. They do important work improving the experiences of service personnel by driving changes to uniform, body armour, health policies and, more broadly, by tackling unacceptable behaviour.

My Lords, the truth of the matter is that ethnic minorities are woefully underrepresented in our Armed Forces. I find it difficult not to conclude that this recent confected outrage, catalysed by a conveniently leaked document from the MoD seen only by the Sunday Telegraph, created a welcome opportunity for another declaration against wokery—a war against wokery. We should not allow this to distract us in the context of the welcome review of policy relating to diversity, equality and inclusion. We should concentrate on the inclusivity part of this strongly and try to solve the problem of the underrepresentation, and not concentrate on sending out messages to voters.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that the key element here is inclusivity. We are striving to do better in every aspect of our leadership, which includes reflecting the diverse nation we serve. This is not about wokefulness but about reflecting the ethnic, religious and cognitive diversity of our nation.

My Lords, as a former Defence Minister—I have no desire to distress my noble friend Lord Bellingham—part of my tenure involved being responsible for these issues. Does the Minister agree that the crux of the matter is broadening the entire pool of talent, wherever it may come from, across the entire MoD—civilian and military—and that we should celebrate the positive progress achieved that was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Browne?

From my experience, the progress in relation to women has been manifest in the impressive Women in Defence network—not a group to tangle with. We have had the emergence of the first female rear admiral, the first female deputy chief of the general staff, and the trailblazing precedent set by the RAF in 2019 in appointing Britain’s first ever female three-star officer, Air Marshal Sue Gray. What is not to like?

First, I pay tribute to my noble friend’s work as the Lords Minister for Defence and the incredible effort she put in to championing women in defence. I agree with everything that she said. Defence is a modern and inclusive employer, with people at its core. It offers supportive policies that enable everyone, irrespective of background, to have a rewarding and varied career.

My Lords, what progress has been made on the 67 recommendations of the Haythornthwaite review of Armed Forces incentivisation, published last June? Has the first stage of establishing momentum been achieved? In particular, has the review contributed in any way to improvements in retention and recruiting?

In response to the noble and gallant Lord’s question, the Government will publish a full formal response to the Haythornthwaite review this year. From addressing key skills challenges, to zig-zag careers where people can leave and join the Armed Forces, to reviews of pay, progression and targeted recruitment engagement with younger generations, the implementation of the review is an absolute priority for defence. I reassure the House that all three services continue to meet their front-line operational commitments.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the purpose of such policies and posts is to ensure that everybody recruited to the services can excel in the job that they are appointed to do? That has often not been the case in past decades, particularly for the LGBT community. When will the forces, specifically the RAF, update the medical basis on which they make decisions about the fitness of people with HIV to serve in different roles in the forces?

The noble Baroness raises a valid question, and it would be right to write to her with an exact reply on the HIV question, which I do not have an answer for.

I remind the House of my registered interests. Two weeks ago, the Prospect trade union published a damning survey of its female members who work in defence, in which 60% of respondents reported experiencing sexual harassment in the last year. Some 75% said they had witnessed or experienced sexual harassment in the last month. Hansard has reported many warm words from Ministers in both Houses about a zero-tolerance approach. But the reality for women in defence seems completely at odds with these statements, and we need to fix it. It is time for a dedicated sexual harassment policy within the MoD. Can the Minister tell us when we might see one?

My Lords, I reaffirm to the House that unacceptable sexual behaviour is not tolerated in defence. We reinforced that position with the introduction of a number of new policies in July 2022. These make it clear that, where allegations are made, victims will be supported, complaints will be investigated, and offenders will be discharged. Appropriate advice and support are available to any serviceperson who wants to make a complaint or allegation of criminal behaviour. This includes access to welfare services, chaplains and assisting officers. The Defence Serious Crime Unit provides improved victim support through a new victim and witness care unit.

My Lords, I should probably declare an interest as an Army pensioner—I know I look too young. I am sure that my noble friend the Minister and the Secretary of State agree that the purpose of the Armed Forces is to defend this nation, its people and its interests. That is what they are there for. Of course, discrimination and so on should be condemned. However, I am very worried by this Army Race Action Plan, which aims to reduce the security requirements for people we admit into the Armed Forces. This undermines our security, apart from anything else.

I do not know General Nesmith—I am sure she is a very good person—but we must take this and hit it on the head and understand what the Armed Forces are for. Will my noble friend go back to the MoD, talk to civilians and soldiers and say, “We are here to defend the nation properly and well, without discrimination, but we are here to defend the nation”?

I absolutely agree that our priority is protecting the national security of the United Kingdom and ensuring the operational effectiveness of our Armed Forces. I am proud that my battalion—my company—is a reflection of the city in which we serve. I have served alongside people of all ethnicities and backgrounds and that is a compliment to the diverse, inclusive organisation that the Army is. I reassure my noble friend that there has been no lack of fitness training and bayonet training—all that goes with being an infantry soldier—as a result of the Army improving its inclusivity.