LGBT Veterans Independent Review - Statement

– in the House of Lords am 5:33 pm ar 19 Rhagfyr 2023.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday 13 December.

“With permission, I would like to set out the Government’s formal response to Lord Etherton’s LGBT veterans Independent Review.

The treatment of those Armed Forces personnel perceived to be LGBT between 1967 and 2000 has long been a stain on the conscience of the nation. Last year, this Government asked Lord Etherton to conduct a review into the impact of the historic ban on homosexuality in Defence. Following the call for evidence, the inquiry received 1,128 responses from those who were dismissed or discharged because of their sexual orientation; from those who felt compelled to resign, purchase their release from service or curtail their contracts because of the ban; and from those who, while not part of the LGBT community, witnessed the trauma of such antediluvian rules, as family members, colleagues or friends. Etherton paints an unflinching picture of the most shocking treatment of gay members of our defence community by an institutionally homophobic organisation.

Out of the blue, when applying to be a reservist in 1980, I was asked if I was gay. Even then that struck me as hugely inappropriate, but that strong sense of impropriety, which has stayed with me for 43 years, pales into insignificance against the wall of hurt experienced by LGBT people in the course of their defence journey, much of it evidenced by Terence Etherton.

Different members of the community have been impacted differently. Yet, for each and every one, the repercussions were enduring, with the tentacles reaching into all dimensions of their lives since. Sadly, we cannot turn back the clock, but we can apologise for decades of hurt. That is what the Prime Minister did after Lord Etherton published his report in July and what the Defence Secretary and chiefs of service have done in their turn. However, apologies alone are not enough.

Etherton demands more and we agree. That is why the Government took steps to right historic wrongs, even before the report was published. In 2021, we began handing back medals to anyone who had had them withheld or removed because of their sexuality. Medals matter; they should never have been snatched away. In December 2021, we removed the barriers that prevented those living with HIV from joining the military and, back in June, the Home Office extended its disregard and pardon scheme, wiping historic convictions for same-sex sexual activity. The extension was especially important for veterans, because it broadened the eligibility to include any same-sex conviction that would not be a crime today, thereby covering service disciplinary offences.

In addition, we published guidance helping to make LGBT veterans aware of things to which they might not have felt they were entitled. That includes information on mental and physical health support, as well as benefits that all veterans are able to receive, not to mention the Armed Forces veterans badge, which I handed out to a number of veterans at this year’s Pride event in London.

However, today we go further still. I can announce we are accepting the intent behind all 49 of Lord Etherton’s recommendations. In fact, to date we have already implemented almost half of them. We have established a legacy website to host the review, the Government response and information collected by the review, including testimonies. Through Op Courage, we are ensuring a focus on the non-combat mental health impacts of the ban.

Significantly, in some instances we have gone above and beyond the review recommendations. For example, Etherton advised making certain restorative measures available for the next of kin of deceased veterans, but we have created a broader definition of next of kin—namely, persons of sufficient interest—recognising the impact the ban may have had on LGBT veterans’ relationships and ensuring that those they would have nominated as next of kin are seen as such. Next year will see the expanded rollout of the Armed Forces veterans card to all veterans who served in the UK Armed Forces before 2018, and planning for a veterans memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum is also now under way.

Today, we are throwing open the front door to our LGBT veterans. Today, we ask them to apply or register an interest for restorative measures that are relevant to them, including individual apology letters, return of berets and cap badges, amendments to veterans’ service history and additional personal testimony to evidence collected by the review. That testimony will eventually become part of the historic record in the National Archives, signalling that our LGBT veterans will never be forgotten and that 33 years of national shame will never be expunged, and affirming and celebrating the part that those veterans played in our country’s history. I strongly urge colleagues across the House to encourage LGBT constituents to come forward, read the online guide and complete the application form for restorative measures. Importantly, the form will also allow veterans to indicate their interest in applying for a financial award when eligibility is confirmed and that scheme goes live.

Lord Etherton recommended that an appropriate award should be made to affected veterans, with the Government’s overall exposure capped at £50 million. We have agreed to that in full, but, in order to develop the scheme, we will first need to gain a much better understanding of what the affected cohort looks like. Hence we are calling for veterans to indicate their interest on the form that goes live today. That data will help officials and the community—working together—to design a fair and equitable scheme for distributing the funds that Lord Etherton has called for and that we accept. There will be an opportunity for a full debate in the new year once the financial award scheme is matured and we have the benefit of the data captured through the front door that I am opening today.

Once again, I place on record my gratitude to Lord Etherton and his team for their outstanding work compiling a comprehensive and deeply affecting report. I thank Fighting With Pride and our working group, including trusted stakeholders and independent LGBT veterans, who not only made sure that their voices were heard, but helped steer our response throughout. They will not seek it, but may I mark out Craig Jones and Caroline Paige in particular for their part in bringing us to where we are today? Above all, I pay tribute to all those who came forward in the first place. Those veterans showed tremendous courage in chronicling traumatic experiences, which for many had been suppressed, causing grief and groundless silent shame for decades.

Today’s defence has come a long way since 2000. We cannot change the past, but we can make the future better. In accepting Lord Etherton’s recommendations, we salute a slighted generation and ensure that its successors can hold their heads high in a place that wants them, values them and honours them. I am today placing a copy of the Government’s response in the Library, and I commend this Statement to the House”.

Photo of Lord Coaker Lord Coaker Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Opposition Whip (Lords)

My Lords, I start by thanking the Government for this welcome Statement on the outstanding review of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, with respect to this matter.

Between 1967 and 2000, the treatment of those Armed Forces personnel deemed to be LGBT was a total disgrace. They were discharged or dismissed while others felt that they had to resign. Their friends and families felt the trauma of these individuals’ pain. It was 33 years before the ban was lifted, following a change in legislation in 2000. Here we are, nearly 24 years later, with the outstanding review of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton; although it cannot right the wrongs of the past, it means that we can do all we can to recognise these injustices fully, to put what we can right and to fight for a better future.

In doing so, I praise, as I have already, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, for his review, and the efforts and campaigning in this House of the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, who I am pleased to see in his place, and my noble friend Lord Cashman. However, why is it that these injustices, inflicted by the state and often covered up, not just in this instance, take so long to put right? Had it not been for brave individuals whom I have mentioned, plus the Royal British Legion, Help for Heroes, Fighting With Pride, and many others, these injustices would have remained unresolved for many more years with respect to our Armed Forces.

The Government have said that there will be continuing debate and discussion on this issue, so can the Minister guarantee that this will also be the case for your Lordships’ House? Will he make sure that such debates cover not only the Etherton review but the current situation with respect to LGBT+ personnel in today’s Armed Forces?

At the heart of the review were the testimonies of those who were victims of an overt, brutal, homophobic policy. The review had 49 recommendations, and I believe this to be the case, but can the Minister confirm in this House whether the Government intend to implement all these recommendations in full? If that is not the case, which ones are not to be implemented?

The Prime Minister has himself apologised, which is very welcome. We also welcome the handing back of medals, an Armed Forces veterans badge, and a proper memorial at the National Arboretum. We also welcome the opening of the registration of interests. Can the Minister say more about how the MoD is to make sure that everyone and every family are to be made aware of what is happening and what they have to do to register? Is there any closing date for such registrations to be made in terms of restorative measures or compensation?

The Government will know that, specifically, the Royal British Legion and others are concerned that an arbitrary cap on the total amount offered in compensation is unfair. Can the Minister explain to us why such a cap was introduced and how it will be calculated? How can a cap be set now, before people have come forward with their claims? What if it is found that claims actually exceed any cap? Personally, I think—as I am sure others do—that the Government will have to revisit this. Will all of the restoration of rights, including pensions, include the accrual rates that were lost when people were forced to leave?

I have a final point on the cap. There is a provision for £50 million from the 2024 MoD budget. I believe that is the actual cap, and I am aware that there was discussion with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton. However, I believe that at the very least this will need to be kept under review. Can the Minister outline how the £50 million is to be distributed—to which groups and how might they make these claims?

As I say, the report from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, sets out the need to do as much as we can to address the wrongs of the past. But it also has to be a further watershed moment for our Armed Forces now. We know that discrimination on the basis of sexuality still exists, as does sexism and misogyny, despite recent progress. We owe it to all those who came forward to honour their service, and that of their comrades and families. It shames us all; it saddens us all. But, at the very least, let it be an inspiration to us all, to build that better, more inclusive Armed Forces and society that we all want and deserve.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, when the report from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, was first published, we had the opportunity in your Lordships’ House to debate it at some length. The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, has already touched on some of the issues that were discussed then. For many of us who are not from a service background, the issues that went on in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, as they were then, were absolutely shocking, just as they were for the people who served. It is noticeable that, in his Statement in the other place, Dr Andrew Murrison made the point that when he became a reservist, he was asked, “Are you gay?” As he said, even in 1980 that seemed out of place. And that was because it was out of place.

It is important that we look again at the report by the noble and learned Lord and remind ourselves of the injustices that were done, while at the same time paying tribute to the Government for taking on board almost all of the recommendations. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked, “Is it all of them?” My understanding is that one or two of them will be taken on in a slightly different way—but the acceptance of this report is hugely welcome.

There are some questions we might all need to understand in a little more detail. They are, in particular, how do those people who were affected by the ban know where to access the ways of getting restoration? In particular, if somebody was sacked, that is straight- forward, but if somebody felt the need to give up their commission early because they felt that their sexuality was putting them in extreme difficulties within the Armed Forces, what information will be available to them? How far will His Majesty’s Government be making clear to the wider service community and to veterans’ communities that people can come forward, and explaining how they can do so?

When we talked about the report when it was initially published, the issue was in part about next of kin and those who had service personnel who had died—perhaps who had committed suicide. Yesterday’s government Statement is very welcome in saying that it will be a little more open in terms of who counts as next of kin, recognising the very nature of relationships that might be important to those who are veterans, or who were veterans but are no longer alive. Again, how will those people be informed about ways of ensuring that their loved ones are able to have their service records reinstated? The commitment in itself is good, but we need to ensure that the reality works for both LGBT veterans and their next of kin, and also for those other people who were not actually LGBT service personnel but who, for some reason, were thought to be. This is another group of people who were victimised not because of their sexuality but because of their perceived sexuality—which, again, suggests that there is, or was, a real issue within the Armed Forces about inclusion and diversity.

Picking up on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, about the fact that there are still issues around gender within His Majesty’s Armed Forces—are there other issues we should be picking up on and thinking about, to make sure that, going forward, whether it is about gender or sexuality, people are not victimised for who they are?

This report and the Government’s response are very welcome, but we need to ensure that the inclusivity is there for the service family of today as well.

Photo of The Earl of Minto The Earl of Minto The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

My Lords, it is gratifying to see that everybody is on the same page in this. The treatment of LGBT serving personnel between 1967 and 2000 was wholly unacceptable, and I think everybody accepts that. But it does not reflect the situation today—far from it. Today, the MoD works hard to ensure that all our policies are inclusive in every respect. His Majesty’s Government, with the establishment of the report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, and the acceptance of all 49 recommendations, have made a clear statement of that position. In fact, 24 of the 49 recommendations have already been implemented, including all 14 restorative measures. That is an indication of how seriously the Ministry of Defence takes the wrongs of the past.

The Government, and I am sure all of us here, are extremely grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, and his team for their thoroughness and commitment in completing such an important report and paving the way to right such an historic wrong to such a deserving section of our Armed Forces. The Government are also deeply indebted to those veterans who shared their testimonies and are committed to ensuring that such bravery is the catalyst for all future change. There is no doubt, in reading the more recent policies put out by Ministers here and in the devolved nations, that there is a clear intent to ensure that this is absolutely seen through and that zero tolerance is absolutely zero tolerance. When it comes down it, there can be no flexibility on this. It is absolutely zero tolerance.

On the question that the noble Lord raised specifically, it has taken a long time to get to this point. That bears testament to the complications in some of the issues that the information-gatherers have faced. As a start, there is not an accurate set of records about why people left the Armed Forces. That is one of the reasons, which we will come on to. I do not know if anybody has had an opportunity to take a look at it, but the “LGBT veterans: support and next steps” webpage is extremely thorough and informative. It attempts to seek out exactly what the issues were, who was treated badly and how badly—different grades of dreadful behaviour. We will do all that we can to ensure that people engage with that website to get the information that allows us to move forward and start talking about the financial arrangement.

The recommendation for the financial award scheme has been completely accepted. We are working at pace with experts across government to develop an appropriate scheme. There have been other schemes like this elsewhere in the world. The Canadian scheme is a good model. The £50 million cap that came out from the Etherton report is to some extent based on the experience that the Canadian Government had in approaching this. It would seem to be, at this stage, an appropriate sum of money. It is a meaningful sum of money. I am afraid that nobody knows how many people have been involved in and affected by this, but as a statement of intent it is a proper sum of money that should go to deal with the issue.

Although we are at the early stages, the Government are working at pace. The question about the number of claimants and the likely size of the award will be gone into only after the front door to the website is open and people can apply. There is no intention of closing the door. It will remain open. The expectation is that we should start to see some payments from the financial award scheme towards the end of next year. I know that it has taken a long time, but at least progress is being made.

Perhaps I should say at this point that this is not compensation and does not exclude people applying for compensation. This is an award scheme to recognise the wrongs of the past. If individuals or groups of individuals want to go for compensation through our legal system, it is entirely open to them to do that.

The other question that the noble Lord raised was about pensions. I have read some misinformation about accrued pension rights being negated. That is absolutely not the case. Accrued pension rights are protected under law, but I am afraid that the “lost” pension rights, once people had left the forces, cannot be dealt with because people may have gone to other businesses and accrued other pensions in other directions. It is not something that we can get involved in.

The noble Baroness raised the extremely important question of next of kin. Again, the hope and expectation is that this will come out in the amount of people who apply through “LGBT veterans: support and next steps”. This should be an emerging picture. Hopefully, individuals and organisations will apply fairly quickly.

I think that I have answered all the specific questions raised so far. If I have not, I am sure that noble Lords will let me know.

Photo of Lord Cashman Lord Cashman Non-affiliated 5:51, 19 Rhagfyr 2023

My Lords, I welcome the reply from the Minister. I reflect that I have been working on this issue for 32 years, since I first gave evidence to the Select Committee in 1991, and working more recently, over the last seven years, with my noble friend Lord Lexden. It is clear that we need a future debate on implementation and I have a couple of questions that I will canter through.

It is an excellent report by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, who it is good to see is in his place. It should be recorded that it was conditional on the report that an award cap be recommended. I am pleased to hear, and I hope that the Minister will again guarantee, that the cap can, if the Government so decide, be increased and that the report is in no way a veto on any increase.

Recommendation 26 deals with the amending of relevant records of those who were subjected to administrative discharge. The Government have adopted the approach suggested. However, there is a problem. The Government’s guidance states that this process will be available to veterans who were administratively discharged during the ban, but it is highly likely that applications will be received prior to 1967. Does the Minister agree that it is important that these people are not excluded from the scope of this measure of redress? Indeed, the draft legislation set out in Annexe 10 of the excellent report by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, offers a legislative way forward. Finally, therefore, can the Government pledge that LGBT people discharged from the Armed Forces before 1967 solely on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity will have their records amended if they meet the criteria?

Photo of The Earl of Minto The Earl of Minto The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I thank the noble Lord for his important contribution. On the question of a cap, as I said, until we know the full picture, it is difficult to say whether the cap will be sufficient, but there has to be a level of understanding that, if it is necessary, there must be flexibility within it. On the question of recommendation 26, I think it best if I write to the noble Lord on the detail. Thirdly, on the pre-1967 discharges, there was no difference between the military law and the civil law at that point, so I am not absolutely certain where we stand on that. My suspicion is that it was the law of the nation at that time and that there is not much to go on, but I may well be wrong.

Photo of Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, I have to remind the House again of my interest as a serving member of the Armed Forces. Indeed, I was just reflecting that, while this may all seem a long time ago, I had in fact served in the Army for some 12 years before the ban on homosexuals serving in the Army was lifted. I congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, on his excellent review and, indeed, the Government on accepting the spirit, we could say, of all 49 recommendations.

In response to the frustration of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, about how long this has taken, I could not agree more. Indeed, I am probably partly to blame as a former Minister for Veterans, when this was across my desk on a regular basis. The frustration in trying to push this along was genuine. I am delighted that, finally, it has been done.

I have one specific question for my noble friend, and I hope it is an easy one. Of the 49 recommendations, one is ongoing. Recommendation 11 is the commitment to launch an application process for restorative measures and maintain it for 24 months, which is clearly an excellent recommendation. My only concern is that I understand that, during the process, as is often the way in the MoD, some historic records were lost. If, at the end of that 24-month process, there are any concerns that individuals have not had the opportunity to find their records or apply, will there be a review of that deadline and will it be extended if necessary?

Photo of The Earl of Minto The Earl of Minto The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

My Lords, I assure the House that if, at the end of 24 months, we do not feel we have got to the bottom of this, the deadline will be extended.

Photo of Baroness Barker Baroness Barker Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Voluntary Sector), Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I declare an interest as a patron of Opening Doors. It is in that capacity that I have met, over the last 25 years, many of the individuals we are talking about and listened to their stories. We are all indebted to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, for bringing those stories to the attention of the nation.

I have three brief questions. First, there were in the forces senior officers who were compassionate and understood the devastation that would befall anyone who was discharged for this reason. Therefore, in acts of kindness and humanity, they sometimes trumped up other charges and made those the reasons for the discharge. If individuals come forward with evidence that they should be eligible to be part of this scheme, but technically they are not, will their cases be given due consideration?

Secondly, I raise a question that I raised with the noble Earl’s predecessor, the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, about HIV. The report deals with health in its wider sense, particularly mental health, but the issue of HIV is buried deep within it. There is an ongoing issue concerning recruitment of and support for individuals with HIV in the forces. Would the Minister be willing to meet with me and other members of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on HIV and AIDS to discuss that matter further?

Finally, this report has been very well received; it is a source of immense gratification and support to the people in this position, but the hurt runs deep and lasts. Therefore, will the Minister consider what we can do to ensure that the organisations involved in providing that ongoing support, which they have given for 25 years, continue to be in a position to do so? Some of them are having financial issues at the moment.

Photo of The Earl of Minto The Earl of Minto The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I thank the noble Baroness for her questions. On that of personal issues and compassionate leaders, that is completely accepted. There is opportunity within the “LGBT veterans: support and next steps” webpage—what we refer to as the open door—to produce that level of information to ensure that nobody is left out. It is very important that nobody feels that they do not have the opportunity to put their case and have it heard.

On the question of meeting the HIV group, I would be more than delighted to do that. Thirdly, we will certainly look at which organisations have been particularly supportive. Nobody wants these well-meaning charitable organisations to suffer unnecessarily. I have noticed that quite a lot of charities, for one reason or another, have merged and gathered together in the last few years to create a slightly more forceful and valuable contribution. That is often the way. If we can help in steering groups together, that may be a very good solution and make certain that the intention is still kept in mind.

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, it is good that the Commons Statement has been repeated here; less good that it has taken nearly a week to reach us and that we deal with it so close to the Recess. This underlines the need for a full debate in this House on the momentous report from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, and the Government’s response to it. I understand that there is to be a debate in the Commons. Can we please have a commitment from the Government that there will be a debate here?

On the question of pensions, there really must be no resiling from the Government’s commitments and duties in this area. The issues are of such immense importance to LGBT veterans, and I was not altogether reassured by my noble friend’s comments earlier on pensions. I urge him to ensure that everything that can be done is done to bring justice to LGBT veterans in respect of pensions.

The Government state that they accept “the intent” behind all the recommendations in the report. That is not an entirely helpful statement: either recommendations are accepted wholly or in part, or they are not accepted. Worry is likely to arise among LGBT veterans about the apparent equivocation in that statement.

I draw attention to Recommendation 25 in the report from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton. This relates to Part 12 of the Police, Crime and Sentencing Act 2022. My noble friend Lord Cashman and I, along with our good friend and adviser in academic life, Professor Paul Johnson, have a deep interest in its provisions, having campaigned for them, as my noble friend Lord Cashman said, over many years. Through these provisions, service personnel can secure pardons for past disciplinary offences which were deeply unjust at the time and have now been swept away. Can my noble friend assure the House that the MoD will promote the scheme with vigour and encourage LGBT veterans living with unjust convictions to apply for pardons through it? As things stand, separate applications have to be made through the Home Office, which will prove confusing for LGBT veterans. Will the MoD stop this happening by ensuring that application forms are readily available to them?

Photo of The Earl of Minto The Earl of Minto The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I thank my noble friend for that very valuable contribution, and I agree that rather a long time has elapsed between the Commons Statement and me standing here. I will undertake to talk to the Whips about getting a full debate. If we are going to have one in the Commons, then we should certainly have one here.

On pensions, I did not mean to be less than fully committed to ensuring that we do all we can to make sure that pension rights are protected and that pensions accrued are properly taken care of under the law. The point I was trying to make is that one can accrue only one pension at time, and if individuals have accrued further pensions after leaving Her Majesty’s Forces—as they then were—one needs to take that into account.

On the use of the word “intent”, I think it is more to do with interpretation than intent, in that, while the recommendations from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, are incredibly thorough and very well thought through, one or two individual practical things may need to be got absolutely right. All the recommendations are accepted and, as I think I said earlier, more than half have been implemented, including all 14 of the restorative measures.

On the final point from my noble friend, the MoD will definitely promote with vigour and at every opportunity—and it is the third or fourth time I have mentioned it—the “LGBT veterans: support and next steps” front door to the website, where one can read through in great detail the breadth of opportunity to make valid points. That is completely accepted, and the point about pardons is equally well made.

Photo of Lord Cashman Lord Cashman Non-affiliated

My Lords, the Minister questioned why I asked that the process be widened to those discharged before 1967. To clarify, as the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, intimated, we widened and extended the pardons and disregards before 1967 and then widened this to include the armed services. Therefore, legislatively, we have a way to consider those discharged before 1967.

Photo of The Earl of Minto The Earl of Minto The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

My Lords, I will certainly take that away and look at it properly.