Armed Forces (Prevention of Discrimination) Bill: 24th January 2014

Thomas Docherty
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 for Defence (Anna Soubry)
indicated dissent.
 
Thomas Docherty
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.

Anna Soubry
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.

Thomas Docherty
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.

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con)
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.

Thomas Docherty
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.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con)
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?

Thomas Docherty
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.
 
Rory Stewart
rose—

Thomas Docherty
The hon. Gentleman appears agitated. I think he is trying to get my attention. Of course, I will give way.
 
Rory Stewart
What grounds did the publican give for this act of discrimination?

Thomas Docherty
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—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Anna Soubry)
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Thomas Docherty
Of course I will.

Anna Soubry
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.
 
Thomas Docherty
I am most grateful.
 
Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing)
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.

Thomas Docherty
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
 
Rory Stewart
rose—

Thomas Docherty
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.

Rory Stewart
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.
 
Thomas Docherty
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.
 
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con)
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.
 
Thomas Docherty
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.

Mr Nuttall
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?
 
Thomas Docherty
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.

Anna Soubry
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.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Anna Soubry)
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.

Mr David Hamilton
Will the Minister give way?

Anna Soubry
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.
 
Mr Hamilton
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.
 
Anna Soubry
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.

Rory Stewart
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.
 
Anna Soubry
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.

Thomas Docherty
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.

Anna Soubry
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.
 
Mr David Hamilton
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?
 
Anna Soubry
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.

Thomas Docherty
Will the Minister give way?

Anna Soubry
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.

Thomas Docherty
rose—
 
Anna Soubry
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.
 
Thomas Docherty
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?

Anna Soubry
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—